To mend the rifts in friendship and social media.

A few months ago, I witnessed a rift in friendship. They were once good friends who were close, but then an incident arose. One hurt the other one. In response, the other one hurt the one back. And so, they fell out.

I was not there to witness the falling out, but later I heard the story from the parties involved. Separately, on different occasions, each party told me about the incident and their motive and their perception of the other person’s motive, from their point of view. Neither one knew that the other one had spoken to me, and neither knew that I had heard both sides of the story, from their own mouths.

I had the privilege of hearing all the rawness revealed in the safety of confidentiality. If I hadn’t known better, I could well have been hearing completely different incidents. But that was the same conflict. The facts were the same, yet the viewpoints and interpretation of the deeds done and hurts given and received were wholly different between the two people.

About their conflict, I kept to their sides of the rift. What could I say? Taking sides with one against the other one, or pressing matters to a head, was not my role. To do so would’ve caused grievous harm. So I listened, and helped them individually, and prayed a great deal for both, but did not attempt to cross the rift.

The rift remains to this day. Both friends looked at the rift of their friendship, and decided to leave it be and move on. Life went on, and both are fine. I am still friends with each person, even if their own friendship isn’t the same anymore.

And yet… I see the rift, and wonder if it could be healed.

+++

A few days ago, I witnessed a rift in the social-media fabric on Micro.blog. An incident arose in a M.B conversation thread. One ended up hurting the other one, and the other one responded and made a decision. And so, a rift.

I looked at the conversation which sparked the conflict. These two online folk are not people I’d call “friends” by any stretch of the imagination, at most friendly strangers that I’ve interacted briefly with. But the conversation is there to see. The facts are in front of me, but I perceive that the two people’s viewpoints are wholly different, and the hurt that one inflicted was perceived wholly differently by one receiving it.

The rift is now there, and it has left a gap in the fabric of M.B. Onlookers have gazed upon it and spoken and pondered. I’m doing that too. What can I say? Taking sides or pressing matters is not my role here. To do so would cause grievous harm. Besides, I’m just an onlooker watching and praying and trying to make sense of what happened.

But with one party out of the picture, there’s nothing we onlookers can really do about the rift except leave it be and move on. Life will be fine, and the two parties involved may be fine, we hope.

And yet… I see the rift and wonder if it could be healed.

+++

From my point of view, the parties involved in these two rifts were not maliciously and purposefully out to cause pain or harm to the one on the other side. (The issue would be very different if there was evil intent.) But there was a degree of mutual incomprehension, and an imbalance when evaluating the weightiness of words, and a whole raft of differing and unspoken expectations and assumptions surrounding the conflict.

Could these rifts have been avoided? Maybe. But right now I’m not interested in that discussion, I’m more interested in the matter of the current rift. Here it is. Here is hurt and offense. Now, what is to be done about it?

It is easy to leave a rift and move on. Especially so on social media, when people are shrouded behind usernames, screens, and fragments of thoughts expressed in meagre words. Life will be fine for the people in the conflict, we hope.

But there are outward rifts and inward rifts. Onlookers can see the rift between people. Who can see the concurrent rift opened within a person’s heart? And while life and the outward rift will be fine (we hope), it is the inward rift that is much, much harder to see and to heal.

This is why I wonder.

+++

What does it take to heal a rift in friendship and social media?

Is it worth the effort to heal a rift?

What happens to a person’s heart if a rift isn’t healed?

What happens to a person’s heart if the rift is healed?

As for me, the onlooker, what is the wise path to walk? And what am I to learn from this, for friendship and for social media?

+++

I have my own opinions about these two conflicts played out. But I have great difficulty taking a side with/against anyone, because both conflicts (from what I can see) originated from incomprehension and not malice. There is no “wrong” way or “right” way here. People are complicated beings, and the heart of a human being is deep and complex and full of good and evil, richness and poverty, tenderness and callousness, all to differing degrees. Who can comprehend a human heart, except the Holy Spirit? Because people are complex and have different viewpoints, it’s very easy to remain uncomprehending of a need or a viewpoint that is different from myself. The same facts can be viewed and interpreted differently, as I witnessed with my two friends.

As with friendships so with social media. Each person brings with them a whole lifetime of paradigms, patterns, relationships, and a subconscious scale for measuring the weightiness of words. The closer and more intimate a friendship is, the more open one is to the risk of hurt and incomprehension. Likewise, a more intimate and meaningful a social-media setting opens one up to the same risk.

