Wednesday, July 23, 2008

If no one sees you online, do you really exist?

I work in Sociology and one of the foundational ideas in the discipline is that human beings are social creatures by nature and that our communities play an enormous role in forming our personal and relational identities. Even the most anti-social individual is connected to other people through kinship, work, ethnic, religious, or cultural ties. No one is an island, I don't care if you are a hermit living in a cave on a mountain cliff, the actions of other people can affect your life.

Since this assumption about human nature and society was drilled into me during graduate school, I was a little stunned thinking about this blog entry to realize I was going to be arguing against it and for the singular importance of the individual outside of their public relationships. We DO exist outside our relations to other people and their perception of us.

This dawned on me after reading another blog (whose name unfortunately escapes me now) in which the author discussed an exchange with a reader who lamented that since he didn't appear in any photos on the Flickr website that were taken of an event, it was like he wasn't even there, like he wasn't in attendance.

I'm living part-time in an online world where self-promotion is the norm and people are actively encouraged to develop their "personal brands" for career advancement. I am brand "Liz" and I write a blog about "X, Y, and Z" and if you hire me, you can "own" a piece of me by association. The argument for this point of view towards the self is that it gives ownership over ones identity and other people perception of ones identity back to the can shape the way people perceive you by highlighting those aspects of oneself one wishes to be known for (intelligence, resourcefulness, humor, trendsetting, productivity, ability to strategize, etc.). A person actively creates, cultivates, and promotes those aspects of oneself that you're trying to sell whether for business or personal reasons.

saysI have a lot of issues with treating oneself as a commodity which I might go into in another post. But I bring it up here because it seems like this is another manifestation of "what other people see is what is real". In the 1990s, concern about the confusion between public perception with reality was mainly aimed at violence and sex in movies and television and later, the whole concept of reality shows and people living out their lives on camera. I remember in Madonna's film Truth or Dare (1991), Warren Beatty says,

She [Madonna] doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk. There's nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it's off-camera? What point is there existing?
Now we see this online. The description of a person or event which is posted on the Internet--whether it is a blog entry, a video, a news story--is seen as authentic partially because of the speed in which the information or images can now be delivered. The person who first defines an individual or encounter, whatever link comes out highest in a Google Search, is seen as more authoritative than later analyses or commentaries with lower search engine results. Authors with lots of readers have greater influence and respect amongst members of their community and by journalists than lesser known authorities even when you read volumes of scathing comments on their blogs.

Any act or statement that can make a person more notable, leave a bigger impression, created greater fame means that this person's life and opinion is worth a certain group of people in our society. It doesn't matter whether you're a famous tech blogger or William Hung, any kind of fame that distinguishes an individual from the "masses" is highly prized and sought after by many people. The kind of quiet, reflective presence, a person who creates or works out of inspiration or out of necessity in their little corner of the world...well, it is almost as if they don't exist an individual. If you Google someone's name and nothing appears, do they really exist?

Of course, this hunger for public recognition is not held by all or even the majority people in the U.S. Most people, surprise, surprise, are satisfied with their lives although they wish they had a little more free time for their family or friends, they wish they were a little thinner, and they wish they made a little more money. They don't need every significant moment in their lives recorded and posted online to know that it occurred. They can rely on their memories to remind themselves, albeit with colored lenses, what meaningful events happened in their lives. They don't mind keeping their personal and even professional lives private.

Now, I don't think one viewpoint is superior to another, they are just incompatible with each other and I think few people on either side of this divide appreciate the other side's
point of view. Part of this difference is generational and we are bound to see more online chronicling of people's lives as the U.S. population ages.

My parents don't understand why I have online friends, my older brother doesn't understand why I participate in online discussion groups and I don't understand why my younger friends post their personal photos online for public consumption. It is an escalating, growing level of public exposure of ones personal life and while I think this change is ultimately inevitable in America (although it won't happen overnight), I think that seeking online validations for ones existence, beliefs, presence gives too much weight to our visible, public image over our intrinsic sense of self-worth.

