Tag Archives: digital culture

Networked Intimacy

Whether it’s for work, study or leisure, it has become fairly common for twenty-somethings to pack their suitcases and jet off to travel the world. What could have once been a unique experience in terms of travelling alone and to experience one’s culture anew, has now become somewhat of a lived dichotomy between being home and away through the marked use of technology.

In the pre-networked days, to travel alone meant leaving your whole world behind you to teeter into unknown cultural terrains. The only news from home would be through snail mail or the monthly (expensive) phone call.

Nowadays, the Internet holds our world together in a network infrastructure, and wireless Internet devices, make our networks portable. What’s more is that online communication (such as e-mail or Skype) is free and instant, championing both constraints of these classic communication methods. Therefore, tethered, we carry a sense of ‘home’ with us, through our mobile Internet devices.

During my solo travels in Asia and continental Europe, the smartphone was my Swiss Army knife of sociality since it carried my physically scattered social networks intact. It offered an instant portal to people, news and memes that kept me up to date with the rhythm of life in Malta. As heavenly as it might read on paper, in practice, it proved to create somewhat of an inner-conflict.

In a sense, I was in-between worlds, because my best-friends weren’t necessarily in the city I was nor in Malta – but on the Internet.

For instance: while I rattled my bicycle to and from the library, in a quaint cobble-stoned city in the Netherlands, one of my best-friends attended pub-quizzes behind the York Minster after lectures, while another boiled haggis for occasional Sunday lunches in Glasgow. The three of us Maltese ventured alone, yet social networking apps such as Facebook messenger or WhatsApp allowed us to remain pretty much together.

Irrespective of where our loved ones are, the idea of here and there is somehow shattered through this newly acquired networked intimacy. The phone has facilitated communication with all our friends, irrespective of where they are, altering our perception of time and space; it has come to represent a ‘mobile home’.

My German friend Saba had once told me, “I moved from Germany four years ago, I went to Botswana, I went to Luxemburg, to France. I always took my friends with me, through my smartphone. That’s how I felt. Now I can talk to my friends instantly through my phone.”

Like Saba, my friends travelled with me from the Philippines, to Italy, to Belgium and to the Netherlands thanks to the Internet, and more intimately via Skype.

Video-conferencing (like Skype or FaceTime), is a fairly new and very common means of maintaining close contact with those that matter most. The quality of the call makes up for physical meetings, when these are not possible. While living in the Netherlands, my Polish housemate used to Skype with his mother in Warsaw almost every evening, “I feel that we are near each other during the conversation,” he used to tell me.

Our brains seem to record so-called ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ events so similarly that modern technologies conspire to blur these realms as well. As a matter of fact, we code face-to-face and online experiences similarly, often with equal realness. One may notice this in everyday language, when we speak of online encounters as if they were real: How is Sarah doing? Fine, I guess. I spoke to her on WhatsApp. Did you meet her new boyfriend? Yes, I saw them together on Facebook.

The sense of visual immediacy experienced via video-conferencing and modern social networking creates a simulation of presence and intimacy. Such that, even when people are physically distant, social networks could act as a connective tissue, coordinating and synchronising conversations with friends who are scattered across the world that would otherwise dissolve into silence.

Nonetheless, these mediated communication platforms do not merely substitute face-to-face interaction, but constitute a new kind of presence.

The Internet and smartphone could be used to either enhance a sense of belonging to the place where one is physically present, or it could alienate the individual from fully experiencing the actual place, culture and surroundings.

From my experience, technology compensates for rarity of physical encounters, but doesn’t replace them. Even though the Internet eliminates feelings of distance, the sense of presence and level of intimacy is only short-lived. At the end of the day, we all need to live certain aspects of our lives together with the people that we love most, and cannot be replaced through a screen.

Before the emergence of online social networking, communities were formed around a fixed geographical space and therefore led to a tangible concept of what it means to belong and feel at home within a given space.

Now the Internet beckons us to ‘come together’ across a medium, suggesting that we can feel and experience home, and belong somewhere that is not necessarily the same place we are physically bound to.

