I Have Friends Who Are Growing Gardens

A little while ago, Justin Wolfers contacted me and asked if I would like to write something for a series of alt lit works. I'm afraid I don't know much about alt lit (I did some googling and read a short story by Tao Lin but it didn't make me feel anything) but I was excited by Justin's brief and keen to explore the topic, so I said yes gladly.

What I suggested to Justin was that I take readers on a brief tour of my computer.

I don't know if this is true for anyone else, but whenever someone plugs a computer into a projector to give a PowerPoint presentation or loads up a YouTube clip on their machine, I'm more interested in what they have on their desktop or what browser tabs they have open than whatever they're trying to show me.

I have friends who are growing gardens – they want tomatoes and herbs – and while I don't have that impulse to grow and tend something, I do sometimes feel as if my computer's interior is a garden, and that I tend my desktop, my files and folders, my email and other online accounts the way they tend their fruits and vegetables. My digital space sometimes seems to grow of its own accord, it flourishes and withers in unexpected ways, I trim it and sculpt it and try to keep the weeds from growing.

This may be of interest, it may not, and just because I feel as if I'm sharing something scarily personal and intimate, you may not give a damn. No probs if you'd rather be reading something else: mad love, and be on your way.

Everyone else: my desktop background:

I keep all of my files in a folder called ‘dragonflea’, labelled with the last time I backed it up. I can't remember why it's called dragonflea, but it feels about right.

This is my file structure. I can't say I planned it, it just grew like this.

There's a text file called band names kept in easy reach for whenever I think of a good name for a band, and a mix of folders for work projects, creative projects and documents sent by collaborators.

One of these folders is the hardly-bothering-to-hide-it folder for .rtf files of erotic fiction and bland softcore photos downloaded from kindgirls or similar. Being a vanilla heterosexual male is a wild ride.

All my scripts are kept in a folder entitled Scripts 2006-7, for no good reason that I can recall. The best bit is, I call myself a playwright and yet if you look at the 'Date Modified' column you can see how much playwriting I actually do. I don't even know what half of these are meant to be about. Suffice it to say, the theatres of Australia are not beating down the doors for the opportunity to produce these.

What does it say about me that so many of those scripts are built out of eavesdropped conversations?

Teenagers

Personal Internet History

I first got online in 1996, courtesy of my best friend Jack's net connection. Alongside Jack I explored MOOs, MUDs, and then began playing various online RPGs, which at that time were essentially themed chatrooms.

Internet culture in the late 90s was very different, or at least my experience of it was. Around the world there were far fewer people online, and those that were tended to be a narrower slice of the population. There was an expectation of some coding ability, or at least the ability to fake it. Search engines were more or less useless, so you were far better off finding sites with long lists of interesting links, or communities of likeminded people who could point you in the direction of interesting things.

Most importantly, in the years just before ICQ and MSN Messenger, people rarely connected with those they knew in the real world online. The internet was for strangers.

Around '99 I started hanging out on poe-news, a website devoted to sharing interesting and unusual news stories. The poe-news forums were no different from the thousands of other online forums that blossomed around the turn of the millennium – a random smattering of like-minded strangers from around the world clustering together around some common interest, to debate, discuss and share ideas. (For the curious, here’s the Encyclopedia Dramatica poe-news entry.)

Gradually, this random gathering of strangers forged connections and friendships with one another. Within a year or two of its inception, the forum's participants had organised themselves into a tight-knit community with definite (though unwritten) rules and hierarchies, a tiny online village with its own distinctive culture.

The culture rewarded people for being smart, specialists in particular areas, or for generating detailed and creative responses to particular news stories. The culture punished people for lazy, stupid or (particularly) right-wing attitudes.

That community proved remarkably resilient, even surviving and regrouping in a new home at bo-ne.ws after the original website's horrible frothing death in 2011.

I don't have any stats, but I'd guess there were round a thousand members at any given time, and a committed core community of 100-200, mostly Americans but with a fair few Europeans and Australians.

