social media meta stuff

one word.

i think a lot about branding. not in the skeevy marketing sense where i wonder if you’d buy more chicken nuggets if just the right charming cartoon chicken came along to sing the praises of eating her, piece by tiny form-pressed piece. for me, branding is just walking around with clothes on, the bits of yourself you project and trail around behind you. it’s what people think of when they think of you. it’s a conversation you contribute to but don’t control. but i believe it’s a conversation you should BE in.

hence this post. at BlissdomCanada, the closing keynote asked us all, what one word describes you? what’s your presence in the world?

i’m up to my ears in the theory and practice of personal branding and digital identities every day, these days. i’m doing a Ph.D in this stuff. and yet. and yet.

i still couldn’t do it. i couldn’t tell you in a single word what it is i am and am trying to do out here.

i hate definitions. i rail against pinning myself like a science fair butterfly when i am, of course, a unique snowflake, ever-evolving (TM). i thought about it, saw tweets and posts with the #oneword tag and wondered if i had a word and then slapped myself and stuck my head back down into the hell that is my quantitative statistics paper.

unruly thing kept poking up. because i’m writing – or trying to write, starting to write – about the idea of digital identities, and the ways in which being online changes how we interact with the world and see ourselves. this is the story i want to tell. my own. yours.

it occurred to me that knowing my own damn word might be important. might even be aspirational, in a sense. because hell, i’m doing something every time i post, or tweet, or hold a SeaMonkey funeral, or cut off that lady at the supermarket. maybe if i found a word i could live with, it could serve as a little talisman; a stone to keep in my metaphorical pocket. a sightline to where i’m trying to go, as a mother, a grownup, a thinker, a human being.

tonight i figured it out.

my one word is witness.

i’m not going to show up at your door to tell you about Jesus. and i hope not to be spirited away in a possibly fictional protection program for people who see what they shouldn’t.

but what i’m here for is the not looking away. giving voice. nodding to the margins and the complexities and the silliness and the sorrow and the big ideas and the hope that someday, somewhere, it will all matter. trying to figure it all out, especially the stuff our culture likes to sweep under the carpet. dead babies and unwieldy educational theory both, plus the tantrums that occur in between.

this is my life, and my digital identity. this is my branded self.

i’d like to do a better job of it all, really. this is my reminder to myself to keep trying.

do you have a talisman in your pocket? a one word, or two, or seven, that you hold onto to try to make sense of what you’re doing online, or off?

the plane guts and dips, sailing in through the headwinds like a drunk girl in unfamiliar heels.

i am in the twelfth row, the hind end of a glorified sardine can. out the rounded rectangle of my window, the earth lurches toward us at strange angles. my stomach tries to grab hold of something solid. my seat vibrates. i note the world carved into patchwork squares below and remember the flight path is over my house.

it is only the gunning roar of the engines that frightens me.

three feet over the runway, we coast like a glider, suspended. an engine sounds its barbaric yawp and i believe for a moment that we will rise again, a phoenix tracing loop-dee-loops against the gray sky. then a wobble, and my eyes wait for the spark and explosion of wing against asphalt.

the perfect metaphor for coming home.

after flying, landing is hard.

i spoke at Blissdom Canada: our panel was a big, glorious Kleenex ad. we told stories, and then so did the audience, and they took over in a groundswell. there’s good going on out here in real, individual lives. there was weeping and rejoicing and really, it was better than Christmas. less cleanup.

i watched half my Twitter stream come to life: words made flesh. i sat with people. i touched my hands to your faces, some of you. i heard you laugh. i watched you walk and take up space. i watched your eyes dart about for somewhere to hide.

and i realize now, the story i should have told: everyone is made of secrets.

i heard more secrets in two days in person than i’ve been privy to in years online.

i keep reading that we bloggers spill our guts for breakfast, that we are narcissists, attention whores.  the cruellest volley ever fired in the war between objective truth and pluralism was not that stories don’t count, but that those who tell them must be pathological.

they’re wrong.

we are all soft in the middle, somewhere. yeh, even you with the abs. but you know that. we all have broken places, hurts. we’ve all done terrible or wonderful things in the dark, at least once. we’re too old now to deny it. most of us have had things happen that we didn’t deserve. there’s no point in shame, but it’s damn hard to unlearn.

we hold our closest stories to our vests until we see the whites of your eyes. we only tell in the flesh.

maybe we’re making a mistake.

we give our secrets too much power. especially when we live our lives in the glare of the internet: we release 98% of ourselves into the wild and hold back the lumpy bumpy 2% as if it were the Real Thing and we risk making it the Real Thing by treating it like a royal flush to be played when the stakes are highest.

i landed back in my own living room like Dorothy catapulted from a sleepless tornado of polyester and blond wigs, and the grind of housework and deadlines and two children who can’t seem to share the same space without talking at once landed on me like landfill. and i stared at Dave across the expanse of our couch wondering if there was anything about me he didn’t already know and if my real secret is that i’m dull and mundane and a stress monkey who’s actually 98% lumpy bumpy bits. and then i ranted for awhile.

a little bit of freedom is a dangerous weapon.

the truth about secrets, of course, is there are only so many. we live in bodies. they are vulnerable and beautiful. and we are petty and kind, clannish and magnanimous. we are not our secrets, nor just the sum of the parts we share. i knew this when i sat with you. i need to remember, when i sit with myself.

me. not me. mileage may vary.

