Why storytelling matters

Storytelling, as a medium, is (seemingly) timeless. The first cave paintings emerged 40,000 years ago in Southern Europe. Ever since, humans have been documenting our world using the forms most readily available: stone, parchment, tablet, canvas, film, video, and now…pixels? What began as an oral storytelling culture has evolved, with language, to include visual and material objects. Text, type, art, symbol, and icons constitute our ever-changing library of meaning-making. What a bountiful spread!

Storytelling matters because stories explain our relationships, both with ourselves and with others. Stories allow us to understand the world: the rich tapestry of colors, sounds and shapes of the physical world, as well as the fantastical, dream-like qualities of the worlds inside our own heads. Life is made of cells, atoms and particles, which are also stories. Each part exists because we have a story to tell around its existence. Every death, birth, creation of new or recycling of old is just another story to share and to remember.

What does that mean for the digital age? Jonah Sachs calls it the “digitoral” era – the rise of digital storytelling, where sites like Facebook and Twiter (even TED) have attempted to recreate the Roman fora, the town square, the campfire. Facebook is the absolute monarch of the digitoral era; instead of tyrannical rule over its subjects, though, it commodifies them. A post about a sip of coffee is worth $4. Your story is now theirs. The social contract consists of giving and getting. You give, they get. You get a little too, but not forever. They own your story. Why? Because their own story depends on it.

In this new era of storytelling, whose story is it anyway? Whose story is being told?

Recently, I’ve been reading Studs Terkel, the master of oral history and ethnographic storytelling, and wonder what he would think of this new era. Instead of live tweeting American Idol, or the latest gadget’s release event, what if we live tweeted someone’s memoir? Or a book we’re reading? Or a conversation we had with someone, years ago?

In-depth ethnographic books like Race, or Behind the Beautiful Forevers, or human-interest documentaries on the unfortunate, are not self-produced works of art. These are stories that have been compiled, edited, and filtered by the author or director– not the subject. The subject is really the object, in traditional storytelling parameters.

Have we begun to invert the subject/object relationship through the rise of social media? One’s story need not have a listener to be told, nor a production team to package it. It need not even be curated as a worthwhile story. Look around, these stories are what sell: cheap, and in the millions, these mass-produced stories make ad executives at Facebook and other social networks rich. And again, who benefits?

At the core, humans want stories to be simple, evocative, to elicit empathy, to depict the human experience. Storytelling is an art, but are we all artists now? A Facebook post is by nature, devoid of context. Unlike a diary or journal, Facebook is outward-facing – the audience silently receives an update, and whether they “like” it or not, it’s there. Meaning cannot easily be derived from this 2D representation of thought. We write into the abyss, hoping someone understands our story, but the medium is already complicating itself. The story has all of a sudden become far less simple than the campfire days, when eager listeners gathered around for a few solid minutes of undistracted wonder. These stories have been stripped of intention, of meaning, and are raw bursts of thought. Collectively, this makes for a lot of anger, frustration, and sadness. Can we find the themes that matter?

Storytelling is a rich and important facet of life. In a way, I argue that it is life. We are nothing without our stories. Technology has captured and monetized our stories through film, TV, radio, and print, for generations. The internet medium, however, is borderless: we are no longer hemmed in by physical constraints of old media, yet the inward/outward and subject/object fuzziness makes for a complicated and messy situation.

Where do I start, and you begin? I’ll read Death of the Author and get back to you.


Future of News: Click or Thought Provoking?

Static Page

Ye olde media offline hours.

I often wonder about the future of news journalism. I’ve been a news reader for a long time, and in the past 5 or so years since I gave up my TV, most of my news has come from online sources (a lot from my iPhone). On a daily basis, I might catch a headline on New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, or HuffPost. And who can ignore SFGate, CNN or People.com, places I visit if when I am bored or want some mindless fodder for the water cooler, so to speak. Facebook used to be my go-to social network, but now it’s exclusively Twitter, where I follow journalists alongside comedians, entrepreneurs, educators and celebrities. On a given day I probably spend 2 or 3 hours reading online. When I told my aunt that I read longform pieces on my iPhone, she was shocked. That’s life in the digital age. And just because I do that does not make me a “digital native”. It just makes me someone who likes to read a lot using a different medium.

