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?


PhD Researcher said...

Hi, it's Boomtown_ here from Twitter. I have the actual article we were discussing - it's the EPN report on 'The Second Life of VR'. You used to be able to register for a copy, but I'm not sure if that's live anymore. Would you like the .pdf?

Liz said...

Thank would be great! You can send it to Thank you so much

Anonymous said...

Hi Liz-
Nice post.
If there were 6.8 million personal brands then the voice of each would just get smaller. It will happen; it is happening. It is just like having a first and last name. Only the online world is smaller than the real world. Ultimately, human life is like living in an echo chamber, no matter where it occurs. People want to be heard. How much? that is up to the individual and their energy, their politics, their social network, and their abilities.
terra210 from twitter