the changing professional conversation: fragmentation, chaffing, and ephemera

Recently both Meredith Farkas and, in response, Roy Tennant have commented on the changing professional conversation — the difficulty of keeping it up with it all (Twitter and Facebook and Google+, oh my!) and the fragmentation of conversations, and selves, across all these spaces. One of the questions they both raise is, what if we lose something?

We monitor so much information across these sites. It sticks in some quiet corner of our heads where it emerges a month later, relevant to something, and then we wonder, where did we find it, and our search tools are not up to the task, and it’s frustrating.

And we are fragmented. There are bits of self here, there, everywhere. Lots of people want more federation, a way to unify identities across sites, a way to stream content from lots of places into one interface, to make it easier to keep track of and keep up with. What if we lose something?

I am more concerned with another question: what if we don’t?

danah boyd talks about digital chaffing, staying active online so that the new stuff that represents you drowns out the old, so that when people search for you they see you today. I’ve been online since 1991 and I would certainly rather people find the me of today when they search. I find it helpful that bits of my teenage identity can be lost, or at least obscured: that in being me today I don’t have to grapple simultaneously with being me in 1991, that my audience can interact with me now and other bits can be quietly lost. I trust the teenagers of today would find it handy, as they apply for college or jobs, that their youthful indiscretions and experiments with identity could be quietly lost — but they, unlike me in 1991, live in the post-Google era and don’t have that option.

Or, at least, they don’t have that option in a world of federation, a world which via code and norms drives people toward having the same identity on every site. Bits of me can be quietly lost to public view while remaining available to the communities where they matter because I tack hard away from federation. You want to know why I care so much that pseudonymity matters: this is a big part of why.

What happens if things aren’t lost? What happens if you, today, are presumed to equally own every viewpoint you have ever held, and expected to equally defend them? What if you are presumed to have precisely the level of knowledge, or wisdom, or skill, or maturity you had in 2010 — and 2001 — and 1991, because nothing is ever lost? What happens if you must stand by every bit of ephemera, every trial balloon, every joke and piece of sarcasm, everything that plays right to one audience when you’re talking to another, because nothing is ever lost? What happens when you have to carry, always, all the weight of everyone you’ve ever been, and it might spring up at you from any corner at any time, without warning? How do you become the next person you’re going to be?

Even our cells wither and die and turn over. It’s okay if our information does too. Ephemera can be ephemera. It’s okay. It’s better.

2 thoughts on “the changing professional conversation: fragmentation, chaffing, and ephemera

  1. I think there are competing interests here. It’s better for me if my stuff is fragmented, for all the reasons you lay out so clearly. (I am with Bruce Schneier in thinking that data is going to be — is already — a major pollution problem.)

    But conversely, it’s also better for me if *your* stuff isn’t fragmented. If I want to keep track of all the things and people I really care about, it’s much less taxing if there’s a one-stop shop for that. A diversified Andromeda (&c) is good for you but bad for me.

    I think you’re right, though, that it’s better to adapt to a world in which we frequently miss things than it is to engineer a world in which we can’t. For one thing, the urge NOT to miss things drives up my blood pressure and keeps me from using my time in more productive ways — life would be better, saner, without this urge. I think social norms have to allow for this, too. It’s not good if you assume that anyone you come in contact with is mainlining the same info sources that you are. (One of the annoying things about politics is the way you basically have to be to participate in the conversations that everyone else is having.) Thankfully I think it is already a faux pas to assume that your friends live for your personal Facebook status feed. As the info world gets more and more fragmented, and it becomes less and less possible to know it all, other social norms should adjust similarly. (I wonder what social premium there will be, in that world, on being the one to say “Haven’t you heard?” — will it lose its cache if everyone is always, for some things, the first to know?)


    1. The good for me/bad for you point is well taken. I wonder if that’s part of why we feel so frazzled with too much internet — not just that there’s so much information, but we feel the pressures of keeping up with others’ expectations of our information consumption; their voices clamor louder than our own.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s