Dear friends and readers,
I know I’ve mentioned before a Future Learn course I followed for some weeks, a sort of anthropological, sociological and psychological study of people’s behavior on the Internet, especially on mass social media. Its unusual candour, open-mindedness and insights into an ever increasingly part of our lives seems to be well worth sharing with others on the Net (as well illustrations from a book of poetry about cats, Fe-lines — we often use cats to stand in for us and reflect our relationships with others comically). A brief description.
I was chary when I “signed” up fearing I would hear the usual tirades against how everyone on the Net is missing out on social life, how trivial or overwrought what is put on the Net is. Jill Lepore actually blamed the Internet for the rise of Trump — if all of us couldn’t natter on, he would not have gone as far as he has. Or it has transformed human nature, is debasing us, making us lose essential humanness. As it was (according to the professor) once said of codexes (all these people burrowed in books), or the phone
But no. The professor doing it takes the Internet seriously and studies what is happening on it in terms of itself, in terms of the culture it has become part of, how individuals’ lives are now intersecting with this new form of communication. He has 9 students and they spend 2 years some 15 different places where they are studying the culture anthropologically (one in the UK). Much of the commentary and explanation is multifaceted and the conversations of professor and students feel real. One of the most startling findings was that in many traditional cultures, the first time someone felt free and able to have liberty to have a conversation with someone else in private was one-on-one emails on the Net. At long last they escaped surveillance, especially girls.
The central argument is the Internet is another new extension of life, a new form of attainment. It used to be interpersonal communication came in two basic forms: one-on-one conversations, on the phone, by letter; even in larger parties and groups the place people could talk of themselves was in small groups of two or three. Or the person was watching a mass media, TV, listening to radio, going to movies, and had no opportunity to talk back except on a phone where he or she could address a indeterminately large number of people unknown to him or her. Now we have scalable socialability and we can talk back, express ourselves. We can do this one-on-one on emails. In small groups address as many as a hundred or few hundred people (listservs, webrings, group blogs, closed face-book communities); we can address thousands (face-book, twitter). Or we can revert just to reading magazines, newspapers, and videos dished up to us in which we have no immediate say — though we may write of it later and groups of people doing so may influence the next video.
In the early days of the Internet, it used to be early on people met as strangers sharing intense interests and felt exhilaration to find like souls for the first time. Listservs, message boards, compuserv provided that. Some face-book pages still do but the problem there is the audience is too large and so you are in too impersonal a space. The etiquette of writing short messages (like post cards) is inhibiting. Also blogs — individual blogs are a godsend still as a form. There one can be brave — in some countries one may end up in prison; in Saudi Arabia a man has been flogged 59 times (he was sentenced to a 1000) and is in prison for a long time to come for disagreeing with the regime. In western democracies (if you post from such a place, as I do) ordinarily, nowadays what we increasingly see is people making visible their social groups on the Net (through say group blogs).
Nowadays what we see on the web replicates social life off, more and more conformity. Selfies are ways of presenting the self as social, getting awards and so on — they suggested selfies are a form of social policing. It may be a blog is politically radical, and some do not socially conform (I do not altogether), but increasingly bloggers and people who post are integrated somehow into the physical communities of their lives. Nowadays people are making visible their social connections in the outside world. I see that in the use of group blogs. They are also policing themselves as fewer and fewer use pseudonyms.
People who have been successful in social life who are what I call all about having careers and make that what shapes their life and decisions at first tried to downgrade the internet; in the book on the English, the Why We Post crew show how in England (not all cultures) every effort was made to keep the two aspects of life — let’s call it — separate and still pretend to. To me or what I’ve observed is people who allow their career goals to control what they do or say have switched and don’t look at Internet as a different sort of space and communication anymore. They don’t profess to ignore it. But if such people come onto the Net and “establish a presence” on social media, they behave here the way they do in outside life — and they come here to network. Yes they perform. Advertise themselves or their books. That’s why having an author in a group read is worse than useless for many — it’s counter-productive. Life on the Net is still freer in list-servs because the communities are small, few people, often closed — you can replicate that elsewhere (face book has a mechanism for making just such a community).
An interesting reality they said; what matters is the content we post. It does matter. The platform or venue is paid far too much attention to. They show that a group of people and individuals post the same content on different platforms. What we study and relate to is that content. Why We Post suggested it used to be we related to the outside world content as part of a mass audience reading the select elite in the media or one-on-one (phone, letter), now we can relate to different numbers of people and different ways and affect content. I’ve always thought this and it’s been true from the beginning. People from the beginning judged you by your content.
A curious side effect of following this Future Learn is I for the first time figured out what the “like” button on face-book means. It does have a kinda precise meaning. It’s the existence of these other emoticons, which it seemed to me did not seem to add varieties of response somehow, that gave me my clue. Well “like” means I approve of this sort of message, or I approve this message. If to a person you know well enough “like” can mean: I approve of you making this message or this sort of message. Then all the other emoticons become versions of this — they are intensifiers. They are a form of announcing what is socially acceptable to the liker and all those liking this sort of message or this message or this person making it. Or they say I disapprove of the content of this message — that’s what the dislike message means. When it means I disapprove of the messenger for making this message or the content of the message, then one of the two people might “unfriend” one another. Gentle reader, you may say, well, duh? didn’t you know all this before? I didn’t.
