Impact of wired world – 13

After some weeks of digressions I’m returning to my main theme for my 13th post in this series (am I superstitious about 13).  My series of posts under this title expand on posts by Dr. Tracy Dennis, a serious researcher in the area of social media. While there is an ample supply of commentary about social media there is little actual research. As I’ve explored this topic I have been able to find a lot of usage statistics and some informal surveys but Dr. Dennis wants to ask and answer questions about the impact of social media on behavior and development. In short, is social media having some deep and/or lasting impact on us? Without a doubt using social media is certainly a phenomenon that has engulfed a significant share of our species and at a surface level certainly changed behavior, but are we really different?

In this post Dr. Dennis raises questions comparing our online and offline lives, using the metaphor that it is same-same, but different. As a qualifier I think this is very broad question and vis-a-vis all the types of social media we have to first qualify which type. Texting is more directed to people who actually know you F2F and requires fast interaction so not much opportunity to create an online you that is different than the offline you. OTOH, blogging is the other end of the spectrum, all the time in the world to project yourself through your writing, using your choice of topics to define yourself online, and given the media implies more effort on written communication you probably are stylistically quite different than the offline you (I can almost promise your written work is very different from a spontaneous verbal presentation because we use different skills for each).

So I suspect this broad question is most applicable in that in-between world of Twitter and its equivalents, and Facebook and its equivalents – where we are a real person, probably more focused on the here-and-now, but also primarily actually focused on social interaction with a group (rather than an individual as in texting). Many in the group may be fairly distant acquaintances, even strangers, so any disconnect between online and offline identity won’t be so noticed and some desire for privacy may encourage.

So let’s follow the structure of Dr. Dennis’ post. She says:

I feel like life online is just like this – same, same, but different. How we interact, how we create identity, how we feel special and understood online is the same, same but different from our offline life. Here are three examples of this:

The first example is:

1. What counts as clever.  In the offline world, being clever usually involves being quick-witted: having the fast comeback, thinking on your feet, etc, …. But online, you have oodles of time to compose, rewrite, think about, and edit every comment you make. Self-presentation becomes a long-term process rather than a series of quick, face-to-face exchanges that “disappear” as soon as they have happened.  These disappearing impressions are what used to be the basis of our views about each other. …. It’s just that when we’re trying to be clever, we can take our time about it.

I once worked on voice recognition products. One tool we used was to record people in spontaneous conversation and then have the recordings converted to transcripts, then have the people read the transcripts. Most people believed the transcripts were somehow altered because they didn’t believe they sounded like that (just like hearing ourselves on a recording we sound different). Without any firm references I’ll make that claim that how we talk is quite different from how we write (and social media is mostly written). Writing is a low-bandwidth communication and omits so much of a physical presentation so we know we have to change what we say and how we say it in written form. Right away our online and offline self will be a bit different due to different modality.

Another way for any of us to become more aware of how we talk is to be partially deprived of it. In another job I spent multiple sessions of a week with Japanese partners who spoke little English. Japanese technology types had many college courses in English and so are fairly proficient at reading but they rarely get much chance to hear and even less chance to speak English. Of course I knew no Japanese so the only chance of communication had to be through English (a mixed blessing of having the dominant language of commerce and technology be your first language: good, it’s easier for you, bad, you don’t have to learn other languages). Anyway, in normal discussions with my staff in English I speak rapidly and, just as I write but worse, with lots of words. That’s really tough for someone who has limited English listening skills. But body language is fairly universal, so when our meetings would start (these were design meetings and as the architect I led them) I quickly noticed I was losing my audience. The first thing was my staff kept signaling me to slow down and pretty soon I thought I sounded like molasses but more was getting through. The second thing is Japanese language really uses compound clauses, so a quick thing to do is put in periods, not ‘and’. And with those periods, put in a long pause. In short, don’t actually speak more than a few words without a pause. And since techies love whiteboards in fact mostly write out words that are jargon and might be lost on an ESL audience. After a week I spoke so wildly different even though I was still only speaking English nonetheless I drove native English listeners crazy. It was an interesting experience to provide perspective.

