“Likes,” “Lurkers,” and Imaginary Friends

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The relationship in the photo above contrasts with audience challenges bloggers face. The diverse and attentive group at that concert was interacting in real time with the musicians.

I suspect that bloggers’ audience issues would be different if the advertising-based business model that underlies so much of what goes on in the internet did not apply. As New York Magazine explains in “The Internet Apologizes for Corrupting our Elections, Violating Our Privacy and Hijacking Our Attention,” “To avoid charging for the internet – while becoming fabulously rich at the same time – Silicon Valley turned to advertising. But to sell ads that target individual users, you need to grow a big audience – and use advancing technology to gather reams of personal data that will enable you to reach them efficiently.”(p. 30)

“Likes” used on social media and blogs provide an incentive for doing the work of attracting an audience to see ads. According to the New York Magazine article there was awareness of that – Likes were used intentionally to modify behavior and it worked – we all like being liked.

But liking some things implies we like other things less. It also validates the idea of making snap judgments. What about structures that reward exploring, gaining a broader perspective or a deeper understanding? As discussed in the BBC broadcast interview on “How Do We Build a Better Internet,” emoticons are actually cultural engineering as they tell us what responses are appropriate.

In Braving the Wilderness, the Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brene Brown discusses what is at stake in fostering “in crowd” / “out crowd” thinking: “Because so many time-worn systems of power have placed certain people outside the realm of what we see as human, much of our work now is more a matter of ‘rehumanizing’. That starts in the same place dehumanizing starts – with words and images. Today we are edging closer and closer to a world where political and ideological discourse has become an exercise in dehumanization. And social media are the primary platforms for our dehumanizing behavior.” (p. 74)

Another major issue is that bloggers may have little or no information about someone who reads their blogs. I find the idea of “lurkers” unsettling, especially given bloggers tend to use a conversational tone to share what is of personal interest to them.

In my writing, photography and workshop consulting work, when I am successful at connecting with a client around our common interest in a resource for wellbeing, it often leads to lasting friendship. Considering lurkers on this blog as potential friends feels like a natural thing to do and imaginary ideal friendships can be quite rewarding. After all, they do not require the sometimes emotionally demanding work involved with real friends. Researchers have found that close friends actually do have many similarities including how they react to videos so sharing personal information might feel safe.

However, while it might serve advertisers interests, sharing openly with strangers can have a huge cost. Andres Lustigman and Jonathan Ezor discuss some of what can happen without mindfulness of the risks, “Blogging A World Audience, And A World of Potential Problems.”

As media studies expert Nancy Baym explains in Personal Connections in the Digital Age, “most of the questions surrounding personal connections people form and maintain through digital media derive from the sparse social clues that are available to provide further information regarding the context, the meanings of messages, and the identities of the people interacting” (p. 9). Fear may make communication limited or superficial. On the other hand, attempting to bridge the intimacy gap or to enhance popularity by over sharing can lead to serious harm that potentially affects many as we learned with the Facebook scandal.

Because of how search engines work, blogs can attract a community that reinforces and amplifies views held in common (including harmful erroneous ones) in an echo chamber without reality checks. On the other hand, if disagreements arise, comment management can be demanding. Nancy Baym notes in her book referenced above, “The lack of social presence and accountability in a reduced-cues medium is seen by some as a platform for launching attacks.” (p. 66)

I find an amazing contrast between the simple joy and freedom of creating a blog post, and what is actually going on behind the scenes. It is not just about psychological tendencies taken advantage of, or economic business models, or technological innovation, or power to control online tools and data concentrated in the hands of a very small number of companies. There can be cultural, political, social, and other factors because this is about how humans behave given the tools to connect with and track each other.

This is the reality we face in our world today. As Jason Lanier who worked at Atari and Microsoft explains in the New York Magazine article cited earlier, “We wanted everything to be free, because we were hippie socialists. But we also love entrepreneurs, because we loved Steve Jobs. So, you want to be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, which is absurd…We disrupted absolutely everything: politics, finance, education, media, family relationships, romantic relationships. We won – we just totally won. But having won – we have no sense of balance or modesty or graciousness.” (p. 29)

We face information overload, complexity, stress, and high demands on increasingly limited attention spans. In Mindful Tech, How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, Professor David Levy suggests we need to stop and think about how we are using our online tools and the effects they are having on us. Do we really want to exacerbate this stress and its power to feed our worst tendencies? Geert Lovink’s elegant blog post, “Distraction and its Discontents – Ebbs and Flows in Social Media Sensibility,” contrasts the sick-making drain of our online compulsions with the relaxed open-ended exploratory conversation that is possible when “sitting next to each other in a café.”

If more and more of our social needs are being “met” online in what are ultimately unsatisfying and dangerous ways, we are at risk of ignoring the genuine resources for wellbeing we have available to us, not least of which are truly trusting and caring relationships. Are we undermining our ability to even recognize all the genuine resources for wellbeing that are there or their potential to make our lives much more fulfilling?

There is a positive side to this situation if we can bring wisdom to what we face. Not knowing our audience as full individuals or how what we put out there online might be used may force us to face ourselves, what we understand to be important, and what the universe is asking of us. The amplification effect of the internet can also show us what we are capable of as a species including what we might choose to ignore to our peril. Somewhere in all that is also the opportunity to reflect on aspects of human thriving worth protecting. Blogs and other forms of online sharing, for all their issues, are bearing witness to the great human adventure as we attempt to find our way.

The Dragon on the Ceiling

Dragon ceiling

I know I could happily continue writing posts about various forms of radiant refuge while trying out blog features. I feel a strong pull in that direction. But it is time to pause and consider all is not joy and light. My research into whether blogging can be a skillful means for mindful communication is revealing serious risks. Because of how our minds work, potential for harm can hover outside our normal range of awareness, like that dragon on the ceiling in the image above.

