Social Context

It was peer pressure. My gateway drug — the Internet. More precisely, email — that electronic conduit whereby I received numerous invitations to join Facebook.

For weeks I resisted. But I began to feel anti-social, the more I held the invitations at bay. And I like to work a room. Why not virtually?

.....
According to comScore, an Internet market research firm, Facebook is the leading social networking site based on monthly unique visitors, having overtaken main competitor MySpace in April 2008. comScore reports that Facebook attracted 132.1 million unique visitors in June 2008, compared to MySpace, which attracted 117.6 million.

How individuals use and interact with Facebook is a matter of personality; philosophy; online persona; technical proficiency and personal notions of privacy. For the voyeur, the News Feeds and Status Updates (two Facebook features) make observing the actions, opinions, thoughts and emotions of one’s “friends” as accessible as fireworks on the fourth of July — provided you’ve been “friended” adequately.

Like fireworks, some news feeds and status updates leave more of an impression than others. The looming query on Facebook: “What are you doing right now?” When the medium was new to me, the question was an affront to my sense of privacy. Why advertise the minutiae of my life to my “friends”?

It is fair to ask: Why the careful placement of quotations around friend in the context of an essay about Facebook? A few reasons:

I cannot count on every one of my Facebook “friends” to care about what I post.
Confidentiality on Facebook is an oxymoron.
Some of the people I’ve “friended” I know remotely (in the case of one person — she was recommended by a college friend).
Some of my “friends” are relatives.

I’ve spurned a few individuals; recently, to protect myself from a certifiable weirdo — made all the more convincing by a crass message he sent to my Facebook inbox. Michael Jackson, it seems, has some competition.

To date, I’ve ignored two “friend” requests. For me, having “friends” in common is not a good enough reason to add an individual to my Facebook “friendship” network. No matter how good-looking they may be.

Despite my best urging, some of my Facebook “friends” have opted not to post a profile picture. What’s in a face? Apparently, not nearly enough.

Recently, I changed my relationship status from “In a relationship” to “Engaged.” The congratulations I received on Facebook were plentiful — a boost to my sense of how things should be irrespective of sexual preference.

“Friendships” require work. Facebook is no exception. Keeping up, maintaining one’s online persona demands a willingness to interact in imaginative, representational, nostalgic and political (depending) ways. The snowball wars I’ve been participating in lately are one example. They are all but political. Otherwise, calling upon the imagination (real snow falls from the sky), snowball images (representation) and childhood memories (nostalgia) of urban snowball fights where I fought back, despite the odds (two-handed snowballs are easier to form).

A registered Independent for many years, having no allegiance to one particular political party, my Facebook profile reflects this. Many of my “friends” identify as left or left of left. What can I do? Politics is a pendulum.

One group I joined recently is Lexicon which aggregates and analyzes millions of Facebook Wall posts every day to provide a searchable database of trends over time. Too Big Brother for some I suppose but the anthropological possibilities resonate with me.

Meanwhile, this just in:

Betsy is “channeling Marilyn Monroe.”

The Veteran Within

“Welcome back,” said the black man dressed in fatigues. He was standing on the corner of Nostrand and Atlantic, a few doors down from my apartment building in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

I was returning from the grocery store laden with bags in my left hand and bags in my right hook when our eyes met. I did a quick linguistic calculation — he was welcoming me back from Iraq.


***
It was not the first time I have been mistaken for someone who has served in the military. Considering that since the Global War on Terrorism began, more than 800 men and women have returned home without arms or legs, thanks in part to modern body armor (which saves lives that would in earlier wars have been lost), it is not surprising my upper extremity amputee status is linked to military service.

The black man, I’ve come to discover is Ed, a veteran of Vietnam, receiving monthly disability checks for his service in the Army.

The corner of Nostrand and Atlantic is his spare change perch.

I offer Ed conversation, not money.

