The Digital Playground

We’re supposed to be playing games. We’re not. We’re starting a fight.

People argue and the rhythm beats against my skull. They toss ideas back and forth like a game of catch with a ball that’s easy to throw but difficult to throw back. The more that people argue, the less they mean and the more they attack one another.

I want to do something fun. That’s why I’m here—why we’re all here—to begin with. We’re supposed to learn through play. Instead, the back and forth of confrontation sails overhead, competitive, taunting, and demeaning. I put my hands against my temples, waiting for the ball, following along—annoyed but still attentive:

“I’m just sayin’.”

Someone yells, tossing the ball across the room.

I’m just sayin’!”

Louder, throwing with more force.

I’m just sayin’.”

It’s falls to the ground and someone picks it back up.

The ball passes in front of me, way above my blood pressure, making me tense. I’m not sure how to play when people fight. I’m a bigger fan of dialogue, where everyone plays along. When people contribute easily, included in the game—connecting with others as they share ideas, suspending assumptions. Playing fair and, for the most part, playing nice.

This is not that. This is people fighting over a ball…

Catch.

“But students aren’t that smart. They want things to be easy and they don’t want…”

Toss.

Catch.

“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? Really, I mean you can’t honestly believe…”

Toss.

Catch.

“You can’t say that! That’s not necessarily true! Studies show that people don’t care…”

Toss.

Classes like this are ruined from the start by too many personalities pulling in every direction. Discussion is disruptive; dialogue is meaningful; but here learning is reduced to miscommunication. Though no one’s in charge, no one takes turns because everyone has something to say. And someone always gets left out.

In dialogue, when one person wins, everyone wins.

That’s just the way that it goes. I hate being the person who’s unsure if they’ll get to play. I make others know that I’m not going away. I assert my presence and take a firm stand. I struggle for attention among strong egos. The need to be hears comes before good ideas and competition trumps decorum. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m abrasive—that I get animated when I feel threatened. Motivated by malice and cursing under my breath, I look for ways to break the rules and stay involved, get my words in edgewise and find a way to throw the ball.

I get loud and speak out of turn. I interrupt just to digress. My chest is tight from my heart to my neck, suffocated with ambition, the empathy strangled out of my words. Hot with anger I hold my breath, biting my tongue in half at the sour taste as the room gets heated.

I realize that I’ve had it all wrong: This isn’t play; this is people fighting with guns

I grip my desk to control the expressions on my face. Someone takes a shot at me, pulling me into the fight. Thrust into the open, I’m mocked by a person who’s got a way with words—criticism with a real need to be “right.” On guard, I pull back, holstering hasty ideas, taking my finger off the trigger, thinking about escape and there’s bedlam in my mind, generating thoughts too raw to express, harboring words in steady production as I prepare to draw. It’s only a matter of time before things get loud and ugly and I don’t want to miss the point when I get my chance take my shot. Animosity is churned into gunpowder, held back with bated breath and the smallest spark of excitement is explosive enough set me off.

People draw and fire, the room filled with smoke—hot air pouring from the barrel of their tongues. Others take cover, taking shots at each other, not sure where their words will land. Good ideas are slaughtered and threads of conversation murdered—maimed into assertions with no conclusion or point. A few people throw out terms in a desperate measure of defense, hurling boulder-sized words like “agency” and “autoethnography,” struggling to get a grip on what they mean as they fight to survive. They kick up dust with forcible gestures, echoing no one but themselves in the absence of wisdom and commonsense.

“I can’t believe that you think this is a…”

Bang.

“You have no clue what it’s like to teach a class with a…”

Bang.

“How can you say that knowing that people don’t…”

Bang.

“That’s unbelievable! I don’t know where you get this kind of…”

Bang.

My vocal chords shake, ringing shots out like bullets, shattering broken silences with hammering arrogance, bigger and meaner than others. A shotgun loaded with aggression, blasting away, spraying everyone, everywhere, all at once, silencing the crowd, commanding attention in rapid fire, pumping out shot after shot.

