thoughts on social media

One of my earliest forays into the world of online social media or networking was a site called Tribe. I got involved with Tribe in late 2003 or early 2004, quickly made a lot of online friends that turned into real-world friends, and after a year or two, lost interest in the site, became distracted by other interests, and let my profile collect digital dust.

Tribe’s social networking model was very different from Facebook’s or Twitter’s. Whereas the lion’s share of what one posts on the later is public (or “public” to the people within your circle of friends), the vast majority of what you could do within Tribe was constrained to “tribes” — discussion-forum-esque groups one could join and engage in conversation with others. Over time, one’s personal profile became more elaborate and, like a Facebook profile, they, too, became a locus of activity. But, back when I was active, nearly all activity happened within tribes. And tribes had various levels of openness, from completely private and invitation-only to completely open to everyone on the network.

The hey-day of my activity on Tribe was during the 2004 United States presidential election. As you can imagine, there were dozens of tribes dedicated to the topic where people from all over the political spectrum debated the issues, defended their chosen candidates, and attacked the minutia of others’ opinions. In this midst of all this debate emerged one fellow who took up an extreme, right-wing position on just about anything. He attracted a lot of attention, both negative and positive, and along with some other conservative friends started other tribes dedicated to their causes and points of view. (One of these folks was particularly fond of what could only be described as low-brow humor. I believe he started a tribe dedicated to “camel toes,” for example, a tribe that successfully overlapped a racial slur for people of Middle Eastern descent with with various photos of women’s below-the-waist wardrobe malfunctions and was thus both deeply misogynistic and racist.)

One of my Tribe-friends was a left-leaning, Stanford graduate student in the sciences. And one day he announced to us in private that the conservative rabble-rouser wasn’t a real person. My Stanford friend had made him up, created a false account, created an elaborate back-story for this person, and then went around Tribe starting arguments with people with the express purpose of challenging other liberals to defend and explain their positions more clearly. On the one hand, it was a brilliant ruse. On the other, it exposed one of the fatal flaws and best features of Tribe: anyone could make up an account, a personality, an identity, a whole person completely divorced from reality. In short, a “person” who existed only within the network of Tribe.

Over the summer of 2004, dozens of these “alts,” as we called them, infected Tribe. There was a Homey-the-Clown alt who would disrupt serious discussion with angry non-sequiturs. There was one alt called “Nudge,” a play on a Monty Python character, know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink. I had my own fair share of alts (or access to their accounts) including an account for my dog who would show up in random tribes barking at people for no reason. All of these alts were extremely grating to a good number of people who took their tribe-lives very seriously and saw these alts for what they were: disruptive and annoying pranksters and trolls. But, on the other hand, those of us who used them also saw them for what they were: joyful, playful, frivolous, and light-hearted diversions in a digital ecosystem that often took itself way too seriously. They were not unlike these guys, adding some levity to something otherwise decidedly heavy. In short, they were whimsical; and we need more whimsy in the world.

Of course, routinely, alts were reported to the site’s administrators and deleted for various violations of Tribe’s terms of use.

My thoughts return from time to time to that imaginary conservative on Tribe, that wholly made-up character that ruffled feathers so easily and so often across the network. He called into question so many assumptions about our identities and our relationship to other people on the Internet. It’s one thing to be moved or angered or amused by three-dimensional people in the real world; here we were being moved or angered or amused by completely imaginary people, sometimes obviously made-up, but as in the case of the conservative rabble-rouser, mistakenly assumed to be a real person.

I have not had this experience on Facebook. Facebook’s network has rules in place that safeguard against “alts.” And even when people do circumvent those rules, the network is set up to easily exclude people you don’t want to deal with. It’s equally easy to ignore folks on Twitter. The common squirrel or Sockington and his doppelgänger can post a Tweet every minute of every hour all day long; but if I’m not following them, I can easily ignore them. They remain noise, not signal.

But I have had the experience of being moved or angered or amused through this blog, other blogs, and especially their commenters. I’m grateful that for the most part these comments and interactions have been pleasant and productive. But just as often these interactions are fraught with difficulty. There remain folks who’s oeuvre seems to be the blogging equivalent of the camel-toe tribe. And seemingly for no apparent reason — shock for the sake of shock.

Of course, who’s to say? These judgements and observations on “other people” are not really observations on other people; rather, they are observations on the behavior of the digital projections of (probably) real-world persons. They are carefully, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, constructed identities that may or may not be accurate reflections of their creators. I know, personally, that my own constructed online identity reflects but a small part of my whole, real-world identity. The same is no doubt true for most of us.

This is the point where most commentators would make the claim that these online identities aren’t “real,” or aren’t as important as our off-line identities. But I reject that claim. It is easy to recognize the process of constructing your online identity. You do it every time you sign up for some new service. You enter your name, your screen name, your favorite books, your hobbies and interests, you make friends, you become a fan of some celebrity, your follow some other user. Bit by bit you are constructing your online self.