My interest in news is not due to the whole FOMO phenomenon, where I might only seek out news to satiate my growing hunger for connection or to suppress my fear of not being part of something ‘important’. No, it’s really about curiosity and learning. I enjoy reading, learning new things, exploring new topics and generally discovering trivia bits along the way (especially movies and TV – thank you, IMDb). Another reason is pertinent to my identity as a cultural observer. I like to observe what goes on in the world and make connections, form links from one news item or event to the next. “Systems thinking”, if you will. Shutting off access to news would really only help me in the short-term. Ultimately, I feel that understanding the world, and all its craziness, is a fundamental part of the human experience, and media is both a facilitator and corrupter of this process.

Why a corrupter, you ask? Anyone can tell you the devolution story of the once-heralded nightly news anchor, now represented by derivative, 24/7, MSNBC and FoxNews drones/talking heads. The privatization and commodification of news, along with the consolidation and merger of media companies, have together created a monolithic, giant news monster machine, churning out content to reward advertisers and punish our eardrums. Yes, these companies need to make money, but their nosedive into cynical broadcasting, which implies that their viewers are dumb, gullible, and shallow, is a much more sinister tactic. The idea that news is just a bi-product of the crusty layer of sugary, salty junk food otherwise known as ratings, makes us into its mindless consumers. Shop till you drop? How about Watch till you go blind! We are none the wiser. Ok, maybe I am getting a little too Network-y here. But still, you get the point. It’s a mess.

Broadcast media aside, what lies ahead for online news? Writers of headlines have long perfected the SEO amygdala hijack to seduce clicks and garner eyeballs on the page. Is online news a click factory – where clicks and time-on-site are the new ratings – or is there space for thoughtful journalism? Well, it’s a mix of both. As Micah Sifry so poignantly put it, the media are the “immune system of democracy”, and yet misinformation [I’ll add in fatuous content], much like bugs and viruses, is “with us to stay”.  We can try to diet, filter and block it – treat the problem like most medical problems are treated, after the fact. Or, we can prevent it through strengthening the health of the systems from the get-go. We can’t remove the Honey Boo Boo’s from the world, but we can perhaps mitigate our exposure to them by seeking out content that is thought provoking, critical, in-depth, and validated, or by spreading ideas that break down “common sense” myths while creating new paradigms. This cycle can’t go on forever. Clicks, ratings and dollars will cease to flow if the cycle continues to oppress those who feed it. The public deserves better.
The future of news could be a far cry from what it portends today. As a reader, I’m hopeful.

Bodhisattva, the iPhone and You

Recently, I was able to attend a mediation class at Spirit Rock, a famed spiritual center that teaches Buddhist mediation, mindfulness lifestyle practices, and hosts high-end spiritual retreats. During the Dharma talk, our guide mentioned the ‘points of intervention’ along the cycle of ‘dependent-arising’, or what we might call the cycle of habits (good and bad). The cycle is straightforward enough: we approach life with certain dispositions and behaviors – conscious and unconscious – which, over time, manifest into habits by being repeated over and over again, birthing new cycles of habit along the way. The cycle is unavoidable, but how we react can change the cycle from one of dependance to one of spiritual liberation. Pain is part of life, but suffering is an option: this theory of mindfulness is profound, yet simple in its resonance. Breaking the dependency cycle is a choice, and requires one to be mindful of its existence in order to change its course.

As Newton’s famous third law of motion goes, ‘every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction’.  This is true in the physical world as well as the spiritual, emotional and metaphysical worlds. Life happens, and we react to it. This law explains a lot about our internet worlds, the spaces where our identities are symbolically attached to physical forms, even if through a few letters strung together with an icon – what we call avatars. Newton’s law occurs constantly, in the ether and in ‘the cloud’. An echo-chamber-like reaction is created, birthed, and destroyed alongside every article, TV episode, tweet, text or post that is released into the world. Our mediated lives are constantly bombarded by images, texts, sounds and energy particles that are generated by these reactions: comments fuel diatribes, anger begets violence, speculation creates fear, fear shapes ideology, and so on. Wherein lies the discourse? Wherein lie the pauses, the time for reflection, meditation, and questioning? The dependency cycle of our internet age is self-perpetuating, and appears to be accelerating at an unsustainable rate. Where’s the stopping point? And more important, to what end does it benefit having rapid-fire access to information, even the most tedious and uninteresting kind? Are we pushing ourselves towards a greater purpose, or seeking to touch the darkest, most visceral parts of the human experience? Which reaction are we really aiming for, and which parts of the spectacle really matter?

