Saturday, 4 September 2010

Are you anyone outside of the Holodeck?

Everyone knows what Twitter is. My sister described using it as similar to watching TV - a form of entertainment. She isn't on Twitter. I doubt she ever will be. She likes to live in the real world and although she understands others do use it, it simply isn't her thing. My sister is highly educated, articulate, extremely driven and a very secure individual. There are many days when I turn to her for advice, support and sometimes a good slap of sense. Social networking simply isn't her thing. That's good with me. I'm not quite sure whose thing it is.

After this conversation with my sister, I started wondering if there is a type of person who embraces this online world. The mostly intangible, often unreal, sometimes ephemeral locked-down self-controlled utopia that is an online life.

There are many people willing to discuss this idea online. I got many reactions to questions about what drives us and makes us live partly at least, an existence made up of electrons and the perception of only two degrees of separation. People I asked on Twitter sat in two camps - those who didn't see themselves as living that life; and those who were quite defensive about me analysing it. I myself, have frequently fallen in to the latter.

My whole life, being a geek has been a bad thing. To want to spend more time with a machine than a person is often looked upon as lacking social skills or not valuing human interaction. Of course, that is complete bull. Me wanting to write code all night or spend hours reading about niche areas of interest does not a freak make. In fact, it should be clearly delineated that being a geek is not a term interchangeable with freak, misanthrope or anti-social. Often these are labels thrust upon other members of society that do not portray a normal expected exterior.

An author of a book I read when I was 22 years old, which changed the way I saw people said it best: "Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal." -- Albert Camus

Geekdom has changed of late. Maybe it was the dotcom boom connecting geekiness with brains making money. Lots of money. Money is good. If you make it then you are good. Simple logic. We are simple creatures. Money makes a lot of behaviour acceptable. Paris Hilton is the poster girl for this argument. In fact, Paris Hilton has so much money that what she does is not just acceptable but a cool thing to emulate.

So being a geek became more acceptable. Then, social media came along and every Steve, Bill and Ada who could use a computer to create a Facebook, Twitter and tumblr account started to identify as a geek. As a geek this became quite confusing as I did not identify with this new crowd. They spoke lots of buzz words and made that good stuff - money - off of talking about web stuff but they thought a left fold referred to to something to do with their dry cleaning.

At first I screamed and accused them of masquerading as geeks. I wanted my gang name back. They should wear their own colours. Slowly, I realised that the meaning of geek had changed and the gang was bigger. Thing is, it's not really a exclusive group you can identify with when everyone is allowed in. Maybe Groucho Marx was right when he said "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members."

It may feel like a tangent but there is a point here. It wasn't geeks that I was looking at when I entered a room of Twitterati. Yes, this is a real term. Online definitions define it as people who use Twitter but it's more than that. The Twitterati is the upper echelon of those who frequent that social networking site. In each town, city, country and even the world, there are people who tweet as celebrities. Without the use of bots or follower gathering tools, these individuals have amassed a pipers worth of loyal followers. These followers listen to what they say and agree or disagree publicly depending on the emotive response required from their leader. Followers follow and he or she leads. They copy and retransmit what this powerful person says over and over again so that other followers will see and join the fold. This is called Retweeting. In fact on Twitter, the power of your retweeted voice defines the span of your influence.

Notice how I did not say depth? I used span because I believe this is a shallow and fleeting power when it is removed from it's context. Next time you think of retweeting someone, instead stop someone in your office and say "blah blah said this" and see what the reaction is. Is that power? Is that deep and lasting influence? I'm not sure. Not saying it isn't but it would be interesting to explore the idea.

I'm a geek and in most situations there exists a Star Trek episode or analogy that will help explain any complex idea. If that fails then Hitchhiker's Guide of the Galaxy has everything. In this case, the best comparison to Twitter and it's power that I can find is that of the Holodeck on the Enterprise-D, in Star Trek: TNG. The holodeck uses replicator technology to create things that a real person can touch, feel and interact with. Those things can be mere everyday objects to complex life forms like human beings. Anything that can be replicated is fair game on the holodeck. With enough data giving a simple description, an item to an entire mapping and generation of a planet can be created. Real people enter the holodeck and interact with other real people or fictional characters. They can take on any persona and interact with the environment in any way they choose - be that actively as a participant changing the environment; passively as a watcher; or either at different times.