I suppose that is the simultaneous glory and agony of intimacy.

While there may be neither “wrong” or “right”, both parties were responsible for creating the rift. And while an onlooker may bring the parties back to look at the rift, there is only so much onlookers can do. Only the ones who created the rift have the power to mend it, or keep it open and gaping.

+++

So what does reconciliation and mending look like?

On my part, all I know is this. One gave the hurt. One received the hurt. One must atone. One must forgive.

Jesus our Lord said in the Gospel of Matthew,

So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
— Gospel of Matthew, ch. 5, verse 23.

Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
“I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven.”
— Gospel of Matthew, ch. 18, verse 21.

If Jesus my Lord said that he would prefer an offering left unfinished in favour of reconciling with a brother or sister, I ought to remember that on the other side of words and a computer screen is also a brother or a sister, wrapped in flesh and blood. Perhaps what I already do in realspace to deal with rifts in my life, I ought to do in cyberspace too.

I have been on both sides of giving hurt and receiving hurt. Atoning and forgiving are both very hard to do.
But is a rift worth mending?
What rift lies in my heart? Is my heart not worth mending?
And is their heart worth mending too?

+++

If social media is a place where people are found and where we expect to have human interactions, then we ought to treat people in cyberspace as we do in realspace and enact actions befitting to humanity.  Moreso, as the space becomes more intimate and the risk of vulnerability increases.

I don’t know how best to enact atonement and forgiveness on a social-media space. I suppose it’s just like handling people: people are different and complex, every situation is different and complex, and calls for different responses. And every other person who’s not me will conduct themselves differently on social-media by their own principles. It’s the pain and glory of diverse humanity.

I just know what I ought to do, based on my beliefs and convictions and paradigms.

+++

This was tough to write and I’m still not sure if there was anything worthy in it.

But there was sadness and regret amongst some of the onlookers around the rift, and I thought maybe I can, as a fellow onlooker, say something into the sadness. Those two rifts in friendship and social media certainly gave me pause: to consider what I needed to do if I was part of a rift (whether giving or receiving hurt), and consider what I can do to help mend rifts around me, in a tough world and a tougher online world.

Diversity and infrastructure.

Thanks everyone for the kind words about my post on diversity.

@jgmac1106 brings up a great point – it’s all well and good to acknowledge M.B’s challenges with diversity, but what can we do next, practically?

An example, and an exegesis.

+++

Example.

The owner of Pinboard restructured his service to accommodate the needs of a subculture — namely, fan-fiction writers. Here’s his blog post about it. (I think he also posted a presentation online, but I can’t find the weblink currently.)

This looks like a success story to me. The fanfic subculture has very specific priorities and desires, and Maciej adjusted Pinboard’s infrastructure to accommodate their needs without compromising the needs of the other users. Tools were designed to foster diversity without compromising the vision and integrity of the service.

I think there are parallels between Maciej’s handling of an exodus from del.icio.us, and Manton’s handling of an exodus from Twitter.

+++

Exegesis.

I think Micro.blog should give thought to how the tools we use to engage on M.B are going to foster the kind of culture we want. This is because the structure and function of tools influence the way we perceive and engage with the world.

This thought has been shaped by reading From the Garden to the City by John Dyer and The Shallows by Nick Carr and a lot of blog posts to this effect, having some understanding of Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” (yet to read Amusing Ourselves to Death though), and my observations of the world at large.

An example: People who say that “guns don’t kill, people kill” fail to understand that a gun is a tool whose purpose is to wound and hurt from a distance. You can kill a person with a shovel too, but the shovel’s original purpose is to dig holes and move things around. Yes, the person holds the final responsibility, but holding a shovel in your hand puts you into a different frame of mind than holding a gun in your hand.

I’ve held both before. I was thinking quite different thoughts in both cases.

Digital tools do the same thing to our minds. Everyone knows about the smartphone.

I think if M.B wants to be a warm, thoughtful, small-villages-and-houses community (and it is, which is wonderful!), the people who build its infrastructure would do well to consider what kind of end state of being — culture — might arise from this infrastructure.

