Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The fifteen minutes that never end




Its weird right? Trending topics and viral videos. How a person can go from complete obscurity to instant fame, or in some cases, infamy overnight. The internet opens up so many possibilities for communication. Advocates say its creating a more open society. One that is free to “express” itself in any way that it sees fit. And truth be told, the internet has allowed for great advancements. It’s been a pivotal part of the recent uprisings in the Mideast , and Googles people finder has allowed information sharing to be immensely helpful in situations like we are seeing in japan. In times of strife it appears that the interconnected masses on the web can be mobilized for great good. But unfortunately, most of the time there is no catalyst, particularly here in the west. Most of the time people, awash in their “freedom”, connected by a vast technological network, remain bored. And, as the saying goes said, idle hands are the devils plaything…

I think that it is interesting when you have situations like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or UCLA student Alexandra Wallace’s racist rants which both represent the flip sides this idleness. Rebecca Blacks music video is the kind of piece you would expect form a freeloving, if somewhat naive, 13 year old. Yet, to say the criticism she received has been harsh, is an understatement. What makes people alright with directing vicious attacks over a mediocre video to a 13 year old girl? What about communication over the web frees people from a sense of empathetic responsibility? I’m guessing that most of these users wouldn’t hurl these insults in person, so why through the web? Is it merely because they cant be confronted? Does this imply that we only do the right thing because we are watched or observed by others?

On the flip side, Wallace’s video, unintentionally displays her deep seeded, unconscious racism, lack of empathy, and full understanding of the gravity of events happening around her. This is doubly troubling given she is a supposed political science major. Yet, within hours of her video being uploaded, she had been admonished by scores on online users. Like black’s video, the criticism of Wallace was as quick as it was harsh. And while I think that Wallace fully deserves the reprimand, I worry about it taking place on such a public scale.

When you share bad art, say something stupid or ignorant around friends, their criticism tends to be tampered by their knowledge of your personal history, and behavior, as well as a sensitivity to your feelings. These things are created by sustained personal contact that happens outside the digital realm. Remove those barriers, and a flood gate of criticisms can be directed at anyone online, garnering them unwanted international attention. Think for a moment what it would be like if millions of people saw you slip on the ice on your way to class, or could replay over and over that time you said something stupid in front of the girl you like. That fear, I believe will make people in the coming years more afraid to share themselves with people, both on line and off. The fear of international reprisal when everyone is watching, is a very good deterrent.

If it is our community that holds us accountable, this raises some interesting questions about anonymity online. There are basically two schools of thought on this situation. One is articulated by Mark Zuckerburg, founder of Facebook, who states that individuals should be able to carry their online “identity” with them wherever they go online; it helps maintain transparency, and allows individuals to bring their social contacts with them. This, Zuckerberg argues, allows people to be “authentic”, if others can see what you are doing you are more likely to do things you want your name attached to, making it easier every time you order a book, or leave a comment on a page. To some extent, this forces users to homogenize their identities, and don’t even get me started about the “tracking” practices of websites attached to this program. I call this the loss of visible control over privacy. Its important to note there are “privacy” measures in place, but I believe it is difficult to manage what you can’t see (mainly the type information and how it is shared).

The other school of thought is from 4Chan founder “moot” who takes the exact opposite view than Zuckerberg. He says “anonymity is authenticity”, it allows people to behave as if no one is watching, and allows the “real” user to emerge. When people don’t fear any kind of failure they are allowed to be themselves. To some extent I think this is true. Anonymity allows people to speak freer about situations without fearing looking stupid or radical. But also, with no accountability, some people move beyond authentic to sociopathic. Without accountability people don’t have to defend their position and can make comments like the ones we have seen in the videos above. It is the lack of accountability for statements that destroys dialogue which is what online networking is supposed to be all about.

I think both of these positions are too extreme. In real life there are places where we are held accountable for our actions. These occur mostly in institutional settings, ie school, work, family, church. In these situations we try to mimic the ideals/culture of the group to the extent of our perceived role within it. But in other places in our lives, we aren’t accountable, there are things we do privately, whether it stamp collecting, working out, or having casual sexual encounters. In these situations we do not have a defined role set by institutions. The roles we set is set by us. There are no outside influences, people, institutional structure, mores and cultural values. In these circumstances we are allow to set our own rules and behave in ways in which we might not with others watching or involved. With the pressures of society released, we are free to act in ways that might not be deemed rational or appropriate. In these situations we are free from justifications in the moment. Upon reflection we might feel bad or different about our behavior, but that’s only after we slide back into an “institutional” role.

The interesting line here lies between anonymity and individuality. Anonymity in some sense does represent the core elements of being a fully realized individual, the freedom to express ourselves and the freedom from judgment. Individuality, on the other hand, has a core element of “sharing” and “exhibition”. To be a fully realized individual you must have validation from others. They must recognize and embrace/tolerate your individualism, thus legitimizing your “authenticity” as an individual. How can you be an individual, if no one knows you exist? The adage is, “if it didn’t happen on facebook, it never happened.” This exhibitionist quality of hyper-individuality accounts for the popularity of social networking and video sites like Facebook and YouTube.

So are as individuals are we all exhibitionistic? Are we all searching for our 15 minutes? Is our individuality really tied to compulsive exhibition? Is that why people are so uninterested in privacy? Has privacy merely become a hindrance to sharing ourselves with the masses? I’ll leave you with this thought from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaking at Cambridge University “it [the internet] is not a technology that favors freedom of speech, It is not a technology that favors human rights. Rather, it is a technology that can be used to set up a totalitarian spying regime, the likes of which we have never seen.” The powers that be have made sharing our private lives so cool, we have no idea of the ramifications.

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