08 June 2009

Revealing the Networked Audience – Dr. Bernie Hogan @ U of T

This morning, I decided to take some time out to hear sociologist, Bernie Hogan, who is now a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute speak about his current investigation, Revealing the Networked Audience. He’s a smart guy. Even danah says so, and I take danah’s endorsement in such matters. Hogan frames the now popular problem of “how do we think about people and social media?” in terms of “how do we think about the problems of our social networks on Facebook without necessarily resorting to Goffman (except as a standpoint from which to depart)?”

Rather than the popular sociological metaphor of (not to put too fine a Goffmanic point on it), "all the net’s a stage and all the men, women, teens, kids, and trolls merely players on the front stage, while their real lives go on backstage," Hogan frames the need for a different metaphor. He observes that the asynchronicity that characterizes environments such as Facebook create spaces that are different from Goffman’s concept of presentation of self. We don’t directly confront out audiences online. We often don’t even know who comprises – or will comprise at some future time – that audience. This creates a tension in an individual Facebook user between what s/he might wish to reveal in the context of a particular social subnetwork and what might be considered taboo or reputation-damaging to another. Thus, Hogan suggests that a more useful metaphor for Facebook and its ilk might be that of a museum for which we each are our own curator and private tour-guides for individual visitors, putting up and switching out various artefacts depending on what he calls the lowest common denominator of an “alter reference group.” This is sociology-speak meaning, “who among those that will judge us by what we reveal on Facebook, will be the most easily offended by any particular potentially embarrassing artefact.” Often, he suggests, this lowest common denominator might well be the actant with whom the individual shares the greatest power asymmetry, like one’s mother or employer.

It’s not a bad departure from Goffman, but one that I think is fundamentally limiting for several reasons. First and foremost, the metaphoric notion of museum suggests a curator that is separate and distant from audience. Moreover, it suggests an authority-power relationship between curator and audience, as if the curator has some measure of control over the meaning that is made as occurs in the various interpretive mechanisms that characterize museum. I would offer that in the very delicate matter of constructing self, the issue is not who is in control – or even in charge (nominally the would-be curator) – but rather, that the putative curator is also, simultaneously and reflexively, part of the audience. In fact, there are many curators to any cyber-incarnation of self – the idea of digiSelf that I once played with, lo those many years ago at the McLuhan Program. I create my own artefacts that I can, more-or-less control (as much as anything placed online can be controlled). Others create and display artefacts in which I am “tagged” and identified. And perhaps most important, there are the diverse, ever-changing emergent contexts provided by those with whom I am in social relation. All of these combine and mash together in the process that I call collaborative construction of identity.

I think the museum metaphor lends itself well to the complications of life that are the sociologist’s stock-in-trade. However, it doesn’t do so well relative to framing the phenomenon of people-and-social-media in complexity terms. I think we are beginning to realize – at least I am beginning to realize – that identity and its contributing artefacts have a complex multiplicity to them that defies the relatively straight-forward, dare I say simplistic, characterization of replaceable museum exhibits. As much as sociological empiricism might capture behaviours that appear to reflect “taking down the pic of me at the last kegger because I’ve got a job interview coming up” as a means of (attempting to) control identity, it cannot contemplate the very simple, yet exceptionally complex notion of simultaneous, multiple, emergent identities, most of which are collaboratively constructed, that are occupied by that pesky digiSelf that autonomously dances among the electrons in cyberspace.

One is left with the question of how to proceed. I’m sure Bernie Hogan will happily pursue his transformation of Goffman from theatre manager to museum director. But I would suggest perhaps a different, somewhat more mystical path: that of shaman. The collaborative construction of identity, largely out of our control, is probably better modelled by the notion of shamanic identity, as for example, how the Tibetan shamans of Nepal consider identity: In Himalayan Dialogue, Stan Mumford describes how “shamanic identity remains embedded in the world of relations, even accepting spirit penetrations into the self” – not a bad description of begin tagged at that kegger. Another possible path of exploration might begin at the guidepost set by Eric McLuhan in his 1998 book, Electric Language, in which he describes the “electric crowd” whose attributes include infinite density (arbitrarily large numbers contained in zero space), and an aesthetic directly derived from manipulating the state of being. And complex manipulations of states of being is, I think, what we're trying to understand here.

So, again departing from Goffman, it’s not the role I adopt, nor the exhibit I display, it is the complex, existential morphology of self, a Philip K. Dick take on Cartesian redux: “I blog, tweet, and post, therefore I am.”

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