I think this is hard to do. It requires extrapolation and reflection, and of course we can’t control what the future holds, nor people’s behaviour. Technology can mitigate but can’t wholly eradicate the evil in a person’s heart. I still believe an individual holds the final responsibility for their behaviour and engagement on M.B, but like guns and shovels, the tools we use to engage with the M.B community puts us into a certain frame of mind.

I thought about the discussions about tagmojis and followers when I wrote that paragraph above.

+++

I also think about tools because scalability is already an issue, and its effects are seen in this perceived lack of diversity.

I admire what Manton and Jean are doing with community management, but there will come a point where the community will become too large to rely on a couple of people to manage. Furthermore, diversity means not aligning with the current ‘status quo’/majority culture. As ecumenical as Manton and Jean may be, they are still embedded in their own cultural milieu (I mean, the Micro.blog landing page has a certain “look”), and the way they do community management is going to reflect that. This is all well and good for a small community, but it puts a limit on how much diversity can flourish.

(Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a narrow demographic. Narrow can mean a lot of things, including focused and specific and particular. Is that what M.B wants to be?)

Currently we all want a warm, thoughtful, small-villages-and-houses vibe. Community management can foster some of that, but it has its limits for scaling and for diversity. So the digital infrastructure will have to do some heavy lifting and management of the boundaries at “we are X” and “not-X”. So how can the infrastructure be the boundary keeper that fosters the formation of small villages and houses — a farming community, a kampong village, a cluster of adobe huts, 12 units on a strata plan, isolated shacks in a forest linked by footpaths, a monastery, a Roman villa, large feudal estates with serfs? One may be uncomfortable with the presence of a feudal estate or a monastery, next to their shack in a forest. But aren’t they also small villages? Beyond that, do we agree that we don’t want a noisy metropolis around?

We cannot wholly prevent the metropolis from growing up around us. But I think we can design tools that, structurally, encourage small communities and discourage big urbanization.

+++

I’m just one voice. I don’t work in IT, I’m not a developer. I just watch the world and think a lot about stuff, and try to do my part to make M.B pleasant for myself and others. I’m not the last word on anything, and I will be appalled if I was read as gospel just because I identify as a minority. This is meant to foster more thinking.

Diversity on Micro.blog, from a minority viewpoint.

There’s been a bit of hand-wringing in the Micro.blog community about its apparent lack of demographic diversity. This thread was the latest that got me thinking.

I’m the minority in just about all of the diversity categories the Micro.blog community has defined for itself, except that English is my first language. (There, I’ve outed myself.)

From my point of view, M.B’s diversity challenge comes out of Indieweb’s own priorities and values. Decentralization, independence, tech-centrality, building your own bespoke blog/website with home-grown/open-source tools… to me, these values originate from a particular paradigm and method of engaging with the world. This paradigm is itself shaped by the wider culture. To put it in reductionist and stereotypical terms, the “self-made” webmaster who builds a self-contained website, independent of the centralized aggregate (and by extension, The Man), using home-grown tools, falls very much in line with the values of the American Dream.

M.B can’t be reduced to stereotypes, of course. But there’s also a bar to entry into this social-media network, and it’s a distinctly technophilic, first-world, Western bar. One needs the finances to have your own webhost/domain or pay M.B to host it, the technological know-how of building your own website and establishing social-media capabilities on said website, and most importantly, the _desire_ to have a blog/online presence independent of the centralized aggregate, before you can even begin to join the M.B social-media community.

These are many hurdles. The way I see it, they all come from the Indieweb movement and how that movement was birthed in the first place.

+++

An example of some hurdles I faced getting into M.B.

Many Indieweb pages have a certain “look” in my eyes: American, technophile, and Apple-centric. M.B’s signup/landing page has “that look”. I remembered thinking, when I first landed on Micro.blog, “Heh, looks like yet another American-Silicon-Valley-Mac-exclusive-technophile enclave.” But after reading about the Indieweb movement and realizing that it encapsulated some of the things I missed from the old Web 1.0, I understood my first impression (like all my first impressions) was prejudiced and reductionist. Being a non-technophile with only basic HTML/CSS skills (enough to know the meaning of what I’m copy-pasting, not enough to interpret the meaning for troubleshooting purposes), M.B currently offered the simplest “in” into microblogging and self-hosting according to Indieweb principles. And I was tired of being spread out over WordPress.com and Twitter anyway. So I signed up for hosting to try it out.