Kate took more pictures of me in Toronto than i’ve been in since i had kids. to the self sitting here on my couch in dirty jeans, they are the secret, the hidden life. they are also only a story, a thin veneer. they are a promise of next time, and a nod that says, i see you, in your jeans and crumbs and deadlines and pretend secrets.

i wobble like the plane, landing, then coast back into my life.

he was eighteen. it was his second week of freshman year at a good university.

you’ve probably seen the story. Tyler Clementi‘s roommate set up a webcam in their dorm room that could be operated remotely, then livecast and tweeted Tyler’s sexual encounter with another guy. three days later Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge and drowned himself.

diminishment. shaming. the logic of dominance, our cultural hierachy of thought where one side of any societal binary – masculine/feminine, white/non-white, straight/gay, rational/emotional  – is legitimated in its power over the other, whatever Other it may be.

we exist in a social world, and sometimes we’re able to carve out spaces where we think we’re safe to be whoever we want or need to be. and then somebody else decides – out of discomfort, on a lark, to flex muscle or gain attention…nothing so different from all the little dehumanizations we perform on each other every day – to re-educate us about how the world really works and which kind of body or desire or way of being counts as legitimate, as Normal.

to invalidate whatever safe space we’ve created by taking the social power that the logic of dominance affords, and using it against us.

you will never feel safe so long as you’re subject to that logic, that operation of power over you. if you’re lucky, there is respite, retrenchment with those of your own kind, whatever that kind may be: the ones who make YOU feel normal, and valid, and deserving of human decency. hopefully reclamation of your right to respect.

but if that logic of dominance sneaks into your bedroom at night and broadcasts you at your most vulnerable, most exposed; if it treats your privacy a spectacle worthy of shame,  you might decide you’ll never feel safe again.

four weeks from today, i’ll be in Toronto at Blissdom Canada 2010, contributing to a panel called Blogging for Social Action, Community, and Empowerment: The Beauty of the Butterfly Effect. the good in social media. the advocacy and change that it makes possible. the beauty of this world out here created by a million – a billion? – hands.

until last week, my only real anxiety about it all was that part of my role on the panel is to talk about the creation and birth of Glow in the Woods, and i envisioned an audience expecting the lovely Kate – who is on a different panel – throwing squishy tomatoes at me. (that, and Erica Ehm. ERICA EHM is leading my panel. when i was 14, i wanted to BE Erica Ehm. eep.)

lately i’ve been grappling with some bigger doubts.

first there was the young woman in BC whose gang rape went viral on Facebook. then, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in the New Yorker stating The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, or that we’re all just armchair activists out here in social media land, frothing over with our expressions of “like” for good causes without putting any money where our mouths are, or doing much at all to effect real change.

in class, in a mostly-fascinating discussion over 20th-century thought from clever people who stand on the shoulders of giants: technology is bad, technology is reductive, technology is anti-humanist. it makes us nothing more than circuits for efficient information exchange.

i think i bleeped at that one, a cyborg afraid of being outed. but i wondered, too. Jesus. am i wrong?

then i came home last night and read about Tyler Clementi. and my heart cracked in two.

i don’t think we have the luxury of ignoring all this. not those of us invested and enmeshed in social media. these are not innocent tools we use, no matter how transformative or empowering they have been for us, no matter what safe spaces or advocacy or butterfly beauty they’ve made possible.

but. neither are the tools themselves cruel, or diminishing, or agents of the logic of dominance. unless they are used that way. they are just tools.

any story that tells you otherwise, whether it makes of them a mythology of salvation or a dystopia, is a lie.

social media amplifies all of our communicative powers, including the power to exclude and shame and victimize others, to gang up on them in masses and make them feel worthless and violated, or beyond the pale of belonging. it is just a tool, like a pen, except what we scrawl here is always public. what we scrawl here always has human effects and consequences.

i don’t know if Tyler Clementi’s roommate really, fully understood the scope of what he might be setting in motion, unleashing the brutality of the logic of dominance and shame out here in the amplified world. the power play behind his cruelty was a blatant smackdown of Tyler’s rights to respect and decency and equality, no matter the tools. had the roommate scrawled on the dorm room door with a pen the very same things he tweeted, he would likely have still caused terrible hurt, and probably uproar, and possibly incited danger to Tyler and his parter not from themselves but from others. but would Tyler have jumped from the bridge? or would he still have had – somewhere outside that dorm hall, or perhaps that campus – space for retreat and respite, for escape from the dehumanization and Othering?

with the amplification of voice that social media makes possible comes the amplification of the human effects that voice creates. and this is where i think Gladwell – and my learned colleagues and guides at the university, some of them – get it wrong.

yes, technology can be part of the modernist efficiency that diminishes all that cannot be represent in numbers and bottom lines; it can be a direct circuit that cuts out the warmth and messiness of human touch. but i live something far more than that. the idea of social media for good is more than a fairy tale wherein technology and Twitter make us all Cinderella. social media is revolutionary in that it creates a world where the struggling, messy, complex human self – the one the humanists are so afraid has been jettisoned forever by a Fordist, corporatist culture – has voice, on an unprecedented scale. and all of those voices have human effects.

some are ugly. some are tragic. some are life-changing in the most beautiful way possible. for me, the Internet has been a place to write myself into being after a loss that the so-called “real world” tends to silence, render unspeakable. social media brought me community, the company of my own kind, respite and resiliency in all the messiness of my sorrow and my survival.

those of us who speak for the good that technology & social media can do need to take ownership of its particular capacity for harm. there may be nothing more important to the education of the next generation than teaching kids that self-expression – whether it’s writing on a bathroom wall or on Twitter – has effects, and that those effects are what we live with, all of us, so long as we can bear them.

with social media technologies mostly banned from classrooms and curricula, that’s going to be hard.

the Revolution, if it comes, will not come from activists. it may come from those who still inhabit the Other Sides of the logic of dominance. or it may come in a quieter way, a change that is barely a revolution except in its core. one where in connecting with each other out here, we connect with our own humanity and that of others in ways that our modern society has made – til now – easier to just leave to the logic of dominance.

because it is only our humanity, not any tool under the sun, that will ever prevent another tragedy like that of Tyler Clementi.

i always wanted to be a Beat, a bohemian.

instead, suddenly i find myself  in the Business section of the bookstore, just an aisle over from Philosophy.

i hunker down, intent, studying the titles on the shelves with the rabid eyes of a shark looking to game the casino. i am giving myself a personal, experiential education in How To Maybe Write a Bestseller About Ideas and Social Media. go hard or go home, they say where i’m from.

i has me a literary agent.

i pinch myself.

all these years of dreaming of being discovered for my sizzling cool. instead, i stoop in the Business aisle, plotting the story of self as brand in the world of social media. a dissertation and a trade book. book first. with capital letters, cold hard ambition you can lay out on a table like a cadaver and dissect.

it is the story of how people with my artsy-fartsy prejudices and my humanities degrees and my bohemian posturings are – thanks to the way social media works – ending up in the Business section of the bookstore. it is also the story of how business itself is – for the same reasons inverted – becoming more literary and humanities-focused in its discourse and processes. the unholy marriage of never the twain shall meet, indeed.

it is, in the end, the story of the reputational and relational economy of the digital.

it is the story of brand as a personal rather than a corporate attribute; as a brave new world of identity. brand is not the sell, nor is it without soul. i LOVE this shit.

