Tuesday, August 26, 2008

on the concept of Intimacy - (part 3)

Initially, I proposed the use of the term “intimacy” to describe digital connectedness to a roomful of my colleagues. “Why not ‘friendship’, ‘rapport’ or ‘togetherness’?” they asked. I think that what I observe to exist in the online world is the search for something of a kind of closeness that is a level deeper than simple affinity. Intimacy may not be what is commonly achieved in the digital world, but I think it is what is sought.

Certainly for some, the desire remains to be a collector of sorts. The goal in these cases is built on discovering how many friends or followers or connections (or whatever the appropriate platform vernacular might be) one can obtain. That’s always been my hang up with MySpace – it always felt like volume was the driver. It didn’t seem to mimic my own reality of finding a smaller group of people that was predicated on shared commonalities. That in real life (using the term relatively), humans strive to find intimacy – close familiarity that reaches beyond facial identification, name recall, or the automatic, empty exchange of head nods and how-do-you-do’s in a workplace hallway.

I was unashamedly in a men’s a cappella group in college, the Tufts Beelzebubs. I describe these people as my brothers, even today. We were notoriously close. When asked what the difference was between my Bub brethren and the campus fraternity scene, I was struck at the obviousness of the answer. We were brought together for a common purpose – we all believe in fun through song. We weren’t just seeking out quantity of connections, we were limited in capacity, but the depth of connection increased exponentially because of a shared purpose, interest, and idea (that and khakis, jackets and ties).

The phenomenon of intimacy in the digital space works, I believe in much the same way. People using the social web have a deep need to create profound personal connections with their communities based on a handful of drivers: likeminded thinking, shared content, musical tastes, or common experiences. It is when online social selves are allowed the opportunity to discover what their web counterparts are all about that they actually create a deep connective bond. An intimacy. This is why I have fallen so hard for Twitter. I have found a group of people that I follow based on watching them think their thoughts “out loud”, and then decide whom I’d like to reach out to because I think we share a sense of humor, a perspective on the industry, a political viewpoint, a common ground. It is (again) why some sites don’t offer much beyond a means of finding old friends or collecting a digital Rolodex. This concept has been discussed here and there online, but I had a great discussion about it with @abfdc and @tfrommer, which was captured nicely (and thankfully not as verbosely as I clearly would have done it) here.

As we create new social platforms, sites, and online communities, I think we will find that the most successful ones of the lot are the ones that encourage and enable the opportunity to discover each other as similarly as we do in the analog world – as beings with nuanced thoughts, sensibilities and tastes seeking intimacy with others who offer complementary qualities, beliefs and purposes.

This is already too long, but I wanted to make mention of tangential thinking that relates to the topic of intimacy of this kind.

Just as we can find great connections with likeminded folks online, it would be impossible to have this discussion without recognizing the antithetical at play here. For as much as there’s depth of intimacy to be found online, there is without a doubt a major amount of illusion at play as well. The truth is, despite the great democratization of voice the Internet enables, we still create a hierarchical, celebrity-system of digital personalities. Within that mistaken fantasy that we’ve all got the same sized digital megaphone, lies the difficulty that - with such ease of access comes an assumed closeness where there probably isn’t one. The open entry to our digital heroes via blog comment pages, online forums, or yes, my vaunted Twitter, create the illusion of connection, of intimacy. We believe that in that comment/exchange/response that we are securing the attentions and affections of other members of this online tribe, when the reality is that it is often much more fleeting than that, and as with all things, time and consistency remain the best indicators of the truest connections.

Another part of that illusion of intimacy is expressed through a certain amount of voyeurism. We feel that we know certain personalities so we like to watch the tête-à-tête, the back and forth of witty barbs. There’s a safety in just watching from a safe distance as people engage in one-upmanship and juicy banter. We’re not a part of the conversation (or maybe we dare to engage here and there), but the digital world allows us to be privy to whichever intimacies we stumble upon that day.

Closeness in the comments space (or, anonymity-enabled honesty)
Michael Wesch points this out in his wonderful address to the Library of Congress, but it truly is fascinating. The most interesting dialogue happening online is often found in the comments section after an article or blog entry. Most interesting or most degenerative? I’m not sure which is more consistently accurate. Sadly, my best guess is the latter. But the point is in watching how base feelings become quickly escalated and expressed in these end sections of a webpage. And yes, Wesch specifically calls out the common radical insult escalation game that gets played out, but I think there’s an implied intimacy here as well. One that allows a person to be as explicit as he or she chooses, with whatever degree of force or opinion they wish, with virtually no repercussion to deal with (perhaps an incoming barrage of assaulting messages). It is fascinating however, to consider the boldness that is found online. I link this with a different kind of intimacy, but a form of intimacy nonetheless. This one isn’t seeking connection, it is an intimacy of allowance, of emboldened spirits based on the closeness the Internet affords.

