Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Twitter, Celebrity, and Being Ambiently Aware

The genesis of this post is from the New York Times Magazine story on Twitter that ran in September. Most of it, including everything on Julia Allison, was written following its publication. This is part one out of a two-parter on Twitter; I felt that the second entry was incomplete without this one. I have tried to keep the spirit of my thoughts from several months ago intact, and tried not to reference anything that has since taken place.

A few weeks ago, I contemplated joining Twitter. I liked the idea of posing a question and getting responses, and it’s supposed to be great for business. But then I read “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You”, and said absolutely no way.

Although I’ve previously disparaged the service—a cross between Facebook status updates and AIM away messages—as being a little too connected, a little too much work for me, I toyed with the idea. It’s great for soliciting opinions, finding information, and a lot of businesses are using it this way. In certain industries, often involving the media (marketing, PR, advertising, journalism), it’s touted as a way for journalists to get a feel for what’s out there. Of course, at this point, I know one person on Twitter, and it’s an outgrowth of her job. It’s one of those things that people will join if others are on it. But I still cranked, sounding like a crotchety old fogey, “Why would anyone want to constantly update their profiles every five minutes with what they’re thinking or doing? Who has that kind of time?” It would also take stalking to a whole new level.

But Thompson’s piece, which discusses how social networking sites, specifically Twitter, are creating a whole new type of intimacy, made me think of the status message in a whole new way.
At the basic level, it’s is a version of intimacy—a version that often feels so real it’s hard to remember that’s it’s not true intimacy. Who doesn’t wish for some updated profile, an away message, something, to tide you over when you want to talk to a specific person and they aren’t there?

The overarching point isn’t new; most people find social sites to be a way to keep in touch with friends far easier, a way of keeping everyone up-to-date. They’re also great for networking, for keeping “weak ties”—those people you had class with, long-ago coworkers and neighbors—within reach.

I know for me, online contact has made my relationships richer. In addition to blogs, texting, phone calls and face time, I’ve been able to see what my friends have been thinking. This sounds like I always know everything, but this is far from the case, as very few of these channels are used frequently by any one of my friends and they rarely overlap.

Social networking sites have been a godsend to me. As a kid, I was terrible about keeping in touch—I thought about my friends, I wanted to talk to them, but translating that to action, to write a letter or to call a home line and go through parents, was the hard part. It shouldn’t be, but the privacy of the technological revolution, of everyone having their own email address, Facebook profile, and mobile line, also made it easier to have a private conversation.

Yet the biggest question of all is the future, how our generation (and future ones) will react to having most or all of their life documented. How do you erase those memories when they are up for everyone to see? Before the pictures would be stashed in drawers or albums, if not thrown away—only looked at when stumbled upon, or necessitating a move or some cathartic curiosity. Can you ever get over anyone if you are in constant touch, if their picture or profile is so readily available? Thompson touches on this, using a very common example of a break-up.

I once remember a friend of mine officially announcing her relationship on Facebook. I woke up one Sunday morning, logged onto Facebook, and saw the news. It was inevitable, both the fact they made it official and that one day I would receive major news via Facebook first, but I was disappointed that I hadn’t been told in person before it was online for the world to see. I still feel this way, but I’ve realized that finding out personally first is a rarity now; the first thing most people do when they have major news (especially of a romantic variety) is to broadcast it on Facebook. After all, we realized that they put up this notice immediately after they had the conversation. It’s the easiest way; it saves time, rather than telling all your close friends personally and then letting the news filter through, this way everyone knows at more or less the same time.

But cutting off ties online isn’t so easy, as you cannot erase or force information about other people to disappear just because you are angry, unlike the age-old image of ripping up an old photo. People grow and change, move on and move away…yet you are still connected, still able to follow along the rough outlines of their life regardless of them knowing.

Sociologists call this “ambient awareness”, being aware through constant contact, but in a sort of passive way. We don’t have to actually see people in person, talk to them on the phone; we can just read their updates and “know” them. But we don’t really know them at all; even online contact with good friends is a poor substitute for real contact, as anyone who’s misunderstood an AIM message can attest.

