Online Reverb: Dignity and Digital Humanism
This is an expanded version of a talk given at IIT Institute of Design on September 25, 2014. The talk was followed by a 45-minute Q&A. This is longish.
Thank you to IIT for having me tonight (and Professor Forlano for the invitation and beautiful introduction). I thought a nice place to begin talking about our desires online would be Pablo Neruda’s 1971 Nobel Lecture, and particularly the moment when he says:
“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are.”
- Pablo Neruda, 1971
Titled “Towards the Splendid City,” Neruda’s lecture balances the call for writers to create with the need to connect with each other and those living in their present moment. He uses ‘what’ instead of ‘who’ to suggest that as an affiliated group, artists can re-animate places—further on in the lecture he posits this is the artist’s duty. Re-reading his lecture now, his rally call for place-making also sounds a bit like how we approach a new social network:
“We must fill with words the most distant places in a dumb continent and we are intoxicated by this task of making fables and giving names.”
- Pablo Neruda, 1971
(Pretend this paragraph is a footnote, I wanted to put it here instead of the sidebar comment feature next to the above quotation.) ‘Dumb’ I take to mean ‘mute’ in this context, and if we are applying these ideas to online places, it is crucial for us to look at who is allowed speech acts in our communities, and whether we must use our given names or if we can choose to use the names we have given ourselves online. We will talk later about what it means to be a native speaker and how you make newcomers feel welcome in a space.
For the better part of the past decade, I have worked with global broadcast companies and private event curators as what we now call “social” platforms have become a primary way to convey to an audience what an organization is and does. It has been weird, frankly, to work within legacy broadcast org charts when my role has been to practice deep listening and empathy for those beyond their walls.
The Internet is a House Party
For those with a legacy broadcast mindset, conversations online can be terrifying. I usually compare this to a house party that is going to happen in or near your house—whether you pay attention or not, the events are going to impact your property value. My recommendation to legacy groups is to be a cool parent. Set house rules and know that some precious objects are going to be broken. Maybe you never really liked that dusty heirloom anyway. Unlike Ke$ha, the party doesn’t wait to start until a legacy organization walks in (they have a hard time with this), and conversations move from one room (platform) to another continuously. Just as gifs are a way the Internet compresses and shares emotion, there is a syntax, usually an abbreviated one, and separate conventions for every online space. Global brands have imploded with public fails trying to fake the funk in spaces they don’t understand. First, you listen. ‘Fave twice, tweet once,’ we might say, to update that old expression.
Some semesters I teach an online narrative class at ITP, and last fall I asked my graduate students to join the music site This is My Jam (TIMJ) and create a profile for one of our class meetings. On TIMJ, you can choose an ‘eternal jam’ to associate with your profile, and we had a really interesting discussion about why they did NOT want to pick an eternal jam. They were quite clear about this. Part of their resistance was around what scholar Tricia Wang calls the ‘elastic self,’ when identity in a specific online space is constructed within the constraints of that particular system (I’m paraphrasing her nuanced argument) and so may not represent their identity accurately (or, is constructed differently) in another space or across their online profiles. Anything described as ‘eternal’ makes some people slightly jumpy online, even though, as you can see in this screenshot of my personal TIMJ eternal jam above, you can edit your jam! We all know someone who constantly updates their Facebook profile photo because that feature is weighted heavily in the current algorithm, and their new photo shows up in more Facebook feeds (garnering them more attention) than a regular update. It’s also public. Take a look at me *now,* they seem to say.
Another reason I think my students resisted what in my opinion is one of many intriguing TIMJ features is related to what we saw recently with U2gate, the unasked-for new album added to all our iTunes libraries. What if this music we hadn’t carefully chosen and dragged into our accounts played when we had music on shuffle mode or as an associated chat mood status? Heaven forfend.
Music sites online are fascinating because we haven’t solved all the problems about how we convey what we are in our musical tastes yet. TIMJ makes explicit that each post is a presentation of your music taste in a way some other big music services elide. On TIMJ, it’s not a song that you might happen to be passively listening to at a certain moment—it’s your jam. Like, your jam. You committed to a song for a moment and that’s interesting and a little bit scary. TIMJ also acknowledges time stamps because the Internet loves to get credit for being first. YOU DO. Here, though, it’s also a way to show who introduced a song (the unit of social currency) into the system.
And while it makes us uncomfortable in a good way to commit to anything eternal, there are universal desires that drive group behavior online. One of the first things that I do in the morning is pick up my phone on the bedside table and open Instagram. You can be under-caffeinated and sort of squint as you scroll down and like the posts from your friends that were out much later than you were and those who live in other time zones and have already started their day.