Our brains are often referred to as ‘supercomputers’. We need to ‘download’ the data off our brains in order to rest our hard drive, and reboot our systems. See how easy that was to comprehend? Science likes analogies, and the public needs them in order to understand our complex and complicated world. And yet, in the endless quest to ‘optimize’ our lives and progress to a better future, we are left with a shell: the calcified outer layer of society, protecting, guarding and safekeeping our cultural mores in a solid structure resembling the simplest forms of nature. What about what lives underneath this layer? What about mindfulness, of truly understanding the impermanence of our human existence? The bodhisattva, or enlightened being, is not treated as sacred; it pales in comparison to the relationships we have with our iPhones, popular culture, and societal ideals around family, wealth, and happiness. What we call life equates to the physical and material world, and yet we ignore the spiritual and metaphysical worlds that shape our experience.

Where is the space for mindfulness, when our iPhones serve as physical and emotional extensions of our minds and bodies – a beep, chirp, buzz or swoosh elicits reactions from our brain that we, up until recently, would only associate with a whimper, cry, scream, or nervous laugh. With emerging products like Google Glass, Kinect, or brain-controlled computers, we have leapfrogged toward a new era of man and machine. The bodhisattva isn’t going anywhere, yet our failure to recognize and embrace it may result in us losing way more than we have ever thought possible.

Authority and authorship in a post-Google world

In a previous post I wrote on the difficult ways to establish trust and intimacy in the digital age. In pushing this idea out a bit laterally I have begun to ponder more about the ways that authority and authorship dictate our digital lives.

Think about trust: Google and other technology companies are in the business of making trust. They are “trust making” companies. Authority and authorship are baked into their business model. Don’t be evil is another way of saying trust us. You are viewing the physical representation of this ideology right on their search results page. The blue links are just colorized trust icons. Each link leads to a source that has authorship embedded into its very existence. Do we fail to recognize how humans are behind these texts? Sure, algorithms whip up something great and serve it on a facile platter for easy consumption, but a human being is tied to each and every bit and byte. To ignore that or to claim that the Internet is somehow neutral or neutered is naive. Their authority, and the authorship guiding each and every move on the internet, is precisely the source, fuel and engine of their power.

Corporations are commodifying trust, and this is not new – every brand is a logo-fied version of a monetized public good. Might as well take a branding iron to the forests, since that’s basically what every paper company has done. This signifies a new owner/author of the public domain. They stamp, brand and own what is effectively no one’s and everyone’s. They restrict and legitimize space and time. They create patents, aka the system of ‘search and destroy’ that targets anyone who trespasses on their sacred domain. Commodities are signifiers of a largely unnamed world, and yet those in control want to make the world into another material object. And as ‘consumers’, we have willingly bought into this myth, since we too, want a piece of the author pie. It’s ours to share, have and hold. A beautiful marriage of consumerism and empowerment.

Commodification, authority and authorship are one side of the coin; democracy is the other. We continue to view the world in this binary frame where everything post 21st century is ours/theirs, and yet the public space is still no one’s. How can we live in this mediated space where the two are incompatible? This myth will only continue to be perpetuated unless we have a larger discussion on what it truly means to be a democratic society. I’m hopeful that there are others out there who feel the same.

Our Web 2.0 Legacy

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, Lost City of the Incas. Photo courtesy of my iPhone

Last year I took a trip to Peru, a visit sponsored by the volunteer organization I was working for. In addition to seeing our sites in Cusco and Urubamba, I had a full day to explore Machu Picchu. It was like everything I’ve read or seen, and more: the wonder and beauty of the lost city of the Incas – ineffable, pure, silent – was breathtaking.  It had a ‘Disney attraction’ feel as well, unsurprisingly: I arrived at 8:30 AM on a Wednesday to an entrance chock full of tourists and hikers. Student-led archaeological excavations were peppered throughout the site, alongside whispered rumors of its imminent closing due to erosion from constant foot traffic. Machu Picchu was transcendental and cliched all at once; I had seen the famed entrance so frequently in pictures that viewing it in real-life was somewhat anticlimactic. But seeing its entirety made for a wonderful, memorable experience.

I left thinking, how did 500 years go by without any knowledge of its existence?

Which brings me to this post about our legacy in the digital world. If stunning feats of stone and carvings can be hidden and preserved for half a millennium, what does that say about our digital artefacts?  What is our legacy, if it’s housed entirely within servers, algorithms, code and hard drives? Will HTML in the Web 2.0 world be what hieroglyphs were to ancient Egypt?

