Monday, May 16, 2011

Riffing About Facebook

The image was lifted from here. If it's hard to read, it says:
Dear Senior,

Please be safe at the prom. I would like you to wear a condom when you are getting freaky.


Emma C.

P.S. Here is a picture for you!
One of my favorite bloggers, Daisy at Daisy's Dead Air has a post ruminating about our Facebook era.

It's definitely worth reading the post and while you're at it reading her wonderful remembrance of Ben Masel* posted earlier. Masel was an old friend of Daisy's and they'd reconnected recently on Facebook, so news of Masel's death seemed to feel different. Feeling a difference led her to write a bit about how Facebook changes us. Among the observations she makes is that she's glad that "the various addled twists and turns of my life are not available for public consumption." That's a luxury today's digital natives probably won't have. Daisy writes:
And then again, there is Gatsby, the quintessential American character. We re-create ourselves throughout our lives, in numerous ways, large and small. Is Facebook making Gatsby more or less possible and is that a good thing?
It's a pretty straightforward question, but the Internet is a big honking question and my mind started circling in various directions when thinking about it.

The way that Facebook makes us aware of friends of friends is something that makes a big difference. I saw the picture of second grader Emma C. that I posted here over at Tumblr. I didn't actually see it originally at the link I posted for it. At Tumblr it's easy to reblog posts that come up in your own feed of people you follow. By the time I saw it it had been reblogged over 8,500 times. I didn't scroll down the list of 8,500 plus names of people who'd reblogged it, but simply that such data is viewable provides an ordinary example of how social networking data makes friends of friends visible to us. The visibility of extended networks seems strange to an old guy like me, but a matter of course for young people today. What stood out to me about Emma's school work wasn't so much a seven or eight year old writing about "getting freaky" so much as teachers nowadays thinking that what a second-grader has to say would influence a senior in high school to behave at the prom. I doubt that back in my high school days teachers would have thought a second grader could have much if any impact on what an older teenager does, now we assume she does.

It's been wet here. I looked at the 10-day weather forecast and rain is forecast for every day. Spring has sprung in these parts and growth is exuberant. The problem with that is both keeping all the growth beat back, in particular trying to keep lawn areas mown without contemplating taking in hay, while at the same time trying to work the soil to plant seeds. Behind the eight ball in the best of years, I'm quite in a muddle with all the rain this year. Yesterday I went down to a Pittsburgh suburb to help a friend with a gardening project of his. Miraculously the rain held off and we managed a complete makeover of his front yard.

My friend was in the music business for more than forty years. He's got a curious mind and is a good writer. Recently he's been talking about a Web site he's beginning to make. I'm very eager for him to launch it. Talking about the site with him it's clear I'm coming to it from a different perspective. My friend isn't being critical so much as incredulous when he says "People must spend hours on the Internet." I do spend hours on the Internet daily and it seems the comments and questions I pose about his Web site are incomprehensible because he does not.

For many people my age that younger people have their Facebook open in a tab and and some sort of chat client open during work seems immoral. I say that, but also since I'm on the Internet a lot I also read what people basically my age write sometimes while at work, so I know this sort of "immorality" isn't solely among younger folk. Closely coupled with this disdain for the sort of news streams online denizens depend on is the lament: "Why can't they just pick up the phone?" A running joke about a good friend is that the best way to get in touch is to write her a letter. In business and life in general what's the right way to get in touch with people is in flux.

Ethan Zuckerman recently wrote a post about the dilemma of not know what's the best way to contact people nowadays. He points to an experimental site called which is a Web site and an email signature which lets people know the best ways to get in touch with you. It seems a good idea, although so far as I can tell nobody has trouble contacting me. Some people do complain that I don't have a cell phone or message machine. It probably would horrify some of my friends to say that Facebook is probably a pretty good option if they want to contact me during the day.

The friend for whom a paper letter isthe best way to reach her, likes to write everything in neat cursive handwriting. Everyone has preferences about writing and probably for most of us nothing seems quite perfect. QuiteWrite is an online text editor whose promise is to reduce the number of distractions. I can see it, but so far haven't actually used it. Right now I'm writing in the Blogger composer. I like to use it for blog posts because it's easy to handle links and certain formatting options. I asked my friend working to create a Web site how he writes. The question I posed really had to do with coping with HTML. His answer was that he writes using Word. It's been years since I've used Word, but I feel sure Word makes it easy to create an HTML document just like the LibreOffice Writer which I use. But he isn't thinking of HTML.