“What you’re saying doesn’t actually mean anything! You haven’t said a thing this entire time! You just keep talking, over and over, repeating yourself, filling the air with noise…”

BANG. BANG… BANG.

Pairs of eyes left blinking, targeting me with uncomfortable glares, holding their ground but not firing until the smoke clears. I stare back, queer and awkward—exposed but steady and my voice reverberates in my mind, filling a moment of sudden silence as a small stream of smoke sneaks up my side. I see that I’ve missed the target. I see that I’ve shot myself.

Sigh.

For a moment, there’s silence and then calamity ensues again. Conversation buried in the sarcasm of some new untenable game. Balls fly and guns blaze, but I pay them no mind. I opt out and disengage, shut-off by the imaginary world I’m forced to inhabit in a class that’s gone wrong. It’s not a game worth playing or a fight worth fighting—not on this playground, anyway—and not with these kids.

There are other ways to learn and have fun.

I abandon the group to go off on my own, resigned to keep my thoughts undisclosed. Staying quiet, I notice a few others doing the same.

This is people playing alone, together

Sliding open my computer I close my mouth. A gust of air-conditioned air cools my face and bits of imagination fill the room. My attention shifts into the virtual ether as I focus online, soothing interactions that don’t provoke humiliation.

My fingers do the talking, translating angst into social commentary. I climb over rungs of posts. I perch atop wifi bars, connecting networks of discussion in a jungle-gym of information. I peer through the glass of my screen, sanguine as others argue and fight. I reflect on my thoughts and respond at my discretion, productive as I communicate with distantly intimate others, learning to play on my own.

I open Twitter to observe the class-feed—our back channel of the discussion. I check lists of followers, scroll through posts, tweeting once every few minutes. There’s affirmation in the network; it explodes with creativity—forming scores of information that swing by my mind. I monkey around with others online, retweeting interesting links as I go, playing follow the leader as we all climb back to where we started.

On Facebook, my newsfeed rolls and I explore the slow churn of “conversation.” Others keep pace from the far reaches of my network and classmates make room for each other as they voice their opinions. They’re see-saw encounters, falling silent in-the-flesh while speaking up out of body, finding a way to collaborate and even smile.

I post comments that I overhear from the argument still going, using classmates’ words in puns and metaphors. I’m the captain of a ship that sails through cyberspace, passing by computer screens—windows into the very classroom setting on every desk. Quiet jeers of delight keep us moving as oblivious classmates walk the plank. Status updates and newsfeeds wash over them, drowning their cynicism in virtual presence. Other typed voices chime in, playfully layering intelligent anecdotes with humorous quips, cheering me on. Together we’re a crew and a therapeutic subtext, escaping a mutual dissatisfaction in the creative commons of our own devices.

Voices fade into the distance as I ascend deeper into the blue and alabaster of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, finding footing in complex thoughts, pounding out responses on my keyboard in a field of text. I swing between applications, more invloved and emphatic, each time curling my feet behind my chair and pushing myself to new heights of participation. Tweets and retweets, posts and likes, all accumulate in affinity. Digital ideas re-place verbal accusations and typed enunciations elicit response. Fresh thoughts infuse with new discoveries, engaged in intellectual contention, swinging in tandem, building a cognitive surplus of trust, feeding ambient generousity that adds value to reality—freed from the bondage of the classroom, surrendered to the digital playground.

The same people are talking but fewer are listening, and everyone’s more engaged with themselves. I can see fingers moving, smirks on faces with heads bent as they type and press and drag their ideas across a screen, exploring new worlds in parallel play, meeting others they’ve never given a chance any other way. They play on the equipment—finally unafraid to get along. Clicks and ticks welcome the sounds of silence.