Living in a network society, it has become easier for me to define home in terms of people who are scattered, than a physical town or city. To the upcoming generation, our sense of belonging need not necessarily be tied down to residential geography but a new, emotional geography.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of The Sunday Circle.

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Unplugged: Why do people refuse to connect?

There is a homely Italian hang-out outside the Tal-Qroqq campus, which sits around fifteen people on its black and white plastic tables outside, and maybe another thirty on its two floors inside. At lunch hour on your average Wednesday, the place is full-up. Students, scholars and staff have all gathered to refuel, gossip, network, and surf the net.

To my left, two male students are swiping through photos on their iPads, the girl in the corner is discreetly reading something off her laptop, while the couple behind me is snapping selfies on their smartphone.

I’m guilty as charged – my fingers are typing away at a laptop, while I listen to The Killers on my iPod and attending to e-mails on my smartphone.

Despite the seemingly unstoppable tide of wireless devices that is sweeping our planet, it may seem surprising that there are still people out there who have never used the internet. Today, to connect means to be online. Yet, in the EU, 33 percent of citizens do not have internet access at home, and 29 percent claim they never access the internet. While in another survey, 15 percent of Americans do not use the internet at all.

Who are these black sheep, and why are they not flocking online?

At the moment, we are accepting a worldview wherein adoption of new technology is the norm. Science and technology scholar, Sally Wyatt wrote, “the use of information and communication technology (or any other technology) by individuals, organizations, and nations is taken as the norm, and non-use is perceived as a sign of deficiency to be remedied, or as a need to be fulfilled.”

As figures show, the majority have quickly come to adopt and adapt the internet to their everyday lives, demonstrating that the internet is no longer a luxury, but a given.

Just as users take an active role in shaping a certain technology through its use, non-users also contribute to the configuration of technologies across society and culture. Wyatt explains that it is important to get to know who these non-users are, and more importantly, why they opt not to conform to a rising culture of connectivity.

One would assume that the problem for these citizens is access, therefore making the internet cheaper, and providing education and training would be among the obvious solutions to reduce the amount of digital virgins.

This year, the EU has successfully achieved full broadband access across the entire continent, as part of the European Commission’s Digital Agenda, to make ‘every European digital.’

But, enhancing access is also based on the assumption that internet non-use is a problem to be solved, and once these barriers are overcome, people will embrace the technology with arms wide open.

The way that technology is adopted into our everyday life depends highly on the demographic and psychological characteristics of its users. Like users, a non-user’s age, gender, education and income also plays a role in determining motivations for non-use. When asked about their main motivations, non-users gave a variety of answers for shying away from the internet.

In the recently published Pew survey (US), 34 percent of participants do not use the internet because they feel it is not pertinent to their lifestyles. They claim to be disinterested and do not want to make use of the said technology. Others mention a concern about privacy (virus, hackers, spam) or that it was frustrating or difficult to use. As least, those who are offline are aware of the value of the internet: 44 percent of these offline adults said they have asked a friend of family member to look something up, or complete a task on the internet for them.

Interestingly, even those who do not have a computer nor plan to use the internet in the near future express a belief that computer skills are becoming a necessity – even if they could not articulate activities for which they could potentially use the computer.

Age is a major factor of internet usage and unsurprisingly, these people tend to stem from an older generation. 44 percent of offline Americans are older than 65, while only 2 percent are between 18 and 29 years old.

Moreover, those with lower incomes or lesser education are also more likely to be offline, as well as those whose future goals are less clear than those of adopters. From the 34 percent of offline Americans, there are those who are constrained by financial reasons (19 percent) or lack of physical availability or access to the internet (7 percent), which could even mean illiteracy.

Wyatt draws a distinction between non-users, that is, those who do not have access to a respective technology, and the want-nots, those who consciously resist or reject a technology. She explains that it is the latter group which, if paid sufficient attention to, can help in diversifying and enhancing technology.