So at one level the idea of being “clever” (or any other attribution or synonym for clever) is likely to be different in social media communication because it is written. Try, as an experiment, to actually write how you think you talk, but use voice recording and talk naturally and see if you’re actually the same – I doubt you will be. Plus written language is so dry whereas verbal can be filled with all sorts of inflection and flourish. Or, as an opposite exercise take some of your best writing and read it out loud and see how much more dull it seems and how much you’ll be tempted to spice it up a bit with various kinds of emphasis and non-verbal communication.

I look at blog comments a lot and in fact there does seem to be a big premium on being “clever.” In fact you can often even see oneupsmanship in the comment strings, the bar on cleverness is set higher and higher and until the comment thread changes course each successive comment must be even more clever. I actually find this strange, what is the point? It can be amusing, but frankly it sounds to me as people just showing off how clever they are and the comments have little to do with the post. So is “clever” all by itself something that changes in online vs offline – perhaps.

Moving on, here’s the next example:

2. It’s OK to brag. I’m actually not sure that it is OK to brag in online communities, but I see a lot more of it online than offline … This seems to be an important difference between online and offline, because one of the purposes of the digital social network is to get yourself and your work “out there.”  … Does this mean that social mores about bragging may be changing? The interesting thing to watch will be whether these tendencies trickle down into our offline lives.

I would expand “brag” to also include what I find common and that is while talking about relatively abstract ideas people still tend to bring themselves into it and somehow make the discussion more about themselves than the idea. Either way it does seem we’re putting ourselves out there more than perhaps we do in offline life. Now as Dr. Dennis points out, often this is somewhat required since our social media presence is now very much part of how we “sell” ourselves (and in today’s economy we have to constantly “sell”, jobs are now acquired in large point via social media (or at least your social media “image”), any independent gets contracts from social media, your online image may weigh in grant decisions, and so forth, so while we’ve always had to “sell” ourselves, social media makes that both more outright and with more emphasis (again the paucity of written communications removes some of the other selling we can do via non-verbal communication).

So I’d say it is the last sentence of this quoted section, will the online “selling” more substantially affect offline lives. And I’d suggest this might be a possible platform for experiment and study, something like, get a group of people and tell them they’ve got a couple of minutes to verbally sell themselves for a job, then tell them to do the same thing via a simulated LinkedIn or Facebook for multiple iterations, then have them do it again verbally. Count self-references, both quantity and how direct and how emphatic. If this is too hard do the same thing in some other simple contrived “selling” exercise.

I watch many of the FoodNetwork cooking competitions. I don’t have actual data, but it seems to me over the years that personal persuasion has crept in. In the early shows contestants cooked their food and turned it into judges and stood there more or less silently. Now, especially in a recent Chopped, contestants reveal all sorts of personal details and how deserving they are (just as people rather than purely as chefs) and they get all emotional and so-forth. Undoubtedly this has all been focus-grouped for ratings and it works with audiences (it doesn’t for me, it’s FOOD show, not reality TV). Perhaps my observation isn’t even valid, or perhaps it is true, but it’s just competing with reality TV, or who knows what. BUT, there is a connection that I think this example might be an easier one to do an experiment.

But almost everyone has observed that most people lie, often a lot, in social media. I posted on this, that we lie more about being pretty than smart. Clearly peer pressure works both ways: a) if it’s not appropriate to do something, i.e. brag, and the peer group makes this clear (criticizing someone who does brag), we’ll do less of it, and, b) if it is encouraged we’ll do more of it. Perhaps we hear bragging and so we brag too. Perhaps we hear bragging and we don’t just brag ourselves, but we get in competition to bragging more. Since social media doesn’t have the non-verbal feedback (tell a whopper to a live audience and you’d have to be blind not to see the reaction, but in writing, how can we tell).

In fact this example seems to have the seed of a research idea. Take two groups of volunteers and expose them to posts and they have to make comments. In one set of posts have a lot of bragging and in the other extreme modesty, then measure the comments for amount of bragging. And maybe do the same experiment in person. If the results show anything it may just be the peer pressure vs the medium.