Images from the past flash across my mind…

I’m in a desk, in 5th grade, staring out the window on sunny afternoon. The teacher talks about something I don’t understand, but the wind has got my attention. I don’t want to understand him so I tune it all out; I don’t want to pay attention as much as I want to play. I’m longing to be outside, where it’s warm and air is clear; where the wind blows leaves with the smell of cut grass, and ants gather under swing-sets flexing in a rhythm. Others kids fly off of monkey bars as they hit the ground running, laughing and pulling at each other. People toss a ball, seeing who can throw the hardest, impressed at how good they all are. Friends on seesaws bounce and giggle as cops and robbers run around by.

I wish the classroom was the playground, or the other way around—and I want to understand why that can’t happen.

Light floods through the window, casting networks of shadows on the floor. And there’s no need to fight, just good reasons to laugh. We play hide and seek, moving on and offline, together bringing the playground into the classroom and the classroom online. There’s so much more out in the digital wide open—so much more we can do together  because play is the deepest lesson that we can learn.

Creative Commons License
The Digital Playground by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

It’s all fun and Facebook until somebody shoots their “I” out

Damn you, Joseph Kony.

I swear, the man is everywhere. Except for Uganda.

Right now, there is a lot of fuss about Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign. I don’t want to discuss the particulars but I want to discuss friendship, values, and how we use Facebook.

A quick story:

I was de-friended on Facebook after a thick debate regarding the credibility of Joseph Kony propoganda. The argument came to blows once the conversation shifted from a contestation of opinions to a critique of values. Suggesting that my friend was drawing from poor sources, I questioned his judgment when I told him that his evidence was garbage and that he shouldn’t post things like that on my thread. Albeit much tamer than the “flaming” of yesterday’s Internet, the remark didn’t go over so well.

The next day, we were no longer friends.

I wanted to apologize. I searched everywhere, scouring the depths of Facebook. He was gone. No relationship page; no shared interests; no mutual friends; disappeared from members lists of mutually affiliated groups.

Poof.

I’ve never really noticed being de-friended before, so you can imagine that after 7 years of Facebooking, it came as a bit of a shock.

This person wasn’t just a Facebook friend. I would consider them a real friend—a person I’ve known for years, whose relationship I cherished. Like so many relationships that give-way to time and distance, we remained friends because of Facebook. We took advantage of the channel, kept it open and stayed connected. Without Facebook, the knot of our relationship would have come unraveled long ago. At least that’s the way I see it.

It was more than a “weak tie”— he was someone I respect and appreciated; a fraternity brother, a mentor, a person worth seeing again. But because our email addresses, cell phone numbers, and mailing addresses have most likely changed since we last saw each other, Facebook was the direct tether between us.

Since when did we start losing friends because of Facebook?

While I’m new to it, I know that it happens a lot to others. As people get more comfortable with digital communication, they become less aware that they’re playing with technologies of the self, fluid identity, slippery traditions, and social values. As danah boyd (2007) observes, social network sites give us the ability to “write [our]selves and [our] community into being” (p. 120) as we post and comment, friend and de-friend.

And it’s all fun and Facebook until somebody shoots their “I” out. Politics are especially challenging.

Theoretically, Facebook is complicated and paradoxical by nature. It is a utility for self-expression—what Clifford Geertz (1973) might call a venue for “serious play.” The type of communication that occurs isn’t just something done for fun and it’s no longer a novelty of youth culture. In the past few years, it’s become a significant arena for performances of all kinds, where “facework” is learned and done (Goffman, 1959), information is churned over until it becomes meaningful, and relationships are held in tension that sustain and maintain bonds (Baxter, 2006). Put another way, it’s an important place where life is lived and culture is formed.

Also, it’s not going away anytime soon.

