Us and Our Online Ethos

The Prologue

This post was originally published a couple of days ago. I got some of my most interesting, thoughtful comments on that post. However, I deleted that post. I was not happy with what I had written. When I started to write the post, I was quite clear about what I wanted to write. I realised, however, that as the post progressed, it was bouncing randomly all over the place and it ended up being a staccato rant than anything else. Not that rants aren’t acceptable – but when rants run over the original thought, the thought is stuck in the mud.

I have, at the end of this post, added the three comments that I received on the deleted post. They refer to sections in the deleted post, so they are decontextualised to an extent – yet, by themselves they are very valuable thoughts and have their rightful place in this post.

*

The Post

Last Saturday, Rayo, a good friend – who I regret not meeting as often as I want to – asked (said?) this on Facebook:

You know what’s the most interesting thing on FB? It’s you. Not what you read on the Washington Post Social Reader, what games you played courtesy Zynga, what videos on cool things in advertising/marketing/whatever you watched or food you ate. (Well, maybe the food you ate.)

Instead, how about you talk about the most wonderful person you know? Yourself. What you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. What’s happening in your life. Be open. Be personal. Share. Make it interesting. Make it count. Be yourself. Break down your limited profiles. Dare to be the same person to everyone. It’s a social network. So be social. Can you?

I re-posted this status as the “Facebook Manifesto”; he seemed to agree to the title that I had given his status. Facebook themselves would dismiss this caption for obvious reasons.

A while ago, I had posted a thought about Genuine Interest. And I meant every word in the post. The two comments I received were one-word comments – which said a lot. When you get certain one-word comments, from certain people – they are more meaningful: it is proof that you have expressed very well.

As much as I agree with Rayo about what we should do on Facebook, I know we are losing it. There was a time when I wrote about what was happening in my life, what I felt — broadcasting it to my friends. There was a time when Facebook was about friends – it wasn’t about networking. Rayo posted his status update on Saturday. Sunday, I posted a photograph that I had taken early in January. I have been posting many photographs from my archives to Facebook. A friend asked me, if I had quit “working” (The inherent thought being – where do you get the time to travel so much – implying – you don’t have to work, do you?) I took a long time to digest that comment. What did she mean?

It is obvious that she meant it in jest. It did bring to fore the thought, however, of the possibility that this could well be the beginning of the conversion of a perception to belief.

Our social networking has been reduced to sharing the already shared – news that has little connection to who we are. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That is the case of links – the currency of the web. We are trading in that currency, in the guise of networking. It is now easy for us to have a thousand “friends” but not know our “friends.” There is granular control to partially or completely block people, or know everything they do on Facebook. We can control what we want to know and see, about our friends. For every person we block completely or partially, someday we will have to wonder why they are on our friends’ list. Not to discredit online social networking: it has been useful. I have met some of the most interesting people online through Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter (and of course through this blog). One, who I now count as one of my best friends, even if we have met just five times, so far. And, make no mistake, I still stand by what Rayo said – we are missing out on getting to know each other, online. The advantage of being online is to overcome the constraints of time and geography rather than posting news, videos, guilt updates, and disturbing photos.

Facebook is the new Orkut.

We more or less do the same thing on Linkedin that we do on Facebook – but we call the people in our network – connections. To my mind, that makes more sense. We are only connected online.

When we can never know ourselves completely in this lifetime, for sure, we will never know others completely. We may not even agree with what others think or believe, all the time. The point of Genuine Interest is not to know everything about a person, nor is it to like everything about another person. It is mutual, and has inherent objective acceptance. My peeve and therefore my agreement with Rayo’s status was that we tend to become different online. Facebook being more personal than Linkedin (for example) leads us to believe something about a person that may not be true. Folks who are most prolific online, suddenly have nothing to say when you meet them, and vice versa. To their credit, I also know (very few) people who are the same – online and offline.

When you discuss people, personalities and perceptions – subjectivity will rule. The “both-sides-of-the-coin” will crowd the conversation. There is no one answer. (as I was reminded in one of the comments). And I wasn’t looking for one. Earlier, I used to enjoy being on Facebook, the noise, however, has got to me and I see no signs of it abating. The more I am on Facebook, the more I feel I should be off it.

In any case, after I have unsubscribed partially or completely to all the noise, there won’t be any writing on the wall.

*

The Epilogue

Three comments were posted on the previously deleted post. They may not make much sense now, given that this post has now changed form – to an extent. But these comments, which are posts in themselves are ones that I treasure for the unravelling of thoughts on friendship, online-ness and genuine interest.

By batulm:

Very thought-provoking post, Atul. In fact, you put together several thoughts that were nebulous in my own mind. These are the reasons why I hardly use FB. Or any other social networking platform for that matter.

But then, the idea of really knowing, really being interested in another person, has also faded away with age and other considerations. It is something that I am re-learning.

