Friday, April 27, 2007

The Mirror of Change: This is Who We are Becoming

The Internet in its user-driven avatar is fundamentally altering the way we understand society, our relationships, ourselves and the way we share with each other, says Dina Mehta.

It is myopic for us to view online relationships as the ‘other’ woman or man in our lives. Youth clearly does not. For them, these are an extension of their real world — they don’t differentiate between their online lives and their offline ones.
Online life has a whole meaning of its own, with its own rites of passage and social norms. Even a hard reality like death is part of it: real people with real feelings will often mourn online for those they haven’t met physically, but have been emotionally intimate with — as happened with Minal Panchal, tragically gunned down at Virginia Tech, her murder later mourned in an Orkut community. Such memorialisations illuminate a world many people don’t know exists, a new world whose inhabitants form intense bonds distinct from those they form with their face-to-face friends. Outsiders, and even insiders, don’t yet know quite how to describe those bonds or deal with what happens when a crisis leads to the intersection of virtual and real worlds.
Social media researcher Danah Boyd has done extensive research on youth in mediated public spaces such as MySpace and Friendster. She talks of four properties that fundamentally separate unmediated publics from networked ones:» Persistence: Unlike the ephemeral quality of speech in unmediated publics, networked communications are recorded for posterity. This enables asynchronous communication but it also extends the period of existence of any speech act.» Searchability: Because expressions are recorded and identity is established through text, search and discovery tools help people find like minds. While people cannot currently acquire the geographical coordinates of any person in unmediated spaces, finding one’s digital body online is just a matter of keystrokes.» Replicability: Hearsay can be deflected as misinterpretation, but networked public expressions can be copied verbatim such that there is no way to distinguish the “original” from the “copy.”» Invisible audiences: It is virtually impossible to ascertain the number of people who might run across our expressions in networked publics. This is further complicated by the other three properties, since our expression may be heard at a different time and place from when and where we originally spoke.
In a recent talk she gave at Etech2007, Danah spoke of how youth are coping with invisible audiences and the breaking down of walls as they go online:
“In mediated public spaces, there’s no way to accurately gauge who is present or who will be present as the conversation spirals along.
“This has dramatic consequences because it means that the underlying architecture of life has changed. Things spread far greater than we ever would’ve imagined... This is quite different from the society that you and I were used to growing up. We were used to having walls. We assumed that the norms were set by the environment and that you behaved differently in a synagogue than in a pub and that was a-ok. Context was key but context depends on there being walls. Online, there are no walls. The walls have come crumbling down. You can cross through spaces with the click of a few keystrokes and it’s impossible to know what speech will spread where. The moment a conversation spreads, it changes contexts. How do you train a generation to speak to all people across all space and all time?...“Most people go with the ostrich solution. If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist, right? If you don’t see the strangers staring at your virtual existence, they don’t exist, right? The other proposed solution is being a Luddite — avoiding all technology. Either way, we’re talking avoidance. But avoidance doesn’t ever work.
“The rules of privacy are fundamentally changing. For the first time, an entire generation is forced to deal and, for the most part, they are dealing. It’s not pretty and there are plenty of hiccups, but they’re doing a lot better than us old folk. Unfortunately, many of the above-25 are upset with the things that they’re doing to learn how to navigate this world with no walls.
“Personally, I think that we need to look to them to see what they’re doing and try learning from it. They’re growing up with this shifting architecture. You grew up with Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame; they’re growing up with being famous amongst fifteen. They’re collecting friends as a way of demarcating audience in a world without meaningful signals about who’s watching. If you’re not in their list of friends or aren’t like the people in their list of friends, you are not the intended audience.”
For those completely immersed in virtual worlds such as Second Life, the seduction of intimacy combined with anonymity does not mean they do not share the joys and sorrows of their real worlds. My bet is that they do. “Pet”, a very close friend and a colleague who worked with a team of online volunteers when the tsunami struck in December 2004, got me looking at Second Life with new eyes. He had been feeling trapped in his body for a long time, and when he got onto Second Life, it helped him become more comfortable with his feelings that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. The beauty is that Second Life was a tool for “Pet” to figure out who she really is and how to work it out for real. Today, she has friends not only in Second Life, but also in her physical world with whom she can be herself. “Pet” has shared so much of her period of transition and angst with me, that I feel I know her intimately. Being a geek, she also helps me with my websites. I trust her as she trusts me. I know she is very real — there is nothing ‘virtual’ about her, even though I have never met her.
While I may never have seen or met “Pet”, there is depth in our friendship, and solidity. I know, for some people, that is hard to accept. I’m often asked questions like, how can you feel connected to someone you’ve never met? How can you trust someone you’ve never seen? These concerns are understandable given the newness of this medium and the flow that determines these sorts of relationships. Oh there are dangers too — the pretence borne out of anonymity, the addictions, the spam and scams, the paedophiles, the pornography. And still, when I meet up with blog buddies all over the world, how can I explain the amazing level of comfort I feel!
I single out blogs here as throwing up a whole different social system than do virtual worlds and social networking sites. Detractors say, online you can be whoever you want to be and nobody cares. That may be correct, yet, if you try and fake things too hard, you most always are found out, and can be verbally beaten. My belief is that people tend to act more like themselves online than they like to admit. It is much more difficult to hide away who you are when you are blogging. I’ve found myself revealing things on my blog about myself that I would find difficult to talk about face-to-face. Ugly things too.
And yet, I found myself trusting myself as I began trusting people I met through this medium. There is a fine line between the public, private and secret self, and the boundaries blur sometimes. At others there is a conscious effort to keep them apart. In a physical world, our lives are compartmentalised, you have different sets of friends for different needs, and meet in different physical spaces as a result. My blog is one space where I connect with friends, potential clients, strangers, acquaintances, even spammers and trolls. It is entirely up to me what I want to share of me and when, at my blog. And, I have found, the more I share, the more others do. It’s just an extension of basic human needs for connection and community.
For me, the online world is simply a part of my world. It is not discreet from my ‘real life’, it is not an underground life, it is part of my everyday existence. I started using social networking sites and blogs in 2003 when I got broadband and discovered the immense benefits of the sociality that the Internet offers. The most fulfiling change it has brought into my life is that now, I control my own environment. My blog has become my social network today. Through the simple act of voicing opinions and thoughts, I feel liberated to speak out loud and discover voices within me. Through the magical connections I have made, I can ‘select’ to surround myself with people who stimulate me in so many ways, and fill my space, even if they live thousands of miles away. Earlier, my social interactions were more ‘prescribed’, governed by familial ties and restricted to a set of habitual relationships. Today I can connect with people all over the world, select my friends and community - and that is so utterly powerful. I truly feel that I don’t just live in India, that I have family all over the world.
This brings with it many problems, perhaps a little unique to India, where however ‘liberated’ we may seem, there are clear do’s and don’ts in our relationships and traditional structures rooted in power imbalances. The online world is toppling and threatening many of our traditional structures, giving open voice and power to many who hitherto had none. It is a world that is not hierarchical, one that encourages an even playing field for free speech and debate no matter what gender or age or race or religion you belong to; it does not have many pre-ordained rules and prescriptions; it is one where we need to learn to respect personal space, and to embrace team play that can be so rewarding.
We need to learn how to better integrate this online world with our physical worlds, as the youth are doing so naturally. There’s been enough written about the disillusionment and the fracturing of real-life relationships as a result of baring your identity online. There is both beauty and ugliness, but it is no different from our physical world. Those who advocate censorship as a knee-jerk response to the ugliness are in denial of the reality of this space.
Mehta is a market research analyst
Source: Her Blog

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