A bigger picture

Like the majority of web surfers, I tend not to range freely over the ever-widening ocean of information that is the internet, but stick close to the familiar waters of a few favourite sites. A frequent port of call for me is the Onion AV Club. I like the way that its writers treat popular culture as something deserving serious consideration, without sliding into humourless pretentiousness. (And it also carries Savage Love, for my money the most consistently fascinating advice column out there).

It was a column in the AV Club that steered me towards this blog, written by a woman grappling with the complexities of being one partner in a polygamous relationship. It’s not as interesting as it sounds though, since the woman in question is not a real person, but a fictional character in the TV show Big Love. The blog entries themselves are a quite well-done pastiche of the sort of self-absorbed musing that all compulsive blog-readers will be familiar with, but what really gives the site verisimilitude are the replies left by visitors. I’d love to think that these comments are genuine, but I’m pretty sure that they’re made-up too. It’s all essentially indistinguishable from the real thing though, and illustrates how simple it is to create a false sense of familiarity in cyberspace.

There are plenty of other examples of characters taking on a life beyond the bounds of their fictional worlds of course, but this is usually driven by fans, and it feels a bit manipulative when it’s done by a big media corporation.

This case is fairly harmless though, compared with some of the fake blogging that’s around. Katie Couric’s video blog, for example, which was at the centre of a minor scandal a few months back, when it turned out that a touching personal story about Katie’s first library card had been lifted from a column in the Wall Street Journal. Personally I wasn’t too bothered by the plagiarism, nor by the barely-surprising revelation that Ms Couric doesn’t script her own journal entries, but delegates the task to a staffer. What does annoy me is the thinking behind the blog, the idea that, if we can be fooled into thinking that we have some sort of personal relationship with a complete stranger, we might be more prepared to believe that the stuff she is paid to read out on the TV is actually the truth, rather than sanitised corporate propaganda.

For the connected citizen in the technologically advanced world, the amount of social interaction that takes place in cyberspace is increasing at at accelerating pace. This is especially true of the communication that mediates the multiple relationships between individuals, the institutions of civil society, and the state. There are many positive aspects of this, not least the widening of the concept of community beyond traditional geographical and cultural boundaries. How can we be sure of the integrity of this communication though? How do we know that our emotions are not being subtly manipulated, by state or corporate interests, for their own ends?

It could be argued that anyone who has grown up watching TV – that is practically everyone in the developed world under the age of 60 – should be able to tell the difference between a real personal connection and the fake sincerity of a newsreader, but I think that underestimates the extent to which the internet as a medium of communication can replicate the experience of true intimacy. Even the most cyber-aware of us haven’t really had the chance to develop the psychological tools that would let us judge how much we can trust our own feelings when it comes to online interaction, and most of the time we don’t even think about it, or are at best only dimly aware of the possibility that our reactions may be unreliable.

I don’t know if studying cyber-interaction at an individual level will answer any of the broader questions about how society and politics are being affected by the changes in patterns of social communication that are developing as we live more of our lives online, and how we should react to those changes, but it seems as good a place to start as any. Self-knowledge can only help us fulfil our responsibility to be vigilant cyber-citizens.

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