I explain to Ed that had things been different, had I not been born an amputee, I would have given serious thought to enlisting. “Back in high school, the Army attempted to recruit me, “I tell Ed. “I took an exam and scored well enough that they began calling my house.”

In the end, my mother made it clear that I would never have been able to pass the physical. “Stop calling, you don’t want her” is how my mother put it to the recruiter on the phone.

Recently, I initiated a conversation with Marine Staff Sergeant Richard Velazquez at the U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station, located, strangely enough, in the heart of Manhattan’s theatre district. I wanted to explore the military’s current policy on admitting men and women with disabilities.

“Only if the disability can be corrected,” Staff Sergeant Velazquez informed me. “Then I guess the Marines don’t want someone like me!” I exclaimed. “I’m sorry,” he said, fixing his eyes briefly on my prosthetic.

“What if I’m already serving and I lose a limb — what then?” I ask. “There is one guy I know of who lost both legs below the knee and he’s on active duty.” Staff Sergeant Velazquez reports, with a kind of optimism in his voice.

I didn’t walk away empty-handed. I now possess a Marine Corp bumper sticker: Semper Fi it says (in school bus yellow). Latin for: Always Faithful.

“I’m a fan of the Marines,” I assert to Sergeant Velazquez; justifying my possession of the bumper sticker.

As our conversation concluded, Sergeant Velazquez offered me his business card. Three words figure prominently on it: Honor. Courage. Commitment — three qualities required to be a Marine. Sergeant Velazquez exudes these concepts; these ideals.

I can claim 43 years worth of amputee civilian life.

What, you may ask has tested my ability to soldier on?

Curiosity.

“What happened to your arm?” is the perennial question.

And the stares — eyes cast in one direction for far too long.

The stares, to some degree, are self-induced. I could get an I-limb, the latest in robotic hand technology [http://www.touchbionics.com]. The I-Limb has the look of a hand enabling the user to move fingers and control grip while freeing the amputee of the harness system which accompanies the conventional hook apparatus.

But I’m an old-fashioned prosthetics sort of gal.

And I think the steel hook holds a certain sex appeal.

Whatever one’s choice; a conventional hook or an I-Limb, it is a fact that veterans maintain an advantage. They have a war story, something to pin their pride on. I do not. Mine is a tale of normalcy. I was born. End of story. No heroics.

I have found that humor has been the most effective strategy against the relentless curiosity of people: “I was scuba-diving in Bali and I came upon a family of sharks.” Or, “I got hungry one day and I ate it.” These are some of the tales I’ve told — tales that have evoked gasps of “Really! Did that really happen?”

“Go to law school,” a cane-assisted, stout, bald, Navy veteran of the second World War said while sitting beside me as I traveled by train from Manhattan into Brooklyn. “Otherwise, the VA will screw you,” he added, pounding his cane for emphasis.

I wondered what the VA (Veterans Administration) would have to say about this man’s counsel and observations. So I emailed them and received a response within 48 hours: “Based on your inquiry, it appears that the veteran may have had an unfortunate experience when dealing with the VA and we regret that he has developed that perception.”

Regret is such a downer.

In the summer of 1984, I was a member of the United States team at the International Games for the Disabled. Some of my teammates were amputees; veterans of Korea and Vietnam — men proud to have served; proud of their physical difference. I think of them sometimes, especially on Veteran’s Day; a day dedicated to taking time out to reflect on our nation’s warriors — wounded or otherwise.

It is my hope those for whom the Global War on Terrorism has demanded the body’s sacrifice are and remain proud. But be mindful that the everyday aesthetic is not in their favor.

That is why I am so at home among ancient ruins. For it is there, among the women and men with severed hands and arms that I am able to escape.

©2008 Julie Holley

The Acquisition of Identity

I like to get it right. You name it: a relationship, a belief, a cause, a hunch, a story, and today, in this world of computer-based reality; my online identity.

An online identity is an online social identity that Internet users establish in online communities and websites.