This post considers how tendencies of our human minds contribute to the potential for causing and/or ignoring harm. Here are examples along with questions they raised for me regarding the implications for bloggers:

Cognitive psychologist Mariana Funes discusses how we tend to attribute good and bad behavior to personal traits – however as she notes, studies show we actually respond more to situational factors. What situations or technical affordances do bloggers encounter that might lead them to cause (or ignore) harm?

Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom stresses the priority we give to conforming with perceived social pressure given our desire for esteem even if that requires we inflict or suffer harm. Can bloggers natural desire for followers and standing with their imagined audience cause them to overlook or downplay harm?

Researchers Tappin and McKay confirmed we have a tendency for a deluded sense of moral superiority. Does this mean there is less motivation for bloggers to acknowledge and work to change harmful structures, norms or behavior?

Francesca Gino discusses research that demonstrates we often cause harm without knowing it. Given the amplified speed and reach of online communication, what should bloggers do and advocate that others do to stay on top of potential harm before it spreads?

Geoff Shullenberger discusses troubling implications of mimetic theory – that our tendency to mimic others in determining what we desire leads to harmful behavior online: “the platforms’ basic social architecture, by concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies toward envy, rivalry, hatred of the other that feed online violence.” (or offline violence) Yikes! I don’t want to agree with this theory even though our behavior appears to confirm it is true. I will keep that as a worthy one to consider. Even if mimetic behavior like that is an undeniable tendency of the human mind, that might make accessible radiant refuges like nature that support clear thinking and human wellbeing all the more important.

Our minds also make it easy to share personal information without considering the associated risks:

Scientific American presented the neuroscience behind why we find such great pleasure in talking about ourselves. Those with a stake in advertising revenue, have reason to encourage this tendency as well as our vulnerability to forming habits so we continue to contribute free labor that draws attention to advertisements.

Naiveté about these kinds of mind tendencies can be particularly dangerous when we interact with online technology. The recent Facebook scandal is a case in point.

Bloggers are not immune to issues that apply to social media. For example, platforms that offer blogs for free also depend on advertising revenue. Even independent bloggers who pay for the blogging services they use and do not seek income from their blogging need to consider the economic implications of their generous impulse (another mind tendency). Putting valuable information and art out there for free has serious implications for those trying to earn a living using their creative talents.

While we are distracted and stressed by information overload, our planet’s capacity to support us is being strained and we face serious problems that need our attention, wisdom and creativity. In the online environment, it is becoming all we can do to pay brief attention to the next thing that comes up while turning to what feels familiar for some sense of comfort, even when what feels familiar may be causing harm.

My personal commitment to mindfulness requires that I make a good faith effort to ensure that the benefits of my blogging outweigh the harm it might cause. That includes considering the level of effort and the time that requires. There are other communication options available. Since I hope to inspire my readers to actualize and protect the best of which they are capable, it is important that I not undermine my message by how I say it – the benefits of my blogging must outweigh the risks of its causing even indirect harm.

Regardless of any external controls that are put in place or the platform, those who share online will always be ultimately responsible for the content they place there. The tendency to take technological affordances for granted, to welcome new ones, and to be drawn in by the benefits of their use is another reason for considering the risks of using them. Making intentional choices while blogging requires insight into what we are capable of as we interact with technology-mediated forms of communication.

Addendum:

This blog post was originally titled “Issues and Downsides.” I decided to change that since the central point of this article is the importance of awareness of potentially harmful mind tendencies (that hovering dragon metaphor). The examples of research and writing about such mind tendencies have been updated for clarity, questions bloggers might want to consider, and the discussion of Schulenberger’s mimetic theory was added.

When Once Is Enough


Near the Morrisonite mine site looking across the canyon

When I first came across the pendant below,

Croppedpendant

I could find very little written about Morrisonite, so I decided to work on an article myself. Now articles and photos of this rare jasper and the location where it was mined are available online.

I bought a digital camera with super-macro capability and sought out opportunities to take photos of the incredibly diverse patterns and colors. Making friends with miners, lapidaries and rock shop owners in the course of writing that article eventually led to an invitation to visit the mine site, itself.

Of the seven of us on that adventure, two had mined Morrisonite jasper, three had websites selling it, and one was the grandson of a rock shop owner who had known the discoverer of this jasper. We took two four-wheel drive vehicles so as to have a back-up just in case. It would not do to get stuck in the desert highlands in the middle of nowhere in eastern Oregon.

On the way to the steep canyon side, we passed farms, fruit orchards, wild flowers in clumps, sage brush (nice fragrance), cattle, horses, antelope, a coyote, a hawk flying with a snake in its claws, jack rabbits, and grouse. Despite the relative dryness, the area is very fertile because of ample volcanic ash.

The final dirt track was intentionally left rough to encourage folks to stay out. We drove very slowly jouncing over large rocks and ruts. Beyond the second switch back on the final approach, it was no longer possible to drive, so we got out and made our way down the steep track contending with loose pebbles and sand.

While the others hiked down the steep canyon wall to the mine site, I stayed in the top area with a friend who had a bad shoulder. The weather was perfect. It was a very dreamy location to spend an afternoon largely in silence, exploring two abandoned miners’ cabins, watching the light shift on the canyon formations and looking to see if there might still be some Morrisonite left in situ that I could photograph (there was).

I only visited the mine site that one time. However, looking at the jasper, framing close-ups of sections, and my special relationships with those who share my passion for Morrisonite became treasured refuges. As for the mine site itself, sometimes being just once in a magical place can provide nurturance for an entire lifetime.