danah boyd’s new essay on digital privacy and intimacy seems to be everywhere right now and yet (or because of that?) I had been studiously avoiding it. It was negligent of me, because it really is that good (and that unsettling).
If gossip is too delicious to turn your back on and Flickr, Bloglines, Xanga, Facebook, etc. provide you with an infinite stream of gossip, you’ll tune in. Yet, the reason that gossip is in your genes is because it’s the human equivalent to grooming. By sharing and receiving gossip, you build a social bond between another human. Yet, what happens when the computer is providing you that gossip asynchronously? I doubt i’m building a meaningful relationship with you when i read your MySpace CuteKitten78. You don’t even know that i’m watching your life. Are you really going to be there when i need you?
Sure, strangers are one thing but what about people you sorta know? I have no doubt that strong ties can be maintained through these systems, provided that other forms of synchronous engagement complement the gossip feed. But i also believe that it gives you a fake sense of intimacy for people you don’t really know that well. And that fake sense of intimacy is both misleading and dreadfully disappointing.
At Blogher, i moderated a panel on “Sensitive Topics” and one of the things that the panelists said over and over again was how hard it was to handle the strangers who contacted them wanting their help. The thing is that to those public bloggers, these are strangers… but those strangers have been following that blogger’s life for quite some time, drawing parallels, finding common ground, feeling connected. It’s a devastating blow to realize that the blogger doesn’t feel the same way. Without that connection, why should they get involved? Often, they do out of a desire to be helpful, a desire to not see someone in pain. This is manageable the first few times. But what happens when there are new people every day? What happens when there are hundreds of people every day?
Being faced with information overload can be a curse. You want to react, you want to notice. But it can make you exhausted. Worse, it can devastate you.
Facebook is giving me the “gift” of infinite gossip. But i don’t want it. I can’t handle it. And i’m not sure anyone’s really ready to receive the One Ring. But it sure sounds precious upfront.
So again it all comes down to “celebrity”, doesn’t it? I for one didn’t notice that weird, contorted word creeping in but it has become the talisman. It’s what danah is talking about in the above paragraphs: celebrity, painfully confused with intimacy. You can now obsess and lurk Jane Blog as you did Jennifer Aniston through the tabloids — and it will be just as fun and just as empty.
Unless you interact, that is. (And that’s the digital promise and perhaps one possible counter-measure for sanity: to limit your feed to those people you engage meaningfully with.)