It was also fascinating because as the core community grew older, the site itself had to change in response. It was fascinating watching, for example, the collective decision to stop using the word 'fag' as an insult, and how that transition was managed and policed.

Aside from a few real-life poe-news gatherings over the years and countless friendships started online that evolved into the real world, your poe-news identity boiled down to your chosen username and your writing. How insightful, funny, thoughtful, provocative, creative or sharp-witted your comments were determined your standing in the community.

poe-news taught me a lot about internet culture, technologically mediated communication and online debate. For example, it was on that website I learned that to win an online debate, you need to be the first person to walk away. In real life or in a courtroom drama, a devastating final rejoinder can turn the tide, but on the internets being the last comment in a thread looks more like everyone else got bored and walked away.

The problem is, the kinds of adversarial conversation skills and brutally cruel humour fostered on a late-90s / early-2000s website populated by semi-anonymous geeks in their 20s does not translate well to the brightly-lit shopping-mall world of social media in the 2010s.

Facebook

I joined Facebook in 2007, which means I was somewhere between the 14 and 41 millionth user. There are now 1.28 billion users worldwide (as of March 2014). In Australia there are 12 million users, or a little over half the population.

This is my newsfeed, where I receive a compiled list of recent updates from my Facebook friends:

Facebook home

My usage of the service is divided about equally between checking up on the latest doings of various acquaintances, reading potentially interesting links and blogs, and posting unattributed quotes from books I've been reading.

I have 821 friends on Facebook. What that means exactly is hard to say. There are a lot of pundits who say that Facebook is ruining the meaning of friendship or diluting it in a dangerous way. There are a lot of pundits who say a lot of shit about the internet: it's making us stupid, it's making us geniuses, it's an addictive drug, it's destabilising governments, it's leading us toward a utopian society and (of course) it's making teens promiscuous. Opinion writers don't tend to back up their hyperbole with any kind of statistically meaningful evidence (other than the handwave-y line 'a study shows') and we don't tend to call them on it.

When people say that Facebook is 'diluting friendship', they're generally not looking at how people distinguish emotional closeness online.

In 2009, Facebook's in-house sociologist Cameron Marlow published a report in The Economist, using Facebook's own data on its users. Marlow found that Facebook users cluster in two groups: people who have an average of 120 friends and people who have an average of 500 friends. He then looked at how frequently people engaged with their friends via public chats, commenting on photos or status updates, and private messages.

Marlow found that no matter how many Facebook friends we have, we only really stay in contact with a core few. Regardless of the size of their network, people tended to talk with 10–26 Facebook friends in public and 4–16 in private. The hundreds of other friends we keep around because, well, it doesn't really cost us anything to do so. And who knows when you might want to get in touch with an old acquaintance?

When I post on Facebook I am usually talking to a small core of my friends, about 15–20 people. But those status updates are (potentially) available to be read by over 800 people, who increasingly come from very different demographics and social circles. People I know only slightly, or from very specific settings, receive these messages without any context. Sometimes that's great, and leads to fruitful and fascinating conversations. Sometimes it doesn't.

There are about 65 people who have sent me friend requests to which I haven't replied. I feel really bad about this because it usually means I just can't place them. Some of them may be spam bots, others may be people I know well but who are using different names, and still others are probably people who are applying the term 'friend' slightly differently from me.

This is my profile page. For my icon I've used the same circle with a line down it image as I've used elsewhere. You can set a banner picture to personalise your profile, but I've gone with the default grey wash that Facebook provides.

Facebook as Social Service

Facebook makes its money by selling your data to advertisers, who pay to be able to effectively target their ads to the most appropriate demographic. Facebook makes roughly $4 per year per user. When I found out this figure I was surprised by how small it was – somehow I'd assumed it was far bigger – but of course, when you've got over a billion users, those amounts add up.

Facebook is earning $4 every year from advertisers in exchange for the data about you it collects. Are we okay with that transaction?

