The Phenomenology Of Encounters With Notification Icons

It’s 630 AM or so; you’re awake, busy getting your cup of coffee ready. (Perhaps you’re up earlier like the truly virtuous or the overworked, which in our society comes to the same thing.) Your coffee made, you fire up your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop, and settle down for the morning service at the altar.  Your eyes light up, your antennae tingle in pleasurable anticipation: Facebook’s blue top ribbon features a tiny red square–which squats over the globe like a ginormous social media network–with a number inscribed in it; single figures is good, double figures is better. You look at Twitter: the Liberty Bell–sorry, the notifications icon–bears the weight of a similar number. Yet again: single figures good, double figures better. You look at GMail: your heart races, for that distinctive bold lettering in your inbox is present, standing out in stark contrast from the pallid type below; and there is a number here too, in parentheses after ‘Inbox’: single figures good, double figures better.

That’s what happens on a good day. (On a really good day, Facebook will have three red circles for you.) On a bad day, the Facebook globe is heartbreakingly red-less and banal; Twitter’s Liberty Bell is mute; and GMail’s Inbox is not bold, not at all. You reel back from the screen(s) in disappointment; your mood crashes and burns; the world seems empty and uninviting and cold and dark. Impatience, frustration, anxiety come rushing in through the portals you have now left open, suffusing your being, residing there till dislodged by the right kind of sensory input from those same screens: the appropriate colors, typefaces, and numbers need to make an appearance to calm and sooth your restless self. We get to work; all the while keeping an eye open and an ear cocked: a number appears on a visible tab, and we switch contexts and screens to check, immediately. An envelope appears on the corner of our screens; mail is here; we must tear open that envelope. Sounds too, intrude; cheeps, dings, and rings issue from our machines to inform us that relief is here. The silence of our devices can be deafening.

Our mood rises and falls in sync.

As is evident, our interactions with the human-computer interfaces of our communications systems have a rich phenomenology: expectations, desires, hopes rush towards with colors and shapes and numbers; their encounters produce mood changes and affective responses. The clever designer shapes the iconography of the interface with care to produce these in the right way, to achieve the desired results: your interaction with the system must never be affectively neutral; it must have some emotional content. We are manipulated by these responses; we behave accordingly.

Machine learning experts speak of training the machines; let us not forget that our machines train us too. By the ‘face’ they present to us, by the sounds they make, by the ‘expressions’ visible on them. As we continue to interact with them, we become different people, changed much like we are by our encounters with other people, those other providers and provokers of emotional responses.

On Self-Censoring Opinions, Verbal Or Written

I would like to consider myself a plain-speaking person, the kind who is always able to ‘speak his mind,’ ‘say what he is thinking,’ ‘tell us what he really thinks,’ and so on. But I’m afraid the evidence suggests that all too frequently, in all too many conversational spaces, I bite my tongue and hold my peace, suppressing words that might otherwise have found expression. A written counterpart to this behavior exists, of course: in online discussion spaces too–like this one, for instance–I do not venture an opinion in many domains. We do all do so for reasons of propriety and etiquette, of course, and indeed, such self-restraint is often a virtue of sorts, but there are many other reasons for not speaking up or holding forth.

Sometimes I engage in such self-censorship because, quite simply, I have nothing to add to an ongoing conversation–I sense that what I’m about to say would be redundant or not as perspicuous as other contributions to it. I like to talk, and like anyone else, consider my opinions to be ‘correct’ ones, so such holding back does not come easily to me.