Allen Ginsberg, i think, would wink at me. or maybe hoist himself up on a soapbox and rail, soliloquize, erase me with the scope of his supermarket excursions. i bow to his shadow in either case, and smile.

i feel like Alice down the rabbit hole. you see that vial labelled Drink Me? hand it over.
i want help, though.

it’s a shameless kind of want, the same kind of shameless i always imagined would see me perched with my folk guitar outside some far-flung library strumming Dylan songs, the really long ones, with my guitar case with the embroidered Grateful Dead bears open for donations and a handwritten sign, If you Fear Change, leave it here. life takes you funny places.

instead i sit here in my hometown hoping you’ll tell me stories…yours. or those you think might resonate. i need a few case studies, poster children whose selves and brands i can explore and dissect.

i want to know, in these stories, about how the so-called real and the online self.  about how you and your virtual identity get along. i want to know if the lines between them have changed for you, over the time you’ve spent engaging online.

you don’t need to be a Big Deal to tell me about your “brand” and yourself. you don’t need to like the idea of brand at all. in fact, i might like it a lot if you didn’t.

you can email me, if you want, or leave as many comments here as you want. i may pry further. i may come and park myself on your floor and read your virtual Tarot cards like some social media fortune teller, promising the inevitable dark, handsome stranger and a future of millions of Twitter followers. i may offer my effusive thanks in the acknowledgements of something printed on paper, someday, knock wood. that something may be a Ph.D thesis or a tome you can buy on Amazon and in the Business aisles of better bookstores, or both.

either way. i am sitting, waiting for the story hour to begin.

all those years i dragged myself through Korean and Slovak and Turkish streets at dawn not looking for an angry fix but another drink, a smoke, a conversation to be in, arms or words there was something transcendental out there burning for the ancient heavenly connection, i knew it, i saw it in tatters and hollowed eyes and tenement roofs illuminated. but in the end, i came home and found it here, in the ether.

and so i laugh and burn my beret, and ask what you think it means to be a self in the world of social media?
edited to add: if not your story, whose? who should i be tracking down to explore success in social media and ways it intersects with personal identity? who’s your idea of an exceptional, or reluctant, or conflicted, or interesting “brand”? even if they’d never use the word themselves? and who or what (feel free to email rather than comment, as you wish) make up the benighted practices reinforcing the concept of personal branding as some kind of Amway Cult of Personality? all recommendations gratefully received.

i might even buy you a beer to keep you talking.

it ought to be easy.

i wake up and remember that i am in no rush. i remain prone a little longer, half-adrift, one eye pried open to smile at the small child thisclose to my face. today is the first day of the rest of my life, i intone, under my breath. morning dragon fumes escape my mouth, like bandits fleeing a crime. they knock small child over. small child rights self, peers back into the unholy vortex from whence the evil came, and chirps at me up, mommy! go get me some milk, mommy!

small children are resilient in the face of their goals.

i, on the other hand, am having a helluva time weathering the dragon’s breath of change.

i finished my full-time job on Friday. there was dinner and wine. kind things were written in cards. and i thought, good. phew. now onward ho.

i got a research grant and an academic paper and presentation accepted all in the same week, a coupla weeks back. then BlogHer’s Voice of the Week, and news that a social media consultancy gig came through: a surfeit of good things. this week, i present to a writers’ conference about blogs and social platforms, then stand up in the hallowed local Public Library and read. my own stuff. like a writer.

in the blink of an eye, i am all the things i ever wanted to be.

Monday i woke up and snuggled the kids and went back to sleep for an hour. i leapt from the bed to the shower and hustled myself downtown for a coffee shop meeting. an Arctic educational research contract that centres around a documentary film and me conducting social media research and writing papers; good gorgeous interesting stuff. i stayed parked at the coffee shop with my laptop for half the day, walked home, hung out some laundry, read 101 Disgusting Facts about the Human Body to a rapt Oscar and a whirlwind Josephine, played trucks for awhile, then drove out to the beautiful north shore of PEI to have dinner with a group of writers and a literary agent. which involved the best creme brulee i have ever had the pleasure of getting to know, and also some lovely people.

where, you ask, is the problem?

the problem is today. today, i looked at myself in the mirror and the dragon breathed and i cowered.

because i’m on the verge of all these new, intimidating things. they are things that will challenge and push me, force me to juggle three different kinds of writing and exploration all at the same time. they are things that will eat my days with deadlines and yet give me the opportunity to spend my days doing things i love. they are things that will pay poorly, for now; things that trade on the relentlessness of reputational economy and promise a longterm payoff, or two, if i am good. if i can keep up. suddenly, there are no more sick days.

today, i did not know how to value that. today, i feel like a pretender.

in my high school yearbook, amidst the poufy perms and the ghastly high-waisted jeans that scarred the self-images of most of us unfortunate enough to come of age during that era abandoned by all the gods of good taste, you will find my awkward and contrived graduation photo, the one that didn’t look like me even then. big of hair and cheek and beady of eye, i beam saccharinely down on posterity. somewhere next to the photo, by my name or the Simon & Garfunkel quote selected by my youthful hippie self, you will find that i was voted Most Artistic by my graduating class.

