Engagement is everything, a dialogue

Communication breakdown… It’s never the same. How I tried to extend my social network to beyond just “friends” and came off as a douche bag

In my previous post titled “Relationship: It’s Complicated” I was trying to make the point that social media interfaces and terminologies excludes the room for conflict. I came up with three proposition for intervention, one of them worked or rather took a life of its own much faster than I expected.

I was proposing to use Twitter list to follow not just like-minded people, but also people you often disagree with, as a way of both challenging your point of view and of engaging beyond our networked echo chamber. (read more about it on my post)

As I was preparing the post, I made a list of that type for myself, added a few Twitter users that I count as my intellectual/political opponents and named it “adversaries”. Just a few hours later, and even before I got to publish my post I noticed this tweet:

@mushon I find my inclusion on that list distasteful and distressing. May it be the only thing I ever have in common with AIPAC & Netanyahu.Wed Apr 28 10:28:48 via TweetDeck

Adam Greenfield is a prominent media theorist who’s best known for writing Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing. I have seen him present more than once, he’s a really great speaker, I also assign a talk by him to my NYU students, throughout the semester it is usually one of the pieces that inspire them the most. Yet after watching him speak or reading him I was often left with a sense that his poetic theory often emphasizes the pros and de-emphasizes the cons. This left me pretty disturbed about what he represents and has won him that place in my adversary list.

With that being said, I did not expect he will see this list. It was not some attempt at teasing him or provoking him. Maybe the way I used the word ‘adversary’ was wrong? Maybe it’s indeed more offensive than I think (note: I am not a native English speaker). I definitely have nothing personal against the guy. I changed the name of the list to ‘opposition’ and tweeted back.

Sorry @agpublic, wrong choice of terminology on my part (corrected). I hope you will accept my wish to follow you yet disagree with youWed Apr 28 11:45:41 via web

@mushon Depends on what the disagreement has to do with, I suppose. I do admire your wish to challenge your own assumptions.Wed Apr 28 11:53:11 via TweetDeck

@agpublic just realized we will get the chance to discuss this face to face at #futr. FWIW, I teach you @NYU: http://bit.ly/9WItnbWed Apr 28 12:22:53 via web

I will indeed meet Adam at the Future Everything festival next week. At that point I managed to finally post on my blog with some context about the list and why I made it, so I tweeted Adam about it:

Hey @agpublic here’s some context for our antagonistic exchange earlier today – Relationship: It’s Complicated http://bit.ly/friending-meThu Apr 29 02:42:23 via TweetDeck

@mushon That was antagonistic?Thu Apr 29 07:06:21 via TweetDeck

Oops… Did I just use the wrong word again?

@agpublic not antagonistic but in your words “distasteful and distressing”. Need more antagonism in social media as I write in my blogpostThu Apr 29 12:04:00 via TweetDeck

@mushon But I obviously agree with that, and always have! Now I’m really not sure why you’ve lumped me in with your intellectual opponents.Thu Apr 29 12:45:59 via TweetDeck

Yeah, I can see how from Adam’s perspective I was being quite a douche, picking on him for no reason.

I had lunch with my studio partner and very good friend Amit Pitaru, a media artist and a very smart guy. Amit and I sure share an affinity for conflict, and there’s nothing we like better than arguing over lunch (it helps digestion) (maybe). I can always count on Amit to play devil’s advocate and challenge whatever opinion I might be holding. Which he did.

Amit’s hit the nail on it’s head. He argued that while I was critiquing Facebook for its reductive interaction centered around “friendship” my proposed alternative was doing exactly the same. By naming my enemies/adversaries/opposition I was creating a complete mirror to Facebook’s friends. A mirror that did not oppose but reflect the exact same reductive representation of relationship.

Adam Greenfield is not my adversary, and even if we have differences of styles in the way we discuss media issues, we are far from being the complete opposites either. I had to start by at least engaging Adam on what I was actually bothered by and why I (unintentionally) picked on him in the first place.