Far more interesting is the case, of course, when I hold back for fear of provoking a reaction I do not have the time or the inclination to ‘process.’ This situation should also be familiar to us: for instance, we do not rise to the bait at a family gathering when a relative says something offensive (every family has, I suppose, a list of topics that must not be broached on such occasions.)  Or sometimes, even more interestingly, we sense the opinion we express will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, taken out of context, its ‘subtleties’ ignored–all resulting in a cascade of vituperative condemnation directed our way. We despair over ever being able to ‘explain’ the thesis we would proffer, and sense the dispute that would arise as we navigated the various discursive obstacles that would be placed in the way of such clarification would be insuperable. Perhaps we would dig a deeper hole for ourselves as we attempted to  ‘clarify’ what we meant to say. (These are, of course, indications that we should consider whether we should wait a while to see if we can revise a draft of what we want to say to see if its content can be made sharper; such considerations apply equally to verbal and written opinions.)

Such self-censorship is, I think, more prevalent in the online context. The infamous ‘tweet storms’ that result when an inexpertly written and inarticulate tweet–begging for emendation and clarificatory follow-up on a ‘sensitive’ subject makes the rounds–can easily overwhelm the hapless offender. So can the vitriol on a Facebook status commentary space. Writing one comment–or tweet–after another in a desperate attempt to patch the leaks in the dyke is all too often a losing cause. Better to suck it up and retreat to lick your wounds, bruised but considerably wiser, forewarned and forearmed for your next foray online.


Tim Parks On Writerly Conformity

At The New York Review of Books blog, Tim Parks writes of the “general and ever increasing anxious desire to receive positive feedback” on writing:

It is a situation that leads to…an intensification of conformity, people falling over themselves to be approved of….Announce an article…on Facebook and you can count, as the hours go by, how many people have looked at it, clicked on it, liked it, etc….Everything conspires to have us obsessively attached to the world’s response to whatever we do.

Franzen [suggests] that, simply by offering us the chance to check constantly whether people are talking about us, the Internet heightens a fear of losing whatever popularity we may have achieved: “the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness….the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”

Is it really possible, then, to be free as a writer? Free from an immediate need for money, free from the need to be praised, free from the concern of how those close to you will respond to what you write….Perhaps the best one can ever achieve is a measure of freedom, in line with your personal circumstances….So long as it’s compatible with regular writing, the day job is never to be disdained. A steady income allows you to take risks.

Many of my blog posts here–indeed, a significant percentage–evoke not even a single ‘Like’ on Facebook. They ‘generate’ a few views here–mostly from people who have found them through search engines.  They have, as it were, ‘fallen stillborn from the press.’ This does me little economic or professional damage–but it often does a number on my ego. In that dimension, I sometimes find myself infected with that most damaging of thoughts: Perhaps I should write something people will read?  Like the kind of stuff that people ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ on Facebook or pass around on Twitter? On topics that articles like those were concerned with?

Phew. The temptation is great; the abyss lurks close by, only a step or two away. I’m saved–in the economic and professional sense–by the fact that, as Parks recommends, I have a day job. I do not have to sell myself too much. (I do descend into some groveling when I’m trying to get the word out about pieces that I think, for political reasons, deserve wider circulation.) Moreover, as I have to often remind myself, I always intended this blog as a space in which to ‘stay in touch’ with writing, to tentatively approach some ideas and write them down, to ‘try things out.’ (It also functions as a bit of a diary, a journal, which, when you come to think about it, doesn’t really need any readers.) Perhaps the most positive side-effect of my writing here has been that some of the posts here suggest themselves as starting points for further exploration, and yet others have found themselves–suitably modified–integrated into other works of mine.  Indeed, that fact alone could suggest my blog has been a ‘success.’ Even if this post gets no ‘Likes’ and no RTs.

Nietzsche On The Interpersonal Dynamics Of Social Networks

This afternoon, I sat down to read through the portions of HumanAll Too Human (Section VI – ‘Man in Society’ or ‘In Relations with Others’) that I had assigned to my Social Philosophy class, and once again, was struck by how acute and perspicuous so many of its aphorisms are–especially when it comes to anticipating the awkwardness and gaucherie and pretensions of our online social networks.

For instance, on the business of avatars, Nietzsche offers the following:

294 Copies. Not infrequently, one encounters copies of important people; and, as with paintings, most people prefer the copy to the original.

