Monday, 7 May 2012

"Pictures or it didn't happen."

Recently I took a week-long break from Twitter. As someone who could probably be classed as a ‘medium to heavy’ Twitter user, it was like experiencing silence after being in a noise-filled room. The constant chatter of my friends and colleagues fell away and I was left with the quiet peace of my own thoughts.

I do love Twitter. I needed a break for various personal and work-related reasons (1) but apart from Google, Twitter is probably the Web tool that I get the most out of. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Twitter I wouldn’t be the award-winning librarian that I am today: it’s given me contacts from across the LIS profession and continues to provide me with professional insights and information that I wouldn’t get elsewhere.

With that expository caveat in place, I’m now going to spend about 1000 words discussing the negative impact of Twitter (and other Web 2.0 style tools) on the human psyche and how, in Homo sapiens’ mad dash to become Homo digitalis, we forget things about being human.

I know a lot of people through Twitter and there are some friends whom I know chiefly through Twitter. Now consider the use of the word ‘know’ in the preceding sentence. What does it mean to ‘know’ someone? Depending on the context, ‘knowing’ someone either means acquaintance with the person or a deeper familiarity: the difference between ‘knowing of’ someone and ‘knowing’ someone (2). Is it possible to ‘know’ someone (in the second sense) despite never having met them in the flesh?

Trying to know someone (in the second sense) through her tweets is like trying to get an image of a person by looking at her through a keyhole. Tweets only present a fraction of a fraction of a person – even for ‘medium to heavy’ users like me. There are nuances of body language, expression, emotion, attitude, how we behave on a long-term basis, how we approach relationships with other people, etc., that cannot be reflected in messages of fewer than 140 characters, no matter how often we tweet. On top of which, for most people, what we produce is a self-consciously air-brushed version of ourselves: every tweet is a snapshot of ourselves which we have carefully produced through a conscious process. Through our tweets we create an image of ourselves without our flaws and imperfections. We may tweet that we had a great success at work – the students enjoyed our presentation – and not tweet that we experienced a big failure – we deleted an important spreadsheet. Twitter is a culture of image: we reflect ourselves in a positive light; we give no indication of the true and complex undercurrents of thought and feeling raging in our minds; we produce a version of ourselves that appeals to our audience. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Playing this game has brought me professional success and made me feel like part of a community. Despite this, I am more than the sum of my tweets.

The mind through the keyhole.

More than at any other point in human history, each of us has an audience. Technology and augmentation with technology allows us to document and share more and more aspects of our lives: what we’re seeing on Flickr; what we’re reading on LibraryThing; what we’re thinking on Twitter; what we’re doing on Facebook. Nowadays, we are always in front of an audience. We have become obsessed with documentary: with taking pictures of everything and uploading them to the Web; with capturing our thoughts and sharing them with followers. And in this culture of image, when one is thinking about one’s presentation to an audience, the danger is that the priority of our lives can be shifted. The object becomes the audience rather than the experience.

There was a story in the first episode of Aleks Krotoski’s new Radio 4 series, The Digital Human (3):
“There’s an interesting piece written by John Fowles. He goes for a walk and he sees… he sees an orchid. And he thinks “Fantastic”. So he gets his camera out and he spends ages getting the perfect photograph of this orchid. And then he puts his camera away and walks on and suddenly realises that he hasn’t actually seen this flower at all. He’s spent all his time working out how to take the perfect photograph of it…
“We spend so much time focused on the capture and then later the display that we lose the real sense of experience.”
During my break from Twitter, I realised that I had experienced the feeling described in the orchid story. The only difference is that my medium is words rather than photography. When I was away from Twitter, I began to stop putting my experiences into words and instead just experienced them. I realised that occasionally I have spent so long thinking of how to put an interesting event into the form of a witty, 140 character message that I haven’t experienced the event at all. Over the past year or so, I’ve become more likely to think ‘This’ll be a good thing to tweet about’ than ‘This is a good experience’. 

We begin to use Twitter and other social media as a form of validation. We feel that unless we broadcast our lives – unless a large number of people view our lives – then they are not worth as much. Like quantum states, our experiences don’t exist unless they are observed. Unless you tweet about what you are doing, it won’t be registered by the global consciousness or stored in the World Brain’s great memory. Pictures or it didn’t happen

The unmediated life is not worth living?

This is of course untrue. If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to tweet about it, the tree still falls over. Technology is a way to mediate experience to share it with others but it is the experience that matters rather than the mediation. The experience of one person is no more valid or ‘true’ if it is shared with a thousand other people. What you do and what you achieve is yours and is real whether you tweet about it or put it on Flickr or not. When you die and your experiential continuity ceases, you’ll be just as dead whether you tweeted every second of every day or not at all. All that matters is that you experienced your life in the way that you wanted to: not that other people saw you do it. 

All of which is nothing new. This is by no means an anti-Twitter rant because nothing that I’ve said about Twitter cannot also be applied to writing of all kinds throughout history. The only thing that’s new is the size of the audience. People once wrote letters to one another to communicate with their loved ones, make sense of their world, and validate their experiences. The talented (or egoistic) wrote novels and books as a means of mediating their experiences and sharing them as a form of validation. By this point, mediation of experience is a natural part of human existence and the culture of image is a core part of social life. 

