Saturday, December 25, 2010

Virtually Christmas

As part of the research I'm doing in order to set up my own website, I've been monitoring social networking systems. They all pretty much have the same structure, wherein somebody can make a public statement or ask a question and others within the social networking group can give answers or leave comments. In the history of mankind we have never had such a painless way to communicate. Now anybody with internet access can put in their own two cents. Some people even put in a hundred bucks sometimes. But the virtual world is a lot like the real world. As soon as there's a value in something there's somebody there to cash in or overdraw their account or just throw a couple of stones at the thing of value. This is called social commentary. Now, if you watch social commentary on any given thread you can usually reduce the amount of words in each comment down to two. Those two words are somebody's two cents and they usually boil down to "Yeah, but..." And when a person can't add a hundred bucks to the pot, they're still more than happy to add their two cents. With all the commentary on the social networking systems and everybody adding their two cents you might think the internet would be a place of wealth. I've yet to come across a progression of ideas that has real substance, though. Indeed, social networking only functions under the auspices of democracy. In actuality the power seems to lie with the bigots. Bigots of every nationality, every political leaning, every walk of life. And whether they are defending the concept of global warming or the concept of global cooling they all follow the same pattern of being very skilled proponents of their own view and very unskilled at considering other views. In addition, they are loud! They seem to be ever on line, always able to add the next comment, always skilled at choosing the exact words, publishing the graph, the picture, the supporting documentation within minutes. And they are there. Waiting. Hovering. Like a cat with a ball of yarn, they are ready to pounce on the same thread again and again and again until the thread is completely tangled around them.

I started my research with Facebook, monitoring my news feed, collecting statistical information. I learned that the average user spends nearly one hour per day on Facebook. That 35 million users update their status every day. That 20 million people become fans of pages each day. That the average user posts 25 comments each month. Oh, and did I mention that Facebook now has 400 million users? I looked at that Facebook news feed again and thought that it cannot be possible that we invest so much time in banalities like announcing to our network that we are going to shower or playing application games or taking application quizzes. (If you don't know about Facebook applications you can consider yourself lucky. Here your ignorance is to your advantage. However if you're already playing, just google something like "Facebook application personal data" to get some insight into real and possible privacy threats.) So I thought I would counter this wave by posting something like statements of merit that would facilitate dialogue and reflection. How wrong I was! The status update field on Facebook allows for only 420 characters. But the comment field allows for 8000 characters! The master of the social network is the commentator! The ramification of these technical structures is blocking. We're seeing it in politics: Obama is being blocked by democrats and republicans alike. And it's the newest virus in the virtual world: blocking.

If you are a member of a social network or if you have your own blog and allow for comments, you will be blocked. If you post a video with any real content on YouTube, you will be blocked. If you allow yourself to finally compose a reflective and insightful comment on a pre-existing thread, you will be blocked. I'm not writing an Orwellian warning here. Not in this essay, at least. I'm referring to an aspect of the social networking trend that I don't think has been covered much yet. What's blocking? Sure, there's the technological blocking of a site with child-pornography. Or the blocking you can do by de-friending someone, by shutting them out of your virtual circle of friends. But the kind of blocking I'm referring to is good old-fashioned conversational blocking. I learned about this back in my Acting 101 class when we were taught improvisational acting. If actor A. says, "Your eyes are yellow," actor B. can respond, "It's because I haven't peed all day" or "I think I'm coming down with malaria," or "Quick! Hand me a mirror." But if actor B says, "No, they're not," the improvisation comes to a full halt. Actor A. can only insist, "Yes, they are" (which gets really boring).

