This conversation was prompted by imaging responses to the comment, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I worry about privacy?” This episode was recorded at Innovation Works on Thursday, May 24, 2018, with Emma Blue, Stuart Clark, Laura Camarra, Chris Gittings, and Jim Rule.
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?
Hi Colin, I appreciated your post about the scale of social networks and how Micro.blog fits in the picture.
I prefer reading people’s blog posts above all else. I’ve lost interest in learning about all the minutiae of people’s lives that has come to characterize social media use in general, mostly because I’ve lost interest in sharing all the minutiae of my life. I’m not trying to sound elitist here: I am intrigued to no end when people post thoughtful ideas, crafting and deliberately presenting their thinking. But I can’t be intentional about with my time if I devote my all time to following the lives of people who aren’t demonstrating intentionality with their time.
For me, micro.blog presents the opportunity to find some bloggers who are doing interesting work and who also happen to share my values about fostering an open and independent web. I use Micro.blog more as a gateway, or a hub, than a ‘platform’ per se. It is like dropping by a dinner party where you know you are likely to find some people with common interests. But day in day out, RSS is where I live, because it’s where people take the effort to flush ideas out and hone their thinking. This, to me, seems like a much more intentional use of my time than what has become an almost ‘universal’ social timeline experience. The beautiful thing about Micro.blog to me is that finding the person is synonymous with finding their RSS feed.
I wrote a piece back in 2010 called Coffee Shop Integrity on the Internet. It’s a thought experiment: imagine sitting together at a coffee shop and the ‘script’ of our conversation is the words we post online. Does our dialogue make sense? Do we actually talk about the pictures we took of our dinner the night before? Does the content of our digital personas make for meaningful (or coherent) real-time interaction?
Today I had a wonderful coffee conversation with a dear friend. Is it a conversation we could have had online, on any platform? I don’t want to assume the seat of judgment on what counts as ‘meaningful,’ but since leaving social media, one of the most acute realizations for me has been how much time and energy have been liberated for other activities. Like coffee. It is not that social media is inherently terrible, but perhaps it represents an opportunity cost that outweighs its potential return on investment in time.
As a footnote to all this, it is interesting to me how much overlap I experience between my real time conversations and what I blog about here. It varies in directionality, but very often the topics I feel compelled to write here have emerged from conversation. Blogging intersects with what I am learning and discussing with friends in a way that ‘liking’ a post just doesn’t seem to capture.
All things considered, at the moment, anecdotally speaking, blogging feels more ‘social’ to me than social media. Maybe this is ironic. May it’s not.
I’ve been thinking about ways that I can support more people participating in an open and independent internet. There has already been a lot of discussion on how to reduce the technical barriers to entry: how to help people setup their own blogs, host and own their content, and so on. But while these technical challenges are not insignificant, I don’t think they represent the greatest hurdle.
Let’s consider Riley, a hypothetical Facebook user. Riley might have misgivings about Facebook’s use of their data. And they might very well know that a simple blog on open source platform like WordPress allows them to own, maintain, and migrate their posts down the road. Riley might even deeply resent the degree to which Facebook has weaselled itself into their life. Riley might really want to deactivate their social media accounts and ‘go independent.’
In the end, however, Riley decides to change nothing about their online habits. This decision is not only informed by questions about the time commitment and technical know-how required make a switch but by the network effect of Facebook itself: when Riley posts something on Facebook, there is almost always feedback. Riley’s friends often click an innocuous-looking ‘like’ button that serves as a low-cost, high-value social signal that reinforces Riley’s use of the platform. By contrast, Riley has no guarantee that sharing their thoughts on a personal blog would reach much of an audience at all.
Inasmuch as Facebook is a social experience, anything that provides less social feedback amounts to a categorical waste of Riley’s time.
My thesis is that the technical challenge of setting up a personal blog is not Riley’s principal barrier to, say, escaping Facebook. The critical challenge is a lack of reinforcing social validation. Facebook, despite all of its ills, gives Riley the sense that their words and pictures capture the attention of others. Facebook offers Riley a voice. As a social species, the notice of others is the paramount currency. Loneliness is a far more significant psychological threat than some company called Cambridge Analytica or the most recent updates to a terms of service agreement.
