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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Database identity and the joy of being processed

Wouldn’t it be a better world if we could pretend that this writer was joking? She is joking, right? The New York Times is doing a little edgy satire in their Modern Love column. I know narcissism is the coin of the Modern Love realm, but consider how poorly written this column is. Clearly this is parodic:

My life goes like this: Every morning, before I brush my teeth, I sign in to my Instant Messenger to let everyone know I’m awake. I check for new e-mail, messages or views, bulletins, invitations, friend requests, comments on my blog or mentions of me or my blog on my friends’ blogs.

Next I flip open my phone and check for last night’s Dodgeball messages. Dodgeball is the most intimate and invasive network I belong to. It links my online community to my cellphone, so when I send a text message to 36343 (Dodge), the program pings out a message with my location to all the people in my Dodgeball network. Acceptance into another person’s Dodgeball network is a very personal way to say you want to hang out.

I scroll through the messages to see where my friends went last night, and when, tracking their progress through various bars and noting the crossed paths. I check the Google map that displays their locations and proximity to one another. I note how close Christopher and Tom were last night, only a block away, but see that they never met up.

I log on to my Friendster, Facebook, MySpace and Nerve accounts to make sure the mail bars are rising with new friend requests, messages and testimonials.

I am obsessed with testimonials and solicit them incessantly. They are the ultimate social currency, public declarations of the intimacy status of a relationship. “I miss running around like crazy w/you in the AM and sneaking away to grab caffeine and gossip,” Kathleen commented on my MySpace for all to see. Often someone will write, “I just posted to say I love you.”

I click through the profiles of my friends to the profiles of their friends (and their friends of friends, and so on), always aware of the little bar at the top of each profile indicating my multiple connections. A girl I know from college is friends with my friend from college’s best friend from Minnesota. They met at camp in seventh grade. The boyfriend of my friend from work is friends with one of my friends from high school. I note the connections and remind myself to IM them later. On Facebook, I skip from profile to profile by clicking on the faces of posted pictures. I find a picture of my sister and her boyfriend, click on his face and jump right to his page.

It’s juvenile on purpose. Every paragraph starts with the word I because she’s mocking the self-centeredness of her generation and it’s supposed obsession with me-media, isn’t she? She laughing at the fact that teens today have become an entire generation of glorified ham-radio operators.

I wish I could believe she was joking. But I think NYT published this precisely because she’s serious, and because it would alarm people like me and bait us into reactionary declarations of a generational crisis. See, the article brays, you can’t possibly hope to understand the youth of today; they’re invested in things you wouldn’t care about even if you knew they existed. And that’s true. I don’t have a cell phone, let alone a network of cell-phone-obsessed friends who ping me with every mundane detail of their lives. I’ve never sent a text message through a phone, and frankly can’t understand why you would, especially when they often cost more than talking through it. So I don’t consider the cell phone I don’t have to be my companion, as Nokia hopes I will. I don’t want my friends to make public declarations of their fealty to me on my profile pages and I don’t want a running count of people who are willing to associate themselves with me. I don’t need to expand my friendship roll the way I seem to need to expand my iTunes library. I don’t want my idea of “friend” to be so cheapened that I can have thousands of them. Friends aren’t little counters I use to measure my potential reach in a word-of-mouth marketing campaign; they aren’t things I amass to keep track of my own greatness. I don’t need a computer to rank my friends or score our level of intimacy. I don’t need to throttle their access to me the way Netflix throttles how many DVDs I can get a month. I don’t want to have friends to justify being able to use technology, rather than have technology enhance the few friendships that matter to me. And I don’t crave the feeling of belonging so much that I’ll join whatever Web group is out there to join. The column seems to mask its desperate need to belong in bravado, with a reverse-psychology-style embrace of technological dependence and pride in self-regarding shallowness, in presence for its own sake. (It is probably not coincidental that as social networks grow, actual friendship has receded to the point where “Nearly a quarter of people surveyed said they had ‘zero’ close friends with whom to discuss personal matters.”)

What most leaves me on the far side of the generational gulf the NYT wants to evoke is my general desire not to want to conduct my friendships in a environment where they can be stored and scrutinized as data. The essence of friendship is its immeasurablility, not its publicity. I don’t want a database for an identity, nor do I want it for a community. I don’t want to run statistics on my social life. I don’t want Nielsen ratings for my friendships, I don’t want to apply marketing tools to them to see how they might be tweaked, to see how I might reach a better demographic, socially. I don’t want to meter the amount of attention I receive. All of that seems counterproductive, unless I decide to run my personal life like a firm and decide that I need to promote myself the way Proctor and Gamble promotes its toothpastes. But as the NYT column gleefully points out, “Every profile is a carefully planned media campaign.” But people can’t always live up to their online marketing campaigns for themselves. Perhaps the online existence of theoretical people who would make perfect friends leads to more social isolation; we end up rejecting the flawed friends we have in reality, where their inadequacies can’t be concealed or filtered out. Meanwhile social networks serve to encourage us to continue to package and market ourselves, to reify ourselves as we reify others into raw numbers ready for accounting principles. We make ourselves into data so that the information-processing capacity of the consumer economy can be used to process us that much more efficiently, squeezing out of us whatever it most requires for its sustained growth. Articles like this aspire to teach us how to enjoy that feeling of being processed.

(Thanks to AdPulp for several of these links.)