Social Skills are Handshaking Protocols

Most social activity is “handshaking”, the initial squawks of the modem before connecting, the discovery of SSIDs and exchanging of WEPs. Mistaking this as actual information exchange is common among those who lack the proper protocols. Attempts at actual information exchange during those times of handshaking (which, again, can consist of entire conversations, classes or, say, news programs) is met with stunned silence and shunning.

The confusion – and the direct parallel between modems and social interaction – is that the handshaking and information exchange happen with the same medium. Words in the case of humans, carrier modulation in the case of modems (or sonic ones and zeroes for the pedantic among you). If their meaning is not known – if you do not have the social context – they will seem easily interchangable. Why is one sentence about gas prices (“What can be done about gas prices?”) fundamentally different than another one – even though the words are the same? It’s the context, the social medium.

One instance may be handshaking. It is really asking: “Are you part of my tribe? Do you have the same basic concerns and values as me? The same frustrations? Are we similar?” Another instance may be attempts at solving an economic problem. It really is asking: “What can be done about gas prices?”

Again, the words essentially the same. Only the social context is different. It’s in this way that Fox News – or any of the so-called “morning news programs” has survived and succeeded. It utilizes the same basic terms as “hard news” programs, but the actual content of the message is different. They’re handshaking protocols.

My wife once commented: “I watch [morning news programs] so I can fit in with my peers, so that I’ll know what they’re talking about.” She’s absolutely right, because these programs are giving out the handshaking protocols (or frames, if you prefer Lakoff’s descriptions) for the day. However, because television is such a passive medium, the framing or handshaking is offered in one direction. It is given authority due to its position on the airwaves, and the handshaking protocols are de facto instructions, whether or not they’re called that or even intended as such.

This conceptualization has strong implications for networks and media of all types. Since legitimacy is largely determined by production values instead of content (compare the cover of Cosmo to that of most any ‘zine), these media products are essentially framing the world for us. Yes, people buy it – because they’re being offered as legitimate. At this point, a stark reversal would seem alien and truly countercultural. Hell, the news of my youth would seem alien and countercultural today.

I recently had the misfortune of watching our local Fox affiliate’s evening news. Two thirds – TWO THIRDS! – of the program was made up of celebrity gossip. The stark contrast with the BBC news the next morning was a harsh reminder of where the popular culture is headed.

The only choice? To reassert our own handshaking protocols, information-rich ones. The internet has been a great source of that so far, and will hopefully continue to be such. It means tolerance in protocols, as we meet people and interact with them. Surely if I can run (or emulate) Amiga, Atari 2600, Apple ][, OSX, XP, Ubuntu, and dozens of standalone arcade games on today’s modern hardware, we humans can figure out a way to communicate with even the strangest – but still info-rich – among us.