If millions of years of life, death and evolution can create what we know as Earth’s greatest natural resources, the blood of the earth – carbon-based gas, coal, oil – what will the data server swamps hold for life beyond the 21st century? We cannot grow or harvest life’s organisms from data housed in black sheaths of metal and plastic. How will the terabytes full of digital content compare to the physical wonders of the world – Machu Picchu, Atlantis, the Acropolis? Whose legacy are we creating, and does it matter?

Imagine if there existed a Roomba-like bottomfeeder for the Internet’s lower depths – its main task was finding and consuming the dead and rotting Web 2.0 artefacts: abandoned blogs, disposed Twitter handles, soured April fool’s jokes and decayed user profiles laying on the server’s dank floor, accumulating into hardened plaque-like layers of data sediment, adding to the polluted ecosystem every minute. At present, we view discarded data as harmless, inconsequential or irrelevant: a bi-product of what marketers taut as “our right” to produce and consume as much as we please. This ideology – that we as humans have the right to gluttonously gobble up all the data we want, blind to the consequences – is as insidious as the claim that we have ownership rights over the Earth, its natural resources and its inhabitants.

I wonder what our legacy holds if it is no longer physical, preserved or intact as in eras past: the diaries of authors, the film reels of cineastes, and the stone carvings of felled empires. When we are told that life has never been more accessible, transparent or discoverable, what lies beneath the search engine’s trough? What about that which will never be discovered?

I can’t quit you, internet

The internet and its device, my computer, are the nerve center of my life.

It’s my telephone, my typewriter, my television.
My news source, my megaphone, my playground, my water cooler, my entertainment.
My memory box, social calendar, diary, scratch pad.
The amassed accoutrements of previous decades, worth their weight in paper, yet invisible outside the small 11-inch screen of glass, pixels and light.

Shutting it off means forgetting all that lies behind it, within it, and beyond its small frame. It’s my window to the world. My portal, my telescope and camera. My travel book. I collect and store things for safekeeping. I browse, I shop, I purchase, I decide. It empowers me. Text, images and videos educate, disturb, scare and delight me. How is it possible that this all can funnel so swiftly to my eyes and ears, with ease?

How is it that by facing this device, I face the world?

Does it watch me? It feels my fingers pressing and prodding its keys one at a time. Furiously and softly all at once. Click, tap, tap tap, click. Inanimate object, or dutiful accomplice?

As we mirror computers after humans, whom do they seek? Are they merely just extensions of physical beings, of the human experience?

If we quit them, they wither and die. Life shuts down for both of us.

#DML2013 Debrief: Reflections on Digital Media and Learning Conference (part 2)

DML Conference

This post is the second and last in a small series about the DML 2013 conference –  what I learned and what questions remain.

As I mentioned in my last post, the DML Conference proved that it was not your ordinary education conference – it was casual, not only in atmosphere but in spirit; it lacked the corporate smothering or pretense of academic confabs that I’ve been to in the past. Its genuineness and warmth allowed organic conversations and discourse to flow freely. During the three days of plenaries, panelists and PowerPoints, I noticed common themes throughout – relating to agency, power, engagement and worldview. Underscoring these themes are the elements of storytelling and the invitation (to connect).

Agency – it looks simple, but when you peel the layers of the onion it reveals itself as a complicated concept. Technology enables this oversimplification in the media, especially. When you click “like” on Facebook, is that revealing your agency? Is it wholly your choice? Does that “like” represent you, or only part of you? Or what about the “like” itself – does it  endorse, accept and vote for that object, organization or movement?  In traditionalist terms, agency means to “stand up and be counted”. Using your voice, your body – a physical presence. Now, the 21st century vision of agency is warped and transmogrified by the technological coatings around it. Agency, and all its layers, matters greatly, and was a major theme of the conference. In Panel I “Envisioning 21st Century Civic Engagement“, I saw the embodiment of agency first-hand. Youth groups from the Bay Area and LA’s Watts Youth Collective shared how they tackle agency in tough communities: circumventing the digital divide by blogging from a broken cell phone; using Twitter to engage in counter-storytelling; confronting hegemony through analyzing (and consequently ruining) Disney movies. Citing Gramsci, Freire and Dewey, these kids were challenging norms and systems that subvert agency in ways that society fails to recognize. This panel crystallized the ideas of empowerment theory and critical consciousness in the 21st century. It’s no simple formula, and the individual does matter. Their stories matter.