On the burdens of the kind of ‘friendships’ that are now increasingly common on social media:

296 Lack of intimacy. Lack of intimacy among friends is a mistake that cannot be censured without becoming irreparable.

On the kinds of knowledge and posturing that social networks encourage and facilitate:

302 Preference for certain virtues. We lay no special value on the possession of a virtue until we perceive its complete absence in our opponent.

305 Balance of friendship. Sometimes in our relationship to another person, the right balance of friendship is restored when we put a few grains of injustice on our own side of the scale.

On the ways and manner in which we express ourselves in meeting spaces online:

303 Why one contradicts. We often contradict an opinion, while actually it is only the tone with which it was advanced that we find disagreeable.

307 When paradoxes are appropriate. At times, one can win clever people over to a principle merely by presenting it in the form of an outrageous paradox.

On kinds of humble bragging:

313  Vanity of the tongue. Whether a man hides his bad qualities and vices or confesses them openly, his vanity wants to gain an advantage by it in both cases: just note how subtly he distinguishes between those he will hide his bad qualities from and those he will face honestly and candidly.

On being embroiled in pointless disputation and flame wars:

315 Required for debate. Whoever does not know how to put his thoughts on ice should not engage in the heat of argument.

317 Motive for attack. We attack not only to hurt a person, to conquer him, but also, perhaps, simply to become aware of our own strength.

326 Silence. For both parties, the most disagreeable way of responding to a polemic is to be angry and keep silent: for the aggressor usually takes the silence as a sign of disdain.

On the provision of a performance space by social networks:

325 Presence of witnesses. One is twice as happy to dive after a man who has fallen into the water if people are present who do not dare to.

And its associated lack of privacy:

327 The friend’s secret. There will be but few people who, when at a loss for topics of conversation, will not reveal the more secret affairs of their friends.

We should not be too surprised; we import, into our online meeting spaces, the dynamics of ‘offline’ interactions that have always been visible to the acute observer of the social scene. As Nietzsche undoubtedly was.

Reflections On ‘Imagined Communities’ – II: Newspaper Reading As Modern Prayer

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, New York, 2006, pp. 34-35), Benedict Anderson writes:

[T]he newspaper is merely an ‘extreme form’ of the book, a book sold on a colossal scale, but of ephemeral popularity. Might we say: one-day best-sellers? The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing….creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (‘imagining’) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only this day, not that. The significance of this mass ceremony–Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers–is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by…others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion….the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.

The modern version of ‘mass ceremony’ that Hegel terms a ‘substitute for morning prayer’ is–I suspect, from my vantage, privileged viewpoint–the morning email/social media check-in. Coffee mug in hand, we head over to our desktops, our laptops, our smartphones, hit space bars or tap screens, and get to reattaching the umbilical cord. (Some folks have no time and energy for this ritual and never have had, even in the times that Anderson is referring to above; reading newspapers has always been a luxury of sorts.) The sense of shared community is similar to those of newspapers: as I read shared links, I’m aware that many others have done the same. I sense, of course, that there are many overlapping communities here, just because each of our social media ‘contacts’ is a node in many other social networks besides ours. (This makes for an interesting contrast from the readership of a newspaper.)

Still, my sense of participating in a common, widely dispersed ritual as I interact with my social media feed grows: interactions and notifications are soon forthcoming, informing me that my social media ‘community’ is attentive and engaged. And if a variety of links on some topic of interest soon becomes visible, presenting the varied facets and dimensions of a hotly debated issue, this feeling becomes ever more entrenched. Indeed, I might want to participate in this ‘conversation’ – a possibility not available in the older model of readers reading their newspapers in their personal spaces. Through these interactions, I am reassured my ‘imagined community’ does not just exist and participate in the ritual of the modern morning prayer like I do, but it also engages with itself, with its constituents, about the meaning and significance of the liturgies performed and the prayers chanted.