The thing is that the tangible things, creatures, objects and people created on the holodeck only exist there. Real people can come and go but once the hologram attempts to leave the holodeck, it will cease to exist outside of the range of holo-emitters (those things that create the hologram).

Twitter and social networking can be like this. This is not to say that real friendships, business and other real life rippling effects can't come of it. In fact, there is plenty real that happens in real life (IRL) that is created in the intangible and unreal world of online social networking.

What I think is fleeting and not as solid without it's holo-emitters is how powerful a Twitter person is in the real world, outside of Twitter. People get upset when I say it but unless you really have thousands of people following your every move when you walk down the street like a quasi-Michael Jackson (RIP) then you aren't "all that" outside of your tweet stream.

There have been many occasions when I've met people who are shocked when myself and others have not heard of them on Twitter. Several men have told me how many followers they have and waited for me to ooh and ahh with glee. To be honest, most of the people I follow on Twitter are either people I know IRL, people I want to know or those who amuse me. Sometimes, they are all of these things.

It means little or nothing to me if you are big on the holodeck. I don't have a Twitter status to brag about so that might be thrown at me. That's fine. What I do want to know is if you guys see it as important and real.

Does your Twitter status and ranking follow you in to the real world? Is the line between the two blurred or non-existent? Is who you are online, part of who you really are?

I'm interested.


kath / AliaK said...

nice post Damana. I don't really use the term 'geek' or any term really to describe me. I do technical things for work and in past years I used to talk about more techy things but these days I'd rather talk about other things and have more balance I suppose. I'm not sure geeks became popular because of money - I'd never thought of that, something to ponder over. in fact I'm not sure they're really that popular in any case ;)

but twitter, I tend to use it like a note-to-self /bookmarking/microblogging site where I can see other people's messages as well. sometimes I forget others can see my posts until someone comments back - I just assume they are lost in the stream and really only of interest to me anyway.

I'm not sure who's in the twitterati - I can probably guess a couple of people from my stream but not certain if they are or not - though I'm sure there is one as there always is a clique in every tribe. I've seen some people who seem to only retweet & not say anything themselves, so I tend to unfollow them (unless it's a news site or something).

I suppose when choosing who to follow, I tend to go for real people, who I think are likely tweeting as they would speak to you in person. I've used irc/IM for way too many years so I tend to see twitter as another of those tools (which does lead me to post a high volume warning at times). maybe I'll think about it some more.

Gabfran said...

Since I am not a geek but a Geek Wannabe I can't really comment on the technical stuff.

Our real life social networks are not what they once were. People don't live close to family. Without the online connections and friendships that I have formed I would be very isolated indeed.

There is a tendency for some people to try to present themselves as something that they are not both in the physical world and in online environments. There is also a tendency for women (I include myself in this) to disclose too much emotion, vulnerability, sentiment and pain. This is something that I feel we should collectively try to prevent as it carries a concomitant risk of attracting carrion. No one wants to be meat for vultures.

Other than that on the balance Twitter is a good thing. It encourages good use of written English, efficient conversation, manners and empathy.

DarkCuddles said...

Having grown up with computers and having had access to the internet since primary school i'm going to have to say yes. My online persona and I are one and the same. I guess this is because I don't pretend to be someone different online. I don't use it as an opportunity to be someone else. I'd be lying if I said I didn't take advantage of anonymity offered by the internet to do things I might not otherwise do in real life. I suppose like Alcohol it reduces a few of my inhibitions.

While I considers myself one and the same online as in real life, I value my "influence" differently. It's not important to me to have 20,000 followers on twitter, nor would it be something I would be proud of. I take pride in having only 16 friends on facebook and not because few is the opposite of many. Only 4 of those have I met in real life, however all 16 I would go to bat for, and all 16 would go to bat for me.

All that matters to me, is that those real friends that I've made, IRL or Online remain my friends IRL and Online. Beyond that, it's all just 1's and 0's.