Thursday, May 28, 2009

More thoughts on "We Live In Public"

In the "About" section of her film's Web site, director Ondi Timoner makes the following observation:
[T]he virtual world is subsuming the physical world and determining how we spend our time and form and maintain our relationships more and more...
When I was in high school, I "met" someone via AOL chat. Her name was Sasha Pasulka, though at the time I knew her only as "patpv," her AOL handle. She was a few years younger than me -- I was 16 or 17 -- but she knew a lot more about certain things than I did (dating, for example). We also talked a lot about Tori Amos, the mutual interest that had brought us together in the first place. (She'd searched all AOL profiles for "Tori Amos," picked me pretty much at random, and started an instant-message conversation.) We often e-mailed each other, trying to decode Tori lyrics or just discussing details of our lives. I eventually contributed poetry to her literary blog, The Sweetest Cherry, and we stayed close -- as close as online pen pals can be -- until I graduated from high school. I rediscovered her via Friendster (I think) around 2004, and we e-mailed back and forth a few times before drifting apart again. Finally, last year, I found out through MySpace that she'd moved to Seattle, and I convinced her to meet me for brunch.

Originally, when we were IM and e-mail friends, Sasha didn't want to talk on the phone, but eventually she sent me a picture of herself with her prom date, so I knew what she looked like. (This was before Facebook and Flickr -- i.e., before displaying personal photos online was a ubiquitous practice.) When we met for brunch, I found her as smart and funny as I'd imagined she'd be, but I wasn't sure we'd end up being fast friends in the non-virtual world. She'd moved recently from L.A. and was just getting used to the Northwest's slower-paced, less glamorous lifestyle; I lived at the Kibbutz and had about five different outfits total. Still, Sasha came to both of my birthday parties -- the small karaoke night and the huge house party -- and proved herself to be a hell of a lot of fun, and very down to earth. I've also become a fan of Sasha's blogs (The Evil Beet, Zelda Lily, and Sasha is a Monster) and feel lucky to have witnessed the birth of her blogging career, which has become more successful than even she imagined it would.

I recount this story because I always thought of my relationship with Sasha, long before we met in person, as a "real" friendship. I really cared about her, was interested in her life, and enjoyed her company, even if it was virtual, and even if I'd never heard the sound of her voice. Sasha and I managed to break through the coldness of the technology and really connect. What I didn't write about yesterday while considering We Live In Public is that while Timoner seems concerned about the societal effects of the Internet and our culture of personal overexposure, Josh Harris isn't quite so down on the whole situation. He certainly learned a painful lesson from living in public with his girlfriend, but both in the film and during the Q&A he seemed to view our collective decision to live in public -- via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and many other platforms -- as more of an inevitability than a tragedy.

After all, technology is destiny. One of the things I like about Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television is that he rejects the common assumption that a given technology is neutral, that it's what we do with it that matters. Mander sees TV as something that was bound to have particular effects on society, and I think the Internet is similar. It's interactive, it allows for almost infinite exhibitionism, it's (mostly) free, and the laws governing its content are very few. The "Wild West" atmosphere that characterized the dot-com boom has changed form but remains intact. No other medium could contain "Two Girls, One Cup" and a video depicting U.S. soldiers in Iraq throwing a puppy off a cliff. There's no Interpol keeping "inappropriate" things from leading endless lives online, and nothing prevents any private citizen from becoming tremendously, intractably public. An article a while back called "Prisoners of YouTube" described the lives of people who found themselves immortalized on the video site. In most cases, they were embarrassed; some of them, like the "Numa Numa" guy, tried to capitalize on their unexpected online fame.

I've come a long way since my first experience with Web-based friendship. I have a blog, I check Facebook each day like a good little addict, I update my Twitter status, and I've posted video of myself, my friends, and my mother's dogs on YouTube. In Timoner's movie, when Harris steps away from the Web, he does it big time, first buying an apple farm and later moving to a small town in Africa. I think there's a lesson in that: The man who loves technology also needs, on occasion, to leave it far behind.

Several months ago, I gave up Facebook for a week as part of an exercise my Buddhist meditation group was doing. I missed it, but it was also kind of nice; interestingly, I felt the need to post a message before going on my hiatus so that my many Facebook friends wouldn't feel neglected if they tried to contact me and didn't hear back. These days, I hungrily check my profile for messages, notifications, event invitations, and -- best of all -- friend invitations. That hunger, that urgency, is part of what Harris and Timoner know all about: our desire to measure our popularity, and maybe even our worth, using online metrics like page hits or unique users.

Facebook has so cleverly incorporated features of other applications -- Flickr, Twitter, e-mail, Evite, and on and on -- that it does seem at times that my life itself is on Facebook, as much as it's anywhere. In Buddhist terms, it's a convincing projection of a false self, the ego made manifest in a medium that plays tricks on the mind. We Live In Public made me self-conscious about using Facebook and Twitter, not because I'm sharing too much of myself on the Web but simply because I'm living online too much. I'm glad to have a blog, a place where I can write informally on a regular basis, but it might be good to take stock, one of these weeks, of how much time I'm spending at the computer each day. It's all about balance, and I'd rather find a way to make my days healthier than have a total meltdown and find myself harvesting apples and riding around on a tractor. Though, actually, the second part doesn't sound too bad.


EvilBeet said...

You remember more about me than I do from that time! But I'm so glad that we finally met in person and we have such a fantastic story about how we know one another. Thank you for the kind words.

Neal said...

Thanks for being awesome! :-)