But online interactions open one up to the world. Feeling bored, lonely, left out? Join an online community—there are millions, at least one guaranteed to find something that piques your interest. Seriously. Sounds like a kind of heaven, doesn’t it? People who are willing to talk to you about anything, anytime, sometimes even in real time!

People suddenly seem to have more friends. Quantifying relationships would be a depressing and frustrating exercise—who goes into what category?—but luckily, social networking sites do the heavy lifting for you. The biggest benefit to all of these new relationships is that you suddenly realize that you “know” a lot of people.

Twitter uses followers, not friends, delineating that even those these people are interested in what you say, they don’t know you; you follow information about them, like a favorite star, because they are funny, but you don’t know them personally. It’s just on an incredibly micro level.

But this constant self-disclosure, the openness into the mundanity of life, can define you. Twitter, as much as any other social-networking tool, can be used to foster your identity, to essentially, create yourself as you want others to see you, in all its trite detail.

This brings me to Julia Allison.

I first heard of Julia Allison when she made the cover of Time Out New York’s Valentine’s Day issue. She’s holding up a paper that says “Call me!” and the phone number underneath is her actual number. This fact alone got a lot of press, though apparently she was already somewhat well-known to a type of New York media/tech/web/gossip follower.

Some have called Allison the real-life, Gen-Y version of Carrie Bradshaw, others a type of Paris Hilton, since she’s essentially famous for no reason.

Allison is both fascinating and repulsive at the same time, because she exhibits the type of exhibition and narcissism that is a hallmark of our generation and of the underbelly of our current culture. Her genius, as explored in the August issue of Wired, is that she marketed herself. She wanted to be famous—excuse me, “cult figure”—so she used the tools at her disposal—mainly the web—to get it. Although she has written for AM New York, Time Out New York and is some sort of consultant for Star magazine, these are merely footnotes in her biography. What’s greater is the relationships she’s exploited to become famous. She’s dated a lot of powerful media and tech types, and has written about this in detail in the way that is compulsively horrifying, then adding commentary upon commentary upon other’s criticism of her relationships. It gets very meta, very confusing in the way that is so wonderful and awful about the Internet.

As writer Jason Tanz put it, “Allison’s greatest accomplishment isn’t the volume of content she creates; it’s that she gets anyone to care about it. Her trick, she says, is to think of herself as the subject of a magazine profile, with every post or update adding dimensions to her as a character.”

Wired’s piece, in addition to another fantastic New York Times Magazine feature, this time by Emily Gould, discuss how the Internet blurs reality—how you can get so caught up with going online that your real life outside of the computer no longer feels real. It, essentially, takes over your life. The computer becomes a compulsion, a poor substitute for real human contact. It has saved and helped numerous people immeasurable, but it has also been used for much harm and pain, and we often do it to ourselves. Our little corner can get bigger and bigger, until it engulfs us, and we feel it’s the entire world, and that it’s the only thing that matters.

Internet hype, internet celebrity, does that. At the end of every season, it feels like, to turn on the TV or open a paper, that American Idol is the only thing going on, yet in a few weeks the names will have faded, and in a few years those same names will be reduced to trivia answers. Parlaying internet notoriety is a hell of a lot harder than it sometimes seems, because the nature of the beast is that information moves fast, too fast for most people to play.

But that is the way of the world today, and like they said in the ‘60s, you can “turn on, tune in, or drop out.” Dropping out never seems to last for long, as both Gould and Allison can attest, as they are suckered back in after vowing to keep their lives private. But this break should be more accurately called a respite, since that’s what it is; they never fully extricate themselves from the past they have written, and even if they did, their past is still there for anyone to find.

1 comment:

John said...

Nit-picker that I am, I feel the need to point out that timothy Leary's famous quote "Turn on, tune in, drop out" was not a set of three options, it was a series of instructions (one of which involved getting high on acid.) Interestingly enough, according to Wikipedia he updated his expression in the 1990s to "turn on, boot up, jack in" when he abandoned the psychedelic subculture for its "cyberdelic" successor.