We Live in Public, but it’s more complicated than that

I had the pleasure of seeing We Live in Public the other night, Ondi TImoner’s well-done and well-received follow-up to DiG!. It follows the life of Josh Harris, a guy you’d think us web series enthusiasts would know more about, considering he founded the very first web TV station, Pseudo, using a lot of money from dot.com investors. He was obsessed with the idea of the then-burgeoning internet as the beginning of a surveillance culture, and used a lot of his money to experiment on artists like himself, seeing what would happen if subjected to an extended period inside a planned community where surveillance was law. The results were some cool, if at times inhuman, experiments that radically altered the lives of the people who took part in them (Harris included).

Where the film lost me is when it tried to link Harris’s prognostications about the future of the internet with where we are today, or where we’re headed. On the one hand, today’s level of connectedness definitely implies surveillance of sorts – I can almost tell you every time John Mayer farts, and I’ve never been happier than when I stopped listing myself as “single” on Facebook so I could stop being served ads for porn. It is anxiety-inducing how much people can find out about us on the web. But on the other hand, one thing I learned while studying social media in school: it’s much more complicated than all that.

True, there are people out there who take this whole thing to a massive extreme, and resemble the WE LIVE IN PUBLIC experiment a little too much. But who is the average user? The average user learns over time to have much more of a two-way conversation with their virtual and actual selves. As big a rush as it may be to see that you have over 1,000 Facebook friends, or 200 Twitter followers who actually show interest in what you’re doing, or a WoW guild to whom you feel closer than your actual friends, actuality is still lurking behind you, waiting to come back and remind you that it’s not all that easy. That’s what happened to Harris.

But how does this affect the children, who are just discovering what actual reality is? There’s definitely more chance than ever for people growing up with social media to retreat into dark corners and live online, and more chance for people to really endanger themselves because of things we put online. And there is no doubt that kids today (and I include myself) are mediated, forming nostalgic memories about Gilligan’s Island before they can start pining for the good ol’ days when they could just wear a diaper. But I then ask: so what? Is all that really going to severely affect a person’s emotional development any more than, say, your first real fight with your best friend? The jury is still out on that one.

I’d argue that we now have a virtual social development runs in tandem with our reality-based one (and I doubt I’m the first to do so). Both are important parts of growing up in the 21st Century, and both shape the person we end up being. And determining a healthy interaction between the two is important as well.

Which leads me to my point. Avoiding any problems related to virtual social development and privacy protection is as simple as introducing good, thoughtful media education in schools. I’m talking elementary schools. You learn how to interpret text from age 7 or so – by that time most kids have been online and using interactive media for…7 years. And I don’t think I need to argue that it’s just as easy to manipulate through computer as though the pen, just as easy to create stories and experiences that need interpretation whether you’re writing AHWOSG or creating a MySpace profile.

Media education would benefit web TV producers too. Imagine having a huge audience that is trained to interpret what you do in the same way they are trained to interpret what I’m writing. It would completely change the game. We wouldn’t have to have these conversations anymore. This blog wouldn’t exist.

So go see We Live In Public, because it’s a great film that will get you talking about these issues with the people around you. They are issues that need to be discussed, and aren’t enough.

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