Lockstep

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It takes a Virtual Village

In "We are hopelessly hooked" (New York Review of Books, February 25), political historian Jacob Weisberg canvasses the social impact of digital technology. He describes mobile and social media as “self-depleting and antisocial” but I would prefer different-social not merely for the vernacular but because the new media's sadder side is a lot like what's gone before.

In reviewing four recent contributions to the field - from Sherry Turkle, Joseph Reagle and Nir Eyal - Weisberg dwells in various ways on the twee dichotomy of experience online and off. For many of us, the distinction between digital and "IRL" (the sardonic abbreviation of "in real life") is becoming entirely arbitrary, which I like to show through an anecdote.

I was a mid-career technology researcher and management consultant when I joined Twitter in 2009. It quickly supplanted all my traditional newsfeeds and bulletin boards, by connecting me to individuals who I came to trust to pass on what really mattered. More slowly, I curated my circles, built up a following, and came to enjoy the recognition that would ordinarily come from regular contact, if the travel was affordable from far flung Australia. By 2013 I had made it as a member of the “identerati” – a loose international community of digital identity specialists. Thus, on my first trip to the US in many years, I scored a cherished invitation to a private pre-conference party with 50 or so of these leaders.

On the night, as I made my way through unfamiliar San Francisco streets, I had butterflies. I had met just one of my virtual colleagues face-to-face. How would I be received “IRL”? The answer turned out to be: effortlessly. Not one person asked the obvious question – Steve, tell us about yourself! – for everyone knew me already. And this surprising ease wasn’t just about skipping formalities; I found we had genuine intimacy from years of sharing and caring, all on Twitter.

Weisberg quotes Joseph Reagle in "Reading the Comments..." looking for “intimate serendipity” in successful online communities. It seems both authors are overlooking how serendipity catalyses all human relationships. It’s always something random that turns acquaintances into friends. And happy accidents may be more frequent online, not in spite of all the noise but because of it. We all live for chance happenings, and the much-derided Fear Of Missing Out is not specific to kids nor the Internet. Down the generations, FOMO has always kept teenagers up past their bed time; but it’s also why we grown-ups outstay our welcome at dinner parties and hang out at dreary corporate banquets.

Weisberg considers Twitter’s decay into anarchy and despair to be inevitable, and he may be right, but is it simply for want of supervision? We know sudden social decay all too well; just think of the terribly real-life “Lord of the Flies”.

Sound moral bearings are set by good parents, good teachers, and – if we’re lucky – good peers. At this point in history, parents and teachers are famously less adept than their charges in the new social medium, but this will change. Digital decency will be better impressed on kids when all their important role models are online.

It takes a village to raise a child. The main problem today is that virtual villages are still at version 1.0.

Posted in Culture, Identity, Internet, Popular culture, Social Media, Trust

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