The subject of blocking is covered in a number of guides about the art of conversation (I especially love reading about cultural differences in conversation structures... but that'll have to wait for another essay). And since the dawn of online networks, there's been a fair share of guidebooks and blogs dedicated to things like netiquette, social etiquette for the net. But most of those are very broad based and geared to the company trying its hand in marketing within a social network. So, the equivalent of a business conversation guidebook. What I've yet to find is more of a psychological analysis about online conversation. I ran across one text with the term deindividuation, though, and that got my mouth watering! A decade of virtual identity-making has made us think that we are not ourselves online. And if we're not ourselves, then we don't have to be responsible for our actions. It's like during the riots when Mr. Law-Abiding Citizen steels a television from the flaming home electronic store just because everybody else is doing the same thing and he thinks he won't get caught. We still think this is the Wild West of the Internet!

Indeed I think there's an element of mob rule in the internet now. And I'm pleased with a lot of the revolutionary ideas that came to place in the real world, which first had footing in the cyber world. But there are less pleasing aspects of mob rule. For example, cyber-bullying. Or, worse, flaming. The concept of flaming has been expanded during the last decade of internet use. It's a sort of internet bashing. And I'm seeing many strings catch on fire with flaming. In social networking, the users tend to often be grouped together with other users with a common interest (subpopulation). But even within a given subpopulation there are such nuances and trivial differences of opinion, which lead to flaming, that the solidarity of the group is undermined. Why I think flaming is worse than cyber-bullying? It's a behavioral pattern that's normalizing itself. And we, as users, are not only being bombarded with banalities, but also with these new behavioral patterns. This painless way of communicating through social networking is perhaps too painless. We add comments to strings and are not only irresponsible but also completely ignorant as to the real-world effects of our comments.

So I'm seeing a double edged blade here. On the one edge of the blade, we're polarizing ourselves more and more into subpopulations of like minded people but are still flaming over subtleties in opinion. We're not confronting people with contrary beliefs and opinions because we're not meeting them any more in our subpopulations. And on the other side of the blade, we're witnessing a very low level of argumentation, where flaming and blocking are common practice. And just like we've started using punctuation to form little happy faces in our letters because everybody else does, too, we will eventually revert to these lower-level standards of argumentation. We will become the blockers. We will become the flamers. We will become the bigots. And how will our virtual behavior effect our real-world behavior? Will we stop fighting over really important issues and just fight over trivialities? (Sounds like a marriage!) Will we just flame and block as a form of real-world self-protection to counteract our wounded, vulnerable virtual selves?

There are a lot of traditionalists out there, who rue the fact that language is being reduced and that our communicative skills are lessening in the wake of technological advancement. Ok, I guess I'm one of them, too. But far more disturbing to me is all the low-down, nasty behavior. I feel like it's marketing itself. And I feel like we're buying into it without even realizing it. I know we're not going to stop being consumers of the internet, of social networking. But just like in the grocery store when we read the ingredients list on a package before buying it, we need to be aware of what we're consuming on line. In the grocery store I do my own personal brain-washing. Doesn't sound very nice, but it helps me remember my opinions about products and it counters the inescapable corporate marketing that I can't blank out. I think we need to do something similar with social networking. It doesn't work to just recognize the problem. I mean, saying that beef comes from a cow isn't enough for most people to become vegetarian. Usually a vegetarian will seek out a vast array of information to support their choice, they work with visualization and "practice" being a vegetarian. So too it is with being nice. We need to practice love. We need to practice respect. We need to practice tolerance. We need to brainwash ourselves (I wish there were a more positive connotation for this word!) to believe that diplomacy still has a place in our society. We need to work, on and off-line, showing that we are responsible consumers, unwilling to buy into the hate that is marketed to us on every corner.

As we near Christmas this season and think about gifts to give, lets invest a little more than other years. I'm an economic doubter when it comes to concepts like conjunctures and growth and spending. But I haven't really seen a limit on resources like love and patience and compassion. In fact, unlike in the economic world, I don't even think there is a dispute about these resources. The more we spend, the more we generate. And as the flaming and blocking on social networking systems casts us deeper and deeper into an emotional recession, as emotional consumers worldwide are tightening their belts and reviewing their security management, I call on you to spend more love, to save more love, and to invest in more love. Because no matter what you do with love you will generate more. And love is the greatest gift any of us can give.

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