i was thrilled by that, for the record. it was amazing – in fact, startling and affirming – to be seen as i saw myself.

i didn’t say so then. i wish i had. i’d spent hundreds of hours doodling away all through my childhood. i did not know that i had worked for the skills i possessed, did not know they were even useful skills. i did not think of what i did as art. but for that one moment, i dared. then i gave my head a shake and called myself a pretender. who was i to think of myself as an artist?

i wish i’d known how to own that gift, attach goals to it, value it.

i did not. and so i put away childish things and i went off to college and i never drew again.

i have been collecting links and stories for awhile now on writing and publishing in the age of social media. a dying trade, they mostly proclaim, and this heartens me. i’m good with decline. it takes the pressure off.

i am afraid to fail.

i have been juggling a full-time job with parenting and blogging and launching some kind of academic credentials so long i no longer remember what it’s like to just…stop. to have nothing i need to write, no deadlines, no stories burgeoning, ideas slipping through my fingers. and it’s only about to ramp up.

every time i stared that fact in the face today, i cursed myself. who do you think you are i hissed privately to think of yourself as a writer? who are YOU to try to play academic?

the writing taunts me. it stretches before me, Sisyphean, slow and sticky, forever unfinished. i have spent a year in a constantly interruptable job and live with two preschoolers. between all that and Twitter, my frayed brain has the attention span of a gnat.

but this time, with this opportunity, i want to value the work i’ve put into these skills i’ve developed. i want to stop being afraid. i want to be resilient in the face of my goals.

after all, my children have the attention span of gnats, too, and they’re not hiding their wants and dreams and lights under a bushel.

so Thursday night i will stand up and read my own words in public. and i will plug away at the synthesis and research and the grant writing of grad student life and i will try to find balance and i will hope against hope that maybe i can make a reasonable life out of these things i love to do when they aren’t scaring the shit outta me.

and i will keep going. because i don’t want to find myself in twenty years time saying, one time? i did all this cool writing and research stuff and then i didn’t know what to do with it or how to value it so i just…stopped.

i don’t want to say that ever again.

we went away for a week and i was mostly offline and i did not die.

yes, gather round, all ye internet hordes, and quiver at my testimony. i unplugged and lived to tell the tale.

here’s the shocking part: it was easy. hell, i didn’t even flop around on the ground like a dying carp, gasping for wireless. i expected to. i was ready. Dave was under strict instructions to carry me up the hill to civilization anytime i was noted typing notes into thin air. but no signs of withering or requiring plug-in were forthcoming.

instead, we both wandered up the hill and online from time to time to connect with our magical worlds and responsibilities out in the ether. but mostly, we hung out below. played cards. walked on the beach. had a bonfire. in the early mornings, normally reserved for mobilizations that small military juntas would envy, we lounged in jammies teaching Oscar how to play Junior Monopoly. Posey stacked the little property houses and the sun sparkled on the water. only the birds tweeted.

apparently Oscar has a knack for property acquisition and his father and i had better be good to that kid or we’ll find ourselves renting our own bed from the wee robber baron oh, say, next week.

but other than the shame of being soundly beaten in a competitive arena by a four-year-old and the mortification of having Dave actually notice me care that i was losing to a four year old, i remained hale and hearty throughout.

it was too easy. i am suspicious.

i don’t believe in the great divide our culture tends to build around that which is technological in its origin or medium and that which is not.

living in a much-hyped “digital age” means we inevitably also live in the midst of a discursive backlash against the digital, a sociocultural conversation positioning whatever is not digital on the side of the pure and the unchanged.  i don’t buy it. no, i did not put unplug and find myself suddenly living a life to make a Disney Princess eat her heart out, bluebirds perched on my shoulders and wholeness and wholesomeness magically within reach.

both versions of that not-quite-Cinderella story are lies. the prince is not an iPad. neither is it a world with only rotary phones and singing birds.

to me, the “digital age” is not about the technology at all, but about people. we fool ourselves in emphasizing the so-called digital nature of contemporary society: we are post-digital already. we have been for years.

post-digital is not “after digital,” but “after the digital becomes commonplace.” the technology has become so omnipresent that we need to start looking beyond its novelty and allure to the human practices it enables and limits and shapes.  we are not going back, barring cataclysm, to whatever pastoral analog version of society people’s selective memories like to cling to. but so long as we remain focused on the digital trappings that mark our society as visibly different from its predecessors, neither do we move towards any cultural maturity in this new form.

we are the equivalent of a 40 year old woman still enraptured by the oh-my-golly of her training bra. it ain’t cute anymore. and it’s getting limiting. if we actually want to mature into the possibilities of this new form we’ve taken, we need to focus past the sparkly bits on the surface and invite others to do more than snap our straps.

the part of post-digital life that seems hardest for some of us enthusiasts is boundaries. we have opened ourselves to community and connectivity and near 24/7 availability and presence and persona, and in the end, there are only so many hours in a day and so many followers and friends one can do anything meaningful with. yet going offline makes us sweaty. who are we without our appendages, our screens?

then we do it and it feels…perfectly normal. occasionally irksome, sometimes pleasant, momentarily – if we are lucky – extraordinary. like life. rather like i feel if i go braless for a morning: wouldn’t want to try to go to work that way, but it has its moments. most of which are about other things, particularly those things with small hands who clamour Mommy! Mommy! and make me long – lovingly – for the civility and distance of twitter interactions. until the laughing starts, and then i’m hook, line & sinker, never known anything in flesh or screen so beautiful as them.

i did hear more birds at the beach, and their songs made me breathe deep and slow in a way i’d forgotten to for far too long. and the radio silence meant there was more time and energy for internal things. social media is performative, and it never sleeps. nobody can entertain thousands of people a day without downtime, even in very tiny increments…not over the long haul.

still, had there been wireless at the cottage, i might have birdshit on my MacBookPro right now, people. and i suspect i’d still have found balm for my soul in the journey to the shore.