A few summers ago, I ran the social for Bonnaroo, one (if not the) longest-running jamband festivals in the U.S. The festival happens on what loyals call ‘The Farm’ in rural Manchester, Tennessee, and by the end of the weekend everyone is covered in dust and thoroughly relaxed. To think about what was possible to ask those at ‘Roo to do, I had to think about the real-world conditions. Most people would be far from the performance stages in the audience, so those photos were going to be meh. Battery life would wind down and so would posting by the end of each day, and cell service would be limited and so fastest when not everyone was on it. Or, um, awake.
Add to that a really sweet, supportive vibe the festival cultivates and the reality that you want people to feel great about what they post and being part of a group. Many in this group on The Farm were likely to have limited capacity to post or share anything during the weekend because they would be thoroughly enjoying their festival experience…or recovering from that enjoyment. All to say, the moments that connected everyone online at the music festival were quieter. Sleeping in tents on an open field tweaks your wake-up cycle, and everyone opens their eyes to the bright sun. Even if you miss the sunrise, you can still appreciate those who were up for it in tents near you. Instagram filters, then and now, make the lossiness of phone photos okay. The universal desire here was to appreciate the sun, the weekend, the person you woke up next to in a tent, and beauty at an annual event that brings people back year after year.
Universal desires, Individual expressions
When I went to work on special projects for Arianna at HuffPo, there was a different kind of group and energy than a music festival, and I was thinking about how to take a massive amount of people posting and have them contribute something that was different than comments. With a tiny team, we launched Open Reporting, an experiment to see whether we could show a spectrum of responses to a prompt. This was our way of doing what I’ve called wide journalism - coverage from every angle and news vertical. In one of the most successful prompts (screenshot above), we geotargeted readers in the most-fracked area in Pennsylvania and had them send us details on the leases they had or hadn’t signed for the land. Dozens of responses we could use arrived within an hour of the request. Not what readers thought about fracking, not what they reckoned, but what decision had they made about property they owned or rented. Some sent photos of their fracked and unfracked land. I firmly believe that people are experts in their own lives, and we often ask for opinions when we could ask for evidence of how we are making choices and moving through the world. This open reporting led to tips and callouts in other HP verticals, which was the ultimate goal of this experiment—to look for small indicators of how the American Dream was broken and perhaps see how national issues and policies were playing out at a local level.
A few years before that, I worked at social good incubator PopTech, and while I was there, the team launched the FLAP bag project. It was a moment when solar strips on consumer textiles were new-ish, and I asked our online community who wanted in. The tricky thing with that, of course, is that then we had to actually send out a beta product into the wild to people we hadn’t met in real life. And to the org’s credit, we did, sometimes after a single tweet. There is a gravity to the burden of social proof. Give people something to do, not a contest to win, but a way to use their expertise or unique circumstances, and much of the time they will. Some people were able to travel with one of the bags to a remote area, others were able to test it (as you can see, the original off-white fabric was replaced with brown and also local textiles when possible after our field testing). Looking at groups of people as a trophic web of potential resources means you can begin to see how to move ideas and concepts through space and time (and I promise we are getting to the Doctor Who work in just a moment).
For the first few months 0f Arab Spring which wasn’t Arab Spring at the beginning, it was an immolation incident the spirit of which then spread through an entire region, I was livetweeting for Global Voices, the largest group of bloggers and translators in every part of the world. Especially the places that aren’t in the news every day. In a crisis situation, and particularly in one where an unmediated feed is the stream (as it was at that time, Twitter is about to change its feed), much of the work is triage. Tagging people to make sure those who needed to see that tweet saw that tweet. We were also watching to make sure our people in those areas were active on their personal accounts, and that the voice was their own and hadn’t been compromised. With ongoing events like Arab Spring, you expect conditions to degrade ungracefully as repressive regimes flip the Internet switch off and as people burn out and as friends move quietly to safer areas in real life. The social then is just as much about heeding the silence.
Last year I was a senior producer at Al Jazeera on their weekly documentary series “Fault Lines,” and during the year their #FreeAJstaff campaign launched. There are many reasons the campaign draws attention in successive waves: it’s hard to be against ‘free’ (as in the opposite of imprisoned and unrelated to beer), and it’s fairly easy to imagine names of other journalism outlets and journalists after the ‘free’ in the hashtag. Many journalists at other organizations have joined the campaign, posing as we did, with groups of their colleagues. This is the Fault Lines staff in the NY, D.C., and SF offices. The parameters on this campaign also help: it’s appropriately serious, it’s in black and white (so it stands out in a scrollable stream), the signs are mostly hand-lettered, putting tape over your mouth is incredibly visual, and in this selfie culture, it is creepy to think about who is taking this photo. The photos can travel effectively without captions or instructions. Sad to say, the campaign continues.
The Intimacy of the Inbox
From personal safety, we move to another private space—the inbox.
