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Review: Database, Data Stream and Timeline: forms of social media

image of a light digital stream

[Source: Digital Wallpaper www.7themes.com]

Reading Data-stream, Database, Timeline: the forms of social media by Lev Manovich, it struck me how little I know about the organisation and methodology of social media interfaces. We have become so accustomed to either not having to think about it, or a style of certain social networks, that the digital mechanics of what goes on behind the screen are invisible. Formulating critical descriptions, assessing cultural implications and re-adjusting according to the constant changes in technology,  is what Lee Manovich, Director of the Software Studies Initiative is analysing.

Software Studies Initiative is a research lab and a design studio working on analysis of big cultural datasets… we think of software as a layer that permeates all areas of contemporary societies. Therefore, if we want to understand contemporary techniques of control, communication, representation, simulation, analysis, decision-making, memory, vision, writing, and interaction, our analysis can’t be complete until we consider this software layer. This is why we are convinced that “software studies” is necessary and we welcome you to join us in our projects and activities.

With his book ‘The Language of New Media[1],  Manovich set himself up as a new leader of thought and theory on the nature of ‘new media‘. As New Media grows and changes, so to does its definition. Most technologies described as new media are digital, often having characteristics of being manipulated, networkable, dense, compressible, and interactive [2].  New Media in the form of social software is changing our world; the way we shop, connect, learn, our daily life. New methods of using and perceiving new media, in the form of social media are constantly emerging, as we slowly become more e-literate. Thence, the form of social software is changing too. The glossy shine of userability that social software puts onto its form, is incredible. People with the most basic computer skills, can successfully navigate social software. They can order shopping, call family, book plane tickets, share photos, order presents, etc, all without leaving the comfort of their sitting room

In Manovich’s article, he describes 3 forms of common social software that have developed with the advent of the World Wide Web and hypertext, and they are; database, data streams and timelines. A database, far from just being a fancy spreadsheet, is capable of performing complex tasks, computing and retrieving many kinds of information about the stored data, through its own programming languages such as SQL. Following on from databases, with the advent of more eloquent forms of programming, studies and progress in UI and UX, social software companies have developed a new system called the data stream.

“… Instead of browsing or searching a collection of objects, a user experiences the continuous flow of events”.[3] 

Most of us are familiar with data streams without even realising it, social forums such as Facebook and Twitter, use ‘activity stream’ patterns ‘[4]. It is a timeline, a newsfeed, which updates continuously with, for example, lists of conversations, friends activities, shared events, etc. A data stream seems to be preferential over a database, as we are capable of ‘attention switching’ more easily. We can dip in and out of the stream, as it is more navigable and user friendly. Conversations that happened yesterday, can still be on-going, in a stream, rather than a static database-type post.

Technology is expanding at an incredible rate, almost so, that critical theories and sociological terms can be a few steps behind. We are in a flux of change, of diverging habits. It is near impossible to factor in elements, people, and changes to technology. Manovich suggests that “social networks are used by people for many different purposes and in different ways, with the patterns of use varying between age groups and genders, no single figure can capture it all”[5], quoting from Pew Research Papers into social networking habits.

victorian illustration of a French flaneur

[Source: ‘Le Flâneur’ by Paul Gavarni, , 1842.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons]

Manovich, also, suggests that our use of social media is not passive. He describes the user experience as similar to that of a flâneur.

“The flâneur navigates through the flows of passerbys and the city streets, enjoying the density of stimuli and information provided by the modern metropolis”.[6]

This term is interesting, as it describes someone, who leisurely strolls around observing the world. A digital flâneur is someone engaging with the interface, e.g. following, sharing, having conversations, etc In Manovich’s words, you have the ability “…to adjust the ‘density of the experience…controlling the stream in other ways…”. It could be said, however, that we are being manipulated into using certain streams, as they are the only ones available to us. Social media seems far more homogenised these days, with a few well known big boy companies eating up smaller competitors. Far from the garage based, open communities that they originally set up to be, many social networking sites are now tied in with stock exchange, and the their only goal, is revenue. Their collection, storage and use of users data, is a far cry from being leisurely flâneurs. In 2014, Facebook revealed it conducted a secret news feed experiment involving over half a million users. “It has published details of a vast experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users’ home pages and found it could make people feel more positive or negative through a process of “emotional contagion”[7].  Apparently legal, (it’s in the fine print of signing up), the emotional manipulation of unsuspecting users, through social software interface, has raised some serious issues in the ethics of the digital social industry.