i’d like to test that theory again. soon.

how do you pace your relationship to the online world? do you go offline? does it make you anxious to be unplugged? or does being a cyborg make you feel a little dirty sometimes? what would a post-digital society look like, for you?

i lick my finger and stick it into the wind. i smell money.

i stick up a butterfly net to see if i can catch any, but it floats on by. i raise my eyebrow, stick out my lip. a twenty slaps me in the eye. it’s sticky, a little oily. on a long string, it trails a thousand tiny obligations and ties. i let it pass.

i turn the eye to the sun, looking for a bigger bill, one trailing things i already want to say.

there’s been cash in the oxygen out here in the ether for a long time, since before my time.  but the ecosystem has shifted in the past couple of years. make no mistake, social media is now a business environment.

sure, plenty of folk out here still have active and rewarding and even successful social media lives on many different terms without engaging in any sort of commercial transactions. there’s much beauty out here that’s not selling anything.

except itself.

be it beauty or ideas or humour, it matters not. if you put it out there and it works, it builds reputation. reputation can be leveraged, sometimes into capital, sometimes into opportunity, sometimes simply  into connection. we all have our eyes on a prize; we are none of us pure, without want.

likewise, those here to do business are still entities within a social environment. we are here, all us Whos; identities performed here as friends and caregivers and consumers and braggarts and afficionados. we may be tycoons, or mothers: the walls between leak and merge. this changes everything for everybody, creates new ground rules.

and the first is this: the word brand does not mean what you think it means.

i tried to write about this a month or so ago. i meandered my way through a big messy post trying to posit that branding – a word many consider vulgar beyond redemption – is a key in understanding how to educate 21st century kids, who exist within this relational economy and expect to be able to interact with information and with people in ways that schooling structures seldom allow. i made it part way towards articulating my own research interests and ideas. but as my wise friend Sue pointed out to me on twitter, to bring anybody else along with me i need to explain what i mean by branding.

i say branding is the sum total of the choices you make about how you get presented and understood through social media…and also, how those choices get taken up by others.

branding is what is read on to you, how you are perceived, what you signify in the eyes of everybody else. it is not you, but a version of you. it is an act, and a group act, one that does not exist without a network of some sort to reflect and amplify it. it is ephemeral, a wisp on the wind. it is not about content or truth. it is about image and perceived capacity.

your brand is whatever version of your best self you happen to be selling out here. even if it isn’t you at all.

branding, for all its polluted inheritance of capitalism and cows, actually allows for the complexity that one’s reputational identity or brand can be both contrived and uncontrolled. you can try all you like to look cool, but unless somebody takes you up on it and shares your cool with their peeps in turn, little happens. you do not amplify.

(branding is much like reputation, but as reputation is an equally sullied word laden with strictures about how women should act, i find brand less confining. plus branding better captures the fact that one’s online identity exists within an economy of monetization. whether you capitalize or not – or how high up the ladder you wait to capitalize – is up to you.)

you can ignore your brand all you want. but it won’t stop others from perceiving it, and perceiving you through its lens.

years ago, when Dave and i were first together, we had a conversation about clothes.

his wardrobe had always puzzled me, and since our friendship preceded the relationship by many years, i’d had the opportunity to observe it up close for quite some time. it consisted of a pile of disparate items that all seemed to have been bought by different people. it was not so much eclectic as just…odd, like anchovies on a hamburger. he wore polo shirts or funky Malaysian handwoven pullovers, apparently without distinction. he tended to look like he’d been dressed by well-intentioned missionaries.

i’d said nothing. we were still – clearly – in that first blush of love.

and then we went shopping.

i held stuff up, asked for reactions. i just wanted to know what he liked, what his impression was of different things, whether he thought they suited him. he refused to engage the conversation. he tried to step outside it.

my clothes aren’t ME, he said. and i understood.  he saw clothes as extras, add-ons. he saw the thousands of implicit judgements we base on clothing as false, masks for the genuine human beneath.

i know, i said. clothes do not make the man.

but you DO get, right, that you not wanting to be interpreted by others based on your clothing choices doesn’t mean you AREN’T?

yes, he was a unique snowflake. yes, he was more than just a jock, or a geek, or a post-grunge hippie expat and wanted to be understood as such. but there is no way to put clothing on the human body that does not open you to the interpretation of other people, however shallow or misguided they may be. you still dress like something, i was trying to explain to my dear one. unless “dressed by missionaries” is the image you’re dying to project, you might as well make choices that impact that interpretation along lines you actually, y’know, like.

so that’s what i mean by branding. we signify, everytime we interact with others, through our clothing or our tweets or our blog headers (and thankyou, kind and clever Kate, for eventually staging the intervention on my out-of-the-box theme template). we signify whether we want to or not. it is part of the price of admission.

there is no neutral. you cannot escape making some kind of statement. you might as well decide which one interests you and make it.

in every arena of life, it takes time to become literate in making judgements even for yourself. Dave’s found a style of clothing that he’s comfortable with, but it took time and years of watching and paying attention to understand what social significance different choices carried, and what he wanted to convey of himself with those options. me, i’m not so sure Hawaiian shirts go with corduroy blazers. but it’s his call to make. it took me a long time to even see that my old blog theme said much of anything, because reading social media images was a skill i hadn’t cultivated. i was aiming for neutral.  Kate took me gently by the hand and said, in effect, there is no neutral. and i said, oh merciful gawd, thank you. can i have typewriters? art deco typewriters?

if you are out here, you are being read: your words, your style, your interactions, all you carry with you. this is brand. own yours.

sometimes, if i hold my head right, i like to pretend i can see through time.

i’ve been taking an open, online course in Education Futures these past few weeks. Dave’s one of the instructors, along with the luminous George Siemens. it’s a heady ride. there are 700+ participants, though the majority mostly lurk – but still, the experience is slippery, decentered, enormous and fascinating. it’s free. there are no grades, which is probably good, as i suspect Dave would enjoy nothing more than to give my Lisa Simpson ass a nice flat D for once. what you take out of it is not only what you put in, but what roads you choose to navigate, what conversations you choose to be in, which fellow classmates you choose to engage with. it reminds me of the blogosphere, and this blogging “experience” that is really thousands of separate experiences contextualized by a few common parameters.