Facebook is woven into the fabric of our lives, and it's harder and harder to opt out. If you deactivate your Facebook page, the data will remain on Facebook's servers and will continue to inform how they market to your friends and others within your demographic. One of my favourite Social Media services, Seppuku, (sadly no longer active) countered that in an interesting way. When you handed over your Facebook login and password to the service, the program immediately changed your password, then began actively liking everything and everyone on your account, sending friend requests in all directions, and generally behaving like a spam bot on a rampage until Facebook closed down your account, rendering you useless for their data gathering services.

When you die, your Facebook page will turn into a memorial page for friends and family to leave messages on. Without any prompting, it becomes a virtual monument where anyone can post messages, thoughts or photos. It's interesting to think that Facebook has become the space where people connect to share memories of their departed loved ones. The accessibility of the space means that people who would not otherwise be able to take part can now share in the grieving. But there's something very different about the public grieving that happens on Facebook vs the solitary communion that might happen in a graveyard. Is there anything intrinsically wrong with having a memorial site hosted by a private corporation, or is this just as valid as any other kind of memorial?

What's fascinating to me is that in the last few years, the debate around online privacy has become more active. People are increasingly conscious and critical of Facebook's efforts to erode privacy and build detailed personal profiles of us that it can profit from. We start to have debates on these topics and share articles criticising Facebook, on Facebook.

What does it mean for these debates that Facebook is the platform for criticism of Facebook? Does it helplessly compromise us, rendering us incapable of saying anything truly incisive? Or does it help us behave more sensibly by raising awareness of privacy issues right where they are most relevant?

At the same time, even though we know this degradation of personal privacy is happening, we don't stop posting personal shit. I'm not criticising anyone for doing this – it's something I notice in my own behaviour, it's a contradiction that exists in me. But I think it's interesting to note that our conversations are saying one thing, and our behaviour is saying something else.

LiveJournal and MySpace

Until a couple of years ago I'd just about forgotten I even had a LiveJournal account, but when I checked it was still there, still active, and still publicly visible to anyone who knew what to search for. I deactivated mine, but plenty of people I knew from that time – including an old ex – still have theirs, unprotected and searchable, featuring more stories about me in more explicit detail than I'd like.

Sometimes I mention to people that those journals are still up there and active as are our old MySpace pages, and probably a bunch of other old services we signed up for years ago and long ago forget about – but can you really ask people to clean up their old internet detritus just because you're nervous about one day getting stalked? What's the etiquette here?

Twitter

Across different social media platforms, blogs and websites, I adopt different personas and contribute different kinds of content. My Facebook persona posts unattributed quotes from books and science journals, snippets of eavesdropped conversations, and occasionally self-promotes my artistic output or that of my friends. My Twitter persona is nervous, self-effacing and constantly muttering to itself to be quiet.

I don't know how I came to the decision that Twitter was the ideal platform for me to channel my inner angst-y teen, but somehow it felt right and I've tried not to second-guess it too much.  It has something to do with the fact that Twitter provides less immediate feedback for my actions. Whereas Facebook always felt as if I was talking to people, Twitter (especially when I had fewer than 50 followers) felt more like I was talking at people. As with many of my online intuitions, this is flawed – Twitter is public-facing, whereas Facebook discourse (at least theoretically) takes place in a closed community.

I gain followers on Twitter when I do something vaguely professional like give a talk on science-art or attend a conference, and then I lose them again within a day or two when it becomes clear that my Twitter is completely unprofessional and for my own idiotic satisfaction.

If I had to guess, I'd say that my use of Twitter is probably impeding my career far more than it's supporting it.

Every so often my Facebook and Twitter personas cross over or there is bleed, which is uncomfortable. Facebook is more of a performance for me – I try to never express fear or concern in that medium. Twitter, on the other hand, is my go-to place when I feel I have to get some nervousness off my chest. I don't like mixing the two (even though I'm acknowledging here how contradictory this all is).