An interesting angle is gender. The researchers said that if you ask people what they post about beyond family, friends, books, they might say politics. But if you look at what they call politics, it’s often about gender: they are discussing what it is to be a man and defining it, or a woman and defining and trying to control that. I’ve long known from reseach I did a long while ago a website made by a man looks different from a website made by a woman. A man will use comic pictures of himself at the same time as he tells far less of his private life. A woman uses dignified pictures, pictures that cannot be laughed at, and at the same time tells about her private life far more: husband, children. Even on academic websites. See my paper on Women in Cyberspace.
Now the course goes to the different regions to study social media, this time from an area with many Kurds in Turkey, and a place near Chennai in India. They said they were looking at gender roles and politics, but it was the same story: people on social media using their real names have a drive to social conformity. I did read of the ways girls are kept in and controlled in Turkey, and some of it reminded me of the way the girls were treated in the film Mustang. Another interesting passing comment was that many people in India work 10 hours a day, 5 days a week and how miserable this makes them. They have no time for a life. “Learners” were asked to monitor what they see on face-book according to a scheduled plan. One learner said that he saw little conversation on face-book or twitter, just assertions of points of view. They suggested fake identities in games give people a way of escaping social conformity.
I found that women far more post images of lovely paintings or flowers or pretty things in their houses. The purpose of these is to cheer themselves up and to cheer others. Both genders post equal amounts of postings where they are expressing some private troubles (not too private, things like coping with a new job, but I’ve also seen women post when a husband or partner leaves them or dies and their terrible struggles afterward, usually couched in an today’s achievement vein, but the reality is there). Men show themselves working in the world far more, and send URLs to discourses of interest in their profession. Women are shoring up their relationships; men are showing what they are doing, what opportunities and tasks however small they are coping with.
I critiqued the course too: I agree with the fundamental thrust of this course that cyberspace is replicating the realities of real space, I feel there ought to be more time given to people coming onto the Internet simply to express themselves. Not to triumph over someone else (when a statement not meant that way is taken that way and someone else triumphs, the person is hurt and reacts back), but to reach out to express thoughts that may not be common, deep feeling ones. These are found on blogs, sometimes listservs. Are not blogs social media? So I suggest the insistence on staying with places like face-book is producing a foregone conclusion for this course which does not reflect the whole reality of the Internet. The people described as escaping their communities by yourselves most of the time cannot act on their new relationships which are so far away, but it may be that’s not what’s envisaged (if longed for). Just to put out into the world another kind of self.
As to fake identities in games (as a way to escape social conformity) the identities are often stereotypes, the things done in the games fleeting competition. I don’t speak of the porn sites, sites for violence. No one of this high-minded group spoke of porn site or sites where people play out violence. They avoided the criminal, sexually exploitative and aggressively commercial aspects of the Net today.
I was bothered by the narrow way the group limited the areas or venues on the Net they studied closely. At first I felt I was learning a lot when they demonstrated how important the Internet has become to literally millions of lives, intimately, for daily social functions the person chooses; and then when they showed the strong social conformity that goes on nonetheless. Fifteen different countries of participants were being studied. But what has happened is what is preferred is the lowest common denominator and so-called what “most” people do. Rousseau argued convincingly there is no such thing as a general will. So if most hardly write words at all, that’s what they are looking to – -though on their own accounting many post privately to friends or in closed groups they can’t look at. How about the millions who may not post little essays (as I and others here may do) but say a paragraph or two a day. They don’t look at list-servs, blogs, web-rings. It’s as if they don’t want to see the creation of new identities through writing and other selves in these different cyberspace places.
These cyberspace places that are new or different from old venues approximate genres outside the Net too. I’d say a posting to a listserv is like a letter to a group. A message to face-book is a postcard. The blog’s name comes from weblog, a daily log of actions on the web and in reaction to the web: all blogs are at some level diaries.
Since coming onto the Internet and adjusting and discovering — say later 1990s I have wondered how I existed before I had it — I feel through writing I exist in ways I cannot any other and I was never given a place to exist this way before. I was never given anywhere I could write. As a person who is socially awkward in the physical world and has had far more social experience on the Net than I ever did before, I’ve come to exist for the first time here. This may seem an extreme statement, but I’ve known women who told me they felt they didn’t exist during the time they had no outside paid job to go to and stayed home with their children. Their invisibility outside their home was to them a form of erasure; they weren’t achieving anything in the eyes of others, shopping, chatting outside was not enough. I’ve never felt quite that but I do know that I want to have contact with the world, be in the world in order to have a fully human life. Think of the people who told the students that the first time they felt or understood what it was to have a private experience was here on the Net.