Power is represented through many forms; in education, it’s authority: society, parents, teachers, tests, police; however, in social justice movements it’s also tied to individual power structures. In Panel II, “Engineering Change“, youth from the Bay Area were transforming their own experiences through voice, storytelling and connecting. Examples like Youth SpeakYouth Radio and the Hidden Genius Project, young men and women actively challenge their own power issues at home through participation. Be it performing spoken word, presenting a business plan, or developing a mobile app, these skills represent changing structures of power in young people’s lives. They are able to transform from one area to the next using 21st century technology and media production, and create their own content worlds in the process. They are able to connect and define democracy as they see it – by inviting others. Yet power structures remain – they are not equalized despite the movements that  attempt to subvert them.

Worldview was implied in a lot of the stories and examples of youth engagement and activism. Whether in developing skills to confront society’s biggest issues or making mistakes along the way, frames are created and destroyed in the process of becoming engaged and active, both on and offline. In Panel IV “What can a concerned kid trust“, Chicago area organizations like the News Literacy Project, Columbia Links, Free Spirit Media and Radio Arte shared how youth were developing their journalistic and media skills through storytelling and activism campaigns. They learned how to use broadcast media to not only perfect their craft but also to share their stories. The panel also touched on media literacy skills and how these organizations helped guide youth in becoming more media literate.

I was disappointed that this particular topic of media literacy was centered around the “protectionist” approach, which argues for guiding youth and protecting them from misinformation or separating “fact from fiction” through a variety of toolkits and strategies. I’m not disagreeing with this approach entirely, since such guidance is needed and is important, however I wish that they had applied a more critical media lens to this framework, focusing on the systemic structures that shape how and why we receive the information we do online (especially news and media campaigns), rather than the treatment of it postfact. I was excited that the title of Panel IV was “KONY 2012, FEMA camps: What can a concerned kid trust?“, however the Kony phenomenon was only mentioned while the panel was describing its theme: “news literacy”. No further attempt (during this or other panels) was made to understand how media literacy should also include a critical lens – by focusing on hegemony, power, control, or postcolonialism, in the KONY example.

What I am trying to get at here…

We cannot separate media literacy from engagement. In order to understand how movements can change and shape worldviews, subvert authority or garner 100 million views on YouTube, we need to deconstruct who is behind these campaigns, why they are present, and what their goals are. It’s more than just being able to tell if a website is a hoax, or if a video is inaccurate, or finding truth in fiction (because really, what is truth?). It’s also about confronting privilege.

I noticed that this theme was lost even in the “global movement” panels – Getting Global with It, From Click to Clictivism. and Citizen Action in the Global South. The panelists extrapolated on the ideas of cosmopolitanism, global citizenship and social media activism with a lot of great examples, but without acknowledging the issue of privilege in global social movements (ie. Kony). While they recognized the multiplicities of many movements: the half-truths of what constitutes a “true” movement from a global perspective, or the assumption that all movements are good, they didn’t address the way that privilege and power connect what gets heard and what doesn’t. If the Watts Youth Collective can use Gramsci to counter the dominant narrative that oppresses their communities, why can’t we also examine how KONY 2012, for example, exploited the spectacle of war-torn Africa for donations? What about Charity Water or others that use celebrity to drive their cause? What image does “humanitarianism” project to people of color, if they aren’t the “objects” of it? How can we confront these issues more clearly in digital media and education conferences? I wished that the White Savior Complex had been addressed further in this conference. We got a twinge of it during the last plenary, when the Harry Potter Alliance spoke of dropping food aid on Haiti, but then it quickly died off.

I’d like to see more of these conversations happen.

Let’s put two and two together when talking about media literacy and engagement. Engagement can facilitate literacy, and literacy is more than understanding “truth” from “fiction”. Let’s move beyond the empowerment/protectionist binary and bring in critical theory to the mix. Let’s take the privilege and CRT discourse out of the current paradigm and into the world of social media. Let’s empower youth to become global citizens without assuming the gaze of postcolonial privilege, where “changing the world” starts and ends with a click of a button. That’s just not how you learn about the plight of others.