The independent web is not only in competition with platforms that make self-publishing technically frictionless, it is in competition with platforms that algorithmically reward our most basic human needs for acceptance, reinforcement, and validation.
For the Rileys in my world who make the leap, one of the most important things I can do is interact and engage with them in their newly established spaces. This is about human to human engagement, not just typing ‘like’ in every comment box. Annotate, dialogue, amplify, and interact.
The only lasting antidote to social media’s current data monopoly is to create independent networks that are more wholesome, creative, interactive, and, yes, behaviourally reinforcing, than what any corporate AI or algorithm can provide. The Rileys of the world are only going to leave Facebook if the alternative is a manifestly more validating human experience, psychologically and emotionally. The only way this is going to happen in a decentralized network is if a whole bunch of us make thoughtful engagement and amplification of new voices a serious priority. If the independent web is going to survive, it must become a human web.
In a fascinating talk at the London School of Economics, Catherine De Vries argues that Euroscepticism is a ‘luxury good.’ The countries that are doing economically better are paradoxically the hotbeds of anti-EU sentiments, susceptible to populist propositions that they are being taken advantage of by other countries. By contrast, more fragile economies intuitively grasp the value of remaining in the league.
Thinking about Euroscepticism as a ‘luxury good’ reminded me of Steph Mitesser’s article about #DeleteFacebook. Mitesser reminds those who are economically stable that there is “inherent privilege required to abandon a technology.” There’s a certain degree of personal, material security required to walk away: Facebook and culture writ large are entwined.
It is interesting to think of Brexit and #DeleteFacebook as luxury options. In many ways, of course, they are vastly different from one another, and yet I am fascinated by a kernel of similarity: both campaigns claim that a big, elite — and for most of us, foreign — entity has acquired the ability to dictate aspects of our culture. It is especially interesting as Facebook, with over 2 billion users, is often described as a ‘country’ unto itself. But the fact that Facebook’s ‘nationalism’ is an analogy is the critical distinction: Facebook is a commercial enterprise, a non-state actor.
The fact that one might legitimately conceive of opting out of a particular private company’s platform as a ‘luxury’ demonstrates the seriousness of the situation… globally.
I have been thinking about this image a lot recently:
This graphic is taken from research published this summer. The image represents 563,312 tweets about three polarizing issues in the United States: gun control, same-sex marriage, and climate change.
The study presented two particularly compelling findings. First, tweets that are emotional and moral are retweeted significantly more than posts that are emotional without expressing moral indignation. Translated: if you want to get lots of retweets, let loose your outrage at wrongs committed by someone else.
The second intriguing finding of the study — illustrated above — is that your emotionally-amped indignation only goes viral as a ‘social contagion’ within the boundaries of your ideological group. Emotional-moral language galvanizes people to spread a message quickly, but only amongst themselves. Emotionally charged tweets about moral issues thus render a map that illustrates the polarization of society as a whole.
When I look at the image above, I reflect on my choice of words and language over the last few years. I wonder how I am implicated in this graphic. Ideally speaking, I guess I assume we all have a responsibility to forge (or reforge?) some middle ground: not because we need to compromise our convictions, but because history has nothing encouraging to say about societies that splinter at the ideological seam. But how do I, as an individual, engage with the most emotion-inducing moral debates without merely adding to the echo chamber of my choir? How do I talk about morally-charged issues without getting angry? Where am I engaged in a discourse at the convergence of these blue and red clusters? How do I intentionally not get angry about the very things that I am most angry about in the first place?
I suspect this image also captures at least some of the reason so many people I speak with do not describe the present state of Twitter as a particularly edifying experience. It seems like Twitter is, at this point, just making everyone upset. And divided.
Surely writing has been in flux and evolution since our earliest etchings, and the advent of the internet has only ushered in yet another transformative epoch to the practice. So how does the post-to-share structure of social media change the act of stringing words together? I am wondering: is there a difference between ‘posting’ and ‘writing’ online? Obviously posting text involves writing, but how does the broadcast-this-now proposition of the internet shape the act of writing itself?
Here’s a question to frame the proposition: are you writing or posting?
The distinction may not be as subtle as it seems. Or maybe I’m splitting hairs. Either way, since leaving social media I find myself thinking much more about the act of writing as something distinguishable from the act of posting. I am ‘publishing’ here on my blog, yes, but this intuitively feels much different than submitting these words to Facebook or Twitter to distribute on my behalf.
