Watson Essay 2

Digital Expression:

Changing the Face of Communication, Collaboration, and Connection

I fell in love with the web a long time ago. It entered my bloodstream like a virus, took root, and changed my life forever.

Throughout the course, it has been established that Web 2.0 technologies have become essential to interpersonal correspondence and information retrieval; accordingly, it is understood that these integral components facilitate the universal connectedness that has become a necessary aspect of societal life. However, as the modes of communication and interaction continue to change, personal expression and the way we represent ourselves publicly is also transforming. Accessibility and exposure are prerequisites to inclusion in the digital age and, with the cessation of isolation, the notions of secrecy and privacy have all but disappeared.

The vastness of online communities is staggering; user modified sites range from ridiculously specific (forums for vegan, artistic expression) to open-ended (MySpace), but all of them offer a means of personal expression, representation, and exposure. The concept of “sharing” information is not simply accepted, it has become overbearingly expected; and as individuals explore the avenues of digital expression, the nature of the material offered becomes progressively more intimate.

Websites such as www.digitalexpressions.nu, whose sole purpose is to display individual’s personal diaries, have taken blogging to the next level. At this particular site, membership is required for full access but random entries are indiscriminately listed on the main page and offer people’s most intimate thoughts to the world. Scanning through the list, you are confronted with topics spanning adultery, sex, and suicide only to see that, one entry down, someone thought it was necessary to describe exactly what they ate for dinner, while the following user has offered a detailed explanation of their perception of Spongebob Squarepants.

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Details once considered too “privileged” to share interpersonally are now posted in globally visible forums. Internet users have become so comfortable with this sense of exposure that uploading damagingly personal information or incriminating photographs no longer provokes concern for permanence or consequence. Conversely, while some choose to offer delicate, telling personal information, there are many who choose to do just the opposite, displaying only the aspects of themselves that will depict the image they wish to portray.

In class, it was continuously repeated that, online, we can be whatever we choose to be. More specifically, people are able to make themselves appear smarter, skinnier, sexier, more intelligent, and more articulate as a result of being able to “edit” their image before displaying themselves the world. This mentality exemplifies one of the ways personal expression has evolved as a result of digitization. Because we are able to present a “clean copy” of ourselves, the likelihood of exposing our faults, idiosyncrasies, and quirks decreases. Thus, the only information available to our “friends” is what we choose to publish, and the outside world is only truly exposed to the cosmetically altered representations we have elected to offer. Ultimately, then, the question becomes: if our colleagues, friends, and lovers are only offered pieces of the picture through web 2.0 technologies, does digital expression become a less authentic mode of communication and association?

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A highly offered example of such digital representation and expression is, of course, the infamous Facebook. Today, Facebook continues to be a forum for communication and networking, complete with picture profiles, “about me” sections, and even a status bar enabling users to keep the world updated as to their whereabouts and current emotional states. However, at the time of it’s’ conception, it was specifically designed for – and restricted to – college students. Remembering back to (gasp!) the summer before my freshman year in 2005, I had to officially register with the university before I could create my profile, as the system required a “.edu” email address. Only five years later, Facebook has grown so vastly in size and popularity that anyone is now able to join. Seemingly a result of the ever-developing web 2.0 craze, this expansion illustrates another way in which online communities affect how we communicate and express ourselves by introducing the notion of digital standards and acceptability.

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While many online forums are open to all demographics, it is quite obvious that certain communities are not necessarily all-inclusive. There is an “exclusionary nature to the communities that cropped up around weblogs. It's perfectly natural, of course, for people with like interests to congregate. But it seems that the weblog communities circled its wagons almost immediately.” As with literal social settings, we choose which categories of people to associate with and which types of people to exclude or, more accurately, “deny.” The difference between literal and virtual rejection is that digitization has made refusing a request for friendship or ignoring an attempt at interaction as simple as clicking a button or scanning past a post. Similarly, once a cyber social standard has been defined, it becomes just as awkward when those barriers of acceptability are breached as it would be in a literal situation. Imagine, for a moment, you are in a bar, drinking with your college friends; suddenly, a slightly intoxicated, middle-aged stranger approaches and attempts to infiltrate your conversation. We’ve all been there; momentary silence engulfs the circle before some uncomfortable attempt to extricate the stranger is made. Social standards are accepted, and a violation of those standards is uncomfortable; it is the same in digital communities. When parents started joining Facebook, there was a period of inaction stemming from shock before most younger members began taking barring precautions (privatizing profiles, blocking status visibility, etc.). Without such safeguards, Facebook would no longer have allowed the freedom of expression that it’s favored for. Ironically, issues such as these show that we still value our privacy. In spite of the fact that we are completely at ease displaying personal information in an open forum, we continue to desire the power to choose which strangers or friends are privy to that information. Thus, such standards of acceptability are technologically progressive but maintain some level of traditional social values.