If you’re still here, I love ya. Thanks for hearing me out. As always, I’m looking for your reactions, additions, and corrections. Agree or disagree, my guess is that we’ve shared something here. Haven’t we?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

on the concept of Identity - (part 2)

...as opposed to persona

The important role of identity in the social network space seems obvious and unquestionable. Who we are, who others perceive us to be, how we want others to perceive us, how we want to perceive ourselves. There is a hinge, it seems, on the role of perception. And a spectrum of truth against which that perception is focused. Much has been written about online identities. Most eloquently might be Diana Kimball's take on it:
We build up our personal online identities, in large part, through the detritus we automatically leave behind: pictures we wanted others to see, articles we wanted others to read. Online identity is a very weird idea. It hinges on faith in honesty: if identity implies authenticity, then the information that helps to construct it cannot be false. But online identities are definitely constructed in other ways. They constitute the internet’s built environment: the structures we can see and study, and whose construction we can interrogate for meaning and consequence. These structures are in some ways completely under the owner’s control, and in others complete out of it.
There is a lot to take in here. I encourage you to re-read the quote.

The first part observes that it is our leave-behinds that define who we are. The moments of "check this out" or "some pics I found". It leaves me to wonder if we actively construct our online selves, or if identity is a by-product of engagement. Before responding to that, we must decide if we either buy into the idea that a person's first engagement in the digital social space is done purposefully or casually. Do people enter onto (let's say) facebook in a state of apathy, daring the online world to show them what's out there, or is there some intention around joining/signing up? If the latter is true, which I presume it is - at least for those who stick with whatever platform they've chosen, we have to believe that with intention comes awareness. And within awareness we find identity.

It is this awareness that leads to Ms. Kimball's last sentence:
These structures are in some ways completely under the owner’s control, and in others complete out of it.
Our self-awareness leads directly to how we present ourselves. I surmise that many start off trying to play a persona that is carefully constructed. Online, anything is possible. It's the neoclassic image of a person using false representations of themselves to appear more attractive on that great bastion of truth, the online dating site. Because somewhere in our minds, in our egos, perhaps in our most frustrated and desperate selves, we believe that the internet will allow us, will afford us the opportunity to become better than we think of our current self-assessment. But the key element in the construction of a social identity is time.

I think we grow into our authenticity. I think time is the great seeker in the game of identity hide and seek. It will always find us. We might begin our venture into the social networking world with the idea that we will become someone or something we wish for ourselves. But the more time we spend online, the more messages we write, pictures we share, dialogs we have, comments we make, the greater the chance that our true selves take over where the guise of a persona falters. The more we become certain of ourselves as individuals, the easier it becomes to maintain consistency of character. Or the more of our true feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions become revealed to the communities we enter.

So where does that leave us? Have I talked in circles here? I often do. It's part of what makes me Me. I think the final thought on identity at this point is that identity is not something we construct. It is something that emerges organically the more time we spend engaging in social spheres, be they digital or analog.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Social Surrogate Theory - (part 1)

...in which I pose the general hypothesis

I was inspired by Michael Wesch's ethnographic introduction to the Library of Congress (thanks for sending it around, Piers). Inspired, that is, to do a little more thinking out loud about social networks and why they matter so much in our society. I'm working on a hypothesis. I haven't quite reached the crux of what I'm searching for, but I feel I'm close.

I pose this idea, knowing that others have probably written multiple dissertations on the subject, not to mention books, blogs, and blah blah blah... If you're one of those people, my interest in the analog social impact of digital social networks is earnest. I'm open to references to read, conflicting points of view, research that already exists, and even an old fashioned "why don't you leave this to the experts" smackdown.

Here's the basic premise:
  • Social networks are a surrogate means of making authentic connections with other people. They are the natural outcome of a world with a dramatic reliance on machines and technology. As society moves into this culture of "togetherness through isolation", social networks are an enabling force that provide a simulation of the rich physical forms of human connection that we have lost our ability to cultivate through direct means.
Although I think this sounds a little like the diary entry of a erudite luddite, I am deeply, sometimes I think unhealthily, engaged in the daily (nay, hourly) use of a handful of these precious media.

My intention is to break down the thematic pillars of what social networking provides in parallel to the human experience. The next handful of entries will look at these, one theme at a time. My working list considers the concepts of: identity, immediacy, intimacy, possibility, advocacy, community, democracy, control, escape, and enjoyment.

As always, feel free to jump in and add direction, notes, your thinking, questions, or better insights.
the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)