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Why it’s good to be boring on the Web

Casually and randomly click your way through the Web, and it’s as if you were to knock on the doors of random people around the world and were to see a startling set of stupidities, insults, and depravities.

Of course, if you actually were to knock on random doors and get to listen in on what’s going on in living rooms and bedrooms, you probably would be depressed. It’s even worse online because extremism — and not just in politics — drives up traffic.

That’s one reason why, despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.

10 Responses to “Why it’s good to be boring on the Web”

  1. Another post from a naive California liberal whining about rudeness on the Internet even as he surrenders our final freedoms to the Kenyan Hussein. Yes, bow down to your African god… we’ll be here with the guns when the Muslims come. Goddammit this resists all parody.

  2. “This resists all parody.” Likewise, Avery.

  3. How does your praise of the quotidian relate to your use of social media? And what does this mean for you, and for the rest?

    It seems to me that social media gurus—I hope you don’t mind the term—sometimes participate in social media in profoundly atypical ways. I certainly have this disconnect–my use of Twitter, for example, is just not normal–and I think it’s worth thinking about.

    It seems to me that social-media experts are stately giraffes, who only eat the tastiest leaves from the top of the tree, and always know exactly where the water holes and the lions are. And these giraffess get together to opine on state of the savannah and the lives of the rats and elephant shrews far beneath them, whose experience of it is completely different from their own.

    I think this disconnect can lead to either false optimism or unwarranted pessimism about the online world. What do you think?

  4. First, I don’t think of myself as a social media guru, and I doubt anyone else does. But, that’s an aside.

    My use of social media has some atypical elements, especially Twitter. I don’t tweet the quotidian, both because I’m a little shy and (mainly) because for me it is primarily a one-way medium. It’s one way because I’m a writer and thus am read by people I don’t know. That asymmetry is atypical and makes my use of Twitter atypical. (It is one of the typical uses made of it by asymmetric users, however. There’s nothing unusual about how I use Twitter.)

    I use other social media in far more typical ways, however. I closed my first FB account because of the asymmetry, and opened a new one for people I actually know. I’m still a 60 yr old guy (well, soon), so I’m not using it the way The Youth do, but it’s far more personal than my Twitter feed.

    As for your giraffes comment: I’d rather say that I’m a writer who writes about what he observes, skewed by my interests, my position, my weaknesses. And it’s true that I am not a dispassionate observer. I see opportunities for the Net about which I’m enthusiastic. No doubt that skews my vision as well.

    So, the question is, I suppose, is my vision wrong? Am i observing incorrectly? Is my optimism or pessimism false or unwarranted?

  5. To your aside, “guru” is perhaps pejorative. I hope you didn’t take it that way. I don’t think anyone else has taught me more about the web and its essentially social nature than you. I’m sure many others would agree. You may decline the title for modesty, but if you’re not an expert on social media (broadly defined), I don’t know who is. In my fantasy, I was one too. We can be giraffes together.

    I’m interested to hear about your Facebook use. I should probably do that. The problem, which you solved, is the difficulty of separating different sorts of “knowing.” Still, my real-world use would be pretty minimal. If you’re a 60s guy I’m a late-30s one. My social life revolves around people I know closely, and families who send their kids to the same school I send my kid. These are relationships with frequent non-virtual contact, and don’t require require much in the way of coordinating tools. And of course I live in Maine, not Boston. As a lifelong Cambridge resident, I feel that difference sharply, while also feeling that Maine more closely resembles the country when it comes to social media.

    What I’m saying is there is a persistent and troubling gap between what I hear from the social-media world and the people I actually know–people who are not less interesting, creative or important than “youth,” who don’t seem to resemble the rumor either. I question focusing on the youth. Despite ever-lengthening neoteny, only a small part of our lives are spent in the stage of life that the web presently seems best at. I’m not convinced that youthful patterns of social media use are really “spreading up.” Social software is spreading up, however. (I worry that our adult lives are being remodeled by tools fit for youthful lives.)

    LibraryThing’s cerebral or “cerebro-social” focus is to some extent my answer. I’m married, socialize with my family and friends over dinner, and could care less about what my high-school friends are saying about Glee. But I want to talk about the books I’m reading, and the bookish topics I’m interested in. This is, however, a very “early internet” idea. The new way is to take existing relationships and relationship patterns, generalize them to a low common denominator, add web application software, make it free and try to monetize it all by retailing your users’ information and social graphs.

    Is your vision wrong? I don’t know. Does Socratic ignorance fly with you? I claim that. But here are some worries I think we should all track. Stipulating that the web is becoming more like who we are, and that is largely determinative of who will become, I worry about things like:

    1. The relative quality of online interaction, what it enhances and what it replaces. I am troubled by the dismissiveness of your term “The who cares what you had for breakfast crowd,” when you don’t tweet your breakfast and, I suspect, aren’t caring about mine either.

    2. The “mechanisation” of social relations–representing nuanced reality in crude software, and now bending our relations to fit the software.

    3. Control of the software of social relations, and the shrinking options for choosing alternatives or opting out together.