@agpublic my main beef is abt under-representation of privacy concerns in your truely inspiring writing/speaking abt the internet of thingsSat May 01 00:40:22 via TweetDeck

@mushon Hmm. But you’ve read “Everyware,” so surely you know that privacy is one of my preoccupying concerns…Sat May 01 14:57:12 via TweetDeck

@agpublic I know, but I feel in the privacy vs. convenience you advocate for the latter. And that’s something I’m “inconvenient” with…Sat May 01 18:29:31 via TweetDeck

@mushon Forgive me, then, because I feel you haven’t understood me very well. I have always argued against the discourse of convenience.Sat May 01 20:10:00 via TweetDeck

@agpublic maybe I should ask forgiveness, as I am the one who missed this emphasis in yr talks. pls pls refer me to vid doc of that if u canSat May 01 20:15:27 via TweetDeck

@mushon No idea, I don’t watch my own videos. It’s in every single thing I’ve ever written, though, starting with “All watched over…”Sat May 01 20:30:32 via TweetDeck

@agpublic Link?Sat May 01 20:41:21 via TweetDeck

I Found the link myself.

@agpublic I stand corrected http://bit.ly/aOr5eq = important piece. 6 yrs ago u advocated 5 pro-human-user ubicomp principles. Did it work?Sun May 02 04:28:25 via Twitterrific

@mushon Not that I can see – but that’s no excuse for mischaracterizing my clear and obvious intent in framing them.Sun May 02 07:25:33 via TweetDeck

@agpublic 4 that I indd appologize! I hope though that beyond distress this will offer some sincere feedback 4 how you might be mispercievedSun May 02 13:46:13 via TweetDeck

That’s basically where our conversation ended. I moved Adam to a new Twitter list with a more ambiguous and (I hope) respectful name “Provoke-Me”.

Two days after Adam posted this:

A Very Special Message from me, @agpublic: http://bit.ly/bqxuC4Tue May 04 09:22:32 via TweetDeck

Adam’s post, titled “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (hmmm… I wonder who he meant…) is emphasizing his critique of these ubiquitous technologies and the failures of design. He seems to have taken to heart at least some of my critique, as un-elegant as it might have been. Here’s a quote from Adam’s post (though you do want to read all of it):

Networked urbanism, read/write urbanism, open-source urbanism…sure, these things are in their infancy. But if the whole domain retains some plasticity, it’s also beginning to be shaped by parties motivated solely by their own interests, and absolutely not by any larger affinity for urban life and its benisons. To be blunt, I don’t want the IBMs and Ciscos and Microsofts of the world defining what networked urbanism can be for me…or, forgive my presumption, what it can be for you, either.

I still believe, as Howard Rheingold used to say, that “what it is…is up to us.” But only if we’re willing to get our hands dirty, challenge ourselves, and pursue insight even if it originates from outside our comfort zone. It’s what I’ve been trying to do myself, these last twelve years or so, and it would be particularly gratifying if you interpreted my efforts here in this light.

To that I commented:

Well articulated and emphasized point. This cautious tone can often go unnoticed as there is so much excitement and new possibilities these technologies bring into our urban life. Together with the 2.0 3.0 4.0… culture there’s an eager lust to always jump to the next thing, to celebrate novelty (even in the price of intimacy), to mark the networked territory by being the first to share (even in the price of our disappearing privacy).

Adam, your inspiring work has become a symbol for the networked city. Often, the excitement it brings blinds our eyes to the more nuanced and often less exciting critique and warnings that you try to emphasize. I know it did that for me. I have possibly unjustly labeled you with the enthusiasts as I was more receptive to your enthusiasm than to your critique.

As our attention spans shorten and our tools become less sensitive to the complexities of human relationship (benefiting technological simplicity, immediacy, publicity and profit) we need to be more careful about how networked words, actions and intentions are interpreted. We might be often misunderstood, and we most definitely too often misunderstand. It’s about extending our read/write media literacy.

I know I often get these things wrong. For that I apologize (blogpost to follow)

And Adam replied:

No apology necessary! Engagement is everything.

And I think it is. Engagement is everything. Yet it feels so foreign to this happy-happy joy-joy environment of social media. That’s why Adam interpreted his inclusion on that list as a rude provocation, that’s why I felt so bad about it too.

If we were having this discussion face to face we could have balanced the argument with respect and trust – just like Amit and I did over lunch. Online we don’t have that luxury so instead of risking the misunderstanding, we just don’t engage, or we hide behind a disposable pseudonym.