By asuph

I read this in the morning, while still juggling breakfast, kid’s morning rituals, and wife’s looks. Okay I made the last thing up, but, the point is, I read it without full attention that it deserves. And if I wait for eternity to find time and attention to comment, I’d probably not, just the way I haven’t to your few posts that I really wanted to comment on. So, at the risk of sounding like I haven’t read the post at all, or have confused it with some other post, I’m going to offload thoughts that the one, inattentive, reading has originated in my mind. I know you’d forgive that, so won’t ask for forgiveness. Silence would have been more inconsiderate I believe.

Trivial: I’m ashamed that I couldn’t even come up with different one word reaction for that post and the manifesto.

Reciprocation: I have a slightly different take on this, and I think you know it, but just for completeness. If I am interested in knowing ‘everything’ about a person, I will try to do that. It would not matter to me if the other person wants to know ‘everything’ about me. Reciprocation is fraught with dangers, and I can be happier by letting go that requirement, and being the selfish person that I am, I chose that over the other, hard, requirement for reciprocation. In fact, with offline friends, I have always insisted on non-reciprocation. I do what I can, because it makes me happy. I don’t expect others to reciprocate. And in the so called ‘real’ life, I’ve been lucky enough to have had people take more interest in my life/well being, than I’ve been able to. It makes me feel a little guilty — because that’s not what I had bargained for, rather the opposite — but then I don’t mend my philosophy.

Knowing all: Consciously/subconsciously, in (I’ll drop so called henceforth) real life, we project selectively. Most of us that is. We’re taught to do that by bitter experience. The child that we were, naturally shared everything. Growing up was learning to protect, project, to balance hurt/disappointment with joy/excitement, to become closed — to various degree to different people, to be aware of circles of concerns and their intersections. How would our online ethos escape that baggage? How would they be very disjoint from ethos offline? And I wouldn’t expect it from other people for sure. About me, I don’t know yet. I stayed away from google+ because somewhere I DO want to be same person to everyone. I DON’T want to think ‘should I share this with him/her’. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to share everything with everyone. So then the FB-me becomes the least common denominator of all those me’s I’d have been with different people. And I grant you, it will be boring compared to the me you’d have got if only you and I were on FB. I don’t have an easy solution.

Do I want to only know you (not you you, but anyone) that I like? Not really. In real life I like people as a whole, or don’t as a whole. It’s not fair sometimes, especially to the latter group. But without loss of generality, the scheme works. I rarely let the people in latter group hurt me, because they don’t have access to the ‘core’ me. The former group, on the other hand holds tremendous power to hurt me, and rarely do they use it. And when they do, it hurts worse than it would have if I had not being doing the liking in a packaged deal way. I’ve been told I don’t judge people correctly. It’s actually wrong. I know I’m taking a risk, knowing that I’m giving away that power, and I’m ready for that hurt, for the rewards are so rich. But then that’s not the point. Point is this: since I do the package deal sort of thing, I actually do not mind knowing things about someone I like that I don’t like. If they’re close enough, I actually let them know it. Sometimes that doesn’t work as I expected because I had judged the ‘closeness’ wrongly. But I don’t change much. And sometimes, I like those things later, I even internalize them. For the I that I am (rhyme with ‘the sam that I am — Dr. Seuss) changes too, and I have to be open to that possibility.

The question is “do I have time to know ‘everything’ about you”. I sure wish I had. And there are some people, you’re definitely one of them, for whom I’d strive to make that time. But god knows I fall short. I don’t have answers for that either.

And finally, people rarely think about activities like FB, like some of us do. Online ethos is an oxymoron for them. If I cleaned my FB contacts off these people, I’d be left with very few. That might not necessarily be a bad thing. But so far, among the noise, there are still some signals. There is still some connection which I’m not sure I want to lose as of now. For, for those few people, I don’t need FB. I can pick up my phone. And so I live with FB as it has become. The day I won’t I’ll just go back to the phone.

PS: two of my ‘best’ friends are on FB for namesake. They rarely share anything there. And yet I know more about their lives than I do about most of my FB friends.

Sigh! Sorry for pedantic reply. I’m still hoping it’s better than no reply.

By Mahendra Palsule:

You say “I will not, in this post, question your social networking ethos” but I think you’ve proceeded to question others’ ethos towards the end of your post.

As asuph points out above, I think most of what you’ve written springs from and applies equally to offline ethos. How much of oneself one is willing to share, with whom, and how, differs from person to person. Even the core idea of ‘friendship’ differs from person to person. Every person has different ways of thinking about friendship. Giving others space to be themselves is a way of respecting their individuality, freedom, and privacy. This includes the way they use phones to communicate or use or don’t use social networks in whatever fashion they choose. The concept of a single manifesto for one social network that should apply to all is abhorrent to my mind. Forget social networks, there can’t even be a single manifesto about friendship!