#DML2013 Debrief: Reflections on Digital Media and Learning Conference (part 1)

DML Conference

I have to say the first thing that struck me after arriving at the Digital Media and Learning 2013 Conference last week in Chicago was its lack of pretension. It was a very well organized setup, and no-frills –  the $75 entry fee meant no swag, except for some free publications in book and pamphlet form (which are by the way really great), and no corporate sponsors with their flimsy handouts and gimmicky promotions – a sign that it was going to be a really authentic experience. It turned out to be much more than that: intimate, inspirational, and validating, I came away from it feeling full of new ideas and questions.

This post is the first in a small series about the conference –  what I learned and what questions remain.

Overall Theme – Democratic Futures: Technology as Catalyst for Social Change
Called “Democratic Futures”, the conference brought together a diverse cabal of folks in many different spheres of education to discuss how young people can be agents of change in their communities and beyond. It was definitely an activist-centered conference, and technology was just the layer on top of it, the catalyst. I quickly realized that there were 3 distinct camps present in both the audience and speaker groups: 1) the research and technology folks who were pushing innovation both in and outside the classroom (still, very little product placement involved); 2) the educators, higher ed or below, who may have been more traditionalist in their approach to technology uses (citing often the “protectionist” approach to safeguarding youth online; and 3) the social justice organizers and students themselves who were clear agents of change in their communities. At times I could sense the tension between the three camps, since they each had their own vested interest in how technology could or could not work for them. The bottom line: technology is not a savior, and should not be an excuse for involvement, not scapegoated for when things fail. It should help you get from point A to B, to express yourself, to empower your community, to get your message across. The dominating hype is not going to die down anytime soon, so we need to be the ones to recognize and counteract it with our own stories.

Keynote by Ethan Zuckerman MIT Center for Civic Media: “Beyond the Crisis in Civics”
Ethan Zuckerman’s talk was the most anticipated of the conference, not just because he was the keynote but also because he is widely known for his activist work in the US and abroad. What I took from his talk is summarized below:

In our heavily mediated world, we should be focusing on agency rather than “traditional” civics participation. Gone are the days when being a civically-minded person meant you would have to write your congressman or newspaper – the internet allows for a sliding scale of engagement as well as new forms of participation: from signing an online petition to remixing a political ad to creating a story about your own community’s struggles, there are more ways to “practice civics” than ever before. We should also reinterpret how we view “authentic” participation; while we are accustomed to movements like the Arab Spring, where a critical mass indicates “true” mobilization, we should also think about how that can be met via different means, with different outcomes. A spectrum of involvement has been created as a result (see picture below). Yet, because of new media’s rapid “spreadability”, we often have to evaluate after the fact: the slow swell does not play out well on YouTube. But questioning that impact is becoming more important: Was Occupy successful? Or the Arab Spring? Other examples are more clear: KONY2012 was a success in terms of its campaign goals, but the bottom fell out quickly afterwards.

Matrix of Civic Involvement

Follow up questions:
What constitutes success if ultimately we are just recirculating old ideas of activism in new forms? New media complicates this frame: because online campaigns are trackable and “achievable” (they can scale at a much faster rate than offline), they change our understanding of success. When does a click represent more than a symbolic action?

For the full Keynote presentation and writeup far more in-depth than mine, please visit the Center for Civic Media’s blog.

The internet’s “either/or” complex

The internet, in its wild, macabre- and kitten-filled, twisted house of mirrors existence, is not as inclusive, or as some say “cozy“, as we believe it to be. At least that’s not how I see it nowadays. Relative to power, control and democracy, the internet has its own version of “have’s and have-not’s”: users are ping-pong’ed and bounced around from one site to the next, gated by ISPs, IPs, Google, Facebook, and other providers attempting to control and direct traffic within its slippery contours. To use a simpler analogy, the internet continues to exhibit symptoms of the “walled garden” problem – or what I call the “either/or complex“.

What is the “either/or complex“? It sounds fancy, but it’s something you’ve probably encountered if you frequent the internet often enough. Go ahead, picture yourself getting really excited about the Next Big Thing of the Internet. You arrive at its home page, only to be confronted by a smattering of messages, perhaps one or all of the ones below:

Sign up with your Facebook account!
Enter your first and last name.
Accept our revised Terms and Conditions.
Download the latest OS to use this app.

Don’t want to do that? Oh wait there buddy – you can’t go any further. The gates have closed – sorry! You are prohibited from using the Next Big Thing of the Internet. The alternative is… nothing. You have no other option. Those are the rules of the game.