And finally, Dr. Dennis discusses this example:

3. Being cool. I’m no expert on cool, but it seems to me that how people are cool online is quite different than the traditional ways of being cool. Online, cool seems to be defined by the number of friends/followers/connections you have, as well as your sheer presence in terms of posts.

I think “cool” is a completely appropriate term but again I’ll switch it a bit to “impressive”, or we’re trying to impress others about some aspect of ourselves, “cool” being one of them (at least in the blog world, all the normal things, athletics, travel, money, skills, taste, etc., enter into how people sell themselves). “cool” is probably particularly appropriate for the younger set, but that’s just my bias, or an extension of pretty-is-better-than-smart. Certainly anyone presenting themselves professionally is more interested in impressing with smart, knowledgeable, competent, since cool may get you popularity but those other attributes get you money.

But Dr. Dennis’ elaboration of the cool theme to distinguish the James Dean kind of cool that seems to be missing online is interesting. And I suspect it would be very hard to pin down in research. I know a lot of people who are opposed to social media exactly because they don’t think it’s cool. Book group for short list Booker writers is cool, Facebook is bourgeoisie. Paper books are cool, eBooks are nerdy. Cult movies are cool, superheros are juvenile. Yep, James Dean cool vs Snooki cool.

So how much of this is culture (or the “times”)  and how much is it people’s station in life and how much is it technology and how much of it is social media? Really hard to say.

And finally on this point, Dr Dennis says:

One reason for this shift in cool may be that online, tech-savvy geeks rule the world, so the definition of cool has altered to fit their goals and ways of being. Another may simply be a function of the technology. You can’t be strong and silent online.

Being a certified geek I’ll take issue with this. First, I don’t think, at least in social media, that “tech-savvy geeks rule”.  But perhaps I use “tech-savvy” in a different way. I label myself as “tech-savvy” because I can (and have for decades) create the stuff. I do not label most of the my circle here in Nebraska (as opposed to my circle when I was in Silicon Valley) as “tech-savvy”. Oh sure, they have latest gadgets and are moderately competent at using them, but they have little clue or interest in how they work. I make this distinction because in fact the early Internet and still much of the Internet is, in fact, “tech-savvy”, but most of the come-lately’s are not. Kids who can thumbtype faster than I can and know more texting slang are not more “tech-savvy”. In fact, I’ve frequently thundered from this blog that I object to social media even being called ‘technology’ at all (did Facebook actually invent any piece of what they use, a processor chip, perhaps, a new OS, new comm protocols, new languages, interesting new database structure – of course not, and none of the social media companies impress me in the least in their “technology”.

It’s like saying kids who speed around the cars mommy and daddy bought them and wouldn’t have a clue what Carnot cycle means or how continuously variable transmissions work are “car-savvy”. And in fact because I actually think most social media users (at least at Facebook) are just the oppose, tech-illiterate (although clearly not technophobic as many people still are) I think it is only an illusion of being a geek that comes through.

Now I don’t have my fingers on the sources (some of my draft posts) but many have also noticed a gender gap in social media. Wading into anything gender related is hazardous, but I will assert that as a generalization women are less willing, even if they are geeks, to be seen as “geeks” than men, especially men who actually are geeks. So it’s no surprise to me that Facebook has slightly more women than men, but Google+ is very male dominated (Google oozes geek and probably most Google+ users like Droids instead of iPhone, and probably wouldn’t be caught dead using a Mac but probably like Linux and probably at least know what emacs is (maybe if vi is they’re old)). But it’s not at all obvious why Reddit is the real male bastion and Pinterest is the female hangout (what guys don’t like pictures, gals don’t like news – that can’t be it). So “cool” is relative to a lot of variables. However, one I’ve experienced first hand (and somewhat dislike) is that all iPad owners think they’re very very cool. Sorry guys spending a few more bucks on a fad item is not cool even though Apple marketing did everything in their power to make it look cool.

