Social Media is all about (or should be) human understanding. Understanding of ourselves, our chosen communities, our accidental communities, politics, culture, and so on. It is a 21st century tool that helps people not just pass information back and forth, but - more importantly - context.
A few weeks back, the web site Platial performed a major update which involved a lot of hard work by some very talented people. I like the people there and have been a fan of the site. But there was something about the update that gave me shivers.
After a few weeks to mull it over, I've come up with seven dimensions of human understanding that I think are universal, but particularly relate to Platial. Platial is a tool that combines mapping, blogging and little bit of community. Theoretically, it would meet all these needs.
Let's discuss the dimensions and then come back to Platial.
Everyone knows the classic three dimensions around our planet. We move around the planet or closer to the poles. We move up to mountaintops and down to the seas.
Most often this type of information is presented on maps. Here's a map you might recognize, even if you go to a school in the US.
This is a map of Utah taken from Platial. Simply by looking at it, we know its shape, roads that run through it, where the Great Salt Lake is, where there are snowy mountains, and so forth. We can infer elevation. We know north, south, east and west.
This map communicates the three principle dimensions immediately. Then it goes on to overlay those dimensions with information about the environment that exists within those dimensions.
This map provides cartographic or raw physical location context to a story.
This is different than the context of place. Place, as I'm using the word, is different than location.
Here we see that the Marco Polo Gateway Hotel in Hong Kong (a place) is at 22.29801, 114.16855 (a location). In the following series of images, we move from the personal, to the functional, to the political, to the global contexts of place in the Marco Polo Gateway Hotel:
With each zoom level often comes a very different sense of place. A very different context. Initially, the context is highly personal, in a washroom. Then a building as it relates to its immediate surroundings, then a neighborhood, then an urban area, on up to global. Initially, as a man in a bathroom, my relative proximity to a subway station or North Korea are not in context. As we move through the zooms, our interpretation of the meaning of the location changes.
This is a socio-political dimension to information.
Time is the other dimension that people are expecting in this list. WHEN is a vital component to a place. Was I at the Marco Polo Gateway Hotel during WWII when Japanese soldiers were rounding people up? Was I there during the Vietnam War? Was I there when I was very young? Was I there when I was older? Was I there during the handover in 1997?
Chronology is vital to story telling, it is vital to context. Even timeless truths are conveyed with different platforms over time.
I go to the Bay Area a lot. My personal maps have many entries that are in the Location of the Bay Area and in many recurring Places around there. The sheer number of events that have happened in those places and locations lessen their relevance when looking for specific events.
So Time becomes a vital factor. Time for humans is largely measured by milestones or events. When I took my wife down for a food tour of the greater (way greater) Bay Area, I tagged my postings "Half Moon Trip 2007". This gives them context in time.
When contextually mapped, they look like this (you may need to click on it to see it better):
Note the dual use of time here. First the tag itself fixes the number of stories we see around an event - our trip. Even better, when the trip stories themselves come up they are in chronological order, so you can track the events as they unfolded.
Time is inextricably linked to context. This doesn't need to be my event either, it could be "Post Harmonic Convergence" and listing everything that happened after the planets aligned. Or "Pre-Sun Implosion" - any event that tracks things through time.
Personal Context is obviously a major component to a story, as it grounds the story to the storyteller. Understanding the author is often helpful. For example, books on multicultural sensitivity are great. Books on multicultural sensitivity by Adolf Hitler might be suspect.
Personal context also helps us understand the story through the lens of the storyteller and a bit about the storyteller as well.
Understanding that I, as a story teller, both enjoy chocolate and have a wife who is starting a chocolate business gives chocolate context for some of my stories. I have tagged many posts "chocolate" because it is in context for me.
I don't ride bikes, so bike riding is not in context for me. It is very central to other people I know, however. It's their personal context.
Personal context is elements about the author personally that add meaning to information.
Social context is the impact on society a story has. This is tagging and re-distribution of content by people other than the author. This is where people really shine and where information steps outside the dull static data stuck inside a database. This is where context shifts.
There was a post I had a few months back where I used a Paul Simon Lyric about falling in love to discuss a business concept.
Paul Simon never wrote that line to support business, but when I thought of it ... suddenly it was in context. Not Mr. Simon's original context, but a new one - independent of him.
You have some links in here that fit a predictable model of what inspiration might be - which theoretically we could automate a process to find and catalog. But we also have things in here like "COLOURlovers" which is a site that provides new interesting colors and people then create complimentary palettes people can use for web sites.
This is social context. The popular re-assignment of information into different contexts.
What All This Might Mean
As we roll out future Web 2.0 / Social Media applications, we need to ask ourselves how we satisfy the demands of all these dimensions. If we skip some, it should be intentional and with a very good reason.
 In fact, right now I'm eating chocolate dipped strawberries she made for a Easter party today.
Blogged at my house in Seattle with Live Writer