The lesson that I learned from being de-friended is a lesson that all Facebookians might consider. What’s at stake when we’re so free to make connections wherever we see them is further weakening a tradition of social connection that’s been thinned by American individualism for some time (see Bellah et al., 1985). If we can choose to connect so easily, friending whomever, whilly-nilly, than we can choose to disconnect in the same way, without thinking about why we value friendships, what’s gained, and what’s lost. The very idea of friendship is cheapened when we fall in and out of relationships so easy.

The abstract, contingent, and discrete nature of reality in an increasingly digital world, which allows us to tinker with the meaning of social institutions, is something that Kevin Kelly (1994) describes in his book Out of Control. What he calls the “rising flow” (p. 404) is a wave of life that implicates each of us as architects of boundless, yet uncontrollable symbolic systems. We all cope in our own small ways with the inevitability of entropy by making sense of our lives through logic, reason, and the ordered coding of social construction.

The way we communicate with new media can lead to dismay, disarray, and isolation, not to mention desire, affinity and what some might call addiction. As individuals are caught up in the rising flow, they’re swamped under a sea of moral turmoil and ethical chaos, like surfers tumbling under a “sustainable crest always falling upon itself, forever in the state of almost-toppled” (p. 405). Communication turns ugly quick in a digital world. Kelly’s metaphor is one that forewarns the present, as de-friending becomes a practicable reality. Especially during times of high political tension, when movements like Kony 2012 come to the fore of Facebook newsfeeds and timelines, a wider sense of order can be shattered, logic and structure can be quickly abandoned, and conversations may end in easier dismissal. People begin to opt for disconnection when mis-information is too much to bear, and they vanish into the virtual ether.

As my friend posted before he dropped out of my network, “This is a subject that makes my blood boil, I have zero sense of humor, and very little patience on the subject, so I’m done. Do what your conscience tells you.”

I imagine that the crash of sensibility on Facebook is a reason why many choose not to use social media. Dissmissivness is a caveat of digital living, often framed as an unhealthy replacement for analogue communication (Turkle, 2011). While  replacement is hardly the right word—in fact, communication is hardly ever purely analogue or purely digital (Bateson, 1972)—Facebooking, like all mediums involves some sort of risk, some kind of uncertainty, and some degree of necessary vulnerability for it to be worthwhile. This sort of exchange value puts the “capital” in “social capital.”

Talk about politics in a public forum, risk losing a friend. Question a person’s intellectual integrity in front of others, you’ll probably get burned. Cite a phony source, take a chance of being called out. The safe way to cope with this system is to drop out of it all together. On Facebook, de-friending is just as good.

That’s not a reason to either abandon or blame Facebook. It’s a reason to be more aware of ourselves as digital beings. It’s a call for a new tradition that doesn’t value disconnection in the same way.

At least not disconnection at the drop of a hat.

The key to sensible communication in the digital age is to be careful with fragmentation. I value Facebook because it allows me to hold onto relationships. Some of those relationships have fallen quite dormant, true, but others have been lively all along. In fact, I can only think of 3 instances when I’ve de-friended anyone, ever. The ability to stay connected with desperate others, despite estrangement, is a technological privilege, not a right. As a privilege, we can recognize that negative perceptions, which frame digital communication as contributing to disquiet, concern, and (perhaps) pathology, lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. We’d benefit by keeping conversations going—even if others rub us the wrong way—so that channels remain open between differently minded people, keeping communicative possibilities open and available if necessary.

Maybe then we can ride the crest of the wave for just a little longer. Maybe experience the next paradigmatic sea-change, together.

If, as political beings who use global communication networks, we decide to abandon relationships in the face of cyberspace disagreement, than we reify David Bohm’s (1996) fear of a contemporary society where “people’s self interest and assumptions take over … against the best of intentions — they produce their own intentions” (p. 14). In this scenario, the world is more fragmented, and continues at the speed of Moore’s Law. The digital risk of Facebook friendship is that, one day, de-friending could become more common than friending. If this was to be the case, the value of friendship rests on the mere contingency of disconnecting from others.