    4. Echo chambering. Frankly, I bought the argument that most talking was always talking to people you agree, and that talking was the important thing. I don’t think that anymore. I don’t think the nastiness and ignorance on the right these days would exist without the web. And I don’t think my Twitter feed would turn into “Two Minutes’ Hate” every time Christianity was mentioned if people weren’t disinhibited by a selective, sympathetic audience, and not having to be in the same room as the minority.

    What ties these all together, besides being seemingly another criticism of your alleged “utopianism,” is the fact that us social-media giraffes aren’t participating in the same reality as the rest. Our online interacts are great. (Holy crap, I get to talk to David Weinberger!) We both control our social media software, through expertise or, in my case, being head programmer of one of the non-Facebook holdouts. We’re both savvy enough to bend crude tools to our needs, at least some of the time. And we are, I think, both engaged in free and open conversations because we’ve made a conscious, against-the-grain decision to do so.

    I am not sure the elephant shrews have the same experience.

    PS: Speaking of real-world social contact, did you get the vodka olives?

  6. Tim, first to return the compliment: As you know, I am a huge fan and admirer of LibraryThing. Also of you. Second: holy crap! You’re the one who sent the gin-soaked olives? I couldn’t figure out who it was. Thank you so much! (Note: This was in response to my tweeting that selling the olives without the martinis would be a million dollar idea.)

    This comment is great, Tim. You’re pointing to the many reasons why it’s hard to figure out what the Internet is about and what it’s doing to us, including the very first reason: There’s no “us” about which we can generalize. You and I are more similar than different, yet even between us the differences in our Net experiences are significant.

    Quantifiable, controlled research is one route, given all of its well-known pitfalls. Non-quant research is another. And then there’s the sort of observing that I do, which, as you point out, is fraught with every sort of observer bias. I can’t guarantee my results on the basis of my method. I view myself as trying to make sense of some stuff, and the test of its value to a large extent is simply (and weakly) a response that says, “Yeah, that makes sense.” I’d offer more, but I can’t.

    About your numbered concerns:

    1. I think I’m allowed to comment on how others use the Net. And, no, I don’t care what you had for breakfast. But I do have an interest in what’s mattering to you.

    2. This doesn’t worry me so much because of our ability to transcend even the crudest mechanisms of relationship. Plus, the mechanisms are getting pretty sophisticated.

    3. Very scary.

    4. Echo chambering and incivility are separable, although there’s reason to believe the former encourages the latter. I still think most talking is with people you know and like, and that’s fine. I also think that ALL talking requires 99.9% agreement, starting with sharing a language and a shared sense of what’s worth talking about. Beyond that, the echo chamber argument is so convoluted and twisty that I keep thinking there must be something wrong with the formulation.

    Finally, the nastiness on the Web is pretty upsetting. I don’t know how to explain it, although the usual explanations — anonymity, no consequences — seem like part of the problem. (I still favor anonymity as the default, though.) The truth is that in my lofty giraffe-ness, I run into less nastiness than others apparently do. If I were spending the percentage of time in FB that my kids do, I’d be running into even less. And that’s one possible outcome of this: Gated communities to avoid the nastiness caused by echo chambers … and of course gated communities and echo chambers are two names for the same thing.

    In summation: I don’t know.

  7. Re: Olives. I thought there was a note, but it’s better without. It would have been better still if one of us had made that million bucks for inventing them.

    I very much agree with your summation, “There’s no ‘us’ about which we can generalize.” I want to make it clear that far from being required not to comment, your eager readers require it. I am, I suppose, urging sensitivity to those differences–a goal you clearly agree with, so there’s no point pressing it. And I am worrying in public about trends in the tools out there. I think we agree on much there.

    1. I had a rather excellent olive tapenade for lunch. So perhaps you might care, unless it’s primarily about the alcohol for you :)

    2. We’ll have to agree to differ. Or, rather, let’s mark it “it’s complicated.”

    4. I disagree in part, but, since writing, I’ve come across more of your blog posts on the topic. Great stuff.

    Overall, constructively, I’d love to attend a Berkman event on “What we’ve changed our minds about?” about the web, covering 2000 or 2005 to 2010. I think the “optimists”–if I may dramatize the differences–would be the most interesting to hear from. They got the big things right, but are now under strain, or so I imagine. Hold it in Maine, with nobody under 30 admitted—and martinis.

  8. “What we’re changing our minds about” is a constant topic at the Center these days. In fact, we’ve instituted a new way of doing our weekly Fellows Hour, in which we’re simulating a course, the topic of which is “Net Exceptionalism” precisely as a way to re-calc the early enthusiasm that launched the Center: The other term to google for in this regard is “technodeterminism,” since much of that debate is also in the face of early predictions (by, ahem, some of us) that the Net’s effect was unstoppable.

    FWIW, I wrote a bit about what I thought Cluetrain got right and wrong in the 10th anniversary edition.

  9. […] Why it’s good to be boring on the Web “When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.” […]

  10. […] the other end of the spectrum, in a recent post about Twitter, David Weinberger writes, …despite the “Who cares what you had for […]

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