Before the Internet (when paper was my journalistic default) I used a pseudonym. Why? I wanted to accomplish a gender-blind effect. It also shielded me from stalkers.

But blogging has made me bold. Today, the more “real” I am the better.

***
Accurately presenting who I am, putting forth the facts, is essential in my mind — genuineness, authenticity, truthfulness — the underbelly of online capital — these are the jewels in my digital crown.

LinkedIn, a social networking site for the business set relies on the willingness of their more than 29 million users to accurately post online identities. Work experience, its scope and scale is just one of the data sets gathered amongst LinkedIn’s participants.

Not long after LinkedIn made their Internet splash, I set up a LinkedIn profile, putting forth a work summary which I believed was accurate.

“If you do not completely remove or accurately revise your profile, I will begin taking appropriate steps with LinkedIn” read a recent email. It was from the Director of an organization where I once volunteered my professional services.

The work had no relation to my core online identity — that of a journalist committed to reporting and commenting on technology. Nonetheless, I chose to include the work in my LinkedIn profile. Since the organization’s central mission had figured so prominently in my life history and mirrored values I held so dear, not including it seemed wrong.

As a condition to access LinkedIn, there is a User Agreement whereby one of the stated obligations of the user is to “provide accurate information.” But what of hyperbole — those Al Gore instances (“I took the initiative in creating the Internet”) some claim (especially on a resume/work synopsis)?

Was I a participant of hyperbole?

“We hope that users will not post inappropriate or false content,” says LinkedIn’s PR Manager, Krista Canfield. “However, if you notice that someone has created a fake or inappropriate profile, you can visit their profile and flag their profile. The profile will immediately come down and our customer service representatives then review the situation.”

“Let's say someone "flags" my profile. I get contacted by customer service and defend my profile as accurate and true. What happens then?” I ask. “Customer service deals with those on a case-by-case basis listens to both sides of the story and then resolves it in a way that works fairly for both parties,” Krista explains.

“Hold your own, and know your name, and go your own way - everything will be fine,” sings Jason Mraz on his 2008 album: We sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.

Yes, everything will be fine.

I stand behind my name, my truth, my online path.

And I’ve got a good lawyer.

©2008 Julie Holley

Social Butterfly

Conventional wisdom holds that you can tell a great deal about a person by who their friends are. My Facebook posse is proof.

Since becoming a participant in what has become one of the most popular social networking sites (SNSs) on the Web; a cadre of people — men, women for whom my life has mattered, or who have mattered to me, are accessible in an instant — at the click of a mouse.

I am a keystroke away from my friendship tree.

Facebook has its draw backs. When I think of the possibilities of computer science, the thought of immersive experiences is the thing that turns my crank. Virtual reality, as if worlds, have always rocked my world. I look forward to their maturation.

But apart from this Facebook shortcoming, Facebook’s features lull the user into a sense of responsibility, history, accountability and community; even, sometimes, acts of random kindness.

My posse frequently sends me what I call “thought gestures” — virtual plants for instance which, remind me of our threatened ozone layer.

At first, I didn’t get it. I’m more inclined toward actual gardens. They smell good —As opposed to a virtual greenhouse of succulents.

The past arrives at your door on Facebook.

People find you.

They look for you.

. . . It’s as easy as the alphabet.

Whether you let them in; those for whom time has shaped but not severed the spine of friendship, is up to you. At this writing, I anticipate a meeting with two previously out of touch high school friends. The three of us became women, apart. But our memories bind us. Kim K. contacted me. She asked if I remembered pulling her hair in class (I sat behind her).

I did remember.

Spell the name Julie Holley on Facebook and get 18 possibilities. From California to Australia; 18 women who might be inspired to answer this question: What’s in a name?

“Don’t put out there what you don’t want your mother to read,” is how Brian Tietje, sales manager at LinkedIn (another SNS) put it at a panel discussion sponsored by the Barnard Business and Professional Network on Wednesday, September 24, two days after One Web Day [http://onewebday.org].