Hi.co (this screenshot is a story from my profile there) is a storytelling site that threads comments privately. So a member’s profile photo will show up underneath a post in the ‘Thanks’ section, but the content of the comment is only seen by the author. Instead of the public stage-whispering we do with @ on Twitter, this privacy makes for a more interesting comment space. We see this in Instagram, but it’s true across the Internet: beautiful posts make for boring comment sections. What’s to say beyond, “Great post!” “Love this!” “So good.” “Nicely done.” <yawn> Those are lovely responses, but it’s a praise call-and-response (yay/thank you) instead of a conversation. The comments aren’t really needed. In the private comments on this particular story, well, I’ll just tell you: I got into the meaning of seltzer with someone. It was neat. Stories on Hi are posted online, and subscribing to an author on the site also means their stories are delivered to your inbox, which makes this a lot like the notification structure of Kickstarter.
I’ve now run two Kickstarters for Saucy, an indie magazine I print (on paper) about relationships and food. For the second Kickstarter, I had a good feeling about backers returning and wanted to make the whole experience one long narrative.
Before I launched, the entire issue was designed, but not yet printed. So for each daily update during the two weeks of the campaign, I could include things like the alternate cover design, background on the area where a photo was shot, or an art event I had attended that day that was relevant to one of the issue’s stories. Like the magazine itself, these updates weren’t linear, but they did build on each other so there was a reason to share the content — maybe a recipe, or a local Miami fact instead of just what percentage of the overall fundraising number we had reached.
When a backer receives your updates, they have already bought in. Now you can love on them and introduce them to each other so they cohere as a group. For an indie mag without the luxury (or intent) of quantity, the bulk of the cost is the set-up fee no matter how many copies are printed. So the magazine couldn’t have existed without the formed, if ephemeral, group. At its best, Kickstarter is about assembling a group that then makes something happen together, and it’s damn cool when it works.
I went looking for an example of how something should feel if it’s going to move through social platforms and this, reblogged on Laura Olin’s Tumblr really represents that. (Her Tumblr is amazing.) This crackles. There are cracks where the voice comes through. The slang is given with context, so it’s not alienating if you don’t know what ‘on point’ means. We have a constructed inner monologue here that transcends cute-baby-in-bird-costume. We all know what this feels like to bring it with event dress and then not go out (back to those universal desires).
One of my favorite projects ever was working with Kenyatta Cheese for a season at the beginning of the Doctor Who Tumblr. This is part of ongoing work that his team at Everybody at Once now does for all BBC America properties, caretaking and creating for the global fandoms of those shows. It’s work that happens during broadcast, that requires humans be present for that crackle. So much on social platforms can be queued and scheduled in advance, but this work is about letting the community celebrate its members through their creative output as they post art and gifs for each other.
The DW Tumblr is a hub and a resource for the global fandom of those who care about and love the show, and we boosted their interactions at the beginning by live-giffing episodes during the broadcast premieres with gifs and art from the fans themselves, often pretty close after they’d posted them. The community is rewarded for sharing their creations and supporting each other—and is able to watch their posts receive thousands of likes from fellow fans, making literal their connection to the show. This is what a robust, mature community can look like. And the fandoms cross over, natch, so there is some interesting [romantic] shipping happening all the time between shows on that network and other networks. True fan life is stranger than the fiction(s) they love on their screens, and online fandoms are the better for reflecting that complexity (showing the ‘it’s complicated’ parts help keep great online communities resilient).
It’s High Time to Give You a Diagram
So this is something I’m playing with — a work triangle for communities. Like the work triangle where you can choose two (it can be cheap AND good, but it will take for…ev…er), for communities, you can make a space be kind and clever, but not in real time. The cheap/clever triangle leg I’m still playing around with, but my sense is that clever is usually at the expense of some subset of the group.
When we first think about what a group of people online will be like interacting, it’s some version of the pottery wheel scene in “Ghost.” Hott.
In reality, some things go beautifully, others get all weird when we try to help each other (we conveniently forget this part of the scene). Metaphors be literal.
And because it’s the Internet, sometimes what members of a site want to do together devolves into silly little grooves. Which is pretty okay too. I don’t want you to leave thinking after these examples and many considerations for making groups hang out together well that we can’t have nice things. We can. We do. But it takes planning and truly caring so we set up replicable patterns for people to excel and be deliberate.
We need to stop looking for the shiny and new, and start celebrating the people doing the patchwork. In Japanese pottery, there is the tradition of kinsugi, or kintsukoi, where a broken piece is filled in with metal. The pottery shines where it was broken, and this adds value. (btw, I found this photo on the topic’s Pinterest board.) Corrections, clarifications, inclusive revisions of online policies: this is the good stuff, this is how a group makes it right with each other. This isn’t the fast exit, this isn’t a race to see how quickly you can extract things from others. This is allowing people to dignify their online choices by setting up conditions for them to treat each other well. Gold stars.
Thanks to these people who indirectly made this talk better solely by being amazing humans: Kenyatta Cheese, Cassie Marketos, Andrew Losowsky (thanks also for livetweeting, Andrew!), Solana Larsen, Jennifer Brook, Ben Hammersley, Laura Olin, Audrey Evans, and Kay Thaney.