Social Networks and the Proliferating Performances of Identity

Tom Chatfield’s essay on technology and language groks Walter Ong and under-appreciated Medium theory. He begins at the genesis of the written word and makes a huge arc to today’s moral themes. First the problem of information scarcity:

The vast bulk of that story is silence. Indeed, darkness and silence are the defining norms of human history. The earliest known writing probably emerged in southern Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago but, for most of recorded history, reading and writing remained among the most elite human activities: the province of monarchs, priests and nobles who reserved for themselves the privilege of lasting words.

Yet the world is now one of information abundance and mediums of exchange:

This sheer quantity is in itself something new. All future histories of modern language will be written from a position of explicit and overwhelming information — a story not of darkness and silence but of data, and of the verbal outpourings of billions of lives. Where once words were written by the literate few on behalf of the many, now every phone and computer user is an author of some kind.

Leading to, among other things, new expressions of identity on the Internet:

All interactions, be they spoken or written, are to some degree performative: a negotiation of roles and references. Onscreen words are a special species of self-presentation — a form of storytelling in which the very idea of ‘us’ is a fiction crafted letter by letter. Such are our linguistic gifts that a few sentences can conjure the story of a life: a status update, an email, a few text messages. Almost without our noticing, we weave worlds from these snapshots, until an illusion of unbroken narrative emerges from a handful of paragraphs.

Chatfield is right. The biggest gulf between digital natives and digital immigrants lies in the negotiation of an authentic social performance. Just some food for thought, what again is wrong with the Auschwitz selfie? You should go read Chatfield’s essay.

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