My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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musing on making things real

“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.” — Hannah Arendt

Have you ever found yourself not saying something that is on your mind because you’re afraid that if you say it, it will become real? This is a really interesting conundrum in the context of blogging because it has to do with the ways in which public performances make ideas real. Arendt argues that one of the primary roles of the public is to make things real. People seek out witnesses to validate their emotions, ideas, actions, or mere existence. Our stories become real when we have other people to share them with, when other people saw and experienced what we experienced. Having no access to public life can be maddening (literally) because everything might as well be a fable with no witnesses to validate what took place. Ah, Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Internet has allowed us to take the most “intimate” thoughts and ideas and perform them in a public before witnesses. This makes real every neurosis and stupid act – stuff that might simply have slipped away before. It makes it possible to be heard. But at the same time, when you know you’re going to be heard, you have to think twice. Do you really want that fleeting thought to be that real, to be that present for collective memory?

I was going through some notes i took when interviewing bloggers and teens about the things that they did to try to erase relationships that once existed. They went through a series of public and private erasures. De-Friend on every site imaginable. Erase all blog entries and profile posts professing love. Change from “in a relationship” to single. Erase from address book and block on the buddy list. Erase all SMSes. Erase all emails. Erase all comments. Burn all letters. The goal of course is “out of sight, out of mind” but the problem with the entwined nature of technology is that it doesn’t work out this way. People stumble across their exes on others’ profiles, in their friends’ comments. They pine away, obsessively checking their ex’s blog/MySpace to see if there’s any sign of misery that will make them feel better because even if they know better than to track them down in person, they can’t resist the anonymous stalking online, even if it prolongs the hurt.

Relationships are funny things because while they are extremely intimate, they are also quite public. Going back to the horrid holiday of pink confetti, it’s interesting to think about how relationships are to be performed in public through romantic dinners, PDA (even holding hands), and simple physical proximity. People want to be seen to be in an intimate relationship – no matter how rough that relationship is in the backstage, there’s a desire to make the frontstage look all rosy. Yet, when it ends, the desire to erase all is confounded by the public performance of it. Sure, Amy can erase all of the “I (heart) Kevin” comments on her profile but the effects of a public performance of a relationship can outlive the documentation of it. And the publicness of each person means ongoing heartache and reminder. This, in many ways, is the flipside of being able to continue friendships after one moves or goes away to college. Relationships continue even when one wishes they wouldn’t.

I can’t help but wonder about the “realness” constructed by networked publics. How does persistence of some performances screw with this? How does the intertwined nature of things not allow for forgetting? How do people respond by refusing to acknowledge aspects of themselves in networked publics? Why is it that some people desperately want to make real the most sordid “intimate” details?

Enough musing… back to work…

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17 comments to musing on making things real

  • I’ve got a question about this. Of course I was amused by your list of the erasures and cyber-stalking that follows a breakup. It seems accurate — that’s why it’s so funny.

    However, it seems that similar rituals were around long before the Internet. Didn’t lovers always have to burn letters and gifts? In some ways, being able to check a friend’s profile saves you from making a well-intentioned reference to a defunct relationship, one that will end up being traumatic for them to hear.

    Consider the moment in the British The Office where Ricky Gervais asks (obnoxiously) “How’s she doing? Left you yet?” He gets an odd look on his face, hangs up the phone, and says, “Oh yeah. She did leave him. Forgot that.”

    Also, in the context of increasingly thin relationships of all kinds — friendships and romances both — social networking sites make it easier to make transitions, if both people are following the cardinal rule of networking, “Thou shalt be easygoing.” A casual friendship, cemented with a friend request, can turn into a date; equally important, a casual romantic relationship can be reborn as a friendship, even if (perhaps especially if) the people have been out of touch for a few years.

    For most of my friends, the scenario involves having dated someone (or even just hooked up with them), finding out through MySpace or Friendster or etc. that they’re in San Francisco, visiting them while on a business trip there. The friend sites make that low-stress.

    One last thought: most people who are a) invested in online identities, and b) invested in the public performance of their relationship, work hard to compensate for the fact that their S.O. is just one more boxed face in a field of hundreds. Hence the desire to insert a reference to him/her into the “About Me,” or “Favorite Music,” or etc.

  • This makes me think of Ryan Burke who recently broke up with his girlfriend, and made a public event out of it at UNC, filming it with 3000 people watching and posting it to Youtube. You can see the digg link here. There has been some discussion that perhaps this is fake, I have no ability to judge not being from UNC, but it seems to speak directly to this line of thinking. The making public of an event to make it real.

  • As a member of Generation Y, I often wonder how this has transformed relationships, family life, schooling ect. Before one only knew as much as they could actively find out, through gossip or investigation, but all of it was in person. Today bullying reaches an extreme because of myspace and facebook, how many friends you have is known, how often you stay home by how few pictures you have of yourself with others, announcements of status items are easy to display… in today’s world we convince people to be our friends instead of genuinely investing in one another.

    The same is true of relationships. Even with states in between the two of you, you are as close as a split second click of a mouse button. You can see their friends, what they are saying, who they are dating, their thoughts, their daily life… no one is ever gone today.