I thought of my mother, looked around, straightened up in my chair and smiled, knowing that my mother has served, (since launching my journalism career) as a kind of censor.

She is 80 but she gets computers. I am well aware of the kind of surveillance I am under. Rather, of its possibility.

One Facebook feature I like is called “blocking.” If you “block” someone they will not be able to search for you, see your profile, or contact you on Facebook. “Any ties you currently have with this person will be broken (friendship connections, relationships, etc),” says Facebook’s fine print when one chooses to block. Blocking is a kind of electronic martial art; a technique for those who don’t want to be in touch.

MIT Media Lab professor Judith Donath has done substantive work in the area of SNSs. She writes in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication: “SNSs provide a new way to organize and navigate an egocentric social network. Are they a fad, briefly popular but ultimately useless? Or are they harbingers of a new and more powerful social world, where the ability to maintain an immense network — a social “supernet” —fundamentally changes the scale of human society?”

[http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/donath.html]

The Palo Alto-based California company knows the world is its oyster.

It is available in 22 languages. That’s a lot of mother tongue.

© 2008 Julie Holley

Our Inheritence

CD(s), the sons and daughters of Eric Clapton, Lucinda Williams, Billy Joel, Annie Lennox, Sinatra, Horowitz, Radiohead, Chang, Streisand, Chopin (all of whom I recommend) are better looking than their vinyl counterparts. Their sheen does the merengue to vinyl.

Some long for a vinyl comeback. Vinyl delivers a more authentic sound. Vinyl is warmer, richer, its faithful argue.

. . . And so the beckoning of what was spins.

A world without crackles, skips, scratches, thumps is one I relish, savor and devour. Digitized commands and comforts enrich my symphonies, ballads, scores and remakes.

For me, the availability of CD(s) are a welcome acoustic advance. The technology is boss.

I wouldn’t give up any of the vinyl I have though. Some of it brings Sylvia Plath to my ears. Between 1958 and 1962, Plath was recorded at the Poetry Room at the Harvard College Library and at the BBC. Her record is titled: Sylvia Plath Reading Her Poetry — Boring, but accurate.

I thank the deities of vinyl, the architects of that primitive conduit of sound because I have more than Plath’s genius on page; I have a voice with the poetry.

Plath’s life preceded mine, making a handshake, a friendship impossible. But she has served as a kind of metronome ever since I discovered her in a thing called a book; assisting me with what is authentic, and what is surely not.

I am privileged to know that I can remove her from her record jacket, lay her down and spin her distilled brilliance onto the loom of my soul.

Three months before she devised her own death, Plath said in an interview with Peter Orr: “I think that the personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut box and sort of mirror-looking narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant and relevant to the larger things — the bigger things. . . ”

Enter, iTunes — an Internet cataclysm giving birth to a digital rights revolution and online music economy whose market muscle was revealed at the 2008 Macworld Conference & Expo: Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that the iTunes Store had sold over 4 billion songs.

Jobs’ assertion brings to mind these words by Plath:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth
Our foot’s in the door

© 2008 Julie Holley

Generation Internet

In the Northeastern hills of Pennsylvania, Southwest of the Catskill Mountains, 3-leaf clover grows in abundance. I know about the clover because growing up, in the summer, I would walk, often barefoot upon it. It was a privilege, of coming from a family who discovered some lakefront land, negotiated a price, bought the land, built a home, and have, ever since, enjoyed the refuge, the peace of Long Lake.

When I return to Long Lake, as I did for a recent weekend, I indulge in the remoteness of the place from the perspective of someone tethered to the digital world. I bring my laptop.


I especially enjoy sitting on the red picnic table my father built which sits on the enclosed porch overlooking Long Lake. It’s good for the soul; looking out, being lulled by the serenity of the water’s surface. The view helps with the flow of words — that sometime hazard encountered when language is your means of conjuring meaning.

