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Why I’m Trying to Be Less Normal Online

Our social media posts are the museum pieces of the future

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Twelve months ago, I made an aim for myself to be less normal on the internet. I have never shared extensive parts of my life online and I have always been someone who fusses over the wording of posts, concerned that I sound boring, self-centered, arrogant or ignorant. More often than not, I have decided that whatever it is that I was going to share, doesn’t actually need to be shared at all. However — when my Dad died, I wanted a way to tell my world that this important part of my reality had changed, and I wanted to share him with people who never knew him, as part of my grappling with how grieve. I remember being careful(ish) as I wrote the post, more concerned with getting the message out there than how my choice of adjectives would make me look. In the days that followed, I found enormous comfort in comments and words of support from people across my social media networks. It felt like a genuine manifestation of community and my Dad’s identity felt bigger because I had inserted a part of him into the timelines of others. For all that Facebook — in particular — has changed and harmed, I hold onto its ability to share my Dad around a little when I most need to see traces of him in my life.

Deaths, marriages, weddings, new jobs, and resolutions — social media is immensely useful as a broadcasting tool. But I wanted to reach a little further than that. I wanted my digital identity to carry authentic voice, to record within servers and in the training data for algorithms the concerns that concerned me and the frames that I used to frame my world. I wanted more me in my online life; snapshots of words and deeds that will endure beyond my own physical skin.

And so I started being less normal online.

I wrote about death, and fear, and failing. I wrote about a machine-learning system that is being trained to talk to whales. I’m going to repeat that. We (that is, some individuals who I presume identify as human) are training computer programs to understand whale. Why are we not all super excited about this?? We should be. I wrote about it. I clearly did not do a very good job in communicating how excited we should all be about this because, to date, fourteen people have read the actual article. That’s a bit depressing, actually. I will have to try again. I refuse to give up. We could talk to whales!!

I have started singing to my cupcakes. I like to bake — when I was twelve, my parents gave me a recipe book for Christmas filled with delightful cookies, muffins, and cakes. The book has followed me across three continents and inspired birthday cakes, welcome home cakes, get-well cookies, goodbye-muffins and everything in between. By the time the book is twenty years old (in 2023), I want to have made every, single, recipe. I’ve got a fair way to go — so I’ve started baking every week and posting my progress to Instagram — including all the ones that don’t turn out the way they were meant to. I sing to my cupcakes and coo to my cookies. And then I make friends with my neighbors to share around the sugar bounty.

I appreciate, now, records of everyday banalities.

The words and deeds that we craft online can endure. If you choose to delete your social media accounts, the data (in a post-GDPR world) may endure for 1–3 months on some Facebook (or should it be ‘Meta’?) server someplace, but then should actually be wiped and digitally erased for good. Each account (Instagram, Whatsapp, Messenger, and all the various third-party lovelies that we can use our Facebook accounts to sign into) have to be individually deleted to ensure our digital traces are truly gone. And that’s not even enough! Any photos, memes, videos, and messages sent to other users will stick around unless they, too, decide to digitally erase them.

I think that this means that a cultural archaeologist, two hundred years from now, will be able to write their thesis on “brunch trends among American millennial.” And it will be a serious paper, presented at an immersive conference.

Baby pictures, workout selfies, food snaps, rants, life-updates, and memories — we are piling, everyday onto a compost heap of digital self-hood. Out of this fecund digital soil, our mass anxieties and communal moments of celebration, dominant narratives and moments of resistance and challenge are all taking form. I chose to be less normal online because I want to be a part of this communal recording.

We are the inhabitants of a future Pompeii

Imagine the bewilderment of a baker from Pompeii, wandering through a modern-day museum and marveling that her fossilized loaves, copper coins, and statuette of Venus (patron goddess of the city) are now existing behind glass in a darkened room. The wonder of Pompeii is that so many everyday details, otherwise lost to erosion and decay, were preserved in the deadly ash from exploding Mt Vesuvius. In our present time, on this very day, we have eaten, prayed, fought, bought, and sold in ways that people — future people, born many years after all of us are dead — may marvel at, like we marvel at the relics of ancient Pompeii.

The Pompeian relic that I find the most affecting is a preserved public wall with a graffiti phrase: C Pumidius Dipilus Heic Fuit. It means Gaius Pumidius Dipilus Was Here. The richness of the digital soil that we are leaving behind means that someone, someday, could see not only that you were here, at this moment in time, but also what you were wearing, and how your voice sounded, and the emotions that you shared with your family, classmates, colleagues, and fellow retirees on the commercial space-liner Bezos-II.

Forgive the sci-fi foray

Twelve months ago, when I decided to stop being so normal online, I was taken with the idea of my future as a digital relic. I am that everyday baker-woman. So are you. As we go in 2022, I’d like to continue my course towards internet authenticity, while seeking out those who are using online communities and media to develop and preserve their best selves; as activists, as future leaders, as previously voiceless communities, as ecosystems. Remember the part about talking to whales? What if…we put whales, on the Internet.

Digital soil is the world’s most valuable resource

It’s a banality, now, to talk about the price of data. The monetization of individual, future decision-making, and the manipulation of collective realities is covered in such breathtaking detail by Hardvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff that all I can offer is a link to the relevant book. I read the book this year, as I tried to put more of my own life online. I appreciate the fact that corporate monopolies and profit motives do not good democratic tools make. And I fear the intertwining of big data with algorithmic decision making, and how this can influence the jobs we can get, or the repayment conditions on credit card loans; even the severity of criminal sentencing.

It seems sad if the primary response to these realities is to share less and close ourselves more, to not widely celebrate achievements or reach out to networks when we need encouragement or a new job. I feel safe to share more of myself online. This is a position of privilege. I anticipate that there are many and complex components for a world where more people also have the security to send pictures of their failed cupcakes into the digital time-capsule of the future. I advocate for this world.

I do not have a recording of my father’s voice or a video of how he walked.

Anyone who cares to remember such things when I am dead will not have the same problem. They will likely be an archived post someplace with me manically crooning to some soggy chocolate slice, or hinting, once again, that it might one day be possible to talk to whales. I hope I make it into an immersive conference paper someday.

If you have enjoyed my musings about identity — you might also like Judy Millar. She writes about identity and legacy and ageing authentically. I read everything she posts and you should too.

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Coffee Times is not just a publication, but a movement to build a mutually supportive community that encourages active reading and better writing.

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B J Robertson

B J Robertson

Exploring somewhere between media and tech. Video editor. Former cyber security analyst. Australian Londoner living in Los Angeles.

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