The bottom line or the big picture? There are BILLIONS of individuals living right now without an online presence, who would never show up in a Google search. They are real and I think it would behoove our future as a country not to forget that they exist in a number that far and away eclipses the number of people who blog or who have My Space or Facebook pages. They might ultimately enter the online world but we would be blind to forget that they are many, that they exist, and that they might compose a large influence in our country's and culture's future.

What would it even mean to live in a world with 6.68 billion personal brands?

Monday, July 21, 2008

When those we like=those we are like

I've been reading a lot of blogs over the past month, probably too many blogs. In my Twitter escapades, I've been a hungry learner, clicking on links and following leads, trying to learn as much as I can about social media. I didn't wade into the shallow end, I dove off the high dive.

In many ways, I felt like Alice in Wonderland...I recognized the characters but it was a weird, upside down, cyberworld that seemed nonsensical to me almost all of the time. And, foolishly perhaps, I openly displayed my slack-jawed incomprehension, hoping to be pitied, tutored, and finally embraced by this colorful, dynamic world of buzzing social extroverts. Much of the time, I was positively dizzy by the pace of it all, as I watched lives being lived rush past me. Some days, I found it almost intoxicating.

In hindsight, I can see I was following an old pattern...when I get bored with my life or my work becomes too difficult or too tedious, I immerse myself in something new and feel the zest and excitement that one feels as a beginning student or as a traveler setting off on the first leg of a journey into an unfamiliar part of the world.

But while I am in in this world, I clearly am not of it. I don't work in technology, PR, marketing, or finance, I'm not a consultant, venture capitalist, or social media "guru", and I've felt this tension of being the outsider for as long as I been playing in this Twitter/Facebook land. I'm a terrible actor and so I've tried to embrace my outsider stance even during times where I was cast as a minor league pariah.

I clumsily stepped on toes, I questioned common wisdom, I scoffed at those higher up on the food chain than I am, partly out of ignorance but also because my values seem to differ so much from my online peers. I expressed bewilderment and sarcasm when I encountered statements, thoughts or feelings that made me incredulous: "Who ARE you? How can you claim THAT?? Isn't it dehumanizing to think of people as 'personal brands'?"

By and large, I was simply ignored, as a small child would be who interrupted their parents' dinner party. A few people welcomed me, if only for the novelty value of having a new face at the table, while others actively exiled me from their online family of friends and sent me to another room. And that's okay because, after all, we are really all strangers to one another online. No one "owes" me their friendship, it has to be freely given and I am sorry if I ever personally offended anyone.

I have only good feelings towards those I've interacted with in these social communities except the few who were confrontational, racist, sexist, or boorish. I've normally been treated with patient kindness even when I clearly didn't know a lot about what I was talking about and for that I am grateful.

But I'm also glad that I might have asked some uncomfortable questions or disturbed the clubhouse atmosphere of these cliquish communities. The majority of folks I met online were white, college educated, decently paid, spoke English as a first language, and were between the ages of 22 and 40 and, I have to say, many displayed a distinctly superior attitude, almost one of entitlement. I ran into very little social critique of the inequities of American society and our culture of leisure and consumption is positively reveled in. Even in my days working in the music industry, I never heard of people participating in this many parties! Even those people with families seem to travel and party a lot more than my offline friends and colleagues.

Of course, I'm a participant in all this activity even if I'm outside the dominant Twitter demographic. I brought up Iraq once, the indecent price of conference registrations several times, occasionally criticizing industries that think everything of worth can be measured, quantified, and ranked. And these comments feel FLAT so I got the message and kept my conversation personal (cats, weather, work, sleep, travel, family, etc.) instead of political.

In the end, a community is what it is and it is hard if not impossible for one individual to change the tenor of the discussion especially someone who is admittedly of very little influence. And I don't think it is my place to try to change something that is clearly so massively popular. But I do think it is my place to reflect upon my experience and see what was positive and what is lacking.