Life is always mediated – whether by Twitter or Flickr or fiction or biography or art or whatever. There is no ‘authentic experience’ or ‘unmediated life’: no form of life is inherently better or worse than any other form of life. We will only know (in the first and second senses) in real life a small subset of all the human beings in the world. There are innumerable thousands – living and dead – whom we will only ‘know’ through their writing or their photos or their films: we’ll only ever be able to look at them through the keyhole. And even when we’re not presenting a limited image of ourselves through a medium like writing or tweeting or other technology, we’re presenting a favourable image of ourselves through how we act, what we say, and importantly what we don’t say. By pretending to be confident, by laughing at jokes we don’t think are funny, by not saying what we really think; for the most part, we project the person that we want to be rather than the person we truly are. (4) 

(1) For those who are interested, I’m presenting a workshop on e-resources with the glamorous Abby Barker at the CILIP New Professionals Day 2012 this coming Friday. And then the following week, I’m presenting a media communication workshop with the wonderful (and award-winning) Ian Anstice at the CILIP Wales Conference in Cardiff (1a). Both of which have required lots of preparatory work and even more worrying. 

(1a) There’s no reason you should know this yet since you haven’t read the post but this footnote is an example of the kind of validation-seeking that I discuss later. Pre-emptive meta-self-analysis FTW! 

(2) For a sense of what I mean by this second sense, watch Mad Men 4x7 ‘The Suitcase’. But since that episode won’t make sense without context, you’ll have to watch all the preceding episodes of Mad Men before it. It’s OK: I’ll wait… 

(3) If you’re like me and spend a lot of time using technology, the whole show is well-worth listening to and the podcast can be found here.  

(4) So if this discussion has brought us right back to the beginning – if we are unable to escape the culture of image and if our bodies are mediating cages for our minds – what was the point of it? Beats me. Maybe I was just trying to validate these ideas on the human condition by sharing them with you, dear reader. Or maybe thinking and writing don’t need a point. And maybe that’s what so beautiful about them.


Nicola Franklin said...

While I agree that trying to know someone, in your second sense, via Twitter alone will only give you a fractional view of that person, I think that generalising this to saying you can't 'know' someone properly without having met them in the flesh isn't correct.
I have several friends, who live in Texas, the Netherlands and other overseas countries, who I've known for 6 or 7 years, but never met. I 'know' them not from Twitter, however, but from online gaming and skype.
This allows for much more than short, sms text-like, chats, and instead allows you to see how they interact in groups, how they behave during events (either just the two of you or in larger group activities), whether they are generous or mean (with their time, giving advice, or with 'items' they have invested hours or days acquiring, etc).
I know about their partners, pets, children, visa issues, job issues, etc, etc and share my worries and joys with them too. I would put myself out for those people, much more than for many people I've met 'in real life', and know they would do the same for me.
I think there's a danger that people who don't use digital media much or at all, will read ideas like this and have their prejudices (that online stuff is 'childish' or 'ephemeral' or 'not real life' or not 'as good' as face to face) reinforced, and so dismiss or look down on people who do experience relationships this way. This is certainly a reaction I've faced, from family and from librarians I've met at events, etc.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks for the comment Nicola. I think you're absolutely right. I didn't say that you couldn't know (in the second sense) someone without having met them in the flesh. Particularly with the Voices for the Library team, I 'know' them despite never having met some of them in real life.

The knowing-keyhole thing applies to Twitter because it's such a restrictive medium but with stuff like Skype, online chat, and gaming, there's more scope for getting to know people.

But like I say at the end, this is nothing new and 'real life' is no more authentic or real than anything digital. Does anyone ever really 'know' anyone in all their depth and complexity? We'll never know what other people are really thinking even meeting them in the flesh and so no-one will ever know us as well as we know ourselves.

RosieHare said...

I love your blog Simon, really makes me think! A friend of mine did her undergrad dissertation (for Psychology) on the 'lived experience of Facebook' and did a really interesting chapter on controlled self-presentation through social networking sites. I can totally see where you're coming from with your opinions on Twitter and agree that it can be a positive medium for enhancing relationships (whether you 'know' them in person or not) but there will always be the temptation, and the ability, to be someone you're not through online activity.

John Kirriemuir said...

Oh. Yes, that is a good and deep piece, which makes sense. And am not being patronising; it makes my post arguing the personal reasons for cutting back on twitter and the like look like the grumpy rantings of a unhappy old man in comparison. Now I've read yours, think I need to cut back on blogging too.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks John. Don't worry: you're much too sincere and genuine online to seem patronising. Based on your blog, I think we've both had similar thoughts about Twitter and 'The Conversation' lately. Sometimes we just need to remember who we are and what life is.

John Kirriemuir said...

Sometimes we just need to remember who we are and what life is.

Very true. It's taken a good few years to figure out the meaning and purpose of life, which seems to boil down to:

Accumulate memories.

Not sure how social media fits in with that, apart from being a better disseminator of memories rather than a creator of such things. And it can be hugely (finite) time consuming.