But while it may seem like a digression one area of how “cool” is measured that I understand is techie and geeks. It goes all the way back to Usenet (for extra credit kiddies who think you’re tech-savvy, tell me what Usenet is and better yet how NNTP worked or even more interesting what is an RFC). There – that’s techie cool and bragging. Most Facebook bragging and cool is something else.

So addressing the whole of Dr. Dennis post I think:

  1. we have to distinguish which types of social media these observations would apply to and how
  2. we have to distinguish which types of people (various measures) since different groups will be selling themselves and buying others differently
  3. and we have to look at other influences, today’s pop culture is different than pop culture pre-social-media so is TV or celebrity to blame for bragging
  4. and we provide have to look at long-term culture, i.e. can statements you’d make about U.S. teenagers apply to Turkish middle-aged.
  5. how much of the difference, if any, between online and offline is due just to the medium (writing vs speaking)
  6. how much of the difference is because we now can have social networks of very loosely connected people, even strangers, rather than actual friends/family/acquaintances who actually know us (do we really “perform” as much for real friends as we do in social situations of blatant selling: job interview, first date, trying to get funding for a proposal, showing our art or poetry)

So in summary I think we are different online and offline but it’s a calculated and conscious difference based on a lot of variables and only somewhat coincidentally on “technology”.

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About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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13 Responses to Impact of wired world – 13

  1. Wasn’t Usenet one of the very first networking systems created…at really slow bit rates? NNTP sounds like a type of protocol…”something… Network Transfer Protocol”? RFC to me means “Request For Comment”. So…how did I do? 🙂

    • dmill96 says:

      Pretty good. NNTP had a couple of versions but the one familiar to me was Network News Transmission Protocol. In the very early days of Internet (back when it was Arpanet) that was used to report status of various links in the net. IIRC (and this is dim) there was also UDCP which was a lower-level protocol for connecting low speed connections, sometimes even dialup, so that all nodes in the entire network were reachable. NNTP was layered on top of that as a mechanism often described as the waves a stone makes thrown in a pond. But that’s the technology side.

      The “social” side was a mechanism for organizing discussions, in fact, one of the first of the uses of . a.b.c, a.b.d, a.c.e, and so forth. The first level was tightly controlled so the alt. category was wide open. That’s where a lot of the political discussions occurred.

      It was a crude affair, but it provided an opportunity for the first-ever for-profit business on the Internet, ClariNet, founded by Brad Templeton. I worked there well after it was already going and profitable. The gimmick was, since the Internet itself had to be non-commercial, was that the ISP you used to connect to the Internet had their own servers and could provide content, given someone, i.e. ClariNet, supplied that content. The content was the various wire services with unbelievably primitive mechanism (almost literally Morse code, but moved onto satellites) to send “feeds”, which used to come out on the teletype machine you’d see in an old movie. Brad figured out how to parse those feeds, clean up the messages, categorize them into a hierarchy of several thousand topics, and ship them out to ISPs, in real-time. It was a great little business, while it lasted.

      The trouble came with the web. Except for a little porn, NNTP was not used for graphics, only plain text. So when the sexy HTTP and HTML came out, especially after Netscape invented the first commonly available browser (ripped it off, from U.Illinois, IMO) the “page” was born. It was way more attractive to users than just text and a variety of klunky command-driven “readers” (I can’t even remember their names but the inventor of the most popular one, Wayne Davidson, worked for me at ClariNet). But talk about resistant to change. ClariNet resisted both technical change (switch to web) and economic, but the economic was the killer. Basically newspapers chose to give away their news, the exact same content we were selling. Free beats paid, so bye-bye subscription content.

