February 19, 2007

Open questions

I was having the sort of existential conversation you can only have at your 3rd bar stop of the evening and right before closing time.

The subject was, generally, does working on the web truly matter. Like, really in the grand scheme of things where we're all gonna die, be flooded by melted glaciers or ultimately blinked out in the heat death of the universe.

My answer is a strong Yes. I believe this because I believe that the Web is the most important human achievement of our lifetime. Not because of its ability to quickly deliver stock quotes, horoscopes and news, but because of what we can create with it. The web allows us to see the world from previously obscured vantage points, listen to voices that were previously too remote to hear.

In a nutshell, the web is important because it allows people to more easily answer the question "How do you feel?"

While I believe that more content and more viewpoints are good in and of themselves, they also point to a more transcendent purpose. As the web makes accessible this flood of perception, we are able to more fully realize that our own individual view of things is essentially arbitrary. By this I mean that while the particular way I see the world can never be challenged for its primacy in my understanding of things, I can grow to understand that it is a biological quick that causes me to experience things this way.

By realizing this we are able to more completely understand one another, regardless of location or background. And this sort of understanding is the most important factor that will allow us, as humans, to tackle global problems and achieve unimaginable goals.

And then I threw in some stuff about how I had an hallucination that suggested to me that human beings have evolved to be the sense organs of a planet-wide organism. Like I said, it was late.

In any case, I was rather satisfied with this oratory and it seemed to resonate with my fellow webgeek companions. I was so satisfied that I repeated it a few nights later to a different group of friends. The context was slightly different on this second, later occasion. On one hand, I was trying to explain why I was excited about my new job. And on the other, I was trying to find out why this second group of friends (while technologically-inclined) weren't really into the web at all as a medium of self-expression.

In my experience as a part-time blog evangelist, I've frequently run into the comment from non-bloggers that "Well, that all seems interesting but it's not for me. I just don't have anything to say." In the past, this response has both saddened and angered me. Saddened because I interpreted it, in part, as a lack of creativity. And angered because it was often voiced to me by co-workers who I figured would share my view of the transcendent power of the web (seeing as how they worked at Google and all).

But on this occasion I heard a new variant of this response from my friend Emily. She asked "Why is it so important that everyone participate in the web (as a creator)?" While not necessarily included in my overview, this is a fundamental part of my belief.

Eventually, I believe, everyone will be using the web as a medium of self-expression. Just as ~everyone has an email address, so too will ~everyone have a place on the web that they can point to as being theirs (even if it's not fully public or shared with everyone). Those that won't are those who will be prevented through some lamentable combination of lack of access or willful rejection of technology. But both from a philosophical and professional standpoint, I want to see as many as people as possible use the web to express themselves. Moreover, I want to build the tools that enable them to do so.

Emily wasn't buying it. She was happy that a good chunk of people would be writing blogs, making web pages, and so on. But there's no reason to go nuts here. We shouldn't expect or even hope for it to be everyone.

Clearly that should be the goal, I responded, for our understanding is increased as more experiences are shared. The network becomes more valuable as the number of nodes increases.

Then Emily told me about how, as a recruiter, she spends her time looking for people online. She uses advanced search engine hoodoo to find the right kind of people for the right job. And in this age when so many people can be found online, it's a real treat to find someone who has left no mark. The same with restaurants, she argued. If you can find somewhere that hasn't been reviewed a thousand times on, it's like you're finding something special. Like a fresh snowfall before it gets all footprinted up. (OK - the snow metaphor is my own flowery nonsense, but I think it's in the spirit of her argument).

And I realized I didn't have a great response to that. It's possible that as more people have online presences, there will be a natural backlash from a subsequent generation of folks who don't want to share in that way. Maybe there will be folks who consider it a virtue to have as thin an online presence as possible, analogous to the pride some webgeeks feel when they manage to be completely unplugged for a week or weekend.

I hope this isn't the case. I hope we can create the right mix of technology that allows everyone to share parts of themselves online in a way that is natural. For those of us involved in creating social software, I feel it should be our goal. As a result of these two conversations, however, I feel both more driven to achieve it and less assured in the inevitability of our transcendental connectedness.

How do you feel?


dgcopter said...

