From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

April 27, 2018*: Online knows best?

The issue of how we present ourselves online, and the extent to which this presentation corresponds to, or differs from, how we present ourselves in what long ago was referred to as "real life" is one that's interested me since my first exposure to the internet. Over twenty years ago, in the fourth edition of the Boidem, I tried to examine personal web sites. That column brought two examples of personal sites, one of which was, even as I wrote, in the process of being removed, while the other, as I've now learned, is still going at least somewhat strong. The questions I asked then are pretty much the same as I ask today - why do people choose to tell about themselves on the web, and to what extent is what they report an accurate reflection of themselves. The web has changed greatly since those early days. For a while personal web pages were very popular, but that popularity swiftly declined. Blogging rekindled part of that popularity, but today blogs have a seriously old-school feel to them. People write about themselves on Facebook, but though I suppose the "why" of doing so hasn't really changed, I know very little about the "how". And strange as it may seem, in these columns I try to write about topics that I have at least a modicum of understanding.

We're late night television viewers. Though we tend to attach ourselves to a series or two, our watching is more winding-down time than true committed watching. For this reason we usually watch with the expectation, or at least the hope, that whoever it is that programs the various (and numerous) channels we receive has scheduled something worthwhile. It's primarily the interaction between the main characters in a series that attracts us, and in that way for a few seasons these characters become, to a certain extent, our friends. I like to watch television, and I suppose it's because I can easily allow myself to get caught up in a series that I steer clear from binge watching. Seeing something from beginning to end no doubt has its advantages, but because late night watching is basically winding-down time, even if I do become friends with the characters I can also miss an episode and not feel that something is missing in my life. On the other hand, the days of routine and predictable plot lines that get solved in a quick half hour are clearly far behind us, and often it's necessary to closely follow a series in order to understand what's happening. Our viewing habits can perhaps explain why lately we've been watching a series that began in 2004 and ended in 2012.

It was the plot of a recently screened (by us) episode of this television series that stimulated me to try to examine, once again, the interplay between the private and the public on the web. The episode opened with an argument between what would become the patient and her husband. The couple found themselves in constant conflict because she blogged about everything in her life and he preferred she keep more of her/their life private. During her hospitalization serious decisions had to be made, and rather than making them as a couple she wanted to turn to her blog's readership to ask which treatment (of two almost equally undesirable options) she should undergo. To her husband these were highly personal matters that shouldn't be examined in public, or left to the whims of strangers. The epiphanic turning point in the episode was the realization by the main character, a diagnostician, that although the patient had revealed just about everything in her blog there were seemingly banal items that she never reported on. Thus, though the patient was on the whole an open, and very public, book, it was the things that she didn't report that helped him reach the life-saving diagnosis.

This particular episode was from 2010 which I suppose goes a long way toward explaining why the patient's blog was central to the plot. It's hard to imagine a blog playing a major role in an episode of a television show today. Yes, some of us still write blogs - and some even blog about this particular television show - but I doubt anybody really cares. They certainly don't make news ... or figure as significant parts of television show plots. In 2010, however, blogs were still "an issue", and people still wondered why someone would want to publicly report on his or her life. The expectation that we'll truly report has changed. At least to my mind, being called upon to answer "What's happening?" is very different from answering "What are you doing?". The blog post has been replaced by the selfie, or the Instagram photograph of that awesome piece of cake. We present ourselves, but we don't seem to tell about ourselves. Posting a photograph of the cake we're about to eat is very different from trying to put into writing (or pictures) our thoughts and feelings, our motivations and reflections.

Does this mean that we've witnessed a retreat from the blog era's public openness? Our online lives are today too multi-layered for a conclusion of this sort, but this willingness to go into detail about ourselves might be part of an ethos that might be called the blog parenthesis. We knew quite well that nobody was going to publish the book we'd always dreamed of writing, but blogs allowed us to publish to the web without having to have any advanced technological skills, and without an editor. We could even entertain the thought that others might want to read what we wrote. That small window of openness seemed to let in quite a draft. But either because people discovered that they really didn't want to tell so much, or because others discovered they weren't interested in being told, or (and it's my guess that this played a major role) because different and easier, less demanding, ways of reporting appeared, that window didn't stay open long.

Did people really tell everything? Numerous times in the Boidem I've claimed that rather than writing about ourselves, personal websites and blogs were means by which we created our online identities. As we constantly picked and chose what we wanted to report we were constructing the personae that we wanted to present. Since the Boidem is clearly part of my own online identity, at a relatively early point in the construction of this column I realized that I had to review past issues of the Boidem in order to see to what extent I was being faithful to an identity I'd spent years constructing. (Of course I also wanted to see to how large an extent I was repeating myself.) This picking and choosing is very different from lying about ourselves. Presenting certain aspects of ourselves and choosing not to report on others is totally normal behavior - or at least it is in face-to-face daily contact. But for some reason "telling everything" on our blogs became the assumed norm - a norm that was more part of a developing folklore than a true reflection of what was taking place online. Yes, there were those who trumpeted the benefits of living an overly public life, but often they were laughed at more than seen as prophets of a new era of openness. By itself this openness is harmless, and can even be a bit charming. When mixed with a simplistic acquaintance with the concept of The Wisdom of Crowds we can even understand the logic in turning to one's readership to crowdsource its opinion toward difficult decisions. As I noted, this super-openness was the issue around which the hero of the series' epiphany revolved.

In this particular television episode the blogging patient's perception of herself as someone choosing to live her life publicly conflicted with the generally accepted expertise of her doctors. Luckily for her the doctors were as much in the dark about her diagnosis as her readership so that choosing between expertise and "community" wasn't really necessary. I doubt that this particular program sought to convince its viewers that doctor always knows best. It seems that it did, however, want to make a point about living in public. The wife/patient seems to have realized that some things are best kept between herself and her husband, and this realization leads to a strengthening of their relationship. It's a good guess that the patient has learned that she can present herself online in any way she wishes, but that she should carefully distinguish between her online persona and her "real" life. On a program in which the central character can't seem to keep his nose out of other people's private lives, this episode's ending is a victory for traditional privacy.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Luftmentsh