When we do engage using our names, we do it in the form of a “friend request” which is basically as misunderstood as my awkward “foe statement” but it is not as contested.

I found my exchange with Adam very inspiring, but I am still a bit confused. How can we use social media to actively engage in opposition and not come off as douche bags? Any ideas?

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7 Comments

  1. Doron
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    dude
    First step in not coming off as a douche, is by carefully choosing the words you choose to use, something I mentioned to you before (in facebook and in other circumstance).

    One of the biases of this media is the requirement for self promotion, this in turn often leads to provocative language, the problem can be exasperated further by limit imposed by platforms.

    Now provocation is often a good thing, but it is also too easy, civility is key. Netiquette should be expanded.

    • mushon
      Posted May 7, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      True, language is a key aspect of things, and my choice of words was key here. But while I might regret some of the language, I don’t necessarily regret the outcome of this exchange.

      Civility and netiquette are both nice words but you are implying they are universal while really they are not. They are culture and even context based. Now one of the things that makes the internet so great is the fact it can so easily manipulate the context. In that sense can you really talk of civility and netiquette as these ubiquitous principles.

      I am trying to raise a concern here about the carefulness that we’re required to here. If we are required to be so careful and take all possible contexts into account while engaging and attaching our identity to this engagement, then we are raising the cost of critical engagement to a level that makes it too expensive to bother with. Which in result leads to no engagement at all, or non-committing/insincere engagement behind disposable pseudonyms.

      Yes, let’s all extend our online read/write literacy, but if we’re too afraid to practice (and possibly fail) how will we ever make better?

      • doron
        Posted May 7, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        Physical encounters, or even phone calls are far more expensive in terms of time and commitment you have to invest, and yet they are not going away and people seem to use them often. expense in this case often seems to be inversely proportional to the amount you generally care to invest with said people. Further more, in most cases, especially with physical encounters, etiquette is generally agreed upon pretty quick, and i would hazard to say that encounters with people who belong to that global connected populace it is fairly easy to establish grounds of civil discourse fairly quick, even from different cultural backgrounds.

        It follows that the carelessness with which we engage in our online interactions has to do with the diminishing investment we exert to establish them. This is not new either, consider the quick fashion in which people change their behavior while driving, some of it has to do with the stress of dealing with speed and machine (which might apply to computers) and a large part of it is due to the fact that the driver operates in an isolated metal box (surely applies to most engagement online) .

        The fact of it is we are rarely careful at all because the social consequences are nearly null, at most they get you banned.

        This kind of reminds me of http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRqu_KyXygQ

  2. Posted May 8, 2010 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for unpacking this all, Mushon. I think it’s brave, and that it serves as a useful case study of how one slippage in meaning sets the whole train of communication up for failure.

    In thinking back, I can tell you this: What initially upset me was being placed, by an Israeli, on a list of “adversaries” the only other members of whom were Israel-related political entities I detest. I’m not sure I would have reacted nearly the same way if you’d used your current rubric of “challenge-me,” or if there’d at least been a more diverse spread of voices on the list that those representing the Israeli right.

    I guess what shocked me is that I’ve steered well clear of ever making any public comment on Israeli politics, I/P issues, or the notion of the “Jewish lobby.” So finding myself on a (small!) list of people alongside people representing causes that are anathema to me, put there by someone who presumably knows what he’s talking about, was startling. Startling to say the least; “distasteful and distressing,” as I said.

    From there, things went pretty rapidly off-piste, as your image of me as some kind of techno-utopian emerged in our 140-character exchanges. That’s a position I’ve always strongly and explicitly attacked, so to find my work characterized that way (by someone who was teaching it!) made me feel like a complete failure at this game we call communication.

    And that raised a concern that’s been nagging at me in one way or another for just about three years now. You should know that the “Don’t Get Me Wrong” piece is only in very small part directed at you. Spurred by our exchange, yes, but ultimately about a titanically wrongheaded piece with the flamebait title “Is Adam Greenfield A Communist?”, posted in the wake of a talk I gave in Amsterdam a few years back, by someone who manifestly didn’t understand a word of it.

