None of the homes had fences in the suburban Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up. The kids ran freely from yard to the next.
The C’s were a family around the corner, 3 boys, the middle Adam was a year younger than me. I spent a lot of time at playing at their house. They seemed to have a bit more money, nicer cars, bigger toys than other families; Mr C was a lawyer? ad executive? (a Mad Men type guy I imagine). The C’s were the only family I knew with a full time maid– Emily was a black woman with a big laugh; she looked like she walked off of a bottle of Aunt Jemima’s syrup. At the same time Mr C took us fishing, and had concrete poured for a backyard basketball court that all the neighborhood could use.
One summer night when I was maybe 8? 9? 10? The C’s threw one of those big fancy outdoor parties. Tables, lights, music, clinking glasses. My parents, along with other neighbors, where invited.
Us kids were not invited. I think we were told to stay inside, to not gawk at the party. But the C kids were allowed to be at the adult party.
My curiosity peaked. I did not want to be at something where I was not invited, but at the same time, it was unlike anything I had seen. I wanted to peek. So I sauntered down to the end of our yard (where if I went farther I would be in the C’s yard) pretending I was doing something like looking at our plants.
I stood there, trying to watch, and not watch the loud party.
And then a voice busted out. A kids voice. It was Adam. He was seated next to my Mom.
Mrs. Levine, Alan’s watching!
My childhood memory will yield more holes than material as a metaphor. It comes up when I think of the biggest party on the Internet, a place where there are technically no fences, a party I would like to be at and not. At the same time. Curiosity and revulsion.
Of course, this party is one you know– it’s called “Facebook.”
My aversion to Facebook is a common topic here. Catfishing is not at all at the root. I have this bad feeling about it, like a foul smell when you open the refrigerator. Maybe it’s the obscene amount of profit they make. By selling your data to advertisers. By selling your data to advertisers. By selling your data to advertisers.
They smile and at the same time perform psychological experiments on you. The laud themselves as part of the open web. And if the creepy way they recommended friend among patients of the same psychiatrist does not give you chills, I don’t know what will shake you.
But if I keep an account, I must be hypocritical, right? I stuck a fork in it once, but have had a few projects, some client web sites where I need access. And they way it is now, you cannot even look at “public” pages without logging in.
So I have a minimal profile. I’ve not told them my favorite movies, music, etc, nor mentioned where I worked. I do not click any reaction buttons. I don’t tell them advertisers I am not interested in (that’s data, folks). I do not stay logged in. I want to be the least valuable source of data.
I look in maybe once a week. Because you cannot understand a place without peeking at the party. That’s what I tell myself. I am an observer.
It’s quite a party. I see many friends, colleagues bantering back and forth. It’s the kind of stuff I would normally jump into online. A place to be funny, give comments. I see people who no longer blog writing there. I see posts from people I know get hundreds of likes. From people I know. Do I see it all? No.
But there’s a vibe there that is just– too happy. Too upbeat. Too much affirmation and cheer. All positive, cute reactions. Kind of like a Stepford get together. And our rationale for being at the party is the worse excuse you could every give your Mom for doing something.
Yet I get it. Or likely not. Many places on the internet are ugly. Worse, unsafe. Dangerous. A good friend told me that she spends more time in Facebook because she has found more people she aligns with, less abuse.
I’m pretty much immune to what many women, people of color deal with. I bear a White Male Card, a get out of trolled card. Without it, I’d probably not be writing this. I’d like to think I would stand ground against trolls. I’d like to think….
I don’t have much of anything figured out.
But I smell foulness at the party.
And certainly, Twitter, Google, any other site that gives you some kind of trinket of free stuff in exchange for them aggregating your data, they are no more virtuous.
Here’s the thing about ugliness of online spaces. You know the phrase “don’t read the comments.” Many places the vileness– no violence– of the online space is way over the line of behavior we ought to be behaving like. But do not underestimate that the stuff you are not reading in comments as just the tip of the suppressed rage/violence in people we share the non-online world with. Don’t read the comments, but be aware of them, do not ignore what they indicate about society. Do not pretend what lies beneath them doesn’t exist.
I recently listened to a TED Radio Hour segment on Screen Time featuring Jon Ronson on How Can Our Real Lives Be Ruined By Our Digital Ones? — he talks about the way Twitter “was”:
In the early days of Twitter, it was like a place of radical de-shaming. People would admit shameful secrets about themselves, and other people would say, “Oh my God, I’m exactly the same.” Voiceless people realized that they had a voice, and it was powerful and eloquent. If a newspaper ran some racist or homophobic column, we realized we could do something about it. We could get them. We could hit them with a weapon that we understood but they didn’t — a social media shaming. Advertisers would withdraw their advertising. When powerful people misused their privilege, we were going to get them. This was like the democratization of justice. Hierarchies were being leveled out. We were going to do things better.
He goes on to relate how this faded as the power of shame turned to individuals, citing the fall of Justine Sacco after her tweet sent to her 170 followers before boarding a flight to Africa went insanely viral (look it up if you are among the people who never heard this story).
So why did we do it? I think some people were genuinely upset, but I think for other people, it’s because Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine. We surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other, and that’s a really good feeling. And if somebody gets in the way, we screen them out. And do you know what that’s the opposite of? It’s the opposite of democracy. We wanted to show that we cared about people dying of AIDS in Africa. Our desire to be seen to be compassionate is what led us to commit this profoundly un-compassionate act.
Is this a platform issue? Ideology in the code? Human trait? All the above?
Ronson hits a key observation, but maybe those first ideas that we might be romanticizing are not… ideal.
The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people, but we’re now creating a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.
Or just spend your time at a party that is full of shiny happy people…
Go into that private party taking place on top of the open internet. Hobnob, clink your glasses. From a high window of the house, the host peers out, and sees all of your party activity as what fuels more money, more power to him. Your party is a Matrix.
I’m curious about it, but I’m keeping my feet in my own yard.
I am watching, Adam, indeed. Tell someone.
Top / Featured Image: Found on the site for Denver Pro DJ’s where it says, “I LOVE Working at Private Parties”. It’s so appropriate, and I admit, so not open licensed. Ok, Trust me, I am asking permission. I LOVE Working on a Copyrighted Internet