Social media interactions such as the ones I describe are often not quite as local, provincial, or national, as in Anderson’s formulation of the shared newspaper experience: my ‘imagined communities’ straddle nations.  And yet, no global community, no ‘global village,’ despite the feverish imaginings and speculations of the early net-enthusiasts has emerged; news and issues on social media still bear a distinct national imprint and are still intended, primarily, for ‘local’ consumption. The nation still reigns supreme.

On The ‘Net: Letting ‘Em Have The Last Word

I began arguing on the Internet some twenty-seven years ago. I haven’t stopped yet. At first, it was all about the Usenet newsgroups; later it was mailing lists–private and public, online conferences, blog posts, blog comments spaces, IRC channels, Facebook and Twitter timelines. I read, I wrote, I flamed; I was read, I was flamed. I was infuriated, I was provoked; I infuriated, I provoked. No matter where you went in cyberspace, there you were, arguing with someone.

And these interlocutors, they drove you batty. You knew they were wrong; they knew you were. (You both cared what your audiences thought of you.) You wrote quasi-treatises, clear and limpid in their rhetorical and dialectical simplicity; they were free of argumentative fallacies; they were responded to with obfuscation and intellectual dishonesty. Your interlocutors’ arguments were so aggravatingly wrong that at times you suspected you could not unpeel the layers of provocation they laid on; you began to doubt whether you could do an adequate job of unmasking these imposters.  You thought your extensive catalog of this world’s intellectual sins and charlatans was complete; your experience with the folks you argued with online demonstrated that many more entries needed to be made in it.

These folks online, friends and strangers alike, they were not like the ones you met and talked to in person. When those folks spoke, their words were transient, evanescent; they came and went, vanishing, leaving only some traces, sometimes bitter, sometimes pleasant, soon to be overwritten by some new stimulus. These folks online, their words were written; they were committed to ‘memory’ of several kinds; they acquired a permanence; they became lasting accusations of the lack of all kinds of uprightness and rectitude; you were indicted of a multiplicity of sins. Sticks and stones could break your bones, and these words, by virtue of their durability, threatened to do as much.

And all in public, because when you argue on the Internet, you always have some kind of audience; perhaps a small one, like your departmental mailing list, or perhaps a colossal one, like a popular newsgroup or the comments space of a leading blog. You aren’t just arguing for yourself; you are arguing because you’ve ‘got a rep to protect.’ (With probability one, a rejoinder from a Facebook commenter that you will respond to with great alacrity and vigor is one that you disapprove of, but which has received a ‘Like’ from another reader. Here, the gauntlet has been thrown, the offender has already acquired some support of dubious moral quality, some irritating cheering from the peanut galleries. You must speak up for yourself and do double duty; not only must you show the original offender he was wrong but show his worthless sycophant that he backed the wrong horse in this particular race.)

Small wonder that famous ‘Duty Calls’ cartoon from xkcd is, er, famous:

Duty Calls

You laugh, because you know it’s true: you can’t let go, unanswered, some affront to your pride and your sensibilities. You cannot let an internet interlocutor have the last word. (A friend once told me–in the early days of the pre-WWW internet i.e., in the days of Usenet newsgroups–that he would not log on once he got home for fear of not being able to log off again all night. In those days, users dialed in to access newsgroups; when you stayed logged on, whether at 1200, 2400, or 9600 baud, you ran up your phone bills too, so there might have been some economic prudence that gave my friend’s resolution some much-needed heft.)

So there it stays, that unanswered comment on your blog, the idiotic comment on your Facebook page, that chirpy, offensive tweet, burning a hole in your cranium, threatening to keep you awake as the full horror of its being read by every single user of the internet slowly dawns on you. You draft your reply as you go about your day’s business, waiting for the moment when you will be able to pour out your furious rejoinder, your nail-in-the-coffin response that will seal the deal once and for all.