    This piece in itself wouldn’t have been much of an issue, but it was picked up and reposted verbatim by an idiot who runs a much higher-profile linkblog, and who clearly should have known better. Point is, by the time I even found my name on your list, I was already sensitive to having my positions (and especially my political beliefs) mischaracterized. As I’ve mentioned, I never, ever mind being disagreed with, even strongly…but I do prefer that the disagreements, when made in public, be with positions I’ve actually advocated.

    And the irony running underneath all of this is that, as far as I can tell, I hold and have always held positions you’d find sympathetic: politically, in terms of our feelings about technology, and particularly as regards the shortcomings of social networking systems. We’re in complete agreement, for example, that social networking systems without some mechanism for expressing antagonism fail to capture something essential to robust human interaction.

    (“That was antagonistic?”, by the way, was my surprise at having what I experienced as a rather gentle interaction be so labeled.)

    At any rate: I applaud, and have always applauded, your wanting to set up a collection of voices to challenge your own habitual positions. I think it speaks well to your confidence and intellectual integrity. I’m just surprised to have found my poor self upon it — especially in light of what turns out to be a fairly significant overlap in our expressed belief.

    • mushon
      Posted May 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      So you’re not a communist?
      Oh… hmm… really?
      (jk)

      Thanks for posting your perspective on these things. I was about to make a larger list of twitter users to follow, the fact you saw this list in its early stages was a bad coincidence. As you’re describing it here I can definitely see how “distasteful and distressing” it looked from your perspective. This list was indeed a failed attempt, and I have decided to delete it.

      As you said “I’m not sure I would have reacted nearly the same way if you’d used your current rubric…”. I am trying to think how should I be taking this. While I do regret distressing you, I don’t regret engaging you, and I hope/believe you don’t regret it either.

      In this information overload, our basic mode is sifting the signal through the noise and choosing ignore / ignore / ignore / ignore / inspect / ignore / ignore… It benefits the provocations (both the intentional and the unintentional) and feeds the simplifications and misunderstandings.

      We achieved a much more cohesive conversation here, I have learned from it a lot about how I construct my message and how it is perceived, I hope you have to. Yet I wonder, if I was more elegant and careful in my choice of words, would this engagement even happen in the first place? I’m not so sure.

      I am not trying to justify cheap provocations, quite the contrary. But I’m afraid our social media tools benefit them. I find it alarming.

  3. Doron
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Biella Colman addressed a different issue, but i find this comment by her pretty bang on in this case.

    “…in fact the rant is valuable to an anthropologist interested in digital media because it is an auto-ethnographic snapshot of web 2.0 punditry culture. It often comes across as smarmy and snarky, which is due in part, to how difficult it is to get your message heard in the sea of many voices. Just like there is an aesthetic of audaciousness in a lot of Internet memeology”

    I am troubled by this aesthetic, I find it rarely helpful,this occasion was a good example where actually worked, as it relied on your ability (Mushon) to change tact when you encountered new facts, which is an admirable trait.

    Nevertheless, internet echo chambers seem to breed hostility at an alarming rate, it might be useless instinct or sentiment on my part, but i feel it is a losing strategy to engage in escalating provocations, a practice all too common on the web, and bleeding to meatspace as well.

    Social media is a often conduit to allot of hate, and personally i feel the more opaque the interface, the more polished and removed the interaction is, the easier the surrender becomes.

  4. Posted May 11, 2010 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Mushon – according to Dunbar, handling >500 contacts is a cognitive shift. Lists (think “Likes”) may be a good way to handle contacts beyond that point. You created an “adversaries” list (ouch! for many it’s not just a word, you know) based on a theoretical critique of social networks. But what if it so happens that anyone who expands a social circle beyond 500 MUST include people with conflicting opinions? Not just social critics.

    I just crossed 500 followers, and found myself preparing a a somewhat similar list – contacts who are easily offended. When I post potentially offensive stuff, I tell Facebook to hide my post from the Vanilla list. Unlike Twitter, Facebook doesn’t tell them that they are on my “Vanilla” list. Yet.

    I just wrote a post about Dunbar and social network size. Might be of interest:
    http://tpgblog.com/2010/05/10/edo-amin-facebook-like/

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