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Broadcasting the self

This Sunday, the NYT Magazine had a piece by Clive Thompson about Facebook's news feed feature, which broadcasts a user's profile activity as a stream of syndicated updates to selected people in the user's network. Thompson explains how the feature initially raised privacy concerns, but then users seized upon it as a convenient new form of maintaining intimacy without the nuisance of actual interaction. One could keep up with friends the way one keeps up with blogs in Google Reader -- hurriedly, casually. (This morning I plowed through 100 posts, all of them seemingly about the atrocious unemployment reports and the long-anticipated government bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.) He then relates the phenomenon to microblogging services like Twitter and other applications that automatically chronicle and broadcasts one's activities.

The applications -- sometimes with our voluntarily assistance, sometimes not -- do a good job of transforming our life into digital information that is easy to manipulate, heightening our "presence" online and make our shadowy self there seem more concrete. We fix our identity in a forum of public surveillance, to make it seem more authentic, more fixed. The price we pay for this is that identity becomes delineated by the categories most conducive to digital transmission: Twittter epigrams; lists of our favorite bits of culture; short videos of ourselves, etc.

As we generate more data that is captured and rebroadcast, we seem to take on more substance and become more significant -- especially considering the way in which that data is processed to direct targeted advertising appeals and other forms of recognition from our actual friends our way. It's easy to imagine a scenario when the recognition from the ad groups supplants our interest in friends' approval. Marketers can be better than friends because they will pay us -- as the buzz marketing firms already do to spread idle chatter about products. At Mind Hacks, Vaughan Bell posits the possibility that advertisers will find the most popular people within specifically defined networks and pay them to host relevant ads on their profiles.

you could identity the most influential people in the 18-25 age bracket, or the most influential in a small town, or the most influential people that like a certain type of movie. Online networks can then sell advertising space ranked by influence, like Google sells adwords based on popularity. Better still, it gives a quantified way of sponsoring highly selected people. You could be the David Beckham of 18-35 year old salsa fans in your town, sponsored to put the latest Latin sounds on your playlist.

Like celebrities, each of us will have an individual worth to advertisers, a price on our profile, and we will be the commodity that technology companies sell to marketers.

So Facebook and like technologies will allow us to leverage our friends into sponsorships, and our sponsors will perhaps become our real friends, when our former friends perhaps begin to regard us as just an extension (maybe useful, maybe not) of that commercial world. And it's worth nothing too -- "better still," as Bell says -- that we will all be in competition with one another to establish our dominance within networks and secure the ad dollars that end up being pumped into it. Maybe this kind of alpha-dog thing happens automatically, but the incursion of commercial interests will make the competition explicit, introduce the wonders of capitalistic "creative destruction" to our social lives, which have heretofore been organized around achieving continuity for our self-concept.

The constant updates, according to the sociologists Thompson consults, supply those interested in tracking us with a simulation of "ambient awareness": "It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye." When conducted via online updates (or phone text messages), it requires persistence to achieve this effect; it works cumulatively: No one message is important, no specific thought communicated is important, but the totality presents a character in the round, and engages us, proponents claim, the same way fiction does. "Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel." If all parties are sharing their streams of data, this would seem to convey the reciprocity we presume is necessary for friendship, but the medium may interfere with that, encouraging us to embark on a kind of vicarious intimacy, an intimacy once removed that allows us to inject the drama and fantasy and daydreaming we can indulge in when lost in a novel.

If you’re reading daily updates from hundreds of people about whom they’re dating and whether they’re happy, it might, some critics worry, spread your emotional energy too thin, leaving less for true intimate relationships. Psychologists have long known that people can engage in “parasocial” relationships with fictional characters, like those on TV shows or in books, or with remote celebrities we read about in magazines. Parasocial relationships can use up some of the emotional space in our Dunbar number, crowding out real-life people. Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who has studied social media for 10 years, published a paper this spring arguing that awareness tools like News Feed might be creating a whole new class of relationships that are nearly parasocial — peripheral people in our network whose intimate details we follow closely online, even while they, like Angelina Jolie, are basically unaware we exist.

We basically transform ourselves through the technologies into a form of character-driven light programming. To the friends to whom we broadcast our updates, we become a moment's distraction, a breath of novelty, an entertainment channel. Thompson points out that the "ambient updates are all visible on one single page in a big row, and they’re not really directed at you. This makes them skimmable, like newspaper headlines; maybe you’ll read them all, maybe you’ll skip some." With this sort of audience out there, we can generate our own Truman Shows with the tool available and then we have the opportunity to check our ratings in terms of the online attention we have generated and then adjust the sort of life we live accordingly. The users that Thompson interviews express a sense of achieving a deeper intimacy with those they track:

The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.”

Perhaps, but what is characterized as "raw" here may merely be the effect of the immediacy of the medium on the same surface that friends always present to one another, and the layer that is now being simulated and broadcast. And parasocial relationships become the template for friendship generally; what was once spontaneous and intimate grows more and more caluclated, contrived to produce certain effects, drive traffic, entice readers, supply the simulacrum of intimacy that the medium enables. The habit of Twitter and other digital updates may change the nature of what we think to offer in friendship while eroding the space that once felt sheltered, the personal realm that was autonomous and spontaneous as opposed to designed and self-consciously elaborated. Thompson offers this grim assessment: "participation isn’t optional. If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are. So you constantly stream your pictures, your thoughts, your relationship status and what you’re doing — right now! — if only to ensure the virtual version of you is accurate, or at least the one you want to present to the world."

One of the Twitterers that Thompson interviews relates that "Things like Twitter have actually given me a much bigger social circle. I know more about more people than ever before.” That seems a good thing, but Thompson is rightly suspicious about the changes "friendship" must have undergone to enable non-social to suddenly feel comfortable being social. The technology may allow for introverted or indifferent people to be more interested in the lives of other people, but perhaps only because it lets us be voyeurs and fantasists.

Thompson notes that social networks and microblogs allow people to increase their number of "weak ties": "loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently 'friended' them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist." But the weak ties may come at expense of deeper ties, especially because they are more instrumental, more tangibly useful -- a wide network will yield you helpful information to deal with a broken refrigerator, or a sketchy transmission mechanic, or a wireless router problem or what have you. That is information whose worth immediately becomes evident.

The "usefulness" of friendship, though, is more difficult to assess; it doesn't bear being measured, and in fact may perhaps be defined as precisely that which can't be measured. It's not in the number of texts a person has sent you. Not to get too mystical (or mystifying) but friendship is elsewhere, outside the numbers. It is in the friction of real presence, in the accumulation of pregnant moments shared doing nothing specific, simply recognizing the otherness of the person you are with and committing to hold on to that sense and respect it. Thompson finds that some Twitter users experience it as serial meditation: "The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to 'know thyself,' or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness." But perhaps our problem is a surfeit of self-reflection, a morbid preoccupation with knowing ourselves, making identity. Moments with friends may those moments where we are in a deep mode of self-forgetting, and the last thing we will want is Twitter interrupting, bringing us back to ourselves, forcing us to yet again to express our identity at a remove, alienating us from the present moment and urging us to accept, in lieu of the present, the perpetual archive of mediated utterances we've come up with instead of living.

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