Speaking as someone who used to regularly keep a blog and now doesn't, let me tell you how I feel...

I feel that the biggest obstacle I had in trying to establish an online presence was the constant realization that everything I did was instantly public. That's a pretty tough hurdle to overcome. Your web presence is a very unique kind of beast of self-expression in that it not only is intensely private, but intensely public at the same time. I think it's really hard for a lot of people (myself included) to get past the idea of your blog being a kind of performance. When you create a web page or post entries on a blog, you're creating a public image of yourself. A sort of "information avatar". And, ultimately, that avatar is going to fall short of reality, so you have to ask yourself how much of a disparity you're willing to tolerate.

You compare the inevitability of everyone having a blog (or some other web-based presence) to everyone having an email address. The problem with that analogy is that not everyone (actually, not ANYone) has access to your email but you.

As you say, one's blog can be as public or private as you want, but if you make it so private that nobody but you can view it, how will we all become interconnected in the worldwide web content orgy you envision? And if we do allow our content to be public, how personal is it, really? Does/should it matter?

Jason Goldman said...

Well put.

So I think the distinguishing characteristic of the content I'm talking about is less its accessibility by everybody, everywhere (public-ness) and more the one-to-many relationship between a content author and audience. Even if a blog is locked down to a smaller audience, the fact that the owner is writing for a somewhat undetermined set of people changes the way in which they write.

My example for this has frequently been the first blog I ever posted to - a group blog called Corndog. It was only written and read by close friends, people I had known for 5 years or more. And yet, when they posted I saw different sides of these people I knew intimately. The act of sharing in a quasi-public space changes things and I think this is true even if you have access controls.

As long as that type of expression is happening, I'm satisfied. And I think the content is still personal, in the sense of being individual, even if it may not be intimate.

From a design perspective, what I'd like to see is that everyone has a web presence that intermixes the purely private, somewhat shared and truly public. Lots of software is designed to allow for this type of control, but sometimes it's hard for users to understand how to draw the right barriers.

Graham said...

For the most part I agree with you, and I appreciate seeing this perspective on it. However, if so much of the value is in learning about other people's viewpoints, etc., and "realiz[ing] that our own individual view of things is essentially arbitrary," then it seems a bit of a non sequitur to continue by saying that everybody should therefore join in. Some people aren't interested in this, or are technophobic, or have whatever reasons they have for not wanting to participate in online communities.

A comparison I could make is in the fact that I think it would be fantastic for the world if everyone learned social ballroom dancing. And I do mean that in a somewhat meaningful way, beyond the mere fact that it's fun. You can learn a lot in dancing about how to get along with others, pay attention to them, and put their wellbeing and happiness ahead of your own. Just think about what those kinds of skills could do in the world if everybody practiced them deliberately. But most people recognize that dancing isn't for everyone. So I know that, and I continue to encourage people to dance, but I don't sweat it if some folks just aren't interested.

So in that sense, I can see where Emily is coming from. But I still think that it's an important thing to work on and to encourage in as many people as possible.

On the other hand, perhaps this parallel with dancing isn't exact, and a better comparison would be with something more fundamental to a society. What if we compared this to, say, literacy? Once upon a time, reading was only for the few folks privileged enough to get educated. As that was changing, I wonder if we went through a stage where reading was seen as all well and good, but it was fine that some people did it and some didn't. Now, of course, we don't think of the skill itself as a "hobby." It's just a life skill that everyone uses as they please, to learn, see other viewpoints, communicate with others, or just read traffic signs and nothing more.

So maybe that's the shift the doubters need to make in thinking about it. Stop thinking of this stuff on the web as a hobby for geeks, or as a random pasttime like any other, and get to the point where you see it a fundamental part of the way society is set up. The problem is, it's tough to see that if you aren't already a participator. :-)

Neha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
neha said...

This is a really interesting post.

I'm on Emily's side. Perhaps even more strongly than Emily is -- I think that we pollute the web, make it less useful, the more nodes we add. Self-expression on the internet is just so flawed -- the tools are all wrong! Blogs last forever, comments are one-size-fits-all, communities are limiting and stilted and get stale. It just doesn't reflect the richness of real life, and the information overload is almost unbearable. I think a lot of people just reject what they see as a flawed system. Why is that so wrong? Do you think they should be working on it to make it better instead? I don't think each person has that responsibility.

