Monday, 11 January 2010

Learning to talk...

3. Discovering Communication.

I personally don’t think that Web 2.0 is “killing our culture and economy” as Andrew Keen believes – merely that we are in a transitional period where our technologies are advancing faster than we can learn to understand them and use them properly. The Internet has developed over a relatively short space of time – public interest in it only really came about in the 1990s, with its most explosive level of growth between 1996 and 1997. Thus the majority of current users learnt to use the Internet during their adult lives. Currently there is a conflict between what they have learned in the real world to be socially acceptable and the opportunities presented by Web 2.0. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author, Douglas Adams is quoted as writing this set of rules, which describes humanity’s reactions to technologies:

“1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things." The Salmon of Doubt (2002: p. 95)

The introduction of the Internet is comparable to the invention of the printing press, around 1440. Both are examples of technological leaps, which facilitate the free spread of information, and both were met with scepticism from the professions they were perceived to threaten. Clay Shirky comments;

“The comparison with the printing press doesn’t suggest that we are entering a bright new future – for a hundred years after it started, the printing press broke more things that it fixed, plunging Europe into a period of intellectual and political chaos that ended only in the 1600s.” (2008: p.73)

As Shirky says, the printing press began by creating more problems than it was solving, but over time it found its place as a useful tool in society and eventually became not only an accepted part of it, but a hugely important element. It is clear that the Internet is already a significant tool in modern society. It is hard to imagine that it will take as long as 150 years for the Internet to find its place, to settle down, but it is clear that we are still only developing its potential. Most Internet based communication is currently modeled on existing forms of communication, where a conversation takes place between a speaker and an audience, whether that is an individual or a group, and where the conversation happens in a chronological order. Tools such as GoogleWave, currently only available as a preview of the final application, allow users to post information and ideas to a familiar web-chat format. Each piece of the conversation is then editable by any member of the conversation or ‘wave’. Changes are highlighted and the author of the change is credited on a group member’s first viewing of the amendment. Each person who contributes to pieces of conversation is recognized as an author of the post, and the post becomes a collaboration. Communication techniques such as this are an example of possible future Internet developments, where the identity of the author becomes less important or apparent. Interestingly, it was the invention of the printing press, which first gave the final word, as it were, on a work, to its original author. Before that, each copy of a piece of writing was a manuscript, which had been copied by a scribe, possibly from another copy, or a copy of a copy. Thus a given manuscript may have been altered greatly from the original piece, and its author or title lost. We are already witnessing how technology is changing language, shortening words and grammar and giving new meanings to old words such as avatar or wiki. Perhaps, as Internet technologies develop, we will begin to move back to older practices and models where idea ownership is less important than the actual idea.

Users will also have to write the rules on what is socially acceptable on the Internet. The way the Internet allows people to connect worldwide is so different from what has gone before that there is not necessarily a precedent for how people should behave on the Internet.

Looking specifically at, a site which challenges traditional perceptions of secrecy, privacy and truth, we find a website devoted to the secrets of it’s viewers. As mentioned in my introduction this site requires users to send in postcards which tell a secret on the front side, usually decorated in someway, the tag line being “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people

mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.” (, 08/11/09). This is a unique use of the Internet as a form of communication – it asks its users to take time and effort, to use some creativity to create a response.

Started by Frank Warren in 2005, it claims to be the biggest, advertisement-free blog in the world and has received 280, 822, 820 visitors at the time of writing. Warren, who has been described as “the most trusted stranger in America”, often opens the talks he regularly gives at colleges across America saying, “Everyone has a secret that would break your heart, if only you knew.” This may be true, however the secrets shared on his site are more often than not extremely sentimental or narcissistic – rather than shocking or indeed heart-breaking.

(Taken from on 25/04/09)

While the secrets can be inconsequential and flippant, they can also often be inspirational or thought provoking. Whether these polar opposites are a sign that the public are not ready to bear their souls on the Internet, even anonymously, or whether it shows that they will never be ready is unclear. There aren’t many outlets for this type of communication yet – where virtuality and reality crossover and ask for anonymous creatively. Perhaps we are so used to having an identity, to claiming our work and thoughts as ours that we are not entirely comfortable when giving our personal thoughts away to be viewed by millions of strangers. When asked how he chooses which secrets make the cut Warren has said “I look for a ring of authenticity and real human emotions.” If the secret doesn’t make the grade then it has the chance of getting into the next Postsecret book or being part of Warren’s lecture series, in which he tours colleges in America, talking about the project. I wonder how the owners of the rejected secrets feel. Do they feel liberated, simply for having shared their secret with Warren or do they experience something else? Fear perhaps that the secret has fallen into the wrong hands, or indifference as nothing has been gained or lost.

Frank Warren’s post arriving in the snow, taken from (22/12/09).

To try and gain a better understanding of users relationship with Postsecret, I created a questionnaire on In 24 hours I had received 17 replies, which ranged from those who had never heard of Postsecret, or were disinterested in it, to those who checked it every week, and even a few who had submitted their own secrets. . The majority said that they had heard of the site (13 had compared to 4 who had not), probably because those who had were more likely to be interested in taking part in the survey. From the responses it was clear to see that those who had first accessed the site between the ages of 15-16, or while still in high school had a much greater emotional attachment to it than those who were introduced to it whilst at university. A conclusion that might be drawn from this is that those using the Internet in an intimate way, at a younger age, have developed a more emotional attachment to it. They are more comfortable with digital relationships. One respondent, who first came across Postsecret, aged 15 and in school admitted to having submitted a secret. When asked what motivated them to do so they replied;

“To share something with the world that I would never have been able to get off my chest otherwise.”