education futures isn’t about predictions. it’s about perceiving trends and shifts, conceiving of how they intersect and influence each other to impact humans and behaviour and norms. it’s a semi-informed guessing game, a Gladwellian enterprise based on perceiving what is and reconfiguring the way it’s interpreted, until possibilities open and – maybe – everything looks radically different.

our social media personae are made up of the perspectives we bring to these online skins, these avatars by which we negotiate identities and connections out here, in the virtual.

you know me as a mommyblogger. however awkward that skin is, i cannot say it does not fit. my voice inhabits it, has grown to fill it, has used its maternal contours to speak into being a child whom those who know me only in my physical skin seldom get to see. my motherhood in all its complexities is the platform on which i’m grounded, both in my online and day-to-day lives.

i am also an educator, whose work and thought are predominantly shaped by the contexts of higher education and the online communities centering around educational technologies and theory. i think of education as a social and societal experiment. generally, i think of blogging the same way.

it’s where these two perspectives come together that i catch a teensy whiff of what smells like the future.

in my grand decline, when i look back over mint juleps and maribou slippers to dissect the ‘blogging revolution’ of my long-faded 30s, i think two things will stand out vividly.

first, Virginia Woolf was right.

a room of one’s own matters, and is a condition necessary to creation. what Virginia missed was that the room doesn’t need to be an actual office or garret or physical space, nor does it matter if the would-be writer’s physical space and life are crowded with small bodies. these are fodder, rich and full of marrow.

the chance to narrate said fodder into a room of one’s very own, a virtual shelter for one’s words & stories & a persona beyond the bounds of Barney and chewable books? has mattered. and freed from the gatekeeping and market pressures of traditional publishing systems, the opportunity for parents to build these little birdhouses for their souls has created an explosion. said explosion – and the nature of its particular technologies, which permit an etiquette of commenting and linking and personal advocacy & promotions – have resulted both in an unprecedented meld of brand & identity, and a brave new world in which communities and networks are able to truly transcend space and time.

in the educational futures conversation it’s easy to miss the branding and identities part of the picture, whereas in the parental corner of the blogosphere, sometimes one is left wondering whether there’s really anything else going on at all. as blogs have become increasingly business-focused and the concept of self as brand has become ubiquitous, many of us have learned enough to confidently blather on about SEO optimization and concepts like earned media and how to promote small businesses through social media.

but what particularly interests me is that as our children grow up in families and communities permeated by these concepts of identity and interaction, they’ll bring these implicit understandings of what it means to be a self into their classrooms. and if we are to shape our archaic, industrial-era education system into something relevant to their perspectives on the world and on their futures, we ought to be ensuring that our classrooms enable students to build rooms of their own, and share them, and through them interrogate the assumptions of market, knowledge, and identity that our culture reflects and reifies.

the other thing that i think will leap to the foreground of the picture when we look back at this first decade of blogging through the mists of time: our concepts of privacy are about to be blown wide open.

i love cities. i love to walk in cities. the bigger and more anonymous the better. i pound the pavement and imagine i could be anybody, because all the other anybodies slipping by me could be anybody too, and maybe the most fascinating interaction in the world is about to take place in a glance. cities, for me, are near-infinite networks of possibility, without the glare and responsibility of being known.

anyone who grew up in a small town knows what it is to be known. “cherish your reputation,” my dear mother always told me, by which i – probably unfairly – assumed she meant for me to keep HER reputation intact and unsullied by whispers. when you focus on reputation, you sometimes assume people care more than they actually do. but in a small town, you also know that people can be cruel, and judgements made on the whim of the moment. so you guard yourself…and sometimes, if the weight of public castigation grows too heavy, you become what they already say you are. in a small town, it can be death to be different.

in branding, on the other hand, differentiation is key to success.

i see online identity as a small-town self, acutely aware of the possibility and the consequences of being recognized, meandering about in a truly infinite city of networked relationships. this branded self is at least semi-consciously aware of its goals and its optics; of how it appears to the anybodies passing by the artifacts and traces of itself it shares out here in the ether. the branded self may view connections as personal or instrumental, or both, and is probably inclined to see attention as positive so long as its network doesn’t ostracize it as a result.

in other words, to a branded self, there is no purpose in privacy. all the world’s a stage.

in the four years or so i’ve been reading blogs, one of the most common refrains i’ve heard is “i’m taking down photos/names/poop stories because i don’t want the record i’ve created here to follow my child through life.” wisely, i think, we recognize that in writing of our children, we risk writing them into roles that they themselves may not want to embody.  we don’t want them to feel they have to become what we’ve said they are. or at least, we don’t want to appear that way.

but in the post-blogging world of tomorrow, it is almost unthinkable that our kids won’t have online identities far beyond what we’ve written for them. what’s more, i don’t think our concepts of negative attention will have a great deal of meaning to our kids’ generation as they grow into adults, except in those awful, inevitable, pan-human moments where the network – be it the football team or cranky bloggers or politicians and half of twitter – blows up against a particular self in moments of bullying and ostracism and brand-backlash writ large. it’s not likely to happen over potty tales; they’re too universal.

the dance of successful branding is about balancing the creative capacity for difference with the critical capacities for self-judgement and prudent projection of consequences.

our children’s online selves will fluctuate and change as they grow, but teaching them early to leave trails they won’t be dogged by or ashamed of later – because nothing online is truly private, or really goes away – has to be one of the challenges of raising this generation of children for which we’re least prepared. as a culture, i think we’d all benefit from work on critical projection, since more and more of us seem to have no intention of going back under the dome of domestic privacy. and as an educator within this culture, i wonder if one of the greatest conceptual tools we could give kids today would be that sense of big-city network navigation in a small-town, self-aware skin?

