I don’t do a lot of blogging.
Back up. I blog a lot, but it’s to people. I like people, and that’s really what this post is going to be about.
But I don’t really write big blocks of text for general consumption these days unless they’re technical explanations of why something can or can’t be done along with a couple of jokes and a nice metaphor about a rat named Stephen.
And there may be a reason for that.
But collaboration is key. A few weeks or months ago I saw a link in IRC or on a blog post or something pointing me to this crazy new website:
It’s this thing where you click on it and suddenly there are a bunch of short, looping animated gifs of people doing people things alongside lines of text which you can pretty easily presume they’ve written.
And I immediately said “huh” and closed the tab and didn’t think about it again. I don’t even know that I filed it away under anything under than “seen it,” because I really have no idea how my mental filing system works. I think it’s probably filled with snakes. Snakes and ladders. Both good things to watch out for.
The point is, it wasn’t for me right then. I’m saying this now because this is really what I’m talking about:
The right people have to hit each other the right way to click.
And it doesn’t always work the first time.
Friday night I read this blog by my new friend @ednapiranha, who created chat.meatspac.es. We were already talking about cooperation and interaction, but it’s a good blog post and you should read it because it sets up everything I’m about to say.
And since I’m about as good at linear narration as I am at not beginning my sentences with “and,” this takes us to Friday night.
The night before I’d been up way too long being way too depressed and way too emotional about way too many things in a way that was way too stiff and busted. Friday I woke up and decided I was going out to my favorite bar regardless of the terrible traffic and regardless of the setting sun. And I did it.
I had two drinks, a shot, and left. Which isn’t something I do. I like cocktails. I know some great bartenders, and I usually close the bar regardless of when I get there.
I go home and fuck around on the internet for a couple of hours. Then my friend @hepkitten posts this link to her facebook:
And I skimmed it. I didn’t read it all at first because I didn’t have to. Just glancing through pushed a lot of buttons all at once and I didn’t really know why.
And that’s when I went to chat.meatspac.es for the second time, immediately recognized it as something I’d seen before, but also immediately discarded that information because it wasn’t relevant anymore.
First impressions happen every day.
What’s really remarkable about human interaction is how good we are at completely dismissing huge chunks of information all at once. Every single stone of our foundation can be ripped out, in bulk or just a few, at any given time, and replaced with any other thing based on whim. We call it epiphany, or inspiration, or learning.
The point is, we’re flexible. So, again, first impressions happen every day.
When we meet people and then meet them again, later, and realize that our impressions are different from the expectations we established when we met them the first time, sometimes we struggle with it. Sometimes it’s no big deal. Sometimes we say things like, “I don’t think I really knew you then,” or, “I guess we’ve both changed.”
Of course you didn’t know them then, and of course you’ve both changed, because everything’s in motion all the time. It’s our expectation that it’s not going to change that makes us think it’s standing still. And we do this because we have to, because walking on all of these electrons spinning around their nuclei and trying not to fall through them would be the removal of every layer of abstraction necessary for us to get through the day.
And this isn’t just about nuclear forces, remember: It’s about people.
We need these layers of abstraction in order to function in society. But the apparatus of social abstraction and expectation can be peeled back and even crated and stored, disused, when that epiphany, that learning, takes place. It’s a scaffold, a crutch, a crust that we don’t need at this critical moment of interaction because we’ve reached the most important idiom of this post: the meat.
Let’s talk about secrets.
The first thing about a secret is that it’s shared. This is arguable. I guess you could think a secret isn’t a secret anymore once it’s shared, but the idea, the concept that I think of when I hear “secret” is “something others know that I don’t” or “something I know that they don’t.”
But if it’s something you know, something you have inside of you, then that’s just something inside of you, right? It’s not a secret until you tell someone. But when you tell yourself, “that’s my secret,” ha ha, guess what, you just told yourself. Which, if you think about it, you do a lot. You probably just did it again. Now I’m doing it.