So while I might have fondness for the individuals I've encountered and I am completely in awe of their enthusiastic, almost mission-like ambition in their professions, I am unimpressed with the social networks that have emerged in this Web 2.0 world, at least the ones I have seen. In these circles, connections with like minds are made but isn't the point of all of this interdependent, global connectivity to interact with those who are different from ourselves, those who have different views on what's important in life, those from who we can learn something besides how to advance our career?

Instead, social networks seem to create niches where people who seem to have the same political and cultural values hang out together and empathize with each other's ups and downs. They are support groups more than change groups. There is a place for these types of friendships in all of our lives, lives where we are tired and bruised much of the time. I don't want to minimize this at all.

But at this point, I think that the excitement around social networks and the belief that they actually can lead to changes in our society is completely inaccurate and doesn't reflect their segregated nature. Maybe some time, down the road this could occur but not today and not tomorrow. The rule of like attracting like still remains a guiding principle of human behavior.

P.S. After rereading this I thought I should add that I hope to continue to Twitter away and participate on Facebook although maybe not at the same high, intense level as in recent weeks. And, if it still needs to be said, this post is meant to be a critique of the limitations of social networks, not of the individuals who compose them.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

My pique has peaked...

Emotional messages whether on email, voicemail, or blogs always look a little overwrought the next day once you've had some food, sleep, and pleasant conversation. Companies or people don't seem quite as incompetent, they are less annoying, almost bearable. It's hard to mentally put yourself back into that frustrated frame of mind you were in just 24 hours ago.

Emotions are mysterious things. When they come upon you or arise within you, they just consume you, body and mind. It is not that you are "irrational", it's just that you are completely focused on one particular thing...the person you're in love with, that jerk that cut you off on the highway, the delicious food you are eating, or the inability to take advantage of an advertised service that you expected to be able to use.

Strong emotions are not bad or good, they are just unbalanced and that can lead to powerful action--Kiss me! Or, give us justice! Or, pay attention to me!--but you lose all sense of perspective. Small annoyances can make you feel like you're beating your head against a wall. Someone not returning a phone call when expected can make you feel alone and unloved. A lover's arm brushing against yours can make you feel ecstatic. Ones reaction is out of proportion to the action or object that elicited it.

I tend to be embarrassed by my emotions, they seem messy and over-the-top, they make me feel out of control. But I'm going to leave my Starbucks/AT&T diatribe partially because they never got back to me and partially because I don't think we should walk backwards with brooms to erase every trace of where we have walked. I went ballistic, expressed my frustration, and now I'm over it. New topic tomorrow!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lost in the AT&T desert at Starbucks...

I don't like blog rants against companies. Each person's experience with a company is uniquely theirs...potential readers have had their own encounters with businesses, both positive or negative. Ranting doesn't solve the problem because this is just a personal blog not one of influence or a large readership.

And yet...and yet...I must write because I can't get past the experience. Because I am stuck here in the Internet netherworld at Starbucks. I am stuck in limbo.

As you might have heard, Starbucks is now offering free wi-fi in its stores. Or at least that is the hook that gets people who used to come more often to Starbucks to come back. Free wi-fi is great, as soon as my computer booted up, I was instantly connected to the AT&T network. recognized me and that I was logged on. Unfortunately, AT&T didn't recognize me by any username or password combination that I have ever used online. Yes, I was online via free wi-fi but I was trapped in the desert of an AT&T log in page, a bitterly harsh, empty plane of existence with nary an oasis in site.

I tried, Lord, I tried and tried every way I could to get online for over an hour and a half. I tried going through the but, as I mentioned, the website said I was already online. My username was "already in use". Well, that is partially true I was logged on but I was stuck in an online purgatory.

I tried recreating my account. Starbucks wouldn't let me use any username I tried (I can't have created multiple accounts, could I?) and when I tried to create a new account under the username "Starbuckssucks", they accepted the name but wouldn't let me register with my Starbucks card because it was registered to my original account. You can't have a card registered to two different users.

