Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of iPhones and Cultural Signaling

I'm writing this piece while riding the subway in a different country. Two Indian girls are sitting next to me looking over my left shoulder. Generally, I'd get annoyed but their curiosity is childhood-informed, innocent. In this setting, I don't mind that they have access, albeit limited, to my computer.

The democratization of the internet medium and the flourishing of Web 2.0 have turned online users into potential powerhouses. As my friend Polly noted to me a few days ago in a conversation we had over text messaging, Web 2.0 has enabled average users to a degree never before seen and the reason behind its boom is the immediacy factor. If you have an idea, you can publish it. Granted, some get more traffic than others, but anyone can publish if one so chooses. Naturally, it's also tough to find quality out there as a lot of qualitatively questionable material manages to creep in. Ergo, being able to discern quality is yet another sign of cognitive and experiential maturity.

Julian Sanches asks some interesting questions about the future of cultural signaling and how it informs/relates to sociality and privacy. Obviously, the lines between virtuality and reality are getting blurrier by the day and I'm not even sure that phrases like 'word of mouth' can quite manage to maintain the kind of literal meaning they once did. 'Word of mouth' in this day and age could easily be a text message, a news feed, a 'poke', forwarded email, a recommendation from an iPhone app user to another, and on and on.

Of course, information is out there for the taking and fabulous advancements in technology have expedited the birth of so many incredible applications. And I love so many of them. I rely on many of them daily. For instance, as an iPhone user, I find myself loudly praising its many applications which seem to do everything for me but the dishes and picking of the mail. However, I can't help but think of the private/public lines. I often talk about this in other projects of mine as well as my podcasts and the question I always ask is how do users know when enough information is enough/appropriate?

One of my closest friends sent me a gripping email in which he said that he had run across a personal site of one of his former college flames and despite his many temptations to read through it, out of respect for the person and their privacy, he chose not to.

"It was tough, dude. I really, really wanted to but then I didn't. Somehow, in hindsight, I feel more adult, though."- he writes. He continued to explain that he did so not because he is so much more self-controlled than most or because he suffered a hit of sainthood, (as I tend to say when joking about certain acts of kindness), but because he felt discomfort at the thought of other people out there potentially expressing an interest in his own life and routine when it's none of their business. He ended the email by saying, "...lurkers annoy the crap out of me so I wasn't about to turn into one myself."

Not being able to escape hints of condescension and a small dosage of self-righteousness I said what I've caught myself say a few other times: "There's a reason you're my pal."

Very soon Smart phone users will have access to fellow Smart phone users wherever they happen to find themselves and without knowing the first thing about them, they'll have access to their iPods selections, their most favorite apps and so forth. As much as I like technology, I find this access a tad privacy-evading. Of course, this does not mean that I don't wonder sometimes about what kinds of music people around me are listening to on their iPods, especially if I've already grown tired of my selections.

If I had a dime every time I've rolled my eyes when I hear things like, 'yeah, I know so-and-so, I friended them on MySpace and I read their blog.' Or, 'I know we'll hit it off. We have the same taste in music. I read it in your profile,' I'd have unlimited access to Starbucks. Online communication tends to render one's sight slightly off-focus when it comes to evaluating the true nature/essence of things. It is rather difficult to 'size one up' outside physical reality. As a result, intimacies based on delusion are more easily spawned in virtuality.

Consider what Sanches writes below. The question he raises at the very end is congruent with the questions I've been pondering as well.

"We’re at most a few years off from broad adoption of augmented reality applications in widely-used smartphones, which will have all of us radiating reams of data to anyone in our physical proximity who actually cares. Your Facebook profile will dog you like one of those floating Sims icons. You won’t just know what the girl sitting across the coffee shop is blasting on her iPod, you’ll be able to listen in. All the tech is actually here already, if not in quite the fancy form it’s implemented at the link above. All it would take is for someone to integrate the location-sensitive functions of an app like Loopt into the apps for Facebook or, and you’ve got a point-and-profile system. The real question is whether people actually want to signal that much in the physical context. Some of us are chary of giving every stranger in ping-shot a pretext for striking up a conversation."

In sum, just because one has so much access to others' selections, doesn't mean that one place one's self in one's virtual space without being conscious of appropriate boundaries. Or, as a favorite reply sums it up:

"Yes, your iTunes library is comparable to mine and we both like Curtis Hanson, however, interest is still a missing ingredient."

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Shaun said...

I don't know how/when/where you come up with these jewels, dude, but this cracked me up: 'he suffered a hit of sainthood' HA!

Interesting point. I also get creeped out by people who exert themselves onto my space with invitation. There's something borderline eerie about it. In this respect, the internet has also empowered voyeurs and weirdoes.

The bit about cultural signaling was also very interesting. I also wonder what people listen to on their iPods and, like you, the interest stops there.

Shaun said...

I also wanted to ask earlier if you have any Web 2.0 books you'd recommend for someone who's not read much on the topic....?

Becca said...

There's a lot to process here. I've thought about the private/public dynamic, too, especially in social interaction sites.
I liked the friend's reasoning as to why he resisted the temptation to look up the flame.
Will give this more thought.

Unknown said...

Web 2.0 is great in that it's allowed anyone with writing aspirations to get the ideas out there for the world to see/read. In this regard, it's empowering. It's also created yet another arena in which internet users have to exercise more caution to be able to
'discern quality.'
I used to get bothered by potential weirdoes reading my posts so I get the friend's point, too.
While it's cool to see what the 'neighbors'' iPods are playing, it's also odd to think that they can access your own gadgets too. As much as I love technology, I'm also a bit old-fashioned about privacy, too.