I looked at his Mac with the Safari Browser and wasn't smart enough to go to the View menu to show him the HTML of a Web page. He does get that there's something that has to happen to see a page on the Web, but so far that "what happens" is handled by sending copy to the guy making his Web site in the form of a Word Document. I don't think it's occurred to my friend yet that he's going to want to add links to his online text. As he gets online not only what makes for a comfortable writing will change but his ideas of what it means to write will change too.

All this is pretty far afield from Daisy's question about how Facebook may be altering our capacity for re-inventing ourselves. I'm not tech savvy, talking about things like HTML makes it sound as if I ought to know something technical. But when I talk with my friend about his Web site any technical matters seem so much less important than a shift in perspective which comes along with reading and writing on the Internet. Having Facebook open at work may seem immoral, but if it's a good way to contact people you need to at work, then how different is it from the phone on the desk? The point telling stories about pre-Internet folks like me is to show that the Internet makes a difference. The differences are both hard to see if you're not "swimming in it" and hard to see when you always are.

There's a sweet little YouTube video getting spread around It's Okay to Not Like Things. The punch line of the song is "But don't be a dick about it." It is embarrassing that not only are there pages online revealing me being a dick about things I don't like, but also that I know where to look for them. An example, perhaps not so much of being a dick but of being a total asshat, is that I used a picture of me wearing an Afro wig as my Blogger profile picture for a time. I have a thumbnail copy of the picture up now at Flickr with a link to The Jim Crow Museum. Once I had finally grokked how offensive the image is, it had been on the Internet for a while, and I felt it important to own up to my mistake by keeping it online in some form. I suppose that enough time has elapsed that it's probably alright now to delete the damn thing.

The fact that once something is on the Internet it's not easy to scrub it off has consequences. Everyone knows we ought to be careful and everyone whose been putting stuff on the Internet for any length of time knows some foolishness is inevitable. Often we can remember exactly where an example of our own foolishness lives online. It's not just about foolishness. The life of a thirteen year old seems eons away to the same person at sixteen. But that's only three years, and millions of sixteen year olds now can visit their thirteen year old selves online. Growing up really isn't quite the same as "reinventing" ourselves, it's just growing up. In a sense the Internet keeps a record of it all and that makes a difference.

I don't really know of a good way to go back an see my 2007 Facebook pages. It's quite possible that 13 year olds using Facebook now will still be using Facebook when they're 16. Facebook chronicles our lives, but it isn't so easy to go back and read from the beginning. Perhaps part of the current popularity of Tumblr has to do with blogs being much easier to travel backwards in than Facebook. But while it's hard for users to go back in time on Facebook, the Facebook corporation has been collecting data all along our use, for example keeping track of our "likes" over time.

I've already rambled on for too long, so in winding to a close will point to a much linked to quotation:
if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold
Most of us are content to Google, use Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. without giving much thought to who owns the data. People haven't stopped growing up or stopped re-inventing themselves. As we live more and more connected online, I suspect that more people will see the value in asserting ownership over their own data. Dave Winer has advocated that for a long time. If you're interested in a short snapshot of what Winer is up to in that regard this post by Scott Gilbertson is quite helpful. Tantek Çelik is all over that too.

The difference the Internet makes is a big subject. I like that Daisy is asking questions about how the Internet, and Facebook in particular, is changing our interior landscapes. I've rambled here and there about it only to get nowhere. After reading Daisy's post I left a comment. Marshall McLuhan came to mind. There are many super cogent thinkers about the Internet nowadays, and they're worth paying attention to. But I think McLuhan is important especially for older folks like me. Lots of American Baby Boomers read Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and many more with the gist of McLuhan's ideas about media.

The short version of the 1964 book is that media extends our senses and as a sense is extended the ratios among the different senses are altered. For example with the invention of printed books sight became more important and hearing so important attenuated. So as sight is extended a portion of our hearing amputated. Clearly people didn't loose their ability to hear as books rolled off the presses. What's important is the ways in which the interrelationships between our sense are changed with the development of new media. While these changes are happening to the many, those of us who lived long before the Internet notice the change. Well, and a surprising number of old folks like me feel that resiting such changes is virtuous. McLuhan provides something of an accessible theory for what we fear to loose; for every extension is an amputation. But on the other hand fear without understanding creates moral and ethical confusion which perhaps on a trivial level gets expressed in outbursts of "These kids today!" Old folks would do well to put more effort into understanding rather than leap to ethical judgement. The changes that networked computers and widespread access of people to those networks create require ethical and moral judgments; it's good not to be a dick about them.