Truth be told, I formed part of the want-nots until earlier this year, for I had refused to venture into the smartphone world. For a number of years, I went by with using a Nokia phone whose most exotic feature was a torch light. As long as it fulfilled my basic need to send and receive texts, I was happy.

However, in the restraining eye of society, I was excluding myself from the 60 percent of 16 to 24 year olds across the EU, who accessed the internet on the move. I was a black sheep – a non-adopter of new technology.

There was a personal choice that separated me from the rest of my fellow contemporaries. To be frank, I can’t say that I wasn’t intrigued by smartphones, but I had my doubts. Apart from being expensive, I thought a smartphone would be intrusive and I very much appreciated the notion that when I’m out of the house, I’m completely disconnected from the internet.

Usually, diffusion of new technologies and behaviours across society occur through a process of modeling and social influence. I was part of the diffusion, but as a spectator – a rebel of wireless internet technology. I wasn’t ready to take the plunge and have my ‘life changed’ in such a short period of time. I was protesting against the idea of being constantly connected, and at times, I romanticized over the beauty of letter-writing and instead of falling victim to the future, I fell into the trap of nostalgia. Alvin Toffler would diagnose my behavior as a symptom of future shock.

During the past five years, wireless technology use has diffused across society becoming a ubiquitous symbol of today’s culture. In this day and age, a high-speed internet connection is not merely restricted to the haven of our homes, or the conditioned air in our offices. Public spaces have also come to embrace wireless technology access. In fact, a lot of cafés, recreation centres, and village squares offer free Wi-Fi and accessible power sockets to change our devices, encouraging people to pull out their devices and stay connected, whenever, wherever.

Everywhere I went and whoever I was with, I was followed by this unspoken pressure to conform. Evolutionary psychology repeatedly shows how our basic human motive is to connect, and this is what eventually drove me into buying a smartphone: the basic need to connect.

I was getting tired of the resistance, which slowly made me feel like a grandma living in a twenty-something’s body. I had to adopt to a world with smartphones by getting one too. Having a smartphone made me feel connected, part of something. As superficial as it may sound, I belonged.

What is interesting is that when, as part of a personal research I conducted, I asked my friends why they had decided to buy a smartphones, I was met with ambivalent answers. Essentially, they explained that they don’t feel the need to own a smartphone and would willingly give it up, however, it makes it much easier for their friends to reach them.

So there: it’s not that they really needed their smartphones, it’s the tide in the wake of the culture of connectivity that’s swept them in.

After his year of self-imposed exile of the internet, The Verge journalist, Paul Miller came to realize just how easier the internet makes it to feel a relevant part of society. Without the internet, he fell ‘out of sync with the flow of life.’ “The internet isn’t an individual pursuit,” he writes, “it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.”

Even though back in Tal-Qroqq, we were all sitting in the same café, only to ignore each other, we were all connecting, through the internet.

When in the mid-1980s, Joshua Meyrowitz wrote “to be out of touch in today’s world, is to be abnormal” the smartphone was still a product of science-fiction. Today, it is but a mainstream commodity becoming the most rapidly adopted technology in human history all for but a main reason: the internet.

In 2013, the internet is all embracing. It’s unavoidable. Everything is the internet: we are the internet. Manuel Castells said that it is difficult to go back to a pre-networked society, just as we cannot go back to a world without electricity.

Connectivity is no longer something abstract, it has fashioned itself into a state of mind. Now we are tethered to the rest of the world through the internet enclosed in a pocket-sized device. For better or for worse, the internet has changed our lives forever. Despite the digital divide, in the future, everyone will be online.

And in my earphones, The Killers front-man echoes the words: “This is the world that we live in/no we can’t go back.”

Originally published in the  The Sunday Times of Malta on November 10, 2013. 

I Facebook, therefore I am

Communication is an essential part of being human. We exchange words and emotions. We pray, dance, write, debate, tweet, blog, and upload information on Facebook to share a mood, a feeling or a thought, revealing a great deal about who we are, where we come from, what and how we think.

