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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Intentional bloggers

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.

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Would we talk about this over coffee?

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.

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An Independent Web that is More Social than ‘Social Media’

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.

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Is deleting Facebook a luxury?

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.

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