So it’s all about the sharing. It’s cooperation. It’s communication. It’s something that has intrinsic and discrete meaning for both parties. The meaning might actually be different, but the object itself is the same, the token is shared and we’re both operating off of the same general principle, and when I say potato you know I mean potato. The semantic definition of the item results in a shared look across the room and a subtle change in expression when someone mentions tequila and you and your best friend simultaneously remember the night you passed out on each other in the laundry room in a pile of vomit.
There’s more information in a secret message than just the message. There’s a sender, a receiver, and a payload. The payload is what everyone thinks is the meaty stuff, but the sender and receiver are extremely important, too.
The secret isn’t the secret, the secret is the sharing.
And since the sharing is so integral to the process, the secret is actually the combination of the sender, the receiver, the payload, and the emergent semantic meanings associated with that cooperative system.
In the tequila metaphor, the sender and receiver are interchangeable and not actually sending or receiving much to or from each other: they’re being triggered by a payload, offered by a third party, which only has semantic meaning to the “sender” and “receiver.”
And that’s why human relationships are so tricky. Because you and the person you’re dating aren’t two people, you’re at minimum three: you, them, and the combination of you and them. And then there’s you and them vs. you, and you and them vs. them, and you vs. you, and them vs. them, and them vs. you and them, and turtles. Turtles all the way down.
These are discrete social forces, discrete semantic meanings, discrete senders and receivers of various payloads. The parts are practically interchangeable in this example, what’s important is the interaction. The cooperative system.
If I send an email message to someone, in that email message, the headers reveal that I’m the one who sent it and they’re the one to whom it was sent. And on their end, when it’s received, it’ll say that they’re the one who received it and I’m the one who sent it.
I need to send a message to someone, but I can’t reveal who they are or where they are. How do I send it?
Easy. Send it to everyone. Numbers stations, spam email, you name it, if you see it then it probably has some manner of semantic meaning to someone else that it doesn’t have to you. This is how advertising works, and it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface: the effect an advertisement had on the person sitting next to you and their response to it, intentionally communicated through conversation or sent through unconscious non-verbal cues, can change the way the advertisement affected you. Turtles again, all the way down. It propagates.
Abstraction again. We need it. This is precisely why we need it. Because if we were aware of all the stones and ripples and people around us – and that the people around us aren’t anything like the people we’re forced to decide they are – then we’d go crazy. And a lot of people do from time to time. Sometimes it leads to things like being depressed on a Friday night and ending up staring at a bunch of short, cycling animated images of faces you don’t recognize with a couple that you do and a bunch of lines of text which you presume they’ve probably written.
So there I am, and these people are having a conversation, and I don’t even know what it’s about. But I say hello, and pretty soon we’re sharing jokes and I’m meeting people and we’re sharing music and talking about aspirations and ideas we have and projects we’re working on and sharing stories and encouraging, helping one another with various things, offering advice and recommendation.
And by pretty soon I mean more or less instantaneously. Because that’s the secret of cooperative systems: the right people need to hit the right people at the right time or it doesn’t click. But it could at any time, because first impressions happen every day. We’re flexible, and epiphany is always around the corner.
And my horrible, horrible weekend turned into one of the most positive early mornings that I can recall, with strangers on the internet who aren’t strangers at all. People came and went and were accepted freely and easily on each individual occasion. Information aggregated but didn’t affect expectation. The ephemeral nature of the method of communication lent every individual moment of interaction its own semantic meaning, and they don’t necessarily need to be assembled together or in order to have impact.
Expectation dynamics are ruinous.
A long time ago it occurred to me that people should marry each other as soon as they feel that “click,” because then everything that comes along becomes an opportunity instead of an obligation. “The fence is broken.” “Well, I’m a carpenter.” “Oh, hey, how handy.” instead of, “The fence is broken. Go fix it, you’re a carpenter.”
That kind of difference in expectation is a huge difference. Huge. Insurmountable, sometimes. And aggregated expectations create situations which we can’t unravel ourselves from. We become aware of the turtles, and we keep adding to the stack.
Let’s talk about cryptography.
A quick and dirty explanation of public-key cryptography is that you have two giant numbers which are related to each other in some repeatable fashion and you share one of them with everyone and keep the other one private.
