Between us sits the grand mediator. We are increasingly talking with one another, maintaining and initiating friendships, even relationships through the grand mediator that is the Internet. As we continue to utilize the grand mediator in an ever more pervasive manner, we are inevitably bringing more of the subtleties of human interaction into cyber space. Internet-mediated conversations are filling up with expressivity and emotionality conveyed by the most ancient and powerful emoticon of all: our faces.
Now we can talk with anyone instantly, but conveying ourselves accurately without our best tool is difficult if not impossible. So much of conversation is sub textual layers conveyed by our original emoticons. Yet a video call is often not a possibility, or would indeed be a nuisance, and fully realized expressive 3D avatars do not yet exist. We need a way to bring more nuances to digital engagement within limited bandwidth constraints and without causing a drag on time demanded per engagement. So we have set about fixing the problem through a misunderstood trend: selfies.
I think people who bemoan the trend are missing what selfies are being used for at their core. Beyond the surface layer of vanity they function as instantly created avatar surrogates allowing us to more meaningfully insert ourselves into the cyber world. More than mere pictures; combined with the Internet, they’re a way to send yourself somewhere else, and in turn receive someone else.
Selfies are just a means to an end, a momentary digitization of yourself and your context that you add to the data pool and exchange with others. Selfies in the networked world are about fixing the communications gap by filling in an emotional and expressive component. No static avatar image or emoticon can truly convey what your individual face can express, so instead you digitize yourself to show others.
We see the selfie as a tool most notably with apps like Snapchat that are indicative of the broader trend often called the ‘Alive Web.’ Snapchat can be like hanging out with a friend anywhere on Earth, all the time. “Look over there at that thing!” they send in visual form, and you say, “wow what a cool thing, here’s my expression which is unique and maybe funny too,” and send them your avatar. This can apply not just to platonic friends, but also initiations of potential relationships. When meeting a special someone in the physical world, many people spend a great deal of time beforehand prepping their faces and practicing the interaction itself. Now they also spend time preparing to ensure optimal digitization.
Usage of selfies enables a richer form of the kind of quick bite interaction that thrives in the networked world. They fill a specific niche in the growing gradient of interaction modalities and further enable our capacity to interface in ever-more precise ways.
In the digitally mediated space, we are utilizing the vast arrays of channels at our disposal to craft hierarchies of engagement that we apply to daily interactions.
A snapchat has a different ‘weight’ than a text, which has a different ‘weight’ than a phone call, which has a different ‘weight’ than a video call. These channels then become a way for one to specifically codify and prioritize the interactive aspect of any given relationship. What begins with an exchanged selfie could morph into texting, which could morph into a video call, which could even morph into a physical world encounter, something that itself now carries a special ‘weight.’
Giving someone access to your more prioritized channels of communication is then a sign of interest and respect, a semi-tacit social cue that the person has risen in importance to you and merits a new channel. We see this notably in apps like Tinder where a guarded connection with certain preset assumptions is made in the space of the app, tested out, then given opportunities to expand depending on the results. In this way one can hold others at bay and place them in functional groups, granting them access to higher-priority channels as the relationship evolves.
Selfies are just a response to a missing capability, a tool to further facilitate networked social interaction. Better tools are coming, they always are. As our existence is increasingly enveloped in and mediated by the network, we are finding clever ways to bring the nuance of our humanity with us. Yet our conceptions of relationships and even the nature of the self will invariably adapt as we journey ever deeper into networked existence.
In the physical world we already create finely managed gradients of self-representation. How you are with your friends is different than how you are with your significant other is different than how you are with your parents. This extends to behavior, appearance and even content of discussion. We have always been creating many versions of ourselves, but currently our digital networks are broken into discrete pieces. This can lead to larger amplifications of the differences between constructed personalities. The myriad channels now let us create exponentially many different versions of our self; they let us find niches of expression that may have never had a space to exist before.
With the cyber and the physical increasingly interwoven and equally ‘real’ in practical terms, how will people define themselves? I may think a cyber version of myself is who I really am; after all it may have many thousands of more friends than my physical version. Is my cyber representation of myself still myself or is it something different? Is it something more, or less?
I contend that as we continue to merge cyber and physical into one functional hybrid reality, the distinction between cyber and physical representations of ourselves–traditionally thought of as ‘fake’ and ‘real’ respectively–will evaporate as well. Instead there will simply be many ‘versions’ of a given individual that are appropriate for myriad different social situations.
This has profound implications for our broader society as individuals are increasingly empowered to act as curators of their reality and gatekeepers to overall experience. Some feel using the grand mediator is making us more isolated, some feel it is making us more connected. I think our usage is making us some measure of both: able and willing to connect with anyone instantly, but often in very controlled and psychologically comfortable ways.
For those concerned that something is being lost in the transition to a networked existence I would ask that you consider what is being gained. Never before has humanity been this interconnected. We have always longed for connection and now it is ubiquitous. Current technology has its set of sacrifices, but we are filling in the gaps. As we utilize the grand mediator in an ever more pervasive manner, we will continue to bring our humanity with us.
Our network connections will grow in strength and nuance until some day soon we will cross a threshold. Soon our networked presence will be as nuanced as our physical. Soon we will have the ability to send a meaningful majority of our individual perception and our individual self anywhere on Earth at any moment.
The grand mediator’s role is becoming so pervasive that its visible status of mediator is ebbing away. It is becoming thoroughly transparent in practice. Through better technology and clever usage the Internet will transcend beyond something we connect to in order to connect with each other, and become just us connecting with each other.
Selfies represent a stepping-stone along our grand path, a new tool for our humanity to express itself through the grand mediator. Better tools are coming, they always are.
- John Hanacek
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