As an anthropologist, I have been trained to ask, and attempt to answer, questions about human behavior. As a cultural anthropologist, my methods involve participant observation to gather the data needed to start formulating an analysis. This all sounds very dry, but in layman’s terms all it really boils down to is that I am a professional people-watcher. I became an anthropologist because I thought it would be bitchin’ to make a career out of finding answers to the questions that fascinate me. Even better, I get to teach others how to answer their own questions about why people do what they do, and open their eyes to new ways of trying to answer those questions.
So, this week the musings of the skeptical anthropologist are focused on communicative strategies and how they are changing. Or, to put it in a more entertaining way, what the hell are people thinking sometimes when they open their mouths? Or, even more so these days, when they e-mail/post/Twitter/link/YouTube/Flickr? What are we really trying to accomplish with all these new ways of communicating?
I find that there is a fascinating blend of potential motivations in what people do with the new instant-communication technologies at our fingertips. The cell phone camera/video/e-mail/upload capabilities have given us the ability to reveal ourselves and our lives in some shockingly exhibitionist ways… and some coma-inducingly boring ways, too. And, the variety of emotions we can express! I know I’m not saying anything new here, but the anonymity the internet can afford (but that actually seems less and less anonymous each day) allows people to be astonishingly raw.
So what’s my hypothesis? I haven’t settled on anything concrete yet, but I am attempting to formulate some ideas based on status-seeking behavior, and ultimately (as always with me) evolutionarily adaptive behaviors. To wit: on a venue such as Facebook, there seems to be a great deal of “look at how clever/cool/witty/educated I am” sorts of posts. There are also many “look at how virtuous/healthy/creative/thoughtful I am” posts. These posts, I need not remind, are not anonymous. Who wouldn’t want to take credit for “Just made a delicious risotto with truffle oil and chanterelle mushrooms”? Who, exactly, are we trying to impress? Facebook is also a simple way to keep friends up to date on your life, and most people seem to use it that way, but for how many is this an opportunity, however unconscious, to simply brag? And, how much of what we post is actually reflective of the life we are trying to project?
On the opposite side of that coin are anonymous posters, such as those who lurk at the San Diego Union-Tribune website. The amount of vitriol that drips from some of these posts is simply boggling. And along with the vitriol is just plain ol’ racism, sexism, and one of my favorites, stupidity. But the point is that, for the most part, people won’t flame each other on Facebook, but they will easily descend to the level of playground bullies on anonymous comment boards. No surprise there, but I can’t help wondering how many of these folks are the same as the ones posting about the truffle risotto.
Yet another area of fascination is the YouTube phenomenon. This came disgustingly home for me when my little cousin linked to a graphic video of… wait for it… a guy letting his girlfriend LANCE A BOIL on his back. There is no attempt to disguise the face of said guy, and he knows he is being filmed, and I assume he approved of having the video posted online. And yes, I watched it, in all its blood- and pus-spurting glory (which brings up another topic of fascination for me, which is our primate urge to groom each other… but I’ll save that for another post!).
What does all this new technology, these novel (but not for long) communicative strategies, mean for us and our behavior? How do we know what to trust? How do we know what to say? What will be the limits, if any, on what we will reveal? How long will it be before all this availability, visibility, and downright exhibitionism festers into its own cultural boil and pops? Or will we simply adapt, as we have for so long?
An even better question, for me personally: what makes me think anybody is interested in what I have to say in this blog (besides my mom – awww, thanks Ma!)? Hmmm… the musings continue.