On the flipside, a year or two ago I sent a specious tweet to KevinMax of iconic Christian hip-hop outfit dcTalk, asking for advice on how to break it in the cut-throat world of holy hip-hop. For some reason, KevinMax replied, and we've maintained a fairly lovely Twitter relationship ever since. He is, without doubt, the highest profile Finnigan and Brother fan there is.

Even in 2014, online miracles can happen.

Echo Chamber

There are a lot of gradual shifts in the way we experience the internet, and it's hard for me to keep track of them and remember that it wasn't always this way. I know online tribalism is nothing new, but one thing that has really challenged me in recent years is how hard it is to get out of the echo chamber of self-reinforcing opinions.

Politically, this is nothing new – progressive blogs have always linked to progressive blogs, conservatives to conservatives, and small differences get amplified until we find ourselves staring at people only a little further along the spectrum as if they're speaking a foreign language.

Since 2009, when Google started shaping the results of every search to ensure that you only receive results from the sources you already preference, I've found it harder and harder to get news and information that doesn't neatly adhere to my opinions. It's all too comfortable for me to believe that the Guardian is the trustworthiest authority on political matters, because it is frequently the top result when I search for a news item. Somehow though I feel that isn't helping make me a thoughtful, informed citizen.

The trouble is, as my diet of information and opinion becomes ever more rarified and specialised, I feel more and more correct in my assumptions and less aware of people who don't share my opinions. How can people disagree with the facts when they appear so clear and uniform to me? What is wrong with people?

That kind of insular mindset isn't exactly helpful when it comes to engaging with people outside the tribe and trying to find common ground or meaningful compromises. But increasingly, I find getting out of that bubble and hearing what it is that other people are hearing about the world is hard, draining work.

Downloading Self-Control

I try to limit the number of tabs I have open in my web browser to three or four (or five), but I still find myself bouncing between tabs (or Alt-Tabbing between different programs) often, sometimes almost unconsciously.

Researchers at the University of Leicester have wired up internet users and observed that when you see the little red notification flag on Facebook you get a little endorphin hit – same when you see the little number in brackets go up a notch on your Gmail or Twitter tab. Chasing that little burst of happiness or excitement is part of what keeps us (me) cycling between tabs.

In her book Untangling the Web, internet academic and journalist Dr Aleks Krotoski talks about the idea that we're shifting to a new phase in our relationship with our machines. The idea that we're 'always on' or 'tethered' to our devices was sort of crazy and surprising back in the early 2000s. Even back in 2009, if you admitted you were addicted to Facebook, that was pretty shameful and embarrassing. And then at some point, everyone began to acknowledge that they, too, were hooked.

What Krotoski describes is that we seem to be moving into a new age where, rather than being ruled by our devices, we are negotiating our own relationships with them.

Case in point: Even two or three years ago I would've been ashamed to admit that I downloaded an app to limit my access to social media. Or that it's called Self-Control, so I had to literally download Self-Control from the internet. But I did, and when I'm working on projects I tend to set it so that I can access social media early in the morning and very late at night, but otherwise, not at all.

And the sensation when I activate it and I know that I can't check any of my feeds until the other side of the day – that's a strange kind of relief.

The Tracks We Leave

I have what you might call a certain fatalism around my online presence – a feeling that one day someone is going to expose something I did and left some trace of online.

(When I sent through a draft of this piece, Justin commented that this passage felt strange because it was obviously very personal but read so blasé. I think it speaks to the separation between what I know intellectually and what I feel intuitively.)

I've definitely never done anything scandal-worthy, but bad people with vendettas can spin anything to suit their agendas. Some stupid remark, some poorly thought-through opinion, some mindless snark or a stupid night out from when I was a teenager, and it could be framed in the worst possible light and fired at me at the worst possible time. I'm not going to speculate on exactly what it might be, partly because I don't know, and partly because I don't want to encourage chumps to go searching my name on Google to see what they can dig up.