My computer was up-front with me. Immediately, when I powered up and my desktop icons appeared, I was informed that my wireless connection was unavailable — A reminder that I was disconnected from the speed and pulse of my DSL connection, the telecommunications protocol that provides near instantaneous access to the global interchange that is the World Wide Web.

At first, I didn’t mind. It was enough that Microsoft Word was operational. All I needed was my electronic tablet; a place to store the words that came to me as I looked out at Long Lake.

Then I got the urge to Google.

It was the direct fallout of a conversation I had had with my mother and her two sisters. The girls (as my mother calls her sisters) are my only two surviving aunts from a cadre of 10 on my mother’s side. Including my mother, the three are a generational trio. Each woman is chock-full of memories, stories and anecdotes of lifetimes spent living through decades of war, technological revolution, political upheaval and revolt.

One of the reasons I enjoy spending time with them is because I am able to quiz them on history. I get to pepper them with questions having to do with the generations claimed by things like the economic magnitude of the Depression, the advent and use of communication devices like television, a Hollywood less explicit, a social contract more binding.

Taken individually, they are: Veronica, 78, Millie, 81, Kay, 86.

Each woman occupies a unique place along the spectrum of opinion concerning our digital world. Veronica, my mother, is wired. She’s connected at home. She’s connected at work. In her leisure time she enjoys playing Mah Jong on her laptop. Millie, is curious about learning how to email, has observed, with displeasure, the computer habits of her 13 year-old grandson and refers to computers as toys. Kay, prefers print to computers, cooking to cyberspace and believes that the Internet is the perfect predatory environment for pederasts.

“You’re a curious person Aunt Kay. Why aren’t you interested in learning about the World Wide Web?” I asked, while the four of us sat talking as the day drew to its close and the night sky began to rest upon Long Lake. “I have other interests,” Aunt Kay said. “I’m a reader. I’d rather read a book.”

“My friend Evelyn uses the computer to play cards with people all over the world!” Aunt Millie exclaimed. “But if I’m going to play cards I want to play at a table where I can see the people I’m playing with.”

When I returned from my most recent excursion to Long Lake, there was a message on my 5.8 GHz Digital Answering System. It was from an 87 year-old friend of mine, a United States Navy World War 2 veteran. I returned the call and asked a question: “Irwin, do you have a computer?” “My son has been on my neck to get a computer for the longest time,” he said.

“You know there are websites for veterans,” I marketed to Irwin. “Oh yeah,” he said, disinterested. “Let me tell you something, I have a television with rabbit ears that gives me four channels. That’s enough,” Irwin explained. “What I don’t understand, Irwin, is how you can be a fan of an invention like the record player (he owns 500 LP(s)) and not be the least bit interested in an invention like the Internet!” “A record player is simple,” he said. “You put on a record, move the needle to where you want it and listen. It’s not as elaborate as computers.”

“But don’t you ever wonder about things?” I asked Irwin, getting ready to launch into one of my proselytizing arguments about the informational reservoir that is the World Wide Web. “At my age you wonder about all kinds of things but nothing that keeps me up at night,” Irwin said.

My mother, a world traveler, recently returned from a European excursion that took her, among many places to Mainz, Germany. It was in Mainz where Johann Gutenberg mass-produced the Bible in 1456. In keeping with her tradition of sending word from her trips, my mother sent me a postcard from Mainz with an illustration of Gutenberg’s printing press. The postcard serves as a reminder of the potent possibilities of technological ingenuity. After all, some historians credit Gutenberg with bringing about the Reformation.

Analogous to Gutenberg’s invention is the early nineties creation of HTML (hypertext markup language) used to create web pages. Tim Berners-Lee and Vinton Cerf worked in concert designing and developing the protocols and structure of what has become the Internet — Two men with imaginations that spawned revolutions in commerce, banking, journalism, medicine, law and government to name just a few.

The rippling effects of HTML — like a stone thrown upon the water.

© 2006 Julie Holley

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