building community– aka “social networking”. sometimes, I would even venture so far as to say, social engineering— but that’s when there’s actually an engineer at the throttle– and indeed power can go either way– become corrupt or simply, well, powerful.
the question at hand is: what do we make of the social relations we extend into the digital realm? and I, by no means, am without ambivalence on this topic. I’ve been seared crisp in the past. by a glorious email-based community, dammit, that disintegrated under my very fingertips at the keyboard. by a set of friendships that flew apart into poor judgment and spite on a public web page. by a marriage that could not survive, in part, creepingly, the promiscuity inherent in my exposure of self through electronic means. and by relationships that have been so attentuated by mediation that it’s hard, at times, to tell what’s real. but then, sometimes, astonishingly real things emerge from all the attenuation of prose and pixels.
I realize that I’m speaking very abstractly, which is far from my best mode, so let me revert to a concrete example: a so-called, depending on your perspective, flamewar that’s sprung up in the last day on a heretofore stolid and businesslike graduate student listserv I’ve been a subscriber on for a couple of years. here’s what’s happened, in a nutshell, in an attempt to concisely put it in context for the discussion here–
first someone (female– does this matter? it might) sends a post calling out for collaborators in a letter-writing campaign planned one evening on behalf of the tenants of an apartment complex in town who were being summarily turned out of their homes at the end of the month in favor of renovations. next, another student (male) replies with a, frankly, curt and withering little piece about how this particular neighborhood is a local hotbed of vice and dissolution, and how, just possibly, the landlords are doing the community a public service, and then continuing on to slap the first writer’s wrist for apparently indiscriminate use of words like “justice” and “solidarity.” at which point– shit, fan. just about every articulate male I know in the department flew into the fray, mainly in defense of the original student’s intentions and right to post her message in this venue– a portion of the shitstorm, granted, is also constituted by the (typical) Voices of Discipline that perennially complain about the deluge of Irrelevant email messages and wasted computer hard disk space, slow dial-up downloads, blah blah blah.
so. what do we make of a social situation like the above? I say, lively debate. I say, investment and interest in one another’s lives. I also say, participation in a medium which is really good at siphoning emotions into distilled essences and intensifying experiences over dislocated space.
personally, I say, we’re working with hydrochloric acid here, folks. incredibly useful stuff– when directed conscientiously– and also powerfully destructive stuff.
the tools we’ve inherited for such casual use are potent. and there is an associated level of responsibility in using them that should be assumed, should be remembered, I would venture. because it’s people on the other end of the line, after all– people who are sensitive, people who are volatile, people who are what it’s all about. for me at least.
people are the grand project of the world, I feel (even tho the lovely and confounding amy leach makes such a compelling case for the non-self-marketing living creatures of this world)– or helping to forge productive and creative connections between them, between us. and it’s dicey and painstaking work. multi-tiered work. sometimes blow-up-in-your-face experimental work. but the best work of all.
and that’s why I’m on friendster, now. you could say I’m finally ready for it.