Unknown said...

Which texting apps do you use on the iPhone when you're traveling?

Anonymous said...

"However, interest is still a missing ingredient."
I could have used this last summer. :)

Sra said...

It's my opinion that one is in charge of one's own privacy. If someone posts something private or personal about themselves on their public blog, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc., then they shouldn't feel affronted if other people see it.

I mean, I don't think your friend would be invading his ex's privacy by reading something that she publishes publicly. If she wants to keep that information private, she could make her blog membership-only, or make sure there is no way to link her identity to her blog, i.e., publish anonymously, and don't advertise her anonymous blog on public sites like Facebook. That's her responsibility, not his.

Now, of course, there is the creepy stalker argument. I mean, I think it's normal to google your exes. Everyone gets that impulse. But to look in on them once and then move on with your life, that is normal. When you become that creepy lurker and turn it into an obsession, that's a problem. But that doesn't have anything to do with the public/private issue, that's more of an obsession issue.

On the other hand, I am kind of annoyed by how public everyone's lives are getting, in that it is increasing people's expectations of what they are "entitled" to know about you. Twitter is just taking it to a level I'm not comfortable with. I don't care what people are doing every moment of the day, and I don't think they should care that about me.

I am a private person, even though I write an ofttimes very personal blog. Still, there are some things that I guard as far as the internet is concerned. I have published things before and then regretted it because that information got to someone I would never have let know that in real life. That is a lesson I learned the hard way. But again, it is my responsibility to guard my privacy. Treading that line is hard, and you learn as you go, but if people want to be wise, they will err on the side of privacy.

JJ said...

If I get this right, and I'd like to think that I do, this is one of your let's-talk-about-oranges-but-I'm-making-a-point-about-apples right?

Naturally, this is not about a mere definition of what's private and what's public. The point I suppose is what kinds of behaviors should users espouse as they become better acquainted with Web 2.0 and all that it is offering.

While instantaneous publishing is a great thing to have access to, it also brings with it a whole set of questions re: social norms, behavioral patterns and so forth.

So, I'd think the real point here is about, (perhaps?) a hierarchicalizing of norms? Also, just because I happen to live next door to an incredibly beautiful person who's so-out-of-my-league, doesn't mean that I'm justified to stare at him all I want because gazing is free. Somehow, ost people adhere to certain norms of sociality, i.e., staring at people, albeit they are striking, is not something you should do. It's odd and for the most part unpleasant to the receiver of said attention.
We seem to have unspoken norms in reality. Why now 'espouse' them in virtuality as well?

Sra said...

Re JJ's comment: I think you're comparing apples to oranges. An attractive person walking down the street is not asking for attention. They are not asking to be stared at. A person who purposefully posts things about themselves on the internet is asking for attention. Some people say that's not the case, but come on. If someone were truly writing only for themselves and not for an audience, they would do it in a bedside journal. People who blog do so because they enjoy interacting with other people on a discursive level. How much privacy they end up maintaining is still up to them. Obviously there are inappropriate ways to interact on the internet, just as in real life, and those rules may differ from one context to another, and from one person's comfort level to another. But I think people need to take responsibility for themselves. If something is out there publicly on the net, anyone has a perfect right to look at it.

Will said...

Reading the comments in here, I was reminded of C. S. Lewis, who, I think, said something like 'we read to know we're not alone.' I tend to think the same about writing. Interaction, however is not only audience-seeking, it's also educational for a lot of the parties involved.
On an unrelated topic, which iPhone apps are you using the most and why?
I'm loving reQall....

Anonymous said...

I read Julian Sanzhez's bit too the other day while perusing Cowan's MR. I also read it as a comment on ethics.
Some interesting re-definitions of boundaries are occurring when it comes to ownership issues. 'Sure, that's you're iPod you're holding, but I can access your selections.'
Gripping times we live in.

B.R. said...

-Thanks all for the comments.

-This was a post about culture signaling mostly and not about my friend's email re: his decision to bridle his curiosity.
About blogging and publishing, I tend to think that not everyone writes in search of an audience. Actually, I'm pretty convinced of this. I can provide at least one example that could support the point. Interaction is one thing, a platform for self-expression is, imo, something else.
What Web 2.0 has done, among other things, is enable people who would otherwise wait for months to see their work in print, engage other readers/writers in the community immediately. This is a most-needed, nourishing process for many who write to engage/teach/reach/inform/self-inform and not necessarily to self-therapize.

Writing, per many, is a responsibility. I tend to be Kantian about it, at least. Granted, privacy is defined differently by different people as comfort levels with sociality and interaction aren't always the same. Much more on the topic.

-I do find Julian Sanchez' bit about the comfort level of having one's playlists and info out in the open quite gripping.

-Web 2.0, books? Hmm. I'd recommend that you give this book called "Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good" a try. We ran into it one day at an Indigo store when visiting up in Canada and I found myself rather interested in learning about some of the big minds behind such things as digg, facebook, paypal, slide, et al. Interesting narrative style, overall.

-"However, interest is still a missing ingredient."--It's a favorite. Makes more sense when one knows the context behind it. Might share it next time we see each other.

-I love, love, love AroundMe, reQall, Evernote, and Text Free Lite.

-Ah, apples and oranges? Hmm. Maybe I've been around non-English speakers for too long, but I have no idea what y'all mean here. This post was not analogy-rich, actually. It's actually one of my most rhetorically minimalistic, come to think of it. The only point I am making is that boundary awareness is a bit of an issue at times when we are faced with so many opps. C'est tout.