Perhaps the difference between posting and writing is this: when you post something to Facebook, you inherently hope to find an audience; you wish the algorithm and potential recipients to ‘engage’ with the creation. By contrast, when you write a book or a blog, your write for readers — people who have already made some intentional decision to interact with you and your ideas.
Posting words with the intent to find an audience for them versus writing something for an audience are two distinct activities, I hypothesize. Granted, maybe the difference is all in my head. What do you think? Would you describe a difference between posting and writing?
Have I lost my voice by removing myself from social media? And if so, does it matter? What is ‘my voice’ on social media, anyway?
In thinking about the decision to leave, most streams of reasoning resolve to a simple question: what kind of intermediaries do I want brokering my knowledge, communication, and interaction with other humans?
Social media platforms are publishers. I post content to them. Their algorithms decide where and when and to whom the content is delivered. Such operations are precisely the purview of publishers: distribute ‘content’ to ‘consumers.’
Except social media publishes the content of their contributors with no monetary remuneration. Instead, they pontificate platitudes and self-praise for amplifying ‘the people’s voice,’ which, in turn, retrenches their self-appointed role as gatekeepers of the public sphere. Social media manages, controls, and exploits my voice for its revenue model. It does not give me a voice at all; I give my voice to it. Is it really ‘my voice’ if someone else decides who gets to hear it?
So yes, I have effectively ‘lost my voice’ on social media, but my voice on social media was free labour for a non-transparent, self-interested publisher. It is not a ‘partnership’ upon which I want to build my dependency.
Social media went from this ‘thing’ that could ‘influence’ political campaigns to the frontline battlefield of geopolitics. And now we suddenly realize that the discourses of our democracies and republics are mediated and hosted by private corporations. Digital literacy is democratic literacy. The two are not distinct.
Having pulled the plug on my social media presence, it is interesting to think about these platforms from the outside. Indeed, I am thinking about them very often. The reoccurring engrained impulse, I should post this on Twitter, remains a very strong instinctive muscle response.
It’s like my brain is a recovering pigeon that escaped from a Zuckerbergian version of a B.F. Skinner lab.
This respond-in-the-moment impulse highlights one of social media’s most conniving sleight of hands. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter present themselves to us as timelines, as if this moment is a ‘snapshot’ in a timeline. They purport to engage us in this moment, in the present. But as we engage, we do not merely input data into a timecoded sliver of history called ‘the present’, but into an archival dataset that is ostensibly the property of someone else, and for their profit. Timelines that ask us to comment on the present are lies: a status update is not really about the present moment at all, but about compiling your data profile.
Social media steals our present, saves it ‘outside’ of time, so it can ‘serve’ us ads in the future. This exchange is equally true if you are a selfie- or foodie-enthusiast, a tele-grandparent, a hate mongering troll, or a social justice warrior. Everyone is being played.
I recently purged the data from my Facebook account. This effort was shockingly labour intensive: it took a browser script all weekend to crunch, and still many aspects of the process required manual execution. Torching years and years of old Facebook activity felt so liberating that I found another script to do the same thing to my Twitter account.
Going in, I had no idea just how difficult it would be to remove so much data. There is zero commercial incentivize for Facebook or Twitter to provide a “Delete all my posted data but let me keep my contact network” option. These platforms make it monstrously tedious to remove one’s content short of deleting one’s entire account. These systems are apparently designed to make personal ‘data purges’ extremely cumbersome for users.
As Tom Peters observed, “The sole concern of Google and Facebook is to convert the most intimate details in your life into revenue.” But many of us have been using these platforms for so many years that we fail to appreciate just how much data we have donated to them along the way. Try scrolling to the very bottom of your Facebook activity log or Google search history to see what I mean. Dylan Curran’s recent piece in the Guardian demonstrates the scale and magnitude of our complacency. If you want to become acutely aware of how valuable your data is to these companies, try jumping through the hoops required to take your data off their systems. Even if you decide to award the contract for chronicling your life to these companies, you need to be precisely aware of how much you are giving away. As soon as you try to do something as ‘simple’ as remove your past posts, you suddenly realize how soothingly you’ve been lulled into shovelling your personal life into corporate data mines.
