Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Plurkfect Storm Part 2: Social media as interactive reality TV

Emotionality has coursed through text-based chat interactions from the start. Academics, geeks and early adopters in the 1980s were the first to create pseudonymous identities and live virtual lives on USENET newsgroups, dial-up BBS systems, IRC chat rooms and MOOs. Friendships formed, flame wars raged and romances blossomed through dial-up modems and glowing green displays. America Online brought chat to the masses in 1989 and users quickly created virtual rooms catering to every sexual proclivity under the sun.

Although communication was limited to text in those days, avid participants experienced a visceral sense of place, community and virtual identity. For better or for worse. My Tiny Life, published almost ten years ago, recounted a virtual rape that rocked a MOO-based community. What would have looked like a harmless string of text messages to an outsider was perceived as an existentially traumatic experience by emotionally invested community members.

Although the story I recounted yesterday about Plurk reflects only the latest outbreak of a decades-old phenomenon, I think there is something new going on. A growing number of us have become so pervasively network-connected that we can have more continuous contact with a virtual community such as Plurk, than with any particular social relationship in our physical lives. With a web-enabled cell phone we can be in 24/7 touch with our Plurk community.

In a sense, we are living together in a Reality TV show like Big Brother or The Surreal Life. We meet new people and engage in conversations all the while aware there is a larger non-participating audience peering in. Although we can choose our friends, we don't select who shows up in our friends' comment threads. So it is likely we encounter some individuals who annoy or anger us and keep popping up in message threads we follow. Our interactions with each other in semi-public forums can not help but be tinged by the awareness that our words are recorded and may be viewed by dozens or hundreds of unknown people. Fortunately, Plurk also provides private messaging which is perfect for behind-the-back venting. Not that I'd ever do that, of course.

I'm running out of time for the day, but I will take a brief crack at the questions I posed in Part 1:
  • Was the original incident a tempest in a teapot or does it speak to deeper and more pervasive problems? I think the deeper problems have to do with the way humans tend to blame their inner emotional experience on external circumstances including the words and deeds of other people. I posted about this subject previously here and here.
  • Does a social circle of a few hundred active participants mean anything in the wider worlds? Do the actions of even the entire 23,000 or so people active on the whole Plurk service indicate trends extending beyond Plurk's borders? I think that my particular circle within Plurk is a great window into a social network of pervasively connected virtual identities who move seamlessly through domains, such as Second Life and Plurk. I suspect it is a glimpse of more widespread things to come.
  • Why are some people so mean? I suspect that most people who tend to be mean were treated badly in their formative years. I've written previously about that here.
  • How can people feel hurt by a text message from a stranger? Any time you feel emotionally hurt by someone's words or actions it is because of some fictional inner story you believe about what it means. (See links at bullet one.)
  • How you can you find and take part in the next text orgy (Plorgy?) I don't want to name any names here, but if you sign up for Plurk and become fans of those on my friend list, it's likely one will pop up sooner or later.
  • Why has Botgirl written such a long post when she's supposed to be taking it easy after finishing work on the art show (shameless plug)? Probably so I'd have another excuse to plug my appearance this Friday at Second Life's first Comic-con.


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A beautiful thought experiment personified through the imagined perspective of a self-aware avatar. My creator's site can is at http://fourworlds.tumblr.com