The same exact thing happens off-line, though more often than not we are unaware of it. Every time we find ourselves at a dinner table and choose to tell this anecdote or that joke instead of some other one, we are projecting some idea of who we think we are or who we want to be to the people sitting around the table. When we choose to go to this mediation center or that retreat or that school or this club, we are associating ourselves with those groups and further constructing a sense of who we think we are. We are doing the real-world equivalent of filling out our Facebook profiles.

It isn’t that our online identities are not real or aren’t as important as the real word or are somehow a distraction — they’re just different. The fact that Second Life calls itself “Second Life” is extremely telling and perfectly on point. It is just that — a second life, a different life, but still a life lived as seriously as the ones its users live when they switch off their computers and go back into meatspace.

The “virtual” in virtual reality implies that it isn’t real. But I don’t think that’s right. Virtual reality isn’t virtual; it’s just different.

Both meatspace reality and second-life reality are realities defined by systems of rules. Consider, for example, the familiar refrain of online detractors that the anonymity of Internet communication affords people the luxury to behave badly without repercussions. I disagree. I think there are repercussions. When the alts went trolling on Tribe, there were repercussions commensurate with the harm done — their accounts were deleted. If a commenter visits my blog and behaves badly, I can delete his comments or block his IP address from being able to view this site. If a blogger writes a particularly malicious, mean-spirited, or stupid post on her own site, rest assured that the rest of her blogging community will descend on her and tear the post apart. We’ve all seen it happen.

There are consequences to our online behavior; that these consequences affect our online selves more directly than our off-line selves shouldn’t be surprising. The offense took place online, in that reality, not here in this one.

(Of course, I am not suggesting that there aren’t real-world consequences to online behavior, cyberstalkers stalking women in real life being one, obvious, example. I rather suspect that these events, as horrible as they are, are the exception not the norm. But that’s a conversation for a different time.)

The challenge, it seems to me, is separating one’s impression about someone’s online identity from who they are in some other reality. The challenge is to refrain from judging a person’s whole character by nothing more than your impression of their online identity which is, fundamentally, nothing more than a self-selected digital project of one slice of their whole person.

I never made a conscious decision to leave Tribe. By the summer of 2005, I was simply using it with decreasing frequency, was more invested in that later days of my graduate work, and distracted by other things going on in meatspace. But also by this time, Tribe had changed its interface a number of times and it had lost (intentionally or otherwise) a good deal of that whimsy that made it so much fun. Like many other social networking sites or other online ventures, the site grew and expanded, and then began its slow and inevitable decline in relevance like so many Friendsters before it.

Time on the Internet is a strange thing, of course. Here I am writing about events that happened four or five years ago as if they had happened in the 19th century. I would be rather surprised if we were still talking about Facebook or Twitter five years from now.

That’s the thing about all of these mediums, genres, or networking tools; they are all ephemeral. Of course, why should they be any other way? It’s all still samsara at the end of the day. What strikes me though is how quickly some come and go, how quickly others change. Buddhist blogs burn brightly and are blown out quickly. Those of you in my immediate circle of Buddhist bloggers will remember the Level 8th Buddhist. Marcus took his down not long ago. And it appears that the Renegade Buddhist has become a renegade from the Internet.

To be perfectly frank, I’m surprised that I’m still blogging after all these years. While I know that my audience has come and gone, that the demographics have changed, that the tenor of this blog and its focus has changed, it’s surprising to me that I’ve been able to maintain a presence on the web as long as I have. It’s a testament to the continuing power and relevance of blogs as a communication tool that bloggers like myself, and certainly many of you reading this, are able to sustain our blogs as long as we do.

So, to end this long reflection, I’d like to say thank you for reading and thank you for your support. It’s because of you that I keep doing what I do.

One thought on “thoughts on social media

  1. Wow, this is a terrific post. I really enjoyed reading it. I didn’t know anything about Tribe, but I do remember the early days of AOL. I also had a friend who got a big kick out of being the only conservative troll in the black political chat rooms and I was amazed at the way in which he was able to distance himself from his online persona and laugh at the people who were losing their minds over his comments. (I always marveled at that since my feelings were hurt on a regular basis in those chat rooms.) I was expecting meaningful, thoughtful exchanges, but for him meaningful relationships only happened in the “real” world – so these people were just blips on a screen.

    In any case, I love the questions you raise here. It is a reminder of how quickly things change in our virtual world and, for me, a warning against becoming attached to these platforms as if we can control how people use them. At the same time, the basic premise – a space where people can talk to one another – pretty much stays the same.

    You might enjoy this clip from SuperNews on “The Death of MySpace”

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