A hosted M.B may have been my simplest “in” into Indieweb, but I face another hurdle in USD $5 and the monthly currency conversion and fees involved. It is not a big hurdle. I can afford it. But it is still a reality for someone not living in North America, and every month the hurdle reappears and I have to face and jump over it. And not for much longer: I recently got a domain/webhost on a local provider, and a big motivation was to remove this USD $5 hurdle, even if it meant spending a bit more effort to setting up my domain. I understand this cash flow is necessary for this independent M.B community to survive and thrive, which is why I supported it. But I’m willing to bet that this USD $5 is a significant barrier to getting non-technophile, non-North-American voices heard on M.B.

Finally, the Indieweb value of decentralization is, by definition, in tension with “social media”. And people are complicated and have diverse motives and priorities: not everyone who has an Indieweb-type website desires an Indieweb-type social media hub to broadcast their activities. Personally, I’ve always had a disinterested attitude towards social media: it’s the necessary, annoying evil I have to put up with when getting my content out on Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram. So far, I’m only interacting on M.B because of proximity, ie. I have to go through my Timeline to get to the “Add New Post” button. I appreciate what goods M.B has brought and is bringing to me currently, but in the big scheme of life and things, I have other priorities, and between blogging and social media, the latter will be first to jettison. If I follow Indieweb’s in-built inertia of decentralization and move my blog wholly to my domain, M.B runs the risk of losing my voice — a tiny inconsequential one, but still a voice. Well, so be it, then. Independent and decentralized means that a person has the freedom to self-select out of a community.

Just a few examples of structural barriers; I’ve encountered a few more on M.B and getting my head around Indieweb worldview and ideas at large. I don’t think that is necessarily a problem: it’s good to face challenges and figure out how to conquer them, and allow my paradigms be challenged in turn. But while I’m willing to put in effort to overcome them and live with the discomfort of facing them constantly (sometimes repeatedly), someone else may not.

+++

Is M.B a privileged place? Perhaps. (I abhor how that good word, “privilege”, now carries so much inflammatory, politicized baggage with it.) Rather, I’d say M.B has hurdles that are technical and structural, born out of the wider Indieweb cultural milieu, itself a specific, particular culture. And these hurdles, and that culture, end up sifting the potential entrants to allow a certain, particular demographic through.

I don’t know of any solutions. I’m not sure that removing the hurdles I mentioned above will necessarily be good or right. Maybe they will be! But maybe they won’t. These cultural boundaries are currently, for better or worse, part of (but not necessarily the whole of) what makes M.B the place it currently is. Every culture, in defining the boundaries of who/what it is, will inevitably exclude a subset; “I am X” necessitates such a thing as “not-X”.

+++

There is another discussion happening on M.B currently: whether or not to show your Followers, and how to implement tags/”tagmojis”. It’s not an accident that those are happening simultaneously with this discussion on diversity, because they’re all about the same thing: M.B is trying to find and define its identity. From identity then comes culture, and from there, the extent of diversity the culture can contain.

The boundaries of every culture are always being contested, from within and from without. To know what boundaries to bend, and which to maintain, involves knowing (or at least, having a vision or ideal of) who we want to be. These are good discussions happening on M.B. We will see what emerges.

Contemplating a timeline and the value of online presence.

I’ve been wondering how to bring humanity back into the act of Following Someone on Social Media, to add (or perhaps, recover?) that sense of “getting to know you” that comes when meeting a person in the flesh. So far, I’ve been sending “calling card” @’s to people whom I’m following: a greeting, and why I’m following them. I’m no longer idly clicking Follow, but actively approaching someone else to make a connection.

This active engagement with someone else has compelled me to consider the purpose of my timeline. What value and edification is a social media timeline adding to my life? What goods do I want it to add to my life? Therefore, what goods are this particular person’s social media presence adding to my life when I Follow them and allow them to appear on my timeline?

I came onto Micro.blog initially because I was attracted by its (micro)blogging capabilities, and its vision of creating a village in cyberspace. Now, I’m figuring out what this social arm of M.B means to me, how to engage with it, and to what degree I want to engage.

I’m still figuring it out. Not every interesting person I encounter on M.B is someone I necessarily want to Follow. I can always encounter them through Discover, and actively visit their M.B accounts. But Following a person… that is an active step of closer engagement. I’m no longer going to visit their accounts as and when I please, and then leave possibly without saying anything, but allowing them the privilege of pouring their digitized thoughts directly into my timeline and into my life. I value what they think and say. So, the least I could do is send a calling card.