There, now you’ve just experienced the “either/or” complex: either you’re in or or you’re out. Not surprisingly, this attitude is common practice in both old and new internet players, whether you’re a bank or a social network, and it’s changing our notions of participation and belonging.

This ideology plays on our perceptions of what constitutes socially acceptable, normal online behavior. Of course you must use your own name to sign up! You missed the Next Big Thing because you didn’t want to send over your credentials for a new iPhone app? How lame – I’m already gaining followers! Here in the West, where profile information data are freely given in return for delivered goods and services, this either/or binary is baked in – hell, that’s Facebook’s mission, “to make the world more open and connected” – but, why? This isn’t a zero-sum game, yet we’re being trained and coaxed into believing that it is, under the guise of choice, freedom and market capitalism (hey, if you don’t like how this company does business, go somewhere else!). I sometimes feel that this warped social contract has to do with our system of meritocracy. Sign up to play – at your own risk.*  If you do well, it’s because you worked hard, were really lucky, or are a social media guru. If you fail or get scammed, you should have known better, you idiot!

The web is complex, an ecosystem of flickering lights across an overlapping utility grid, yet the operators flip the ol’ on/off switch, effectively shutting off access for whole swaths of people (or should I say, non-consumers). News flash – unique visitors are people, metrics have eyes and ears behind them, and we cannot be discarded so flippantly. Data points aren’t incidental, they are real, flesh and blood, multicellular beings and we ought to have a say in how and why we participate. The internet is not a hammer, and we are not nails. This either/or complex needs to be shattered in order for us to not get swept up into a roiling system worthy of Orwellian proportions.

*Disclaimer: Next Big Website-App-Thing is not responsible for any loss of personal dignity or belongings while on this site, nor do we prevent trolls, spammers, marketers, ad resellers, 3rd party vendors, Catfishers or the like from mining your personal details for maximum gain. Your privacy is important to us, which is why you’re seeing this message, duh!

Finding intimacy in a vast online world

In the “third space” that encompasses the online world, how can we create intimacy? The third space is by nature neither completely private nor public: we blog, chat, tweet, email and post in private –  one person, a screen and a keyboard make for a pretty private act –  but these are public spaces mostly controlled by corporations (excepting Wikipedia, etc). Many tend to trust the third space as private when it involves so-called “intimate” conversations like email, chat or instant messages, and we (willingly or not) trust these corporations with a lot of what we would call private content, which is in fact not really “ours”. It’s a gray area that confuses lawmakers and laypersons all the time.

Trust and intimacy in their truest forms are remixed in the third, online space. They are not canon or pure here. Trust, especially, is murkier in the age of the internet. “Trust in corporations”?  Google Buzz and Instagram’s TOS blunder are good examples of corporate myopia in understanding end-user needs. “Trust in individuals”?  Manti Teo’s “Catfish” saga and the story of a Syrian feminist blogger who turned out to be a white American male both showcase how little it takes for us to be duped into accepting someone’s online identity as authentic. The difference in the online space is that trust issues accelerate and tailspin at a much higher velocity than in purely private or public spheres of the offline world.

That isn’t to say trust issues happen less in real life – phenomena like Ponzi schemes or human trafficking inflict a lot of pain on large groups of people – but the online world allows for trust to be boiled down to facilitate interactions and transactions. I don’t have to be logged into Facebook to view a post, and I can send an email from many different accounts using separate identities. We don’t have an upfront identification factor or “trust” verification center since that goes against many founding principles of the internet – it values democratic, organic, iterative networks and free speech. Perhaps the notion of trust comes out of the social contract ideal – we give a little of our selves up for the ability to have a free online space. But that also seems a bit Western-centric, given that the themes of democracy are so interwoven into the internet’s genetic makeup. Does that mean trust is a purely Western value?

Finding intimacy in the online world is a challenge because of the inherent trust issues we face. Every day as netizens we put our trust into the corporations and organizations that power, control and enable our internet connections, websites and messages to function smoothly and correctly. Networks themselves are man-made, yet it seems we internalize them as “natural” – as the sun rises and sets, our browsers open and close – and our trust levels are so high that we cannot expect anything less. (A great satire on this phenomenon is this Louis CK standup video.) Why do we take so much for granted? What does that say about “digital natives”, parents who create Twitter handles for their infants, and the millions of banner clicks on ads that read “You’ve won a prize! Click here to claim your winnings”?

Digital literacy and media awareness are only part of the solution to the issues of trust, accountability and intimacy we face every day as netizens.