Why Press the ‘Publish’ Button?

In thinking about ways that the internet is changing writing, Colin Walker asks: what exactly happens in a person’s mind when they push the ‘publish now’ button? Why make one’s words public?

Writing privately, as a way of life, might be a means of self-development. Maintaining a personal archive of thoughts for future reference is a way to grow and hone my understanding. But why am I posting this text publicly, for all the world to see?

(Hold on: this is about to get real meta. Only continue if you are ready to ingest yet another blog post in the overly saturated genre of writing about blog posts!)

The reason I made this text public, so far as I can reckon, has something to do with you, the reader. These words are here — and not in a private journal or encrypted file — because I want to share them with you. If this were text intended for my purposes alone, it wouldn’t be here. And there are untold rough drafts and iterations of these paragraphs that I am inclined to keep private.

I think we must acknowledge the performative, ‘recipient-oriented’ dynamic of any public action. As Maria Luisa commented earlier: a dancer who says, ‘I don’t care what the audience thinks of my performance’ seems to be making an incoherent statement. Why perform in front of an audience at all if audiences are nothing more than fake brain ornaments, propped up in rows of chairs like mannequins? If the thoughts of audiences are categorically void of all meaning, why bother climbing on to a stage at all?

To me, this is why the grand declaration of selfie culture — “This is my identity, and I don’t care what you think of me!” — boils down to a non sequitur. “I don’t care what you think of me” dissolves into a self-contradictory statement. As humans who have opinions, it seems nonsensical to act under the pretence that the opinions others do not matter.

I made this text public because I want your attention. Like a performer preparing for opening night, I have spent time in private orchestrating these words into a (hopefully) coherent structure. And, like a photographer who has toiled with light, I now present my creation to you. The culminating question of our inquiry is, therefore: now that I have your attention, what do I want you to think or do? This question might not only be applied to this blog post, but to every public presentation. Why post a picture of my dinner? Why share a status update that places me at a specific event or with particular people? What am I hoping that you will think or do as a result of me posting a picture of the skyline on my way to work?

How do we separate the performer from the performance? What is the dance without the dancer? What are words without the writer? How are thoughts distinct from the thinker? What is beauty without a beholder? We do not share our photos, dances, and blog posts as disembodied, discreet objects: we share them to share ourselves. We press ‘publish’ to inform the way others think, and I purpose this act is indistinguishable from seeking to inform the way others feel about us as individuals. It does not make sense to separate the act of publishing from the desire to engage other people. (There is a much longer discussion to be had here about individualism, the renaissance, and whether the reliefs Pharaohs and self-commissioned oil paintings of nobility count as ‘selfies,’ but I digress.)

A creator might envision limited directionality (I post, you ‘like’) or a multidirectional interaction (here’s my book to contribute to the discussion in a particular field, and thus an invitation for others to debate or refute my ideas), but in either case the project sets out to intersect the attention of others. ‘Publish now’ presumes that human brains could or should connect or influence one another in some way.

In follow up to my earlier Writing versus Posting? article, David Ashworth speculates that “posting is about me and the space I live in” and therefore amounts to a diary that one intends to be read by others. A monologue for an audience, as it were. (I like the theatrical description of a soliloquy here.) On the other hand, “writing [in contrast to ‘posting’] is about us and the space between us.” Writing sets the stage and invites dialogue, which is distinctive from broadcasting the personal details of one’s life for an audience that may or may not be listening. One activity tends toward fishing for validation, and the other tends toward courting variant perspectives. (Corporate social media has excelled in incentivizing the former largely at the expense of the latter.)

At the bottom line, my motivation for publishing this blog post and another person’s reason for sharing a selfie with their breakfast cereal is the same: we are both looking for engagement. It is the same reason dancers perform, and painters exhibit their work. The kernel of difference between our publications and presentations rests in the kind of interaction we hope to galvanize or inspire in others. The distinctive ways we frame these ‘terms of engagement’ in our public activities reflects something about how we define value versus minutiae.

So, what do you think? Does pressing ‘publish now’ boil down to a desire to engage with others?

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You and I find ourselves sitting in a pub. Within earshot, we can faintly overhear two other conversations.

One conversation sounds like a rigorous dialogue between two intellectuals. The level of their discourse renders you and I as curious laypersons. We admire their knowledge and academic prowess in the field of their expertise (even if we are confused by their technicality and lexicon). Their discussion seems to exude urgency.

The other conversation in auditory range involves two enthusiastic individuals pouring over colourful, popular magazines. Their exuberance is as visible as it is audible. We hear snippets of their fast moving conversation, which touches on flashpoints of fashion, the rumoured lives of popular celebrities, clips of sport highlight reels, viral cat videos, and the domestic complexities of fictional characters on television.

On the surface, the two conversations seem like they belong in alternate universes. As we sit here, we would likely (and easily) differentiate between the flaky banter of pop culture and the consequential exchange of the specialists. Yet our judgments themselves are superficial. Consider what the two conversations have in common.

Both discussions are intensely relational. While we might suppose that the academics are “all business” and the boisterous cultural consumers are “all play,” such an arbitrary division only exists in our minds. The learned experts are no less relational creatures than their counterparts. In fact, to the same extent that popular culture creates a shared language for human connection, you will sense and see no less human need for commonly held values at a scholarly conference. Both conversations, different as they may be on the surface, exist as essential platforms of human connection. The extreme dissimilarity of their content does not diminish the identical nature of their function — two humans interacting in a pub over a set of creative and shared ideas.

Equally, both conversations include reference points for respect between people. Both frequencies of dialogue come with their own codes of conduct, and both celebrate different domains of knowledge. Even so, do we calculate their value differently? What shall we say of consequence?

On one level, we might hypothesize that the conversation between two research professors about theoretical chemistry of a new vaccine will have ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ impact on the world, but we would be remiss to ignore the fact that reality television influences the lives — and minds — of millions of people. Fluency and influence in either domain can lead to ‘consequence,’ and how we go about differentiating impact ‘value’ will be in large part dependent on what we value in the first place.

The point of this reflection: we humans are a connective species, and our need for interconnectivity underscores everything we do. Consider a brilliant discovery in a laboratory by a single scientist (a notably rare scenario as most discoveries involve teams): even the biggest breakthrough carries no consequence until the network of social nodes succeeds in transferring the knowledge where it needs to go. Ultimately, ‘consequence’ is simply the result of where we move knowledge.

So is there a fruitless human conversation? Could you ‘waste’ time in a meaningless dialogue today? Or, could buried treasure lay in every interaction of humanity, across the bizarre, divergent, and creative landscapes of our imaginations? I suppose the only way to really find out is to listen — non-judgmentally — to both conversations.

What are your conversations about today?

[This post originally appeared in Caesura Letters – Volume II: All That We Are, released 03/20/2013.]

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