The lights went down at the Fillmore and with a roar a reconfigured Smashing Pumpkins lit up their instruments. The crowd moved forward and you could feel the place slot into full-on sound and fury. I was one among friends, gutless pride at having scored an extra ticket, and lost in the crush that any honest concert goer yearns for on occasion: lust for a total experience.
And there I was — only one of many to hold up a camera and shoot a brief bit of video, when the lights went green, like neon rails, oscillating to a beating wall of sound. Around me, phones came out of pockets and were held aloft, too many for security to have done anything about. It had become OK to take a memento. We got ours, LoFi.
This was just over a year ago. It took that long for the music industry to realize the free marketing power its brands (bands) enjoy from the posted concert videos and pictures that are such a cultural staple on Youtube. But this post is not about marketing — it’s about the experience. That night, doing that, I felt there was something “elsehwere” about seeing all those cameras and phones dancing over heads and straining for an angle on the show.
There was this strange blurring of here and there, or here and elsewhere, that all those phones seemed to suggest, and which in many ways stained the purity of being there. Akin, in feeling at least, to watching overzealous tourists snapping away at an art museum without so much as absorbing the real thing while standing there in its presence and singularity. Something that suggested the ambivalence I have personally felt, nearly always, about bringing along a camera to important social rituals — and to nature especially — fearing that I might not manage the negotiation from observing to being there.
The slippage between being there and not being there seems real to me. Not only does taking a video at a concert involve a small number of technical hurdles, and the matter of paying attention to the camera long enough to miss some of the show. There is also the mental shift of considering the person, or site, audience, etc. that we do it for. Recording for the purpose of sharing always involves “for whom is it done,” even when this is nobody in particular. And this step in the recording or capturing of a live event seems at a step removed from being in it.
This “being here” and “being there” comes up in other cases, I’ve noticed, where a mediating technology is involved. I’ve watched panhandlers approach friends hanging/smoking outside a bar, and deliberately choose to interrupt the ones engaged in conversation instead of the person on the phone. Interesting, and even counter-intuitive, it seemed to me. Until you realize that the panhandler can negotiate the interruption with two people who are co-present better than with only one person (the other being at the other end of the phone).
Being here and being there, or the slippage between private and social, comes up in social media all the time. Twitter is a great example of a tool used to post in front of “everyone.” Inspired in part by Facebook’s status feeds, Twitter allows users to post to a greater audience. Unlike the member’s audience on Facebook, which is most often his or her friends, audiences on Twitter are a mix of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and other unknown followers. (UFOs: Unknown Following Others. ?!!)
The kind of audience we find ourselves in informs and shapes our behavior. When the context of interaction is mediated, however, we are bound by the kind of audience that we imagine, expect, or believe. When we tweet, we have a notion of who’s reading us, whether we believe that it’s just one person or a lot more than one person, and whether we believe others are online now, paying attention, or not. Any medium that puts us in front of a “virtual” audience must have a way of presenting that audience back to us. (This is another reason that lifestreaming applications present content, which is messages from people, in a stream or flow, rather than on a page.)
And there, in the gap between the act of posting and the post itself, there seems to me to be a gap of presence. A juxtaposition of here and now, and there and elsewhere, that coincides with the act of youtubing a concert live. Why do we do it (use social media), and for whom, if and when the medium is built on a radical uncertainty of presence: a gap composed of parts discontinuity, distraction, and disconnection?
Answering this question seems imperative if we are to grasp the root motivation behind participating in social media. For we all recognize that in all things social media, presence, attention, intention, and connection frame the medium’s usage as well as its application and extension across markets and industries. Social media produce presence and as such are means of producing the Self.
This line of reflection came back somewhat jarringly while I was reading the compelling article on the late and magnificent author David Foster Wallace. DFW had suffered depression most of his adult life, and it manifested in a kind of writing that he used to quiet his self doubts and profound lack of a sense of true self. Occupying an other’s voice, getting under their skin, writing through them, was for him a way of occupying a Self.
“He once said to me that he wanted to write to shut up the babble in his head. He said when you’re writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices. The ones that are saying ‘You’re not good enough, you’re a fraud.’” — Rolling Stone
This navigation between a genuine and true Self, and a false, inauthentic Self, limns the article. To Wallace, this was not only a depressive symptom, it was a matter of writing itself. Writing for and in front of an audience is a production of the Self — but one experienced very differently by the author than by his audience. In his own words, Wallace described the gap:
“There is, in writing, a certain blend of sincerity and manipulation, of trying always to gauge what the particular effect of something is gonna be,” he said. “It’s a very precious asset that really needs to be turned off sometimes. My guess is that writers probably make fun, skilled, satisfactory, and seemingly considerate partners for other people. But that the experience for them is often rather lonely.”
And as the Rolling Stone author David Lipsky observed, Wallace’s inner experience of Self not only inspired his best work (as when he made his characters his own), but may have also manifested a profound dislocation of being himself.