“My Question: Are you willing to accept a person for who he or she is?”Not sure what you mean by ‘accept’ – I don’t think we have a choice. Other people are who they are irrespective of whether we accept it or not. Even acceptance can mean different things to different people. For example, in a group of three friends A, B and C, A being a smoker may be ‘accepted’ differently by B and C where B criticizes it and C doesn’t. C’s acceptance is in not criticizing it, B’s acceptance is in continuing to be a good friend despite it.Lastly, ‘acceptance’ can also include the acceptance of how the person uses different social networks, and asking or expecting others to use a social network in any particular way reveals a lack of acceptance to my mind.

“Or will you colour your opinions of their personality with your limited understanding of their limited online expression?”Our understanding of others is always limited, whether online or offline. Our understanding of others is always colored by their expressions, online or offline. This is normal, human behavior. Any pretense to the contrary is a sham. What is important to me personally is the awareness that my understanding is limited, and being open to enhance that understanding.

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5 thoughts on “Us and Our Online Ethos

  1. Though your original thought may have been subdued by the rant in the deleted post, it did get through.

    In my comment, I responded only to the rant, not to the thought, and maybe I should have responded better. But this post expresses your thoughts much better.

    I saw the problem of noise in social networks over two years back. I wrote quite a few posts about it, though from a more socio-tech angle than a personal one. For example, see http://www.skepticgeek.com/socialweb/googlebuzzreadertwitterfacebook-noise/. Soon, I not only gave up, but accepted the problem of noise as an inevitability. Social networks are stock-exchanges of the web, where instead of stocks, futures, bonds, and options, we have reshares, likes, RTs, and +1s that instruct the social network’s algorithm about the portfolio that interests us as investors, so the social network can predict what we may like to invest in next in order for them to continue to take a cut of the transaction. It is no coincidence that what scrolls down in the right of FB is called the ‘ticker’.

    Over the last two years of my online social life, I’ve found most people sticking primarily to one social network that becomes their favorite. They invest huge amounts of their time and effort into one network, while ridiculing others’ use of other networks. From a 3rd persons viewpoint, it isn’t very different from people in different continents staying inland, being xenophobic, and ridiculing folks across the other side of the ocean. And the tectonic shifts under way at present are pulling these continents further away from each other. In short, social networking is in a mess, creating distances between people, while pretending to connect them.

    As a result, my participation in social networking in the last two years has reduced to two elements – I continue to use all the networks, while drastically minimizing the time I spend on each. This, because my professional occupation is primarily online, concerned and involved with all aspects of online networking today. If I were in a traditional job, it would have been even lesser. Today, if there is something I would like any of my friends to definitely see (in other words, ‘share’) I email/message/chat/SMS them directly depending on *their* network of choice. I learnt a lesson never to just share something in my own stream, expect my friends to see it, and then get disappointed when they didn’t. Hence, my ‘shares’ in my own stream are usually those which I don’t mind if anyone sees them or not – completely anti-thetical to the manifesto you describe (though each of my shares are carefully hand-picked). I may be contributing to the problem of noise, but that’s how the platform encourages its users – you can’t blame an autorickshaw driver for the vehicle’s narrow turning radius.

    So if something I have to say is meant as a signal, I will either blog it or send DM/SMS/Message, or even better, Email. As I said elsewhere today, Email continues to remain the best *personal* social network, and the advent of glamorous social networks have made us forget its unique virtues – it is not owned by any company, it is inter-operable, as private or public as you want it to be, and assured data-portability. Many of the most intimate conversations I’ve had in recent months have been on email.

    (Apologies for the very long comment)

    Like

  2. Mahendra, though I am glad that the thought got through – I think the over all mood of the post subdued the actual thought. I read through the post you have linked – I think I had read it a while ago – perhaps you had linked it elsewhere.

    The thing you speak about “curated shares” is important. That is what tells us about a person’s interests. I am against the random sharing – the sensational sharing: in other words – the sharing out of habit.

    And yes, email works (except for the mushy shares again). I guess if anything in this world can be used, it can also be misused. I love the rickshaw example. 🙂

    Please, never apologise for a long comment. The thoughts in the comment matter – never their length!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Mind the Gap | Gaizabonts
  4. Atul, first of all, your friends are awesome. 🙂
    I feel like I need to give my opinion. I opted very long ago on not having MSN, or FB or now this new thing WhatsApp where you can form groups, for one reason. I hate being rude. I hate people saying: “you never write” (in my head, sorry, you never write either). I hate not having the time to answer. So to avoid all that and make my life simpler, I just don’t do that stuff. I really don’t have the time for it… Or as a friend said: “You do have the time” my reply “Of course I do, and I love to choose where I want to spend it”. Let’s say, I rather read your blog than read for the 1000000th time the same quote posted on a different background… I may sound a bit arrogant now. But I prefer to be called honest 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, DotedOn, am sure my friends are listening – thank you, on their behalf. A thin line separates arrogance and honesty – and I think the name of that thin line is — tone. Our choice to move away from the tried, trivial, and trite has nothing to do with arrogance. It is, like you said so well, our choice to do what we would, with the time we have.

      And of course, I like it much that you’d rather read my blog! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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