Those who work daily in technology seem to understand privacy safety, the pros and cons of being a digital flâneur, but, I suspect many of us, without insider knowledge, do not fully understand the manipulative possibilities from simply sharing our thoughts, pictures, yes, even eating habits. If the design patterns of information were able to flow unhindered, adapt to the ever changing digital climate, there would be a very different outcome to the current trend of data streams, that are being manipulated. Channelled and dammed, for the sole purpose of economics. The potential is huge, lets hope there will be more ethical standards agreed to, not in hindsight, but in advance of emerging technology. Studies conducted by professionals, such as Manovich’s Software Studies Initiative, are essential, for creating a language for the cultural changes we are experiencing in this digital age.

One of the latest elements of Web 2.0 is responsive web design. This makes a web page look good on all devices, eg desktops, tablets phones, etc. Rather than having to build several websites for different platforms and devices, websites can now adapt to whatever screen it is being viewed on, hence the term responsive. Attempting to read a website or article that is not responsive on a tablet, can prove annoying and on a smart phone, sadistic. One of the major changes to technology is the use of mobile internet.

chart showing ration of users mobile and desktop

[Source: http://www.smartinsights.com/mobile-marketing/mobile-marketing-analytics/mobile-marketing-statistics/]

Statistics now show that the percentage of mobile users have overtaken desktop users. The change from databases to data streams, reflect this major digital upgrade. Data streams are easier to read on a mobile device, people prefer scrolling, than pressing buttons. This is a major factor in interface design, and in web design has become a key design element. Previously the physical machines were made by one division of the industry, and the social software made by another. But now technology developers, of both the physical machine and the software that runs on it, must work in conjunction to create mobile devices where userability, in terms of access to the internet and seamless streaming, are fundamental design elements.

It seems, however, contrary to a majority of academic sensibilities, Manovich happily uses Wikipedia as a source for a majority of his references. Not the superstitious kind, out of the 13 hyperlinked references in his article, five were linked to Wikipedia. Only two were linked to research beyond his own, Pew Research. The remainder  of the links were as follows : one Twitter, one Facebook, one to the User Interface Design Pattern Library, one art project, one to his own website and one to an old mac manual from 1984. It could be said, when you are on the frontier, rules don’t apply. There are few enough people working on the cutting edge such as Manovich. However, I would have liked some links to further reading, peer articles, etc.

It is interesting to see how the pattern of information has changed in just a few short years, from database to data stream. With the incredible amount of data currently being gathered, it is hard to know what the next digital trend will be. What will data streams transform into. With the enormous amount of data collected and exchanged each day, an e-literate generation, and booming e-commerce, there is a constant need for more efficient streaming. Whether this will come through better algorithms, or simply mean more and more data.



  1. Manovich, Lee | 2001 | The Language of New Media | 1st ed. | Cambridge: MIT Press | ISBN: 9780262133746
  2. http://www.newmedia.org/what-is-new-media.html
  3. http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2012/10/data-stream-database-timeline-new.htmlPosted by Lev Manovich on Saturday, October 27, 2012Topics: publications
  4. http://ui-patterns.com/patterns/ActivityStream
  5. http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2012/10/data-stream-database-timeline-new.html
  6. http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2012/10/data-stream-database-timeline-new.html
  7. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/29/facebook-users-emotions-news-feeds



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  • Reply caroline hunt |

    Very interesting to see his sources being wikipedia ! I believe that when we were talking about evaluating sources this was a big no no ? its is frustrating that like much of the digital world the data it produces at a staggering rate will be lost unless we find a way of rationalising a storing system . but then who decides what we store ?

  • Reply admin |

    Perhaps he so avant-garde, there is noone else to quote. I actually checked to see if he had written the pieces on Wikipedia. It would be quite easy to write a piece on Wiki, and then use it as a reference, to verify your own work.
    As for storing, we all store in the cloud now, but if the cloud disappears for some reason, who is responsible for the lost items?

So, what do you think ?