At present, I have no plans to post to Facebook, Twitter, or Google again anytime soon. The sole function of my now ‘dormant’ accounts is to allow me to utilize these networks as ‘living directories’ when they present themselves as the only available tools to make contact with certain individuals. Other than that, I’m signing off, at least for the time being. I will leave this post as final ‘breadcrumb’ on Facebook and Twitter.
My focus remains on writing. I will continue posting regularly here on my blog, with a greater emphasis on engaging in the discussions and debates that emerge. If you would like to follow my writing moving ahead, you are welcome to subscribe to weekly email updates. You can also subscribe to this site’s RSS feed with a service like Feedly, Feedbin, Inoreader, or Feed Wrangler. I highly recommend Reeder as a feed reader client.
I will not be syndicating links to new blog posts on social media. I am not interested in supporting our increased dependency on algorithms to determine what we see and read… and, ultimately, think. I do not want to spend my time tweaking or ‘gaming’ algorithms. I am just not interested in the race anymore. The more I play the algorithm game, the more the algorithm game plays me.
I’m out. There are many things I hope to do while I am alive… trying to convince somebody’s advertising algorithm to pay attention to me is not one of those things. Multiply this conviction by the sense that spending time on social media is a suboptimal use of time that comes at the expense of things I truly care about and leaving seems evermore desirable. Just one life to live: I refuse to be a collateral pawn in someone else’s attention war.
Moving ahead, I will use email as my principal means of communicating and organizing personal endeavours, initiatives, and projects. If we have not already corresponded by email, please send me a note at contact [at] jamesshelley.com and say hi. Why? Email is peer-to-peer, distributed, non-proprietary, and adaptable. It is, as far as I can tell right now, the best ‘social platform’ presently at our disposal.
(I will also be maintaining my presence on micro.blog, which is a fascinating, experimental platform. Micro.blog is like a ‘social layer’ that maps over open and independent web sites.)
If you are thinking about purging or deleting your social media accounts, I’d love to hear what you are thinking. What are the considerations that you are weighing? What are your primary concerns? I am curious about your story. Looking back, it’s interesting how many different factors played into this decision for me. How do other paths unfold?
I can’t quite describe how ‘lightening’ it feels to start over again. It is our data that we are giving away here, and it is entirely within our prerogative to take it back. To each their own, but I, for one, am moving on. In the final analysis, it is simply about exercising my choice: Facebook and Twitter are not working for me, so I will focus my energies in other directions. This is about more time and space for connection, community, and conversation. Saying no to the algorithmic data miners really means saying yes to something else.
After some reflection, I’ve concluded that even posting to Twitter is just providing content to a platform for hate and anger. I can’t fix that problem, but I can stop contributing to the platform. And so I will. — Curtis Clifton
‘I don’t care what you think’ poses as a rejection of other people’s opinions and parades as the acceptance of self. But to adopt this concept of ‘self-acceptance in a vacuum’ you must pretend that you are not a human being — you must think of yourself as some alien creature that hasn’t been evolving and adapting for millions of years to live and work in hierarchical social groups. In short, you must think of yourself as a god: self-existent and self-sufficient.
In contrast, being part of a supportive, caring human community means being surrounded by people who genuinely do care about what you think.
Intimacy is not a prevalent feature in a room full of people whose common belief is that nobody in the room has an opinion that matters. Insisting that you don’t care what others think amounts to alienating and isolating yourself. Thus we can feel the aching loneliness behind the image when someone posts a selfie and declares, ’This is my image and identity, and I don’t care what people think of me.’
‘I don’t care what you think’ might be more accurately translated: ‘I am more concerned with someone else’s opinion than I am with your opinion.’ So in the end, it is possible that the I-don’t-care selfie is more about identifying the support of one’s in-group than claiming independence from the opinions of people in general. In other words, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks about me’ could equate to ‘Who cares, supports, and validates identities that look like this?’
Sometimes ‘I don’t care what you think’ might be a desperate and public attempt to figure out who, in fact, actually cares the most.
I am not convinced that ‘online communities’ will be defined as ‘communities’ indefinitely: it is quite possible some future generation might rebel against pixel-based approximations of human interaction as the sham of their parent’s age.