“In a way, the difference between fiction and the nonfiction reads as the difference between Wallace’s social self and his private self. The essays were endlessly charming, they were the best friend you’d ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style. Wallace’s fiction, especially after Infinite Jest, would turn chilly, dark, abstract.”
(From Rolling Stone, October 30, 2008. See also: Getting to Know David Foster Wallace)
This resonated for me, as I can often feel a shift in my own relation to social media, as if they are sometimes near, sometimes far. I am sometimes more aware of my inner experience, sometimes more aware of the audience. Sometimes more aware of what it is I want to say, and of how to say it; and sometimes more aware of how it might go over, what effect it may have. These seemed to be the way in which David Foster Wallace wrote his way through life. Being comfortable with the switch, with being here vs being there, was not a problem DFW experienced online — it was a problem he experience in daily life. Again, DFW:
“For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not because I’m too worried a out whether you like me.”
I can’t imagine how difficult the days must have been for Wallace. A fan for years, I hadn’t known that his writing was in some ways symptomatic, if not pathological. That he needed to write in order to produce Self, and that a fictional Self was at least better than a doubt-ridden Self.
Coming back then to social media, and of the juxtaposition of two modes of presence that they sometimes engender (here/there), I wondered whether or not our relation to the medium might in itself create the types of conditions that Wallace experienced most acutely. Granted, the subtext to the “follow you, follow me” phenomenon is a simple and basic condition (it would seem) of the human experience: validation, acknowledgment, recognition. We all need it, as much if not more than food or any other kind of sustenance.
But getting it is a matter of interacting with others, and this raises the contingency of experiencing oneself while being in the world, with others. We wish to be with, not next to, one another (IMHO). I have often believed that any mediation of communication and interaction disables and hobbles this process. Here is one of my favorite sources, the sociologist Erving Goffman, on the matter:
“These two tendencies, that of the speaker to scale down his expressions and that of the listeners to scale up their interests, each in the light of the other’s capacities and demands, form the bridge that people build to one another, allowing them to meet for a moment of talk in a communion of reciprocally sustained involvement. It is this spark, not the more obvious kinds of love, that lights up the world.” Erving Goffman
Which gets us back to technologies like Twitter and the cameras out at the Pumpkins concert, which certainly did light things up. Is there in writing, and in mediated writing, a doubling up of the Self experience, along the lines described by Wallace? A kind of “You’re Ok, How am I?” (which is an old Transactional Analyst’s joke) that comes packaged perhaps in “I’m Ok, How are You?” A sort of linguistic doubling of the exchange, required to compensate for the obvious fact that one is not with the other — one is not able to look the other in the eye, and scale interests up or down to create a shared stretch of time and mutually shared experience. That when there is a gap between the production of self, say in posting to social media, we anticipate the effects of our contributions while authoring them? That the doubling up of private self (the self that experiences participation) and social self (the self that sees itself seen in social media) might always result in ambiguity?
And that, unable to engage in “sustained involvement” with one another, we supply as much of the meaning as we can by using the writing, the speaking, the posting, sharing, and other contents of posted participation as possible. For the media are so thin on the ritual, ceremonial, and contextual aspects of the interaction that we can’t use the normal social scaffolding of face to face interactions to prop up the encounter. The result being that in participating on social media, we over-invest in expression, and under-invest in reciprocation. Thus lending a bias to all mediated interaction in favor of unilateral experiences: a social, in other words, that’s not very social.
I think that, at the end of the day, social media trade in the ambiguity of human relationships and communication. Failing to close the loop on proximity, they offer a nearness that is still disconnected, or to quote the title of the Wim Wenders film, “Faraway, So Close.” And it is this unresolved ambiguity that underlies our motives and behavior on social media. We might close the loop now and then when a conversational turn or run develops, on Twitter or in commenting for example, but we still pump the space with a high level of communicative redundancy (posting overwhelms reading). We want to know the effect of our participation and this condition of the user experience is reflected in our use practices.
Media transform experience, and while they amplify and extend some of our abilities, they bracket and constrain others. As we increasingly adopt social media as means of being social, whether to author, share, engage, search, or consume each other’s contributions, it does those of us who make and trade in social media well to understand that a medium is used as much for what it does not do as for what it does do.
Social media dis-embed the experience of being in a social encounter from the fact of being in a social encounter: they represent and manufacture a semblance of social context on the basis of dislocated presence. This is what grounds the individual user experience, from which social practices emerge as new forms of mediated interactions. These are not media of information to be searched and browsed, but of communication and presence sensed and solicited: to wit, the power of absence and the possibility of ambiguity.
When I think now about where this began, with the matter of being here and being there, and of a private self and a social self, the doubling of experience might be summed up neatly, in a double entendre. For the question of motive can be captured, indeed, with the words: “for whom is it done.”