To use a common metaphor, Facebook is a technology of the self and a matter of the heart. It’s a place where values are negotiated as logic is tested. When social media—and social media campaigns—become a reason to end relationships, we can say that our collective orientation to the social world, values and to “the good” has shifted.

We’re in need of a digital ethics—some sort of tradition of digital communication that allows it to flow freely, slows down the crashes, and keeps channels open. Without some sort of guide—some fault line drawn collectively between social good and social ill—friendship may start to be defined by de-friendship. If we want to hold on to the worthwhile moral sensibilities of the past, we have to put connection over disconnection. We have to work on establishing the fault line together.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed 150 years ago, the American sense of individualism threatens social disillusionment and despotism. As Bellah et al. (1985) argued about the American worldview over 25 years ago, “What we find hard to see is that it is the extreme fragmentation of the modern world that really threatens our individuation … our sense of dignity and autonomy” (p. 286). When being digital begins to retrain our habits, redefining friendship and blurring ethical boundaries, it becomes more and more crucial that we pay attention to the ways we relate—if, for no other reason, than to redraw the boundaries of our moral horizons, so that culture itself isn’t so “loosely bounded” in lieu of easy isolation.

Creative Commons License
PLE's It’s all fun and Facebook until somebody shoots their “I” out by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

Digital Being Free

When I was 12 years old, I was super-proud. I’d finally accomplished the one thing that my buddy John had yet to do. It took a month, a lot of diligence, and some trial and error, but I finally did it.

My Winamp playlist had reached 25 songs.

It was a big deal.

 No one else on the block had as much music as I did. John lived a few blocks away, and even him—a rich kid with a cable modem and 4 gig hard drive—had a poor working knowledge of music and lacked the patience to download a full playlist. In fact, he would download a song, listen to it a few times, and delete it because “it got old.” It wouldn’t be until years later that he would make mini-discs filled with music that would eventually scatter the backseat and trunk of his car. As a pre-teen, however, he was much too concerned with hiding porn from his mom on an ftp site than he was about building a music collection.

Back then, it was one medium at a time, a “pick your poison” style of consumption. Processors weren’t that great and a person worried about fires and literal machine meltdowns when music played in the background of games and other applications. I blew-up two computers before I was 18.

Regardless, my music collection was my claim to fame and I reveled in my collecting abilities compared to John. I prided myself on the knowledge I’d acquired about navigating share sites like Scour, AudioGalaxy, Morpheus and eventually Kazaa and Napster. I’d sit and play with MS Paint, search TuCows for wallpaper schemes, and work on developing the flashiest (and gaudiest) AngelFire site that I could. I basked in the family’s office, able to escape from the surveillance of my parents, learning the words to “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, “What Would You Say” by Dave Mathews Band, “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog, and anything by Primus as I flirted with classmates and stirred up gossip on AIM.

This was the digital world in which I was reared—a lifestyle enclave that I’m pretty sure any other 26-year-old, middle-class, technophile might describe. Being “on the computer” was a nightly activity that provided a sense of freedom and mobility away my parents, chores, and school work. Beyond the $10 a month “high-speed” cable plan that my parents paid every month as they gritted teeth and hung over my head, the web was free reign.

Music was free. Wallpapers were free. Access to John’s ftp site was free. Paying for anything was never even a thought. Why would this stuff on the Internet—which was pretty hard to locate and laborious to acquire—cost any money? To a 12 year old, money grows on tall trees out of reach, and the Internet was not for tall people. It was for people like me—short people; young people; free people. Like in Peter Pan, we were the lost boys—free to our own digital devices.

I learned to be a pirate at an early age, but I didn’t know that it was piracy. I thought it was surfing the web. At 12, legal realities are nothing but futurist fantasies. Semantic contagion soon took its form and I came to understand digital practice as rife with controversy.

