on being a talking head

I just finished giving a talk at Sosial og Digital. It is 10AM in Norway and 3AM in Chicago. I spent the last hour talking into the ether about Friendster with virtually no visual and absolutely no audio feedback. It was a very very very peculiar thing. Here’s a segment of my pre-amble for everyone’s amusement:

There’s something very odd about this situation. It’s 2AM in Chicago. I’m sitting in a musty hotel room by myself, talking into a camera that is being projected into a different time zone. It is dark outside and even with all the lights turned on, it is still dim here. The ethernet cable is screwed into the table so that i won’t steal it. As a result, i’m sitting at a wooden desk which faces a very large mirror.

If i look above the camera, i’m staring at myself in the mirror. If i look below the camera, i’m staring at the captured version of myself on the iSight. No matter where i look, i’m staring at myself talking into the ether. I’m trying very hard to resist the temptation to make faces at myself because growing up, that’s what my brother and i did whenever we saw ourselves on surveillance cameras and in mirrors.

I cannot really see you. I have no idea about the temperature of your room, the smell of the morning coffee, the sense of shared presence that you’re currently relishing, the looks on your face as i speak too fast. I understand that if i look down at my notes, my eyes move away from you and this must be very disconcerting since i assume that my face is ridiculously large in front of you. In order to get feedback from you, i have to wait for information from iChat, which results in me appearing to turn away just as you talk to me. It is a very peculiar situation that we’re engaged in.

Of course, as a blogger, one might assume that this is a comfortable position. After all, i write long treatises and throw them into the wind, never aware of the reactions of my readers, never even aware of who my readers are. [interlude about Walter Ong and embodiment]

The difference has to do with my conception of my audience conception. For me, the plausible deniability invoked in blogging is strong. I can convince myself that i write for me and me alone ::wink:: and convince myself to be shocked when i receive feedback. I can check my stats, but those are just numbers – nameless, faceless people. Yet, here i am, speaking to nameless, faceless people, only i’m required by this situation to convince myself that you do really exist, even if i cannot see you. In this situation, i have the expectation that i am a face to you and you’re just an assumption to me. It really brings life to the idea that i’m just a talking head.

Of course, the first question i got was to prove that i’m not just a Fakester talking to them from next door. I love it!

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10 thoughts on “on being a talking head

  1. Jill

    You did such a great job, danah! People have been saying, with surprise, that it was really good and we must do something like that again!

    Thanks so much for doing this – and even in the middle of the night….


  2. Carsten

    Danah —

    here a comment from one of the “faceless and nameless”: You managed to create a sense of immediacy and presence that was truly amazing!! Thank you! – Carsten

  3. Les Posen

    Nice post. You need an Airport Express for wirelessly set yourself up in hotel rooms and elsewhere so you can move around – works very work in internet cafes too!

  4. zephoria

    Sadly, i couldn’t get the airport express working over the draconian hotel system that charged per mac address and required visiting a website to confirm that it was on 🙁

  5. Hallvor Engen

    This was the first time I have seen something like this. The situation looked very different and probably “more real” from our perspective, since we could see you and hear you. So in the strange situation you where in I am impressed by how good the talk you gave actually was. Big thanks for and impressive talk.

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