      And that’s were we are today, an ad-based world that most often actually doesn’t really make money (as Facebook is sorta proving). The trouble with ad-based revenue is that ads work when supply is limited (like the SuperBowl ads, not many minutes available so they cost a fortune). The Internet can generate effectively an infinite amount of space for ads, so ads are extremely cheap, way cheaper than any of the traditional media. The only way ads can make sense is “targeting”, i.e. feeding the ad to a person who might be interested. Of course that conflicts with privacy. So for Google it doesn’t work too bad, you’re searching for xxx, they show you ads for xxx. But for Facebook and Twitter they need to get into your profiles, know who you are, and what they can sell you, then those “targeted” ads will sell for enough money to keep the lights on. So the more a social network tells marketers about you they more money they make. The more the social network controls your online experience (hence Facebook switching email to their internal system) the more money they make. The trouble is, does a business have to be so intrusive, in order to make a profit, you can’t stand using it.

      There was another alternative, micro-payments (subscription rarely works), but the world somehow got sold on the idea that the Net was free (basically in the dotcom boom, VC capital was subsidizing customers, not a sustainable situation). So the failure of the Net to develop any innovative revenue model plagues the world to today. New startups like Facebook and Twitter get going, losing money from the investors, but gaining “eyeballs” and then they have to turn eyeballs into cash in order to have a sustainable business. But who actually cares about sustainable if you can just cash in via the IPO (literally a Ponzi scheme, the suckers who buy the stock provide the profits to the earlier investors). That’s why the 1990s dotcom boom went bust and why Web 2.0 is just another iteration of that same Ponzi scheme. This time Groupon and Zygna, even Facebook, are proofing the final investors are slightly smarter and not falling, at least as much for the Ponzi scheme.

      So where will that leave Web 3.0? If no one can figure out an actual sustainable business model probably the investors will not do early funding of another round of Ponzi scheme. So we could literally see progress halt, simply because several decades have gone by with end users believing everything is free (like WordPress.com, how do they really make any money providing us and our readers with free service). The economics of the Net are even stupider than the economics of the U.S. government.

      • dmill96 says:

        Another point, that my reply reminded me of, of the nature of people and the stupid discussions that occurred in Usenet. My reply (above) is 99.6% accurate, but it is probably not 100% accurate. In fact this thought was triggered by my later thought that I possibly misspelled Wayne’s last name (it might have been Davison, rather than Davidson).

        If I’d made my comment on some widely read discussion board someone would have attacked me, with what I’ll label as “netpicking” (deliberate spelling, but probably stupid because there is probably some other bit of jargon that more precisely describes it). Somebody would point out my error thus believing they invalidated my entire reply even though they never even touched on the broader points I raised, which I’ll still assert is 99.6% accurate. That’s a silly discussion point, but the kind of “debate” that commonly occurred on Usenet. If the critic couldn’t actually find an error they’d just make up some irrelevant trivia to dispute me thinking that “wins” the debate because they’re being so clever.

        Perhaps you remember the famous line (which, of course, without research, I can’t quote accurately when Lloyd Bentson debated, IIRC, Dan Quayle). Quayle did some name-dropping about Jack Kennedy and Bentson, the old guy said, “I knew Jack Kennedy, he was my friend, and …” It was a good put-down for the silly remark Quayle made and fortunately Bentson could pull that out of his pocket.

        Usenet “debates” revolved around this kind of silly thing. Sooner or later someone would get mad and then start name-calling (the classic joke was sooner or later all discussions bring up Hitlet). No real discussion happened.

        A friend who was the VP of Marketing at ClariNet (or Brad himself) might contradict me and they’d probably be right, even if only about a detail. My friend might actually dispute the real substance of my post and whatever point he made would be thoughtful and quite likely right, in short, a real discussion. My friend could disagree without being disagreeable.

        I sorta thought this juvenile type of “debating” had disappeared, but I was surprised to see it alive and well in a flamewar going on, mostly by “kids” (who wouldn’t be able to answer my NNTP or other questions). They’d think they’re being so smart and so glib and in fact absolutely “zero” discussion would occur, just a bunch of posturing.

        So in terms of my original post the anonymity and de facto equality (some kid in diapers at the the time of the events I lived through would think his views are equal.) So if there is anyone listening to any of this who wants to netpick, I’ll ask them to tell me what Wayne’s salary and bonus was, since I actually know (pulling a Lloyd Bentsen) since I paid them.

