Friday, January 30, 2009

Web Relationships



The picture is a screen shot from a VideoNation YouTube video called A City Made of Waste by Laura Hanna, Molly Schwartz, Sean Kim and Nathan Meir with music by Brent Arnold. The video shows how San Diego's urban sprawl encroaches on Tijuana's informal land use patterns. As a flow of people go north in search of dollars urban waste moves south.

Whole houses built in the sixties in San Diego are razed to make way for McMansions. In some cases the houses are moved and in Tijuana raised on steel beams so there's useful space under them--future potential for ground level businesses like taco shops. For whatever reasons my aesthetic sense is skewed towards these improvisational buildings. I look at them and think, Yeah, I could live there.

This video has lots of cool information in it, but perhaps what is most significant is how it identifies and documents a single solution to a local challenge. The video helps to provide a context for how this solution and how solutions of this sort can be identified:
These start-up, informal settlements gradually evolve or violently explode out of conditions of social emergency. It is not the 'image' of the informal that is important here, but the layering of its socio-economic procedures.(my bold)
As far as my thinking goes regarding the current economic crisis goes, we're in deep trouble. The very disconcerting part is that it seems the way we believe things ought to be is opposed to the necessary planetary ecology to sustain that vision of "ought."

I'm not preternaturally optimistic, I am always on the look out for reasons to be optimistic; if for no other reason than feelings of dread tend to immobilize me. Commons-based peer production is a model of economic production that gives me some optimism. Online, of course, for every optimist there's a pessimist to either help to maintain balance or to assist in a downward spiral of despair. It seems unfair to present John Robb as an example of pessimism because my reading of his temperament is that he's probably much more predisposed towards optimism than I am. Robb's Global Guerrillas blog makes clear that peer-production surely isn't all on the upside. But it seems no matter how you look at it, the social web makes a difference in this realm of socio-economics; it's just harder to point to the differences that really make a difference.

The Web was all a twitter about an executive for the public relations firm Ketchum, James Andrews, making a snide remark about Memphis, Tennessee in his Twitter stream--Twitter is a micro-blogging platform which allows people to post frequent, but short messages (140 character limit)--the day Andrews was to meet with Ketchum's huge client Fedex. Some in Fedex's marketing management were following his stream and took offense. It's not clear to me, perhaps instead some of these in-house marketing took to the "offense" for political reasons. Anyhow the whole flap was used as an example of how we should all be wary of what we put up online.

I thought in reading over the remarks about the flap they revealed a sort of cultural divide. There were plenty of comments along one side the line essentially: "Stuff happens, whatever;" and on the other side lots of schadenfreude delighting in the irony that a PR pro would make such a stupid mistake. I put up a lot online. I'm a fifty-something and not very tech-savvy; the point is putting stuff online is commonplace nowadays, almost everyone is doing it. My sentiment is more the former than the latter.

Many of my age cohort are quite resistant to joining social networking sites like Facebook and a big part of the resistance, it seems to me, is precisely that they'd be shamed by something like Ketchum's Andrews did. Generally such sentiment isn't express as a fear they themselves have, but as a fear they have for their children using online social networks; a fear their children will bring shame upon themselves.

As an old guy, I find that participating in online social networks are an interesting mirror. I pretty needy and want people to like me. It only takes a little while online to discover there are plenty of folks who probably don't or won't like me. So it's a curious thing for someone who really doesn't want to annoy others to discover that sometimes I really do. I can't hide behind a defense of simply being misunderstood, indeed my own ignorance and misunderstanding is part of what makes me so annoying. I do try not to be mean to others online, but meanness is all around.

Susan Mernit connects an incident where Michael Arrington of Tech Crunch was spat upon at the DLD Conference in Munich with an essay by Jason Calacanis, We Live in Public (and the end of empathy). Arrington's account of the event was posted under the title Some Things Need To Change.

I'm about as far away from Michael Arrington and Jason Calacanis, two very prominent Internet entrepreneurs as one can get. So it's fairly easy to dismiss their concerns about the ruthlessness of online social interaction as something that really only applicable for the highly connected. But Calacanis's discussion of a new disorder he identifies as "Internet Asperger's Syndrome (IAS) made me think the better of dismissing it. Calacanis writes:
The threats we've seen against women online are a warning sign of what's to come--we're all going to face this aggressive behavior and we're all going to withdraw from these communication services.
Calacanis stopped blogging last year, going to a limited subscriber email list instead. I'm only able to read his essay because he posted it online, not because I'm on the list. But the observation "we're all going to withdraw" hit pretty hard, because I have high hope for the possibilities of online sharing.

Omidyar.net was an online social network. I ended up there on the tail end of it's existence. I also participated at Tribe.net and still do. Both of these communities feel prey to a sort of rot that both Arrington and Calacanis are pointing to. Calacanis points out "[H]ow we treat each other does matter. It matters because, without empathy, our lives are shallow, self-centered and meaningless." But neither Arrington nor Calacanis have got the answer how to get that through our thick heads.

2 comments:

phil jones said...

Interesting you say Tribe fell to the same kind of rot.

I don't remember seeing any bullying or overt threatening behaviour there. But perhaps you were there more than I was or in a different phase.

John Powers said...

You're right about Tribe, Phil. And the situation at Omidyar.net was more complicated too. Both Arrington and Calacanis seem rare cases in that they have such large followings. It's pretty hard for me to be too worried about the number of hits or links I get. Still the problem with objectifying people and bullying do seem general problems.

Online social networks get into trouble. Understanding what the trouble is, that's what I'm grasping for. Alas, I just got kind of stuck with this post.