Facebook is undoubtedly a phenomenon that is revolutionising the way we communicate and construct our identity. Quoting James Pennebaker, a social psychologist, “The smallest, most commonly used, most forgettable words serve as windows into our thoughts, emotions and behaviours.”

On Facebook, we are constantly writing ourselves into being, not simply through our status updates, but more widely via the photos we share. To a great extent, Facebook profiles are becoming an extension of who we are.

In 2012, I find myself conforming to the herd of Facebook users, needing to validate their existence through the social networking website. Who I am, or rather, who I want to be seen as, are meticulously and constantly moulded through my Facebook profile.

The Facebook world encourages users to experiment with different identity elements, recounting every step of their daily lives as if it’s an exhibition for others’ perusal. Users list their hobbies, favourite bands or films, the books they read, music they listen to, their political and religious views, current mood, thoughts or emotions, pictures of the food they eat, places they check into, where they travel to and the distances they run.

Nonetheless, we tend to be selective about how and what personal information we share online depending on how this is likely to be judged by others. Sociologist Ervin Goffman asserts that in everyday life, we strive to present ourselves positively, and Facebook simply enhances this everyday process.

In fact, “the way you can understand all of the social media is as the creation of a new kind of public space,” explains social media researcher danah boyd.

“This is not just life in a panopticon,” writes blogger Daniel Coffeen, “as we are not only always being watched. We are always being commanded to perform – and then are judged for that performance.”

Thanks to Facebook, we are producers and broadcasters ofcontent, seen and judged by an audience of an unknown extension.

For this reason, Facebook may be perceived as a catalogue of desired identities, implying that users are investing more time editing their photos, and sharing their lives online, rather than reflecting on who they are at a deeper level, because how others react to their updates via ‘likes’or comments continually reinforces this behaviour. This could lead us to question whether Facebook is provoking users to value superficial qualities.

Carl Jung referred to the metaphorical mask we wear in public as our ‘persona’ – our Facebook is an accurate projection of this aspect of our personality. Our profile pictures may act as a mask that makes us feel less self-conscious, making it easier for us to exhibit ourselves in such a way that leaves a more desirable impression on others.

Users are constructing themselves as this projected identity, but they may not always be aware of what they are building. It may be the case that users automatically assimilate desirable identities as an act of conformity, which might be on a sub-conscious level. This new identity may also be as a means of protecting users from exposing their true identities to an invisible audience. We must bear in mind that in the offline world, the physical body plays a crucial role in communicating important identity information through our choice of dress, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and posture that are absent during online interactions.

The identities we form on Facebook are based on what we write about ourselves, what our friends post on our profile and the photos we upload or are tagged in. These are all exterior qualities that may have a decent role in reflecting concrete tastes and interests, but there will always be a gap when it comes to knowing the truth about who a person is. If we had to compare our impression of a person to a city, on Facebook, we are building the rough sketches of the initial design of a person’s identity. But to actually have the complete blueprints of the person, we would have to meet them in real life. Essentially, Facebook tells us a lot about a person, but not who the person is due to lesser importance given to physical appearance and proximity. People are invited to see who you want them to see, not who you really are.

On the other hand, Facebook makes it easier for users to express elements of their identity which are difficult to articulate offline – this is because Facebook provides more time for contemplation before actually acting, as would happen in the real world.

The computer screen acts as a barrier that lowers the inhibitions of interacting with others face to face, making us feel less conditioned by what others might think. Facebook allows us to explore facets of our identity which we may be shy of expressing offline.

Nevertheless, even though we don’t communicate in the same way as we did in the 1950s, we still communicate. We are just undergoing a rapid transition and instead of being afraid of Facebook and social media, or trying to rebel against it, we need to learn about being intelligent and responsible about honesty and transparency.

Due to the recent development of this phenomenon, research in this field is still relatively new – however, understanding how Facebook is affecting identity formation is important as it will inevitably affect the shaping of our future societies.

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times of Malta on May 27, 2012. Featured photo thanks to Mike Stimpson. Check out more of his work via Flickr.