23 July 2015

Notes on the Internet as a Social Space

About a year ago, I began drafting a short treatise on the ethics of online communication.  At that time, I was committed to defending a certain degree of belligerence and mockery in social media, because this was (I thought) expedient for the defense of the truth.  I never finished writing that treatise, and have since reversed my views (due in part to a series of very unpleasant interactions of that variety, for which I am to some extent grateful—felix culpa).  However, the problem of social media and the enduring strangeness of the internet as a place for interacting with others remains.  In what follows I present some disconnected thoughts, the result of extended reflection on the topic and a good deal of personal experience.

1.  After finishing my master's degree, I moved back home with the hopes of paying down student debt while teaching theology at a local Jesuit high school.  Since my sister and I moved out, my parents, left with an empty house, had converted the second floor of their old two flat into a boarding house for international students studying English.  I moved in alongside the lodgers into what used to be the sitting room of the second floor apartment.  I am asocial by disposition, meaning that I tend not to socialize with people unless the routines of daily living bring me into contact with them as a matter of course.  Thus the people I've interacted with over the past two years as a teacher have been almost exclusively my parents, the boarders, my students, my colleagues, and a few people at my parish.

2.  Because of profound differences of outlook and theological conviction between me and my co-workers, work life did not introduce me to a community in which I felt either welcome or comfortable.  The few (generally pleasant) social occasions I've shared with my colleagues outside of work have been mostly colored by everyone's awareness of these differences.  It is possible to like and even enjoy people without really being capable of forming what Aristotle would call "honest friendships", especially when the interests, beliefs, and activities that each party holds primary in life have no interest for the other, or even inspire moral distaste.  Meanwhile, I have a positive relationship with my parents, and strike up conversations occasionally with lodgers, but this is not the stuff of a "social life".

3.  As a result, the internet has, during this period, become my primary outlet for socialization to an extent that it had not been since the dark, alienated years of early adolescence.  My Facebook account, which has fluctuated over the years in use, has become a mainstay.  Years ago I was an avid contributor to a Tolkien web forum, where I found people who shared my nerdy passion for Middle-Earth.  Nowadays I have formed a similar set of acquaintances who are devoted to that richer and stranger cycle of stories and questions—traditional Catholicism.

4.  I read an article recently about how the character of the internet has changed—social media have made it more inward focused and isolating, "the stream" has led to the automatic generation of a curated display of likable items.  There's a lot to that.  In the days before the "Newsfeed", one navigated Facebook through notifications and profile pages.  The dominant metaphor of the site was a stable array of personal pages to which one could tack notes and greetings.  If one wanted to see what was new with a particular person, one had to go to their profile.  Now, change as such seems to be the dominant metaphor of the thing.  Nothing is stable, the fixed elements of the profile have been tucked away in the background, and instead we are confronted by compounded streams of ephemera: posts, links, images, all appearing dozen by dozen for review.  The Newsfeed functions as an actual news feed.  It's the ticker tape of a social world, telling you what's going on through links, showing you "trending" stories, conversations, what people liked or commented on.  The flexibility of the thing is impressive, in a way.

5.  One of the great advantages of real-life social interactions is that they have two elements, which I'll call the "vertical" and the "horizontal".  Suppose you are at a social function at work.  Everyone is standing around chatting.  You can move about the room and join more or less whatever conversations you like.  Within this space, there is a tremendous horizontal freedom.  But there is a vertical component as well: it took something for you to gain access to this social gathering.  Not just anyone can wander in off the street and join your faculty Christmas party.  It's understood that that would be unacceptable.  The "vertical" element is the fact that certain social spaces and interactions are closed, and a certain set of procedures must be performed and relationships acquired in advance in order to gain access.