    I think all of this social networking and blogging goes against human nature in some ways. Or at least, we need to rewire our ways of coping in a world where everything is ever present, no matter how hard we try to reinvent ourselves, move away, block people, and so on.

    Great post. I love reading your thoughts. You articulate all the things I think about in passing, perfectly and transform them into such academic brilliance.

  • This appears to be validating the current thought that online identity and digital personna’s are becoming a distinct extension of the real life as well as the place where a majority of interaction and friending takes place. In a way this allows people to become more blase about there interaction and response to real life events or digital reactions as well as allowing them to not have to respond to confrontations or heated situations but in the view of comments forcing them to acknowledge what is/has been said about them.

  • Steve

    Do you suppose there is any relationship between the degree of desire for “erasure” and the level of honesty that was present in the original relationship? I would suggest that relationships that were constructed for show would be more embarrassing if the identity construct of which they were a part had now changed. By saying “I’m embarrassed I was ever with that person” are they also saying “I’m embarrassed I ever was that self”?

    And conversely, I would expect that relationships which were sincerely given from one’s deepest heart, and came from a place other than a desire for display, would be more easily acknowledged as valid and persistent history even once circumstances might have changed to make that particular closeness no longer possible.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

  • Thought-provoking post, and some insightful follow-up comments. I especially liked the quotes around the word “intimate”; if the public/private debate is still contained purely within a virtual context, then can anything truly be private? Simply by entering it into the system, do we lose a large chunk of what we should really be calling intimacy?

    Personally, I think the capturing of history, and its compression into a single point of time (everything becomes ‘now’) is a dangerous affair. There’s a tendency to forget that people change, learn and experience things – the infallibility of Google/archive.org/etc takes “precedence”, in our objectively-oriented world, over the fallibility – and the adaptability – of the human mind. By archiving, we become fixated on capturing everything, and we lose a mode of flexibility. Your question “How does the intertwined nature of things not allow for forgetting?” is spot on. Or rather, we shouldn’t forget, but we need to remember that time passes. As it is, we judge internet-time more on the coding standards and stylesheets used than on the date listed on a page.

    Right, I’m off to delete my blog archives… 🙂

  • Michael

    Interesting how our relationships leave a trail of sorts in our electronic media, such as contacts lists… I had a friend who died a couple of years ago, and his brother went through his phone contact list, calling everyone to let them know. Kind of the reverse of the situation you describe. I wondered at the time if this was a new aspect of bereavement processes (eg is there an expectation that someone will go through the deceased’s email list as well?). When so many relationships are enacted online, how does one broadcast the ultimate logout?

  • Brilliant post…I love your blog.

    Another interesting example of public display of relationships is LinkedIn…At times I get a sense that I get invited to join a person’s contact list just because of the ego boost for the person from adding new contacts…Sort of like I am more popular then the rest of you…

  • In the past I know you’ve heavily followed children being charged as sex offenders for ridiculous things. I thought you might be interested in this link: Stupid Sex Crime

  • What if the so-called “public performance” is only a “rehearsal” and that we manage persistence not by erasing emails, comments, etc. but by erasing ourselves. That is, we shed identities, going from one to the next.

    In this world we maintain identities in series or in parallel.

  • Joseph – of course this existed before… it’s just that the persistence of these communications mean that there are many more to delete.

    Steve – i think that the relationships of younger folks are often more fraught with extremes than those of older folks who are simply burnt out and wary. I don’t think it’s so much about embarrassment as much as it is about beginnings and endings.

  • Ok this phrase: “Have you ever found yourself not saying something that is on your mind because you’re afraid that if you say it, it will become real?” completely sums up how I feel 90% of the time. Not the best way to live but hey such is life. I loved the post….brilliant.

  • Ok this phrase: “Have you ever found yourself not saying something that is on your mind because you’re afraid that if you say it, it will become real?” completely sums up how I feel 90% of the time. Not the best way to live but hey such is life. I loved the post….brilliant.

  • I loved this blog. You’ve got some style and it’s pooring out of your ears. Keep it up!

  • River Watson

    wow. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading this blog. so interesting. so real. and I really do believe that now is the time for this kind of insight into how these kinds of “electronic media” influence people, particularly teenagers. people at the peak of their physical and psychological development, just learning to really communicate, suddenly have an entirely new and ever-evolving medium with which to color their worlds… I think this was more than a musing. heh. no pun intended.

  • Ria

    Not only does the “public performance” figure in when a couple breaks up, but while the relationship is in progress as well.

    For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been increasingly bugged by the fact that my long-distance boyfriend’s MySpace page still lists him as “single.” Now, I have no doubt in my mind that he loves me and is being faithful, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s just a case of him forgetting to change it or if it’s symptomiatic of some doubt or uncertianty on his part. And beyond that, the posessive side of me wants to publicly “stake my claim” so to speak. Advice from my friends has ranged from “you’re completely batshit crazy” to “this kind of thing is an important part of people’s identity these days- you have to talk about this!”

    I settled for the middle ground of a funny, self-depricating email. But it kind of begs the question: what do you do when what you know of a person and how they present themselves online is vastly different?

  • avi

    I failed to introduce a Wiki system to my company for this very reason: people don’t want their drafts to become public, let alone leave forever.