But it won’t. And you know it. Another cycle awaits.

Letting that ‘last word’ remain unanswered is key, of course. The expert internet user comes to size up, quickly enough, what kind of creature his interlocutor is. Most importantly, is he the kind who will let you have the last word? If not, step away from the keyboard. No one cares very much; there is a lot to be distracted by; something will come along, sooner rather than later, to divert the attention of us all. Let the evidence of your inability to come up with a witty rejoinder, a snappy response, an exposure of the operative fallacy, a devastating demolition job on a weak argument persist; let it remain as an example of how not to ‘win’ an internet argument.

Few listen to such good advice. I often don’t. Sometimes I will let the last comment on a Facebook thread or a Twitter thread bother me, insidiously burrowing its way around my anxieties and insecurities, before, finally provoked, I snap and respond. But I have some cause for optimism too; I have often found it easier to just terminate a conversation; I have grown wiser about the demands on my time and energy that these endlessly prolonged conversations can make. Simple economic prudence rules the roost; here may be found many zero-sum games, extracting costs that will have to be paid for somehow, elsewhere in my commitments.

So, I have walked away from fields of battle. I have let my partially composed and insufficiently pungent replies die on the vine; I have left my sword buried in the ground. I have let opposing generals come out on the battlefield and reassure themselves after they have surveyed it that they have seized the day and the moment and bested their opponents, who have slunk away under cover of the night. I am content to let them think me lacking in all manner of intellectual qualities.

I’m busy writing this post instead.

Self-Promotion And Failures Of Generosity

Like most authors today, I am expected to hustle a great deal–to ‘market’ my books.  I am supposed to set out a shingle on social media–like a Facebook page, or a special Twitter account. I should post news of reviews, flattering things that people have said about my writing, and provide updates on podcasts, interviews and the like. I have to solicit reviews and blurbs and kind words, hope for retweets and ‘Likes’ and status shares, ask friends on Facebook to spread the word on their pages, and all of the rest. When a favorable review goes into print, I bring it to everyone’s attention: my Facebook friends, my Twitter feed. According to those authors who self-publish, and I am not one, except for here, this work can take up so much time that there is little left for actual writing. C’est la vie de l’auteur.

This constant hustle is more than a little wearying. You are constantly aware of being a supplicant with an outstretched bowl, a nuisance of sorts; it is all too easy to spiral down into a bottomless pit of self-loathing and diminishing self-esteem. Even worse, you can become awfully self-centered, coming to regard all around you as potential avenues for the exploration of marketing pitches. Your hammer is the marketing pitch, the marketing plea, and everyone is  a nail. In behaving so, you can easily forget that reciprocity remains a virtue.

I’ve just concluded an email conversation with a senior journalist whom I’d approached–after I’d seen him mention my latest book on Twitter–to perhaps write a review of it. (Yes, I did search for my name on Twitter, hoping to find a mention of my book. It’s like googling yourself; we do it all the time.) We chatted, and in the course of this conversation, which included some kind words about my writing, he told me how, on several occasions he had been approached by other writers for similar ‘favors’. Sometimes he obliged; sometimes he didn’t. But without fail, none of the authors he thus helped ever reciprocated the favor; not one said anything about his writing in a similarly public forum. He concluded with a laconic ‘People are like that.’

I wonder if I have been ‘like that.’ I wonder, if this constant hustling of mine has made me blind to the duties I owe those who have deigned to help me. In my constant, anxious hustle to hawk my writing, to self-promote and aggrandize, I might have committed many failures of generosity–the kind that bothered my interlocutor.

I’ve written, here on this blog, on the need for writers in this brave new social media dominated world, to take care of each other. I’ve also written about the need for academics to send encouraging and appreciative words to their counterparts when they read something by them that they like. I have tried to live up to the standards I have sought to promulgate. But I have no doubt I have failed.

Time to relearn those lessons.