Also, the more people who get online, and create a presence online, the more junk there is to sift through. I appreciate access to information, but I would argue that false information can VERY easily be perpetuated on today's internet, and things like wikipedia and google are causing people to become complacent and lazy when it comes to evaluating the validity of information they come across.

I'm struggling with how to create my presence on the internet. It's not an easy question.

Anonymous said...

While flipping through television channels, I came across a gentleman who insisted that "You can tell a lot about a man by the way he rides a wave."

I immediately knew two things about this man: 1. He rides waves and 2. He believes that he's pretty d*mn good at riding those waves.

Can you really tell a lot about people by the way they "ride waves?" Dance? Blog? Maybe it's the fallacy that there is some "truth" out there that blogging uncovers which is so difficult to swallow -- the underlying assumption that the persona in a diary is authentic and not contrived.

If the "nodes" are filtered through the lens of public scrutiny -- how genuine are the nodes?

Can you tell a lot about a person by the way he surfs/dances/blogs? Maybe. But you can tell a lot more about a person by getting to know them . . . instead of reading a computer screen.

Jason Goldman said...

Graham: I love your analysis of dancing vs. literacy. I think it's really valuable to think about which seems the more true of online behavior.

Neha: couldn't your argument about noise be said of any form of media. Books for example. There's far too many books for anyone to read or even know what's written. But in general I'd say that it's a good thing that number of books increases over time. The idea that we pollute the web through our actions is interesting to hear voiced because it's so antithetical to my thinking. It's definitely not everyone's responsibility to make better tools for sharing information but, in my view, the sharing of information is the only thing that makes the web interesting in the first place. Without it there's no web worth ruining.

Anon: I will certainly contend that you can get an authentic view of a person by the way they blog. I would think the existence of relationship formed in this way are a good bit of proof. And while I'll grant that the persona presented may be contrived, that doesn't mean it's not a real glimpse of who that person is. Even in real life, we choose how to present ourselves and adopt personas. There is no "real" me.

And while meeting someone in real life does provide a different way to know someone I'd contend it's different not better/worse. Yes there's certain, important interactions that are only possible when face-to-face. But the fact that people can use the web to share content means I can share experiences with people who I'd never get to meet otherwise.

jason said...

I mostly agree with you.
And I mostly don't.

The web does allow us to see more of each other and to also see the connections between each other with greater ease than ever before.

It also provides greater support to our collective bad habit of forgoing reflection upon information in favor of collecting it. Of believing in the inherent "goodness" of information solely because it is information. Of being seduced by information.

Neha mentions that people have become complacent and lazy when it comes to information online. Websites where it's easy to falsify information have made this possible.

The same things could be said of the old wives tales that our old wives tales were named for. The only difference between what we have now and what we had then is scale.

But we've scaled with Google. Relative to the past, it's changed. Relative to right here and now, it's always been the same old song.

"The first lie was that you are unique in a remote way."

Keeping in mind the same sense of scale, everyone has always had the same view of connections and alternate view points. It wasn't that they didn't have enough. It was that they were seduced by information in the same way. This kept them from doing the most with it.

Even if we could convince everyone to be creative on the web, that same seduction will cause something else to supplant it before we could get them all there.

There is no medium (wether it be the internet, dancing, newspapers, etc, etc) that leads to the perfect vision of humanity.

Which brings us back to your question: "Does working on the web truly matter?"

I agree the answer is yes. Without a set of steps to perfection ("if only we could get everyone's perception of everyone mediated in this exact same way") We're left with creativity ("lets pull some shit out of our ass with a vauge understanding of why and the hope of more understanding afterwards"). It's all about play. Build things that acknowledge the broad range of scale available. Play when you make them. Make them play. Make them inspire people to play. But be aware of that seduction. Remember when you were seduced. Try to spot what's seducing you right now. Realize that sooner or later or sooner again important thing have to be left behind - That's where they get their importance from.

If the internet doesn't do it for you, then do the same in whatever does. The form of your function doesn't matter. It's all just matter after all. The process on the other hand... that's what matter is here for.

At least that's the way I've seen it.