Forget my cup of exceptionally strong coffee. Nothing riles me up on Monday morning quite like the chance to debate the internet life, “real” life (or as I call it, physical life), and the convergence of the two. Thank you, Wired and Jessi Hempel.
Hempel begins posing a scenario she had previously posted to her Facebook friends: How do you handle running into an online friend in “real” life? What’s the etiquette in regards to bringing up something you saw on their Facebook page? The answers Hempel’s friends provided her are actually chuckle-worthy: Wallflowering. Facial(book) recognition. Friendenfreude. A Facebookship. And stalking.
But Hempel, who struggles with coming to terms with these digital relationships, continues to call them awkward. She taps into our inner Foucaultian tendencies with terms to like “surveillance” and “watching.” She talks about liking posts from old acquaintances who are doing arguably really interesting things with their lives, such as working on reindeer villages in the arctic tundra and celebrating and supporting their endeavors. But then, she says “What I’m describing is the digital equivalent of looking into your windows on a dark night. You’re the one who left the curtains open. You live on a busy street. But if we happen to make eye contact…we both feel slightly violated.”
Oh, I love nothing more than writers pretend to be liberal with their ideas about the digital era when really, it’s just a frayed tourniquet on the phobias and disgust that are bleeding through. She negotiates this disgust with all things social-digital by saying “she is not friends with the woman she saw on the street; She is friends with her digital avatar.”
I couldn’t disagree more with Hempel. The digital avatar and the person behind it are the same person.
In my master’s thesis on this very subject, I coined the term “identity bending,” which I defined as this: The online person and the offline person are facets of the same individual. Online presentation is a highly selected, highly thought out version of one’s life. We may not present ourselves as the same person online as we are offline, but we are also not the same people across online platforms. This has to do with the audience of that site, performance norms that date back to sociologist Erving Goffman’s first ever discussion of dramaturgy in 1959 (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Online and offline, public and private, we are always two sides of the same coin. You wouldn’t consider the tails side of a coin any less real or valid than the head’s side. You need both sides for the coin to be worth anything, to mean anything. Our digital lives and “real” lives are the same.
Facebook (and social media in general) have redefined relationships, specifically friendships. Hempel’s repeated use of “surveillance” and similar words invoke the idea of the panopticon, and that we are always on display, even when we don’t want to be.
But that’s just the thing –we want to be. People are free to post to social media what they want. They can post how much, and whatever, they would like to. It’s not creeping. It’s not stalking. It’s viewing information and updates that have been made readily available, fueled by that poster’s individual agency.
Agency is something I think that gets incredibly overlooked in digital media studies, and especially in the way digital and social media are talked about by the news media and blogospheres. Someone made the choice to post that selfie, that link, that video. No one forced them. Social media aren’t holding guns to our heads, forcing us, and we are not trapped.
If someone posts something interesting online, and I see them later that day, or within the next couple of days, I may mention it, especially if it’s something noteworthy. Hey, I saw on Facebook you got that promotion! Congratulations! Oh my goodness, that picture of your dog you posted was adorable. How’s she doing? Our dogs should have a play date!
Hempel worries too much about something that frankly, doesn’t warrant much worrying. It’s thought-provoking, sure. But I think her article reveals more about how we as a technology-fueled society still don’t quite know what to do with everything digital. It shows that we still privilege “real,” physical interaction over anything that happens online when they’re both equally valid, equally legitimate circumstances. The binaries strike again.
I’m saying that if someone posts something online, they did so out of their own free will, and out of their desire to have that information publicly known. Don’t feel bad about acknowledging something someone else willingly put out there. Honestly, they might actually be glad you did.