6.  Now, in real-life social interactions there are places which are totally horizontal.  Public libraries, parks, etc.  In these places anyone can, more or less, just wander in.  But note that these are also places where for the most part no one just talks to random strangers.  Why?  Part of it has to do with anxiety about striking up contact with an unknown person, who might be insane or wicked or simply want to be left alone.  At the same time, there's a sense of decorum: conversation requires a pre-existing relationship, or the intention to form a relationship, and in a community of thousands of people, it is more or less impossible to form relationships with every passerby.  There are other potential explanations for this fact (a rise of asociality in society, increased self-absorption, a culture of fear, etc.), but let's not get into all that.

7.  So, in spaces in real life where interaction is totally horizontal, there is little actual contact between people.  In fact, one might venture to say (it seems totally obvious to say) that in ordinary life the degree of contact and liberty of communication are proportionate to one's "ascent" along a vertical axis of exclusivity and relational closeness.

8.  Take these thoughts, and apply them to something like Reddit or Twitter.  Every social "medium" online has its own definite structure, which determines the way interactions take place on it.  Reddit has a structure characterized by topical sub-reddits, by the up-vote/down-vote feature, the ability to comment, the increased visibility for "controversial" and "popular" posts, and the lack of a user profile, which encourages anonymity.  Reddit is also characterized by a totally horizontal social dimension.  In other words (with a few minor exceptions), everyone can go everywhere, participate in any conversation, and perform the same functions as everyone else.  In this way, Reddit is like a public library or a park.  The main difference is that it's a park where thousands of people are congregating all the time, to do nothing but talk to strangers about various topics, and generally in the most unreserved and vocal fashion conceivable.

9.  Imagine someone who went around insinuating themselves into everyone's conversations at the park, and ferociously opining on every aspect of everything... the police would likely be called to detain the person.  One reason it is "OK" to do this sort of thing in social media, but not in real life, is that there is a strong buffer between people which makes them feel safe. The anonymous person screaming at me on Twitter or threatening to spray bodily waste on me while I sleep is prevented from actually doing so by anonymity, physical distance, and the difficulty of making contact with me in person. Additionally, participants in social media remain participants by choice.  They can close the tab in a flash, or delete their accounts, or whatever.  The public at large has no "right" to be left in peace on a particular social site, the way we have a right to peaceably use public spaces in real life.

10.  The structure of each social site creates a different degree of "verticality" that governs the behavior of participants.  For example, Gmail and Google Chat are extremely "vertical" social environments.  No one can ordinarily find anyone else's email unless it is given to them directly, and even then the conversations people participate in there are invisible to everyone except the participants.  Facebook is a step down from this.  In Facebook there are chats, groups, and the "timeline".  Each of these has variable settings for the degree of openness and so on.  The default settings guarantee that one still regularly encounters conversations with people one has never heard of before, and will probably never meet, but the fact that the structure is at root based on users' declarations that there exists a stable relationship between them (a "friendship") creates a staggered set of spaces in which people can converse—a tiered environment.

11.  Aside from the existence of definite permissions (e.g. "who can see my stuff" on Facebook) verticality can also be created by interests.  Not everyone is going search for a conversation about the quality of a particular brand of fountain pen ink.  Those who end up on a site dedicated to such things are therefore very likely to have a certain set of characteristics, which can serve as the basis of a community.  This was what I experienced with Tolkien fandom back in the day.  The marginal character of the community created a sense of good will and esprit de corps that functioned as social glue and created a desire for respectful, positive interaction.

12.  Totally horizontal social sites, because they lack the tiered verticality contributed through "friendships" or the isolation typical of forums dedicated to particular topics, tend to be characterized by the license permitted there.  4chan and Twitter are obvious examples of this.  We learn what to expect from ourselves by learning what to expect from others, and the structural features of a given social environment which determine what sorts of interactions are most visible, and how interactions take place, reliably determine the character of the average interaction on that site.  4chan is an anything-goes backwater, because of its anonymity, because it is known for protecting abominable forms of speech, and because it is based not at all on relationships or the development of a known personality, but on whatever one wants to share or talk about at any given moment.  Twitter is similar: because of the extreme limitations on what can be tweeted, the most popular tweets tend to be the sort that are not inhibited by brevity.  Unfortunately for Twitter, these happen to be links, emotional outcries, and superficial banter.  Now and then one will see people trying to express extended thoughts on Twitter, but the results discouraging.