In this way, digital expression has become an extension to society; rules and regulations still apply, but the rules and norms have changed – and continue to change. It could be argued that our digital candidness and over-expression continues to increase as a result of the magnitude of other users who are just as, if not more, outspoken than we are. We draw our “inspiration from the cacophony of personal voices [we] find online.” The age of cyberculture itself instigates sharing, constant exposure, and uninterrupted connectedness by showing us daily that we cannot stay informed, or even function efficiently, if we are not invariably linked to the world around us. Cell phones, laptops, pagers, and e-mail, among other things, all offer us modes of collaboration. As time progresses, smart-phones and mini notebook computers make it more feasible (if not more necessary) to be able to connect anywhere, at any time, and with any one. As Shirky implies in “Here Comes Everybody,” as technology becomes increasingly intertwined with daily life, we are decreasingly aware of our consumption, causing our comfort levels to skyrocket, and subconsciously encouraging us to totally immerse ourselves in the trend of digital expression.

Derek Powazek refers to the internet as “the mother-load of personal expression – the one place in our lives that we can say whatever we want about anything we want. [It is] digital democracy.” This mentality is inherent in our generation, but as technology continues to advance and using technology becomes more of a requirement than a luxury, other generations begin to conform to it as well. So much so that internet users are now creating forums to speak to the past (Presumably, this is more applicable to older age groups because, as yet, our generation has less of a past to appeal to.). Not only have we adopted online mediums as modes of expression for our current realities and conditions, but we are now branching out to include the expressions we failed to articulate before digitization provided the setting.

In 2009, a website called “The Things You Would Have Said” was formed to facilitate precisely this kind of retrospective expression. Initially, the premise seemed a little ridiculous; however, as I delved deeper, what I found was an entire site dedicated to expression and healing. These individuals offer their regrets to the world through heart-wrenching and exceedingly personal letters – many of which are dedicated to departed loved ones who never had a chance to receive the dialog. It may seem childish, but utilizing this public forum allows these historic pains to be heard and, as they are acknowledged by strangers, the writers find absolution. Despite the fact that I stumbled across the website almost a month ago, one letter refuses to fade from memory: a would-be mother’s words to her aborted child. In this letter, the woman explains all her reasons for having the abortion, agonizingly apologizes for giving up, and expresses the love that captivated her in spite of her decision and has refused to leave her ever since. The heartbreak and regret is apparent, but one hopes that voicing the emotion has led to healing; and, if it has, it places yet another striking emphasis on the role of digital expression in society today. One internet writer credited online communities by saying, “Sure, they’re full of links. They’re also full of lives. These are real people, putting their lives online.” The Things You Would Have Said offers a pertinent example of this very notion. Among all the clutter, it’s our histories that we’re embedding; it’s our lives that we’re allowing users to comment on, scrutinize, and fill in. These days, in this time, it’s our very selves that we’re laying out behind the computer screens. And that’s become nothing if not normal.

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Internet blogs, online communities, and open forums are a “revolution in personal expression and community” coded within “the robotic, scrolling headlines;” and just as it has been with revolutions throughout history, we’re living our lives in it. Change is inevitable in everything – but, with technology, modification exemplifies the very nature of the digital age. No technology stays unchanged for long but, because it is user modified and instantaneously updated, this is especially true of the internet. We are an entire society augmenting these changes; every time we log on, post, comment, “add,” “deny,” or delete – we are expressing an opinion and making some contribution to the growth of the digitized community by participating within society’s accepted parameters. “Innovation comes from people who do things a little differently,” and we are currently exploring a new age of expression in which every step is a new development, and every separation from traditional norms can be considered innovation. “And anyone who forgets that and clings to narrow-minded ideologies will take their rightful place in a forgotten history.” Like the future of web 2.0 technologies, the future of digital expression is indeterminable because the book is still being written. Each time we place a piece of ourselves online, with every click, and with every variant form of expression, we add another chapter.


Sources Cited

http://powazek.com/wtf/

http://www.digitalexpressions.nu/

http://news.opb.org/article/6933-website-gives-digital-expression-unspoken-final-thoughts/

http://wouldhavesaid.com/

http://facebook.com/

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