        The level of discourse in social media is mostly banal. Which is too bad because it is such a terrific way to have real discourse.

        • Brilliant—absolutely f—ing BRILLIANT! God I’m such a geek because I really thoroughly enjoyed these 2 replies. Hell, I’m still laughing! You are just so spot-on with your knowledge and insight; I can’t believe I was fortunate enough to run across one of your posts so early in the game. You really do “pump me up” and inspire me to no end. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for doing what you do here and for being the human being I think you are!

          • dmill96 says:

            Whoa, too many compliments and I might start getting a swelled head. In short, you’re welcome. I’m glad long stories like mine can be interesting. I intend to do more so stayed tuned.

          • Don’t go getting a big head or I might have to tag you as a Repug… 😀

          • dmill96 says:

            I’ll try not to – you can help keep me honest. Oh, tagged as a Repug, that would hurt. Actually I originally was (in the meaningless way that I inherited it from my parents but lost it by the time I was old enough to vote). It’s amazing what a president telling you you’re cannon fodder does to your POV esp. as his predecessor had idealistically told me I was the hope of the future.

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  3. Nona says:

    Well I am not a techie, but I did enjoy your responses and 13th blog. I felt that I didn’t fall into any of your blogger IDs. I am blogging so the past will be available for my family, grandchildren in particular and friends. In 2010, awaiting a double lung transplant, I blogged my childhood and son’s childhood for them to have if they hit a “I wish I had asked her” moment after I check out. Fortunately, I got a re-do in 2011 and with tremendous help from family and friends I am not back to blogging. I blog about recipes I find that I like and present the original site to my readers. I blog about 45 year old recipes I use still. Yesterday I made homemade hamburger buns, which turned out terrific. I find various gadgets or software I found helpful. Cooking tips, newspaper articles, etc.
    Anything that I can happily share with others as I do not want to waste the time I have on my second tour of life. I give out tried and true information — I share. No matter, I don’t really need a category, but I did enjoy your blog.

    • dmill96 says:

      Thank you for your comment and my best wishes for your second tour on life.

      I think your idea of leaving behind your thoughts and stories for future generations is one of the great values of technology-assisted oral histories. As a software developer I’ve been very interested in figuring out how to record one’s whole life (wasn’t possible for most of us) for not only next generation(s) but even for ourselves as we look back. One challenge is simply having any file format, media, or service stay in existence long enough; in fact, that will be impossible so some active process of migrating from one generation of technology to the next is needed.

      As to making bread I just started recently (and now due to my elevated sugar probably can’t eat it any more) and I enjoy it immensely, experimenting, sometimes getting flops (literally). I did hamburger buns and they were delicious but a little too fragile and thus fell apart before finishing the burger. If you haven’t tried it check out Jim Lahey’s No-Knead (long ferment) technique (or equivalent you can find on the net).

      • Nona says:

        Thank you, I have found second go around much easier. I may have anyway at this age, but I definitely know that I no longer keep score.
        I have a killer hamburger recipe, I got 32 years ago. I made it yesterday, to test before posting it. They were excellent. Will have it up today or tomorrow for sure. See, you have good karma. Knowing that Internet will evolve and someday this page could disappear, I simply print the blogs out and put in a folder for them. I did that with my childhood blog, but occasionally I add a new memory or a correction from a family member so I have to pull the old out and replace with new. Technology is awesome, paper somehow manages to survive eons. RE: shopping for 25 lbs of flour, I would lose my mind trying to find a place for it. No room at this inn. I am makeing fired peach pies sometime today or tomorrow. The pastry I have falls apart, so hoping this will be an improvement

        I printed about 200100 pages on genenolgy when I went to Ansestry.com. I found I am 26th great grand daughter of Robert Bruce, Ist King of Scotland. I traced it twice, assuming I had made a mistake along the way. If you are going to be royalty, be one the movies are made about, “Braveheart.” Not that is makes one iota difference in my life, but reading the history as we went along was great. Gotta get cracking around here. Have a good day.

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