I noticed that they didn’t articulate why they felt they needed to “share something with the world”. Another secret submitter said that they sent in a secret because Postsecret gave them “The ability to tell something to everyone, yet no one.” This comment was interesting to me – it implies that the nature of the anonymity of this site cancels out its purpose.

As people begin to connect and share information all across the Earth, there is a merging of various cultures and backgrounds which have to gel together, as well as an entirely new set of behaviors. And so, in these early years of the Internet we are seeing an emergence of what may become the norm in the future, or evolve further. Websites like Postsecret or YouTube which offer narcissistic outlets and give the opportunity for everyone’s 5 minutes of fame (all be it anonymously in some cases) may seem strange, vain, vulgar or mundane and self pitying at present, but in years to come it may become a more normal way for people to communicate, especially in an increasingly touchy-feely world. As it becomes socially acceptable for people, especially men, to show their emotional sides or be considered “metrosexual”, more outlets for egotism and narcissism may materialize, and be an accepted part of modern life.

However, currently there are a lot of people abusing social media to gain fame in these pioneering days of the Internet. Tila Tequila is the most obvious example; a model who rose to fame for having the most popular MySpace page in the world (most views per page) circa April 2006. From this she landed two reality television series and has released several singles. To keep herself in the public eye, she often Tweets outrageous and controversial things. At the start of 2010 her fiancé, Johnson&Johnson heiress, Casey Johnson died suddenly. It was Tila Tequila who first broke the news, via Twitter, only hours later. Other Twitter users critisied her for grieving so publically but she reminded them “I started off as the "INTERNET GIRL" remember? So I have ALWAYS been VOCAL on the net!” While most people would claim an aversion to her brand of vulgar and blatant attention grabbing, they would also have to admit it caries a certain intrigue.

Most celebrities and public figures traditionally shy away from media intrusion on their lives, or at least pretend to. We know that “leaked” details can often come from PR, aiming to increase the press coverage of a certain celebrity – the old adage that “there’s no such thing as bad press.” Increasingly there is a new generation of celebrities using social media to their advantage – and who are often far more willing to give people what they want in terms of personal information. Mitch Benn (comedian and musician) often tweets with the hash-tag ‘#thingsGretasays’, Greta being his 4 year old daughter. An example would be,

MitchBenn: #thingsGretasays Mummy I am a bit bored. Will you make me a MILKSHAKE to make my boredness go away?”

2:53 PM Nov 4th from dabr

Of course, this is a relatively harmless post, merely commenting on the funny and sometimes inspirational things that young children say. However, one must question whether posting comments about one’s children crosses a boundary? Mitch Benn’s 13, 500 followers all hear snippets from Greta Benn’s life – a 4 year old unable to control what her parents say about her on the internet. On the 22/12/09 the Benn’s started a separate Twitter account for their daughter in which they Tweet as if they are her. I wonder what will happen, assuming that Twitter is still relevant, when Greta becomes old enough to have her own Internet presence.

Other examples of celebrities using social media in an interesting, different or meaningful way include Imogen Heap – a musician who tweets regularly on her life as a musician and on tour, and Amanda Palmer, a punk cabaret musician who also tweets about her life. Palmer in particular is also happy to give more private details;

“Amandapalmer: i am so menstrual”

1:52 AM Nov 6th from web

Other examples have seen her giving detailed descriptions of illness, posting photos of her posing nude, online auctions which include personal items such as a glass dildo and what her and her boyfriend, Neil Gaiman (aka @neilhimself) are doing and where they are. Neil Gaiman doesn’t tend to post such personal things himself, and is the 110th most popular Tweeter in the world (Palmer is 448th). In a recent tweet, Palmer said;

“Amandapalmer: just got in a car accident with @neilhimself on the brooklyn queens expressway. Brilliant”

10:27 PM Nov 14th from Twittelator

“scary traffic rear-Ender. we stopped short, car behind banged into us. cars are slightly bent, nobodys hurt but everybodys shaky.”

10:31 PM Nov 14th from Twittelator

Her own followers began sending messages saying they hoped she was safe. However, by naming Gaiman she inadvertently caused him to be inundated by messages.

“poor @neilhimself got a gazillion emails and phone calls after i tweeted our fender bender. sometimes i forget how famous he is. oops.”

2:13 AM Nov 15th from web

Social media such as Twitter, which allows a user to name another user via any interactive element similar to Twitter’s own “mention” feature (where, by placing an “@” sign in front of a username, a link to their page is created, and other users can search for these mentions) gives account holders the power to share personal aspects of not only their own lives, but those of others. Before the subject of the mention has time to react or object, the interactive link has alerted thousands to their actions, especially with the ability of other readers to ReTweet the original text. Incidents such as this are examples of the way that social media is evolving faster than we can get a handle on it.

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