* I checked and there doesn't seem to be a Wikipedia article for Ben Masel. A Google search yields dozens and dozens of remembrances. Reading some of those is fun if you're in the mood. It may be helpful for understanding who Ben Masel was to read the Wikipedia article Youth International Party (YIPPIE).


DaisyDeadhead said...

Did you see that Dateline show where a clown on a unicycle (something you certainly don't see everyday) rolled past kids on a campus while they were texting? The kids in the clip were first asked if they were observant people (all assured us that they were, and all were regulation Smart Kids with suitably high SATs and grades) and then asked what they had seen walking across campus... none noted the clown. None SAW the clown. I found that disturbing in the extreme... a generation of kids sleepwalking though life, oh great!

And then I remembered the other Glimmer Twin (thank you for linking my obit of Ben!) Steve Conliff, who used to say (he liked McLuhan too!) that in the TV age, being able to write and actually chronicle events (not simply run one's mouth, he cautioned sternly) was akin to being a Scribe in the Middle Ages: It's a very particular skill, and I should take care not to lose it. Whenever he discovered I wasn't writing (and I didn't for years), he actually became angry with me. His faith in me is something I have carried with me as a blogger... faith in ourselves sometimes just isn't enough. (Aside: This is why I think bloggers get fixated on stats: see, somebody thinks I can write! It isn't simply about pride, but about mustering up the wherewithal to continue.) Me and Steve wrote long sections of "Blacklisted News"--the (endless) Yippie history chronicle (I used the pseudonym Agnes Waterhouse); he believed having a print account of what we did was CRUCIAL. And how true that is now; I was telling a friend that whilst writing Ben's obit, I found ONE and only ONE account of the Black Hills Alliance online, which shocked me. In such an amazingly beautiful setting, with such incredible people, there would be countless photographs of such an event today online. You know? And we have ONE.

And so, it is now up to me to tell people. Now, who'da thunk it; some Yippie is left to talk about lefty history! (I hear The Glimmer Twins cackling with glee!)

2b continued.

DaisyDeadhead said...

In short... it's my job to notice the clown on the unicycle, and then to ask other people if they saw it, and then talk about why they might have missed it.

MY task, MY job.

Just like the scribe in the Middle Ages noted those church bells that marked the hours. We forget that now, but the historians remember... because they read the scribe.


John Powers said...

Shoot BLogger ate my response. Grr, a long-winded one at that.

Well, let me see if I can succinctly reconstruct it.

I linked to a Wikipedia article for McLuhan's tetrad of media effects which I think is useful for understanding the crush of changes media is bringing.

People of my generation are right to think that something important is being lost. But I think there's not enough understanding of what's going on, you know nothing will be as it was. So focusing on the amputations many of us miss the extensions.

Writing is important and I was thinking of you when I mentioned Winer's EC2 for Poets, the Gilbertson link is a good backgrounder. On the Internet distributed content is one of the best strategies for preservation. For a writer like you it makes sense to learn how to push your content to corporate silos rather than have that content originate there and live solely there.

I think those were my main points. Hope this comment isn't eaten too.

John Powers said...

Oh yeah there was one other thing I wanted to say: I hope you'll copy your comment at your post so people will see it.

LOL and I made a comparison in the comment that got eaten about how music represented the generation gap for Baby Boomers, music doesn't divide generations so much now. But there is a digital divide. I want my friend to start putting his writing up on the Web because he knows so much about music and music maybe a bridge across generations.

DaisyDeadhead said...

I've noticed that! I have a young reader who only started reading when I ran the song "Side Show"--which is millions of years old. I was like, are you kidding? Old school R & B? And what I've always considered a sweet, sentimental tune was heard very differently by the young person, who just adored the amazing melody. Ditto, when I played the John Prine song by Johnny Cash, who is considered a real hero these days.

You never know which old farts will survive as legends and which will just seem like... well, old farts!

If I have nothing important to say this week (trying to keep up blogging every day since I'm unemployed... Blogspot/Blogger was down for two days last week, and as you noticed, still acting up) ... I will reprint my comment! :D Networked blogs only lets you do one every 24 hrs unless you get the Big Traffic. I'd appreciate it if you "followed" my blog on Networked blogs/Facebook. The more you get, the quicker your reprint cycle, or so they tell me. You should sign up for it yourself! It will automatically post your content to Facebook AND Twitter:

Thank you for being a good friend and encouraging me. I've really needed it lately.