I even know how it will feel – the sensation of feeling happy, positive and at peace, and then suddenly that sliding sensation when you read something on a screen and know that things will be different – much worse – from here on out. The same feeling you have when you're driving and the police sirens start up behind you, or when you're going through customs and the drug sniffer dog flops its paws against your chest and the customs officer asks you to step to one side. Whether or not you've genuinely done anything wrong, that sudden certainty that you slipped up somewhere, and you are going to be punished whether it's fair or not.

There aren't any conclusive numbers (or at least, none that I could find) showing how many people have been fired from their jobs because of something posted to social media, but the evidence out there suggests it's a lot. According to a 2013 study by London-based On Device Research, one in 10 job seekers between the ages of 16 and 34 have been rejected for a job because of something posted on their profiles. A 2009 study by internet security firm Proofpoint showed that 8% of companies with over 1,000 employees have fired someone because of their social media activity, with those numbers expected to keep rising.

There's a degree to which I try to scrub my online persona clean – at the very least, to try to be aware of the traces I've left online. But the worst of it is, it's not even up to me. In a majority of cases where someone has been fired or arrested for an incriminating photo or an unfortunate anecdote that surfaced on social media, it wasn't them that posted it but their friends.

We are implicating each other all the time, and it is harder and harder to opt out.

I don't doubt that there's enough material on my website and social media history for a sufficiently motivated muckraker to find a bit of mud to fling at me, but even if I vigorously scrubbed my online havens clean, my online presence is much more than just the data I've personally uploaded – I'm a node in a larger network. Each of us is a data point in the bigger picture of our community, referenced and located by the people around us as much as by ourselves.

Honestly, no matter how much I think and hear about it happening, I find it almost impossible to connect what I say to my laptop in the privacy of my own home to the idea that hundreds and thousands of people could end up reading it.

It's all too abstract – I guess it stays that way right up until we personally experience real-world repercussions for things we've done online. That was the train-wreck fascination of watching #HasJustineLandedYet unfold – seeing how quickly one stupid remark online can burn your life down around you.

If anyone's not familiar with the story, last December an American woman tweeted a jarringly offensive joke just before getting on a 14-hour flight. While in the air, the tweet was picked up and went suddenly, spectacularly viral. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet began somewhere in the middle of this journey, as people eagerly waited to see what would happen when Justine touched down and switched back on her phone, to discover that she had lost her job and was internationally notorious.

I patiently wait for one of the countless tiny things I've said and done online to blow up in my face. In the meantime, I carry on saying and doing countless tiny things online.

Why Did I Write This Piece

The aim of this piece is part of a pattern of behaviour: to take tiny risks and step further and further out of my comfort zone, until I get bitten.

With that in mind, I took Justin's brief and started thinking: What can I expose about myself that is deeply personal and vulnerable, but that I can get away with because people won't see it as being personal and vulnerable?

The game is, scare yourself by taking control away from yourself and handing it over to the forever-remembering, forever-archiving machine of the internet – in this case, an online journal entitled Seizure. And then the question is: ‘Which piece of personal information will be the one that comes back to bite me?’

(I bet it'll be the mention of porn. People are pretty predictable on certain fronts.)

Beyond that, what I wanted to raise with this piece was something very simple and obvious, but which I think gets a little lost: how active are we in the way we to relate to the internet?

Try this brief thought experiment:

If you could start from scratch, what would you like to get from the internet? How much work, how much pleasure, how much time spent? Would you want to be always connected – and if not, how much time would you reserve for being offline?

If you can imagine an ‘ideal’ pattern of usage for yourself then compare it to your patterns at the moment. Are they close?

The point is that what works for each of us is different, but it's important that we are making purposeful, informed decisions about our internet use. We make those decisions, or they are made for us.

Things are shifting and we don't know where we're going

and the people who are steering don't know where we're going

and it's possible we're going faster but we don't know

and the people who we elected to look after us don't know

we're guessing really hard but we don't know

we don't know

but I guess we're going to find out

Thank you for reading this! I hope the rest of your day is rad.

David Finnigan