Fast forward to college—to University networks with End User License Agreements that threatened to sue and sell your information whether you agreed or not; to stories of kids being hauled to jail for downloading music; to worries about child pornography on public networks; to suggestions from analysts on FOX news that Columbine happened because of Internet archives; to discourse about terrorists recruiting Americans for suicide bombings via Facebook; to Criagslist killers; to Megan Meyer’s cyberbullying suicide; to stolen identities; to politician and athlete Twitter scandals; to…

The list goes on and on.

In ten years, the Internet went from a free place to a dark place. I grew up. I learned about the law. I learned that artists liked to make money from their music and that, if it was good music, they were entitled to that money.

But I didn’t care. They could still play it live.

I kept on pirating. Kept on asking my cable guy how closely the company monitored downloads, slipping him a few bucks for faster service, under the table. I sought out and discovered sites like TVLinks, ISOHunt and The Pirate Bay, where I could find movies that weren’t yet released, download software that was well beyond my economic reach, and continue to build my music library until it touched the digital sky.

25 songs become 50 gigs worth of songs as bandwidth increased and download speeds soared. I thought I was doing something really rebellious, but when I asked around I found myself trailing behind the content collection leaders by far. In the world of digital pirates, I was practically the Swiss Family Robinson. Most had discovered bit-torrent long before I did and had exclusive access to sites like OiNK’s Pink Palace for every media longing their hearts desired.

I grew up at a time when cognitive surplus was welling up around personal computer consoles, where social and cultural capital was circulating at rates that were historically unmatched. I learned to be digital by being free. Much of the conceptual purchase-power of the early days of that culture—when the Internet was far from ubiquitous—stemmed from the non-monetary value of exchange. Digital practices like downloading music, scouring freeware, and surveying the depths of the “information super-highway” had value because they provided a certain freedom to the user, a way of “doing virtual” that was eventually redeveloped by venture capitalists and government officials, annexed by the corporation and the state.

What was incredibly important to an entire generation who grew up awed and emaciated with digital technologies in the house, easy enough to use, and interesting enough to be fun, became a battle ground for economic warfare and legal bargaining. Ironically, the more money I put into my digital devices now-a-days, the less I appreciate them or the experience they facilitate. Isn’t that funny?

Isn’t that sad. It’s like losing your digital innocence.

To me and my cohort, free culture had less to do with money and more to do with possibility. Music sharing and collecting used to be about possibility, and embedded in that digital practice was a not just a value, but a virtue that came to define the entire digital culture.

Music sharing was never really about not paying for music—that was just a perk realized fully once the generation came of age, got jobs, and witnessed the invention of the iPod. Music was a matter of prestige, a way to show that you had taste and knowledge bundled up in digital know-how. In the world we live in now, technology centered law creates a fertile ground for breeding guilt in youth who want to listen to music, share their wealth of artist knowledge, and learn how to express themselves through networked machines.

Music will never be their method for cultivating knowledge. Not like it was for my cohort. I was taught from the get-go that digital culture was non-commercial. Somewhere over time that changed entirely. Value was lost. But it might be coming back.

Lawrence Lessig (2004) makes a good point when he suggests that “competing with free” is a good thing because “the competition spurs the competitors to offer new and better products. This is precisely what the competitive market was to be about” (p. 302). What he could never have conceived before the advent of behemoth social network sites like Facebook, which reestablish the valance of social and cultural capital in exchange, was that free could be marketed and profited from itself in a network society.

Applications like Spotify have changed the game in ways that have only begun to be understood by most. Their business model, which exchanges free access to the world’s music (songs which are upload by individual users themselves) for subjection to advertising, shows that a free culture is still the richest culture that digital people have. It is hard to compete with free when it is done as well as Spotify has done it. In fact, you could say Spotify has changed the definition of free, so that it disbands from including monetary value in its reference at all.

Or maybe I’ve been brainwashed by all of the ads.

I guess that’s just the price you pay.

Creative Commons License
PLE's Digital Being Free by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.