Why didn't I talk to a barista about the problem? Well, the one time I tried to do that on a previous futile effort to use the free wi-fi, the person at the cash register said, "Really, we have free wireless here? I didn't know that. When did that start?"

So, let's try the AT&T log in page, there MUST be some link there to help the poor user. But, alas, no. Clicking on "Forget your password?" or "Manage account" just leads to an empty error page. And when I tried to find a link to contact the company, I got a T-Mobile page (say what?!) offering a list of phone numbers that I where I could call the company. This is crazy! Like I, a free wi-fi user, would try to navigate through the voicemail wilderness of AT&T in order to fix a problem with the Starbucks/AT&T recognition system. That would involve more hours of my life and I doubt they would even be any help at all. How can a Starbucks customer using free wi-fi have any influence over a corporate giant that has the iPhone to worry about?

The funny thing is is that I'm a devoted Starbucks customer and have been since the late 1980s when I first visited a store in Oregon. I defended their predatory business practices and argued for the quality of their coffee over similar coffeehouses. But once they raised my expectations and I came into the store with my computer, ready to get some work done, it was maddening to spend all of this time trying one way or another to get online and end up accomplishing nothing.

So, because Starbucks promised the customer (me) something which it could not deliver, they turned an embarrassingly loyal customer into one that wants to go just about anywhere else for coffee.

I should mention that in 6 or 7 attempts, I was once (1 time) able to get on to the AT&T wireless network. Once, and never ever again. And here ends my tirade against a company offering a service which is not really available and, what is worse, having no back-up plan (trained baristas? some help on the AT&T page? troubleshooting information?) to help when things go wrong.

P.S. Posted after I got home and went online thanks to another corporate giant, Cablevision

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Those who don't create, critique those who do

I've committed one of the cardinal sins of blogging: it's been weeks since I've written an entry. This has happened for a number of reasons but primarily due to my addiction to Twitter.

I've found this microblogging format and the people I've been introduced to incredibly compelling. Twitter is everything that academia and a dissertation is not: it is concise instead of wordy, it is flirty instead of measured, it is snarky instead of considered, it is timely instead of enduring, and it is fast instead of labored.

There is in both academia and the Twitter universe a great deal of self-promotion but where Twitter blares out self-referential Tweets in stark, bright colors, scholars indirectly tout themselves in lengthy and subdued footnotes. Twitter is bold, snappy and instantaneous and in academia, even after death, an author's work is ceaselessly critiqued for its worthiness and its potential contribution to the field. Bogged down in yet more dissertation rewrites, I was an easy mark to fall prey to Twitter's seductive urgency, its false sense of intimacy and its immediacy.

But since every quality that are Tweets, or messages, are aspects of writing frowned upon in my discipline, I've been a stranger in a strange land, out of my element. The people I've encountered online have been, by and large, kind and open to me but, to use another cliche, I'm a round peg in a square hole. I don't fit and many of my snarky remarks were observations of the worlds of the participants (primarily technology and marketing) that I found incredibly peculiar. I found and still find it difficult to hold my tongue when people are behaving in what seems to me to be a ludicrous manner. If I was physically present, I would roll my eyes and give a "what is WITH these people" shake of my head but since I was in the world of Twitter, I would fire off a random pet peeve of those I was "following" or remark sarcastically in a way that I thought resembled intelligence.

I was already to write another Tweet about how no one in the outside world really cares about political in-fighting in the world of technology when I got a terrible headache. Eventually, this led me to wonder, was I creating anything of value? Was I contributing to the problem instead of trying to understand the world and myself a little better?

Which, predictably, led me back to my neglected blog. I hope to take the energy I got from writing Tweets and channel it towards the creation of something more lasting and ephemeral than 140 character messages. I'm not aiming for profundity, I'd just like to contribute something relevant to the discussion going on online about how advances in technology and communication are changing the way we understand ourselves and the way we behave.

I know I won't be promoting myself on Twitter, that is a no-no that is just too ingrained in me over years of graduate school programming. But I can say with certainty that I'll probably lapse into talking about myself and my cat! That's a promise.