Thoughts on the Internet, fragmentation and consolidation, and singing weird songs on Micro.blog.

I have spent about half my life online. Those early years were spent traipsing around the small villages of various university, educational, and hobby websites; the days when people learnt HTML and CSS (and later, PHP) and made websites on Geocities and Angelfire (and later, got their own domains with quirky and wonderful names), and the emergence of blogs and bloggers on Livejournal and Blogger (and later, WordPress). “Social media” as it existed were website guestbooks, webrings, messageboards, and IRC and instant messengers. The Net was indeed a web of small villages, and websites were private homes: some of them familiar, some idiosyncratic, all of them recognizably belonging to a human being. The Internet and I, we came of age together.

But we grew up, and the times have changed. The Net is simultaneously fragmenting while consolidating, and in all the wrong ways. Consolidating, in that the websites have stopped being private homes and started becoming homogenous apartment complexes. The villages have been crowded out by sprawling urbanization. Fragmenting, in that those institutions have developed such centres of gravity that people are amassed within them, and have to travel between walled gardens and silos in order to engage with each other. The institutions consolidate and set the culture of format and engagement; the person fragments while moving between those edifices and expressing the self through externally-imposed standards. Thus, people’s identities stopped looking idiosyncratic and started looking uniform. The Internet no longer looks so human.

Because it looks less human and more of a technology-industrial complex, it’s easy to forget that people’s accounts and feeds are their homes on the Net. It’s easy to forget, when I land on someone’s Tumblr or Twitter account, that I am the guest who was invited to come in for a little while to listen to them speak and sing. It’s easy to stomp all over that person’s home on the Net and get into fights on their property. –Was it their property in the first place? It was the institution gave them that grey box to live in, identical to my grey box.

I’ve accepted that there’s no turning back the clock, but in the process of the Internet maturing into Web 2.0 and beyond, I’ve been kind of cast adrift, and have spent most of the last decade trying not just to find the Internet spaces that look human and echo the small villages of my younger days and thus can be called a home, but also trying to define what the Internet-as-community means to me, and therefore, how I am to relate to Internet-as-community. In some ways, this fragmentation and thinning of human identity on the Internet has contributed to me becoming _less_ invested in online forms of self-expression. I’m no longer the agent defining my own online identity, let alone defining Internet-as-community. That role has been taken over by those institutions. So I no longer blog and make websites and speak out my thinking online, who did a lot of both in the Internet’s (and my) coming-of-age. Some of that is realizing that I am a human-in-flesh, not some disembodied consciousness in the aether, and thus life is best lived IRL; but in part, I always had a lingering subconscious sense that ownership and expression of my online identity was being eroded and fragmented over time. Since those early days, I haven’t been able to find a place to speak or make a home, ever since.

I think… Micro.blog may be that homey place I’m looking for. A place where I can consolidate my online identity from the fragmentation it’s experienced across social media. A place where the community is “broken down” back into small, idiosyncratic houses I can visit and be a guest for a short time (and they be a guest in my house), instead of monolithic aggregations of people with no sense of walls and boundaries. And a place where it’s easy to make and post content of all kinds without having to figure out the systems to hold said content. The Internet has outgrown my very basic HTML and CSS skills.

I’m not looking for a platform or an audience. In fact, one luxury of the Internet is that I don’t have to see, or hear, or engage with, the audience. I just want to sing. I want to carve out a little crevice of the Net, hide inside, and sing all kinds of odd little word-based and occasionally picturesque songs. Sure, there are lots of places to do this, but they usually want me to sing in a certain way (in 280 characters, or manicured images, say), or sing amidst a cacophony of other voices, or jump through hoops to sing in the first place. At least, it feels that way to me.

I’m not pinning all my hopes in this place. No doubt Micro.blog will face challenges with maintaining this sense of villages and private houses as it expands and grows, and more people arrive. If it gets too overwhelming, I’ll pack up my content and fly away and find another crevice to carve out. But for now, this seems to be the place I’m looking for. Let’s see what kind of little house I can build here. Maybe it’ll be a cozy one for a while.

After lurking about all kinds of social media and blogging spaces and not really finding anything that suits my fancy or desire for quietude, this seems like a good place to land and consolidate. Let’s see if I can make a home in this crevice of the Wild Wide Web.