So I know my private number, and you know your private number, and we both share our public numbers with each other. What this means is that, because I know both my public AND my private number, and they’re mathematically linked, and both of your numbers are also mathematically linked, when you send me a message which is linked between your PRIVATE key and my PUBLIC key, I’m able to read it with my PRIVATE key linked to your PUBLIC key.
Which is a concept I’ve already expounded upon repeatedly in this post: Sender, receiver, payload, semantic meaning. They’re all in the system.
Public key cryptography is one of the most widely used encryption methods used, period, and you use it every day. Checking your email, performing credit card transactions, calling your buddy in Malaysia. You can more or less bet absolutely that somewhere in there there’s some public key cryptography taking place.
And it happens every day in the meat world, too. I know I’m Marc, you know you’re you. But what Marc means to me and what you mean to you aren’t what I get when you tell me you’re you, and aren’t what you get when I tell you I’m Marc. We’ve shared our public keys – our names, our appearances, our dialects, our intonations, whatever – and included a payload – “How are you today? <request>” “I’m fine <response>” – and used our own private keys, our understandings of ourselves, to interpret it into a semantic, understandable message.
You tell me you’re fine, I’m reading it through my view of the world. Maybe I feel like shit and I said I was fine, so now when you say you’re fine I’m thinking maybe you feel like shit too. Or maybe I feel great and I don’t question that you said you’re fine.
One of the things that allows public key cryptography to be reliable is that those big numbers don’t change.
You can’t rely on people not to change.
Facebook and Twitter are really big things. We can include Google+ in this too, if you like – interesting side note: BGP, which is essentially the protocol that makes the internet work, is a hell of a lot like Google+ – but the idea is pretty much the same. These are places where you can communicate to a whole lot of people at once a specific thing that you want to share. A picture of your family vacation, your collection of plush animals stabbed with pens, a video of three pieces of bread falling off of a high shelf.
You’re selecting the content which is presented and it’s being delivered to any number of people who can disregard it or interact with it at their leisure. If they don’t care about it, they don’t respond to it. If they do care, they respond. Positively or negatively.
Negative responses, well, it’s really easy to become hostile very quickly on the internet when you can’t read a person’s intent while they’re writing this heartfelt explanation of how important badgers are to them and the fact that you’ve posted a picture of a stuffed animal in the form of a badger stabbed with a really nice hand-made pen (inlaid with blue stone) insults them terribly.
Because if you could see my joking face you’d be like, “asshole,” and punch me in the arm. But since it’s the internet you flare up and tell me it’s your right to stab animals as you see fit and you didn’t hurt anyone in doing it and it’s your property so you can do what you want, and why don’t you fuck off you liberal moron.
That escalated quickly. I’d better rethink my plush-stabbing tendencies. Or maybe just defriend that person.
Who then posts this passive-aggressive gem: “SOME people are just so intolerant…” on their Facebook.
I don’t see it, because I defriended them because they’re a jerk about my stabbing.
The point is, and this is well-known by just about everyone, that social media – or at least the emergent form of it – isn’t generally very social. It’s either an echo chamber or a place for an argument or a muttered “meh” which flits off into the rest of your day like dust from your eyelash, never to be seen again. Until you need it. Until its semiotic meaning pays off.
Social media helps us turn everything anyone says into dirt.
“Well, you posted in 1999 that you hated ligers, and I like ligers now and my friend is a zoologist who works with ligers.”
That time you got drunk with your best friend in the laundry room is going to be with you forever, but it’s the semantic meaning that you’re keeping, not the blatant fact of it. Not just the payload, but the entire cooperative system.
When I dig up that post about ligers, all I’m doing is recalling the payload, and now I’m presenting it with my own semantic analysis which applies to right now.
First impressions should happen every day.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that real life doesn’t work like that: real life totally works like that and we’re always gathering dirt on everyone we know because we know that someday it’s going to pay off. But there’s a difference between remembering that time when I loaned you ten bucks and seeing it posted on Facebook or Twitter. The difference is that I can’t go back through a neatly-organized list of reasons to hate you, I have to filter it through my own memory and my own semantic interpretation first.