13.  In real life, when you make someone's acquaintance and develop a habit of interacting regularly, the conditions for interactions are always elective and subject to the "vertical" dimension.  The fact that once someone brought a guest to my house for a party, does not mean that that person will be granted entry to every social interaction I have, even if I get along with them or establish a friendship.  Everyone has co-workers with whom one gets along swimmingly every day from 7am to 4pm, but with whom one does not interact outside the workplace or share the details of one's inner life.  Every single choice to interact in real life involves the vertical dimension to some extent.

14.  Because relationship-based social sites like Facebook presume some foundation of real-world contact, they start out, for new users, as a fairly natural virtual extension of ordinary social interactions.  Facebook is like a virtual party at which most of your friends are in attendance most of the time.  But, as the group of "friends" grows, it no longer includes only people you interact with regularly, but also old friends, family, loose acquaintances, co-workers, friends of friends, people you've never actually met, friends of people you've never actually met, etc.

15.  Eventually, if you let this process continue indefinitely, Facebook becomes your own personalized version of one of the purely horizontal sites.  You may control the membership of your public, to a certain extent, but this control is uncomfortably bivalent.  And the bivalence makes things difficult at times.  Suppose you become "friends" with a loose acquaintance with whom you would not choose to interact on a regular basis in real life.  Once the relationship has been established online, it cannot be terminated except by a few methods: one can "unfriend", which is generally taken as an overtly hostile gesture, one can "block", which is extremely hostile, or one can tinker with visibility settings, meaning that one has to expend effort so that the person does not see whatever you're sharing.  Because none of these options are particularly appealing, one tends to develop over the long run a gaggle of associates online with whom one does not have any interest in interacting, but with whom one interacts nonetheless—or, one alienates people by unfriending them, creating hostilities and hurt feelings.

16.  In real life one does not have these problems so much.  When relationships have passed their prime, one can simply let them fall dormant.  If one only wants to engage to a certain extent, one chooses to see someone to that extent.  Some people have difficulties with this because they feel subject to imaginary social expectations and therefore must engage, but on the whole the extent of one's personal involvement with others is subject to constant choices and renewals instead of a one-time enduring affirmation of "friendship".  Google attempted to solve this problem with their "circles" feature in Google Plus, but it does not seem to me to have worked, and this for several reasons.

17.  As time goes on, one of the main functions of social media has become to broadcast content.  This function is natural to the structure of these sites because they gather together large numbers of people simultaneously.  If one has something to say or display and wants it seen, this is the way to make that happen.  Because most people seem to have something to say or display which they want seen, the streams that make up these sites are never short of new content.  And because of the endless multiplication of new items being presented for review, anyone who wants recognition and exposure will tend to post frequently, so as to keep appearing at the top of the stream.  Frequency is opposed to the expenditure of much effort, and desire for attention (or approval) sets the tone of much of what is said on these sites.

18.  The weakness of the system becomes clear whenever one encounters, and develops habitual contact with, people who turn out to be more or less insane.  The stability and verticality of real life relationships establish a number of incentives against emotionalism, unrestrained vitriol, and the violent termination of friendships.  These things pop up all the time in real life, but there is no real cost for them on the internet.  Someone can keep you as a digital companion for long stretches of time, and you can dangle alongside them out of inertia, or shared interests, or amusement, with some vague sense of their instability, only to have it hit you full force one day with little warning.  Where were the cues?  Cues are more difficult in an environment made up primarily of text (generated by people you've never met) where the rules of polite interaction are perpetually suspended.  And likewise, real relationships are difficult in such a space where there are no commitments, few consequences, and little sense of propriety.

19.  Where does this leave us?  I am not sure.