then they could build rooms of their own within which to capture their own realities and perspectives, and there hopefully weather storms if/as they arose, all the while understanding in a way our generation is only beginning to taste that no network – no matter how powerful the popular girls seem when one is in junior high, or a mommyblogger – is ever finite, be-all and end-all.

what do YOU see when you look through time? and how do YOU see your online persona? are you a small-town brand or a citified network person by nature? or am i missing something beyond/between that polarization?

when i started working at an intersection of the fields of education and technology about twelve years back, my then-boss taught me the phrase early adopter. she was a proud, flag-waving version of the breed, a proselytizer of The New. she had a PalmPilot, with that little stylus i could never figure out how people managed not to lose. i disdained the thing, thought of it as conspicuous consumption. i could barely keep track of my $8 daytimer with the vinyl cover.

i’ll never be an early adopter. even if i try.

it takes time for me to learn to love a thing, an object: my appreciation is the kind that builds only over time. historical time, glacial time, no matter – when i hold a thing in my hands, it becomes for me a portal to its personal history. if it has none, i have nothing to attach to; it has no context for me. the patina of age is full of stories: the hows and whys of a particular place and time. i like the cultural trajectory of use-value, the sense of how hands touched objects and what they used them for. fingerprints are romance.

is there a cultural opposite to the early adopter? can i be the maudlin clinger?

my real soft spot is for the utterly obsolete.

i am a rest home for dead technologies. my blog header sports the image of an art deco-era typewriter: i own one. it is my grandmother’s vintage finger-chewer, and it sits proudly in a closet, waiting for some mythical me to unspool a bottle of absinthe and write my great novel. less grandly, we have a VCR. and a Discman, which i can still be seen using. you should see the looks them young whippersnappers get when they clap eyes on that baby. in my freezer, until only last year, sat a carton of Kodak 35 mm film. i bought it at a Costco in South Korea – cheap, but not quite cheap enough to throw out – sometime in 2003. who doesn’t need film? erm, yeh. i hand-imported the box back to Canada when i moved in January 2005. those rolls of film were better-travelled than most people.

when i finally let them go to their great kodachrome reward, it wasn’t out of any rational recognition that film had jumped the shark. rather it was out of avoidance, because every time i opened the freezer i felt guilty staring the box in the eye. i didn’t want the film to know it was dead.

i didn’t want to admit, for some reason, that i would likely never again wind a roll of cellulose into the back of a camera, or that my children would grow up finding the process as foreign as hitching up a buggy. whoa, Nelly. the world really does change in a blink.

and then all these fascinating artifacts clutter up our space, obsolescent but marked all over with fingerprints.

in the four years i’ve spent out here in the blogosphere, i’ve seen a lot of models and trends in social media boom and bust. remember memes?  lolcats? the tender etiquette of blogrolls? ah yes. weren’t we cute?

(yes, i am likely the very last person on Teh Interwebs to have a blogroll. and it is sadly out of date. hush. i like to think of it as vintage.)

in gazing back through time at my VCR and my typewriter and my defunct Pentax K-1000, i don’t see Sodom & Gomorrah, a charnel-mess of sin and misery receding in the distance. nor do i see us striding inexorably forward into progress. sure, i like my digital SLR very much, and this fancy-pants MacBookPro and iTunes and all the other privileges that are my particular riches of time and place and class and living with an Educational Technologies Professional. i appreciate the affordances of these current technologies. but i appreciate in them the very same things that i love in my boneyard of the dead and cast-off: the fingerprints they make possible.

blogging’s fingerprint has changed, dramatically, over the past 3 or 4 years. sure, we’ve been told since at least Christmas 2008 that blogging is dead as a doornail. still, plenty of us do it. and there are people who started only when the death knell was proclaimed who still seem to be making a damn fine time of it. some, perhaps even a living.

when i first ventured out into wild social world of blogging, the parenting corner of the blogosphere – which was then still a relatively coherent entity – was like a hopping mixer dance on the first weekend of summer camp. connections were personal, often intense, and frequently had a tinge of wonder about them. i found you! we exhaled, collectively, and it was glorious. the playing field wasn’t flat – some people were obviously well-established and incredibly popular by late 2006 – but it all still seemed to be mostly about self-expression, rooms of one own. and for those who valued that kind of voice & space, this world seemed to be a democratizing agent beyond wildest dreams; a community of relative peers performing identity and parenthood in the 21st century.

then, subtly, the game changed. the model moved from summer camp to conference. one’s blog became a business, whether one happened to notice or not. and if one didn’t, one was – without doing anything differently – suddenly missing out.

months ago, on twitter, i proposed that maybe the term “blogging” has run its course. we don’t call all writers by the same handle: we have novelists and tech writers and humourists and PR people. increasingly, i suspect bloggers might be a less fraught community – or rather, group of communities, overlapping – if we had different names for the things people do in their online spaces, some for recompense, some for reputation, some for craft, some for the sheer hell of it.

the conversation around blogging – and particularly around mommyblogs – has monetized. and with that, the relatively egalitarian conversational field that existed into 2007 has fractured into a multiplicity of communities who lack any coherent centre other than the fact that their writers make up what advertisers tend to believe is a coherent market. we still make connections, often deep and personal ones. but they begin in networking, now, as much as in any enthusiastic recognition of self. those are not necessarily opposites – but they serve different ends. and i wonder about that.

i know i’m a dinosaur: i’ve clung to my narrative, non-commercial model for the blog just as i cling to the idea that my grandmother’s typewriter is funkalicious. for me, it works, mostly because i always figured i could capitalize more reputationally than monetarily from the kinds of writing i’m good at. i build my body of work here, and someday…who knows? i am not so proud or dumb or rich as to be averse to money. but i don’t relate to this blog primarily as an entrepreneur, and as such, i am still a relic of a former era, an artifact of blogging’s history. most writers who start out on the internet today have no desire whatsoever to be like me: they’ll either build their own site painstakingly as a business success through advertising and sponsorships and giveaways and carefully cultivated network relations, or they’ll write their hearts out – but with an eye to being picked up by a commercial site with SEO potentiality and paid for their words through the visibility of their name and the development of their cred.