I can’t just call up a fact at whim and then generate a new, now-relevant semantic interpretation about it. I have to filter it first, through myself, instead of this reliable third-party who keeps everything and knows everything and to which everyone is held as standard.
Let’s talk about ephemeral communication.
I’m paraphrasing a friend here: 1:1 choice-driven communication is a dead end for cooperation and growth.
Early Friday morning, when it was really bad, I looked through my list of friends on Facebook, and in my phone, and on Google Hangouts, and so on. And I thought really hard about reaching out to any of them with all of my aggregated semantic knowledge about them stacking up and I reached a thing called analysis paralysis, or choice paralysis. It’s also called overthinking, and it leads to things like not talking to anyone and laying in bed staring at your phone all night without actually doing anything, and wishing you could just fall asleep so then you won’t have to live with this for a few hours.
I guess you could call instant messaging or IRC ephemeral communication. Except you can click on the log button and save it all as much as you want. Every client makes this really easy. It’s handy when you’re working with people on something, or you want to remember that really cool link someone sent you about ligers, or when you really wanna dig up dirt to sock it to that asshole who told that jokey metaphor about Stephen the rat that offended your tender sensibilities.
So, no. That’s not very ephemeral at all.
Internet chat is usually permanent.
Snapchat is really popular right now. I didn’t think much of it when it came out. My thought at the time was that we didn’t need another instant messaging or video chat platform, and that it was stupid that it deletes it because why would you want to delete it, and you can use internet tricks to save it anyway (which people do, by the way, and they’ll always do it so just accept it and move on) so why bother.
But that isn’t the real problem. It falls into the dilemma of 1:1 choice-driven communication and perpetuates analysis paralysis and echo chambers.
Which means it isn’t actually anything new on the internet. It’s still a little box where you talk to people you already know about things you either already share or already know the other person will like.
Chemistry grows when learning together.
This is the difference between using a service which lets you “chat with your friends” and one which forces you to interact with different people that you would never have interacted with before. Online dating is broken because you get to choose from a list of people who match your carefully-refined favorite traits. That couple who’ve been married for twenty years who work in entirely different industries who accidentally bumped into each other at a bar in Reno – dude, that’s a movie plot. We no longer consider that sort of thing to be real.
But it happens every day. It happens every day to you all the time. Every single moment you are glancing off of every other person around you in every way possible through your sensorium and all it takes is for both of you to be the right people and it to be the right moment. And a lot of the time that doesn’t happen.
I can guarantee you it’s not likely to happen on Facebook or Snapchat or Twitter. Sure, it does sometimes – one of the people in meatspace was someone I’d interacted with tangentially on Facebook whom I already knew I appreciated. But you typically only add someone on a social media site if you’ve already interacted with them outside of that site. Which means the site isn’t really opening any new doors for you socially.
And then you take a medium like meatspace.
Let’s talk about meatspace chat.
It’s a website with a bunch of looping, short gifs of webcams on one side, and things that the people in the gifs probably wrote on the other side. There’s scrollback, but pretty quickly the messages scroll off and you can’t get back to them.
When I tell you something I get to see your response to it. You lift a glass, you wave a hand. You smile. You make a disgusted face.
So how is this different from video chat? Why is it different from chatroulette?
Because you don’t have to sit there watching me not do anything for the thirty seconds between the things we say. Because you don’t have to listen to me sneezing.
Because the only things we’re offering to each other are tiny moments of half-intentional, half-accidental, ephemeral chemistry with little to no threat of retribution or lasting impact. Yeah, I’ll carry that moment with me, but it’s gonna be my semantic moment, not the one on Livejournal about ligers.
You kinda have to be there to be there.
Friday night I made a bunch of new friends whom I’d get drunk with in the laundry room with no hesitation. I’ve made more since then. I’ll keep making more.
This is what’s missing from the internet and we need to explore it further. We need to find the meat in the metal. I’ve got some ideas.
I’ll bet you do too.
Let’s meatspace about them sometime.