Thursday, May 26, 2011

The New Wild West

A friend and I have frequently discussed the difference between arrogance and confidence.

It's a pretty crucial distinction, actually.  Think about it: everyone loves hanging out with someone who is confident.  The day just breezes by.

On the other hand, no one wants to hang around with someone who's arrogant.  They're a complete pain in the butt.  They spoil even the simplest pleasures life has to offer.

On the one hand, arrogance might seem to be misapplied confidence.  A tad too much of it, perhaps. 

But actually, I think arrogance is a complete lack of confidence.  Which is ironic, because it means that although the arrogant think they radiate confidence, they are in fact generating the exact opposite: total insecurity.

I've been thinking about this because in Quirk, Hannah Holmes talks about assertiveness.  In a way, I think assertiveness is the lynch-pin between arrogance and confidence.  The arrogant misunderstand the nature and purpose of assertiveness: they think you need it in every situation.

The confident, by contrast, have mastered the fine art of making a little assertiveness go a long way.

Personally, I think of the difference between arrogance and confidence in terms of temperature and volume.  The arrogant tend to run at high temperatures and to excess, whereas the confident know how to conserve their energy and keep their cool.

The arrogant are always a little loud, while the confident tend to stay quiet.  The arrogant want you to know not what they know, but the fact that they know it.

The confident are comfortable with what they don't know.  They don't necessarily need you to know what they know, if it's not particularly pertinent or relevant to the situation at hand.

Because of this, I think the confident work smoothly and efficiently.  They're like human engines that have figured out how to minimize friction--both personally and socially.

The arrogant are engulfed in friction, both personally and socially, and ironically, they assume that it must always be someone else's fault, since it can't possibly be their own.

Because I'm working on designing a course that looks at identity and mobility and I'm currently devising a unit that looks at identity, mobility and technology, I've been situating all of these ideas in terms of my own experiences online, on email and Facebook, over the past couple of years.

For me, this is how personal experience becomes relevant to my intellectual life.  By situating it in a larger context of ideas and concerns, I try to understand what happens to me as something that may not be limited to myself, no matter how uniquely personal it may seem to be at the time.

I'm fascinated by the fact that, on Facebook, there are what I think of as "hot pockets."  On the one hand, I can go onto a wide range of pages and know that I will see people posting and commenting calmly and efficiently, discussing a wide range of potentially controversial topics and sharing information with one another in ways that advance the conversation and ideas.

Everyone leaves these pages with food for thought.  And the conversations sometimes span the course of days, if not an entire week.

On the other hand, there are the "hot pockets."  If you go onto one of these pages, it's like you've entered an electronic Wild West after someone just shot the sheriff.

No one is calm in the hot pockets.  Instead, everyone is, well, freaking out, and as a result, none of the information posted or obtained is ever accurate.  People are constantly posting and posting and reposting, commenting and commenting and re-commenting, sometimes with little more than a minute in between comments and posts and sometimes with no variation in the ideas or phrasing.

If you saw someone in real life stand in front of another person and shout at them like that, you'd think they were insane.  But in the electronic hot pockets, people lack all sense of self-awareness.

They don't take the time to visualize what they would look and sound like if they spoke or acted in the way that they are presenting themselves electronically.

Phrases like, "For your information..." and "Let me tell you..." abound.  The volume and vociferousness of their holders determines whether opinions are "right" or "correct."  Points of potential interpretation or debate are "bullshit."  Labels are slapped onto everything and everyone: "progressive," "liberal," "teabagger," "libertarian"--and these are just some of the more polite terms people tag onto various modes of self-expression.

If you descend into the maelstrom, be prepared: at some point, you will be called "trash" and your intelligence will be called into question in queries laced with expletives.  You will be blocked.

Bullets, bar-stools and fists are flying, chairs are hurled, tables are overturned.  And that huge mirror behind the bar is only a few seconds away from being shattered by airborne glassware, so be sure you duck in time.

What is particularly odd to me is that, in the midst of this chaos, the prevailing tone is always one of spiteful condescension.  Everyone is an expert on religion, politics, finance, constitutional law, history and sexuality (to name only a few).  And everyone has a link to back them up.  Not a resume, or a distinguished career, or a book, or a lot of life experience in the field-- a link.

And usually it's to a dot-com site.

It's always implied that we're supposed to feel quite lucky these people are even posting and commenting.  They're willing to waste their valuable time telling us what we should know and think.  If only we weren't all so oblivious and stupid, they could forgo the Facebook experience altogether.

Except that they can't, and they know it.  We don't need them at all; they need us.

Arrogance always needs an audience--that's its Achilles Heel.

My theory is, the people with the resumes and the careers and the books and the experience stay out of the hot pockets.  They're confident in themselves and their lives, so they don't need to chuck a glass at someone or try to get our attention by firing warning shots into the air and bringing the chandelier down on our collective heads.

Actually, I've come to the conclusion that most of the confident people out there aren't on Facebook at all or, if so, they only show up intermittently and for very clearly determined periods of time, with a very precise agenda.

They do what they came to do, and then they log off to go do what they need to do in real life and real time.

I question the extent to which Facebook generates a false sense of accomplishment in those who rely on it heavily as a medium of social interaction and engagement.

If you spend hours posting and commenting about your beliefs and your opinions, what have you really done?  You haven't written something coherent or comprehensive: your comments and wall posts won't change the world.

Seriously, they won't.

I think that, in many ways, the revolution in Egypt misled people about the nature of social networking sites. The revolution didn't come about "because of" Facebook or even "on" Facebook.  It came about because of the actions of people in Egypt in response to a political situation that had been brewing (or unraveling) for decades.

The technology mobilized individuals by giving them a sense of solidarity and helping them to see that they were part of a larger collective of shared energies and opinions--there's no denying that.

But it didn't make the individuals revolutionaries: they had already made that choice for themselves.

And even more importantly, they didn't spend hours a day just posting and commenting on Facebook.  If they had, there wouldn't have been a revolution at all. 

What is in the hot pockets--the Wild West of Facebook--is not shared energy or a collective purpose.  It's sheer arrogance.  You can tell by the temperature and volume: everyone is hotly "shouting" (caps lock ON).  No one is listening.

And certainly no one is reflecting on anything they read or write.  If, at 7:49 p.m., you tell me that, on the subject of constitutional law, I don't know my ass from a hole in the ground, you can bet I'm not going to wait around until 7:55 p.m. to post a link to a dot-com site and tell you to go stick it where the sun doesn't shine.

I think people can't be feeling very pleased or satisfied with themselves or their exchanges when they finally log off from such experiences--if they ever log off.   I think it creates a vicious cycle: dissatisfied with their experience, they are doomed to repeat it, endlessly, and always with the same result.

This is the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and always expecting a different result. 

Meanwhile, I think they have no idea that, just a click or two away, others are actually talking and writing and thinking productively and coherently about the very ideas that they care so much about.

I suspect they'll never know.  Whenever the renegades and the outlaws stroll into town to start shooting things up, the decent and the hard-working quietly and confidently lock their doors and protect what they value most.

After all, they're the ones who always clean up the mess that the others leave behind.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."