the room of one’s own is supposed to turn a profit, these days.

i want to know what gets lost, in that shift, and what it means. i want to know if there’s a tradeoff, and what it says about our culture. i want to know if it’s good, and how…and for whom.

over the next three years, i’ll research social media and study technologies and trends and futures and what they all might mean for education and culture in the 21st century. for a dyed-in-the-wool Lot’s wife, wistful and salty, forever looking back, it’s a funny choice. but it’s what gets left behind that interests me.

i want your input on this little corner of that conversation. pretty please. tell me what’s changed about blogging in however long you’ve been doing it, or reading. tell me what’s changed in the community compared to your original expectations and hopes. tell me i’m wrong, or crazy, or hopelessly outdated. tell me why i should advertise, or write that review about feminine crotch spray i got pitched a few months back. tell me about writing giveaways, and if it’s hard or easy. tell me why you read, and what you think you’ll see from the internet and the blogosphere (if such a thing exists) a decade from now. tell me what difference this whole evolving world has made in your life.

tell me what fingerprints you think you’re leaving.

i may just do a dissertation on it all…my own little artifact.

i tend to take research results with a grain of salt.

our accumulated human & societal experiments fascinate me. but when your own flawed self has been the architect of a plan or project designed to illuminate the human condition in some way or another, truths and illuminations from other people’s plans and projects start start to look a lot more jury-rigged themselves. it’s not exactly that they appear less true than they might have before; rather that true itself starts to seem like a conditional state, a window in time and perspective rather than any stamp of mythical absolute authenticity.

still, when i read the other day that 50% of children born in this decade may live to be 100 years old, my head swivelled.

sure, it swivelled in part because i’ve been reading Consumption, by Kevin Patterson. it’s a story of tuberculosis and famine and the Hudson’s Bay Company & mines that all eventually combined to wrangle the Inuit in off the land less than fifty years ago, and the diseases of affluence that have since ravaged that population on a scale that even the most forbidding landscape on earth never touched. diseases of affluence we all suffer from and carry the seeds of deep in our bodies the way that previous generations and many of the world’s poor still today carry TB…diseases like cancer, vascular impairment, diabetes.

we die today mostly because of how we eat.  how we choose to eat. as i type this i’m wiping crumbs from homemade pumpkin tarts off my keyboard. hey, they’re seasonal. they’re homemade. they have only 2/3 cup of sugar in, like, the eleven of them i just inhaled. whee. but i wasn’t actually hungry.

if this is how i have to suffer from my own affluence, it’s no wonder people are getting on board this train. even if it is bound for the boneyard.

still, however naively, however in denial of the effects of what i feed them, i like the idea of my kids living to be 100.  i usually live in abiding fear of the planet up and belching us all off its weary back long before either of them get their threescore and ten in, and so the possibility that this generation may have longer lives rather than shorter, more brutish ones is deeply comforting.

still, that wasn’t why the news made my head swivel.

it swivelled, dear friends, because i first came across the info as tweeted by film director Duncan Jones, object of my first stalking experiment in social media.  poor Duncan. i’m sure it would crush him to know that of his 6000+ followers, the chirpy mom with the slightly twee username who chats him up now and then is actually, uh, strategically and shamelessly using him.

it’s probably not his first time ’round this block. because Duncan Jones, whom you may know better as Zowie, is the 38 year old son of David Bowie, with whom i’ve been conducting an, erm, faithful if one-sided twenty-five year love affair. in my head.

imagine if twitter had existed in my angsty adolescence. i always knew Bowie had a son my age, but seeing as my parents weren’t interested in sending me to a dour and pricy Scottish boarding school, and Zowie cum Joe cum Duncan never once put up a penpal ad in Rolling Stone, i had little access to this otherwise obvious avenue of ingratiating myself into the Bowie clan. pity. dude was probably as estranged from his father at that age as i was – we coulda been buds. and then, you know, i would’ve finagled myself an invite to Christmas dinner and my charming insights woulda brought son to a renewed appreciation of father and father to a recognition of the marvel of a human being lying undiscovered in my old soul – in a manner most un-Polanski-esque, of course – and he’d have married me and that pesky Iman woulda just had to find herself another rock god. i’d have been Bonnie Bowie and the director of Moon my stepson and we’d all have lived happily ever after.  ahem.

oh dear god, i cringe in anticipation of my children’s adolescence, if they have imaginations and wills anything like mine.

anyhoo, i follow Duncan Jones on twitter. it entertains me. and the other day he mentioned the study reporting that children today have a 50/50 chance of living until the age of 100. to which i tweeted back some crack about needing to invest in their retirement now, before they’re outta diapers. to which he responded. and then he RE-TWEETED ME.

(because – all kidding aside – i’m damn right. if the poor kids are going to live to be 100, somebody better be planning to pay for the cancer-causing morsels of mush that will sustain them into that long-delayed good night.)

but i digress. research smesearch. the nifty study was merely the catalyst, the subject matter upon which i belatedly and somewhat circuitously launched my lifelong dream. i had a Real Live Online Conversation with the son of David Bowie. direct descendant. fruit of loins. the thirteen-year-old still lurking inside me swooned and fainted dead away.

twenty-five years is a long time to carry a torch.  my engraved invitation to the Bowie Christmas dinner? on its way, people.  Duncan & i, we’re getting tight. we chatted again, with me at my obsequious best, on Tuesday. we’ll be BFFs in no time. at my current rate of progress, i’m guessing on actually graduating from son to father and finally making personal Bowie contact about 2038. The Thin White Duke’ll be a mere 91. maybe i can spoon-feed him.

then we’ll get married and i can die a happy woman, of whatever disease of my affluence would like to have its way with me.

sigh. if only Bowie’d been born in this decade, i could be half-certain he’d live that long.

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