Behaving as if our digital data is fleeting can cause serious trouble

engineers should take up the case, fight fire with fire, and set their sights on designing anti-racist apps

Social Media” didn’t get anything wrong or right. Reporters got things wrong

There’s something beautifully noncommittal about Snapchat that flies in the face of what we’ve always known photography to represent

I’m tired of contributing to the commodification of my own existence

Silent presence sometimes the only possible response to tragedy, but it’s an affordance of embodied presence. Online presence must speak

There was no correlation between how much money users paid and how well they were treated

No, technology is not “rewiring” young people’s brains

Holiday cards were mostly maudlin crap as if that could make any real difference for stopping wars

A History of the Digitalization of Consumer Culture

Nathan is on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson

To the photographer, this was simply a beating, not this particular man suffering

This glitch is a correction to the “machine”, and, in turn, a positive departure

If we perfect online dating, we won’t need robot lovers because the dating platform will roboticize us

I don’t think Google News has ever taken enough responsibility for the cybernetics of the system it created

Inbox Zero is a coping mechanism for the anxiety created by a constant flux of e-mail

the cybertheorists, however, are a peculiarly corporatist species of the Leninist class

The internet is a real place. It’s where I live, my public space. I don’t like feeling that I can’t go there without fear of violence

the first episode of a late-night TV program to see an artist engaging the crowd with a participatory smart-phone app

I’m tired, technoutopianism. I’m tired of your sexy, shiny surface and your utter lack of substance

Nathan’s Twitter: @nathanjurgenson

This piece was supposed to be about porn star James Deen.

After reading about Deen here and there and everywhere, I had the idea that perhaps there was something worth writing about. Only the problem was, that the more I watched of his work, the less I had a desire to write about it. Perhaps the point is not Deen himself and how he has been lauded via the wheel of favorable ratings by female audiences online. What needs to be written about is what happens when a woman sits down and engages with sex—specifically, her own, as tied to an exploration of her individual sexuality and liberation therein—via the medium of a computer screen.

There are only so many Deen videos a girl can watch with the goal of “critique” at the forefront: at a certain point, one of two things irrupts that process. The first is a screen, stuck, overwhelmed as a consequence of having too many windows open, too many things playing at once; I am trying to get an education, make a determination for myself, so I want to see everything, hear everything, right now, all at once. The second irruption I will leave for you to guess at. I will hint at the latter by saying that a petite morte of the physical self can be easily mirrored in the metaphor of the digital “glitch”—a little digital death, a wheeze, a shift, a breath, a sneeze, a pause. A glitch. I am writing from there: the glitch. The moment of one’s participation in sexual activity online where the myth of AFK (“Away From Keyboard”) and IRL (“In Real Life”) that comprise the two sides of Jurgenson’s digital dualism duality collapse, and, in the collapse, realize their dazzling potential.

In Chris Baraniuk’s “Feedback, White Noise and Glitches: Cyberspace Strikes Back”, Baraniuk observes, “Glitches, feedback, whitenoise, interference, static—although these may not be the final frontier, they are demonstrably—for now—the edge,” further noting that, “. . . glitches . . . remind us that what we see on a screen is subject to a special kind of entropy which does not exist in the physical world . . . ” When faced with this sort of interruption we opt to make physical with ourselves, our partners, the world around us, that which, without this pause, we might not feel the urgency to manifest for ourselves, with ourselves.

The glitch is the digital orgasm, where the machine takes a sigh, a shudder, and with a jerk, spasms. These moments have been integrated into the rituals and routines of our own physical action, impacting how we interact with our own bodies, and how we explore our deepest fantasies and desires, spurred forth by these mechanized micro-seizures. The glitch is the catalyst, not the error. The glitch is the happy accident. When the computer freezes mid-conversation, when the video buffers and refuses to progress, these moments are a new mode of foreplay, something that needs to be acknowledged not as a fetish, but as a new possibly for foreplay within sexual routine. We want what we cannot have; whatever the material we are aiming to access, the glitch makes us wait and whimper for it.

Digital dualism’s IRL is juxtaposed with AFK, a falsehood, for sure—the rapidly waning notion that there are somehow two selves, operating in isolation from one another, rather than one continuous self, two sides of a vivacious equation looped together in a continual narrative of daily living and human existence. The glitch splits the difference; it is a plank that passes between the two. When watching media online, it is the rainbowed spinning wheel, the pixilated hiccup, the frozen screen, or the buffering signal that acts as a fissure, that jars us into recognition of the separation of our physical selves from the body that immerses itself in fantasy when participating in sexual activity online. Yet, simultaneously, it is also the glitch that prompts us to “choose-our-own-adventure”, to finish the story, and, in doing so, to acknowledge that when the mediation of digital space fails us, albeit briefly, we continue right where we left off, taking the revolution offline, but not out of body, thereby demonstrating the fallacy of the digital dualist dialectic. Will we reboot? restart? Perhaps. Ultimately, we will polish things off, just as we see fit, and to put a bow on the end goal of jouissance—ribboned and righted, and, because we want it, we will seize our release.

I am writing about “sexual activity” broadly, an overarching umbrella: I am talking about the watching of porn, but also about cybering, sexting, G-chat fantasy play, or the uploading or downloading of other sex-oriented content from the Internet. It is the glitch that incites anticipation—that ecstasy of interference. An immersive différence, in the purest sense of the French translation—both “difference” and “defer” alike. Though pejoratively dismissed all too frequently as an aspect of technical error, for me the glitch denotes an extension of the realm of foreplay, whether it be “play” with oneself, or with a virtualized other, imagined, or waiting just on the other side of the proverbial screen.

With this in mind, I propose the turning of a new radicality, coining the term “Glitch Feminism” to make use of here in these pages for the first time, by my hand, which on this journey has found its home both on the keys and between my legs, equally.

It must be noted that the word glitch is oft delegated to the realm of slang, which explains why it is so easy to pin it with negative connotations. Urban Dictionary defines it as “an error in a structured system”; defines it as “a defect or malfunction in a machine or plan”. In a society that conditions the public to find discomfort or outright fear in the errors and malfunctions of our socio-cultural mechanics—illicitly and implicitly encouraging an ethos of “Don’t rock the boat!”—a “glitch” becomes an apt metonym. Glitch Feminism, however, embraces the causality of “error”, and turns the gloomy implication of glitch on its ear by acknowledging that an error in a social system that has already been disturbed by economic, racial, social, sexual, and cultural stratification and the imperialist wrecking-ball of globalization—processes that continue to enact violence on all bodies—may not, in fact, be an error at all, but rather a much-needed erratum. This glitch is a correction to the “machine”, and, in turn, a positive departure. This glitch I speak of here calls for a breaking from the hegemony of a “structured system” infused with the pomp and circumstance of patriarchy, one that for all too long has marginalized female-identified bodies, and continues to offend our sensibilities by giving us only a piece of the pie and assuming our satisfaction. We want to claim for ourselves permanent seats at the table, an empowered means of demarcating space that can be possessed by us in entirety, a veritable “room of [our] own” that, despite the strides made via feminist political action, has yet to truly belong to us.

A Glitch Feminist acknowledges the value of visuality, and the revolutionary role that digital practice has in expanding the construction, deconstruction, and re-presentation of the female-identifying corpus. We acknowledge that the rigidity of digital dualism needs to be retired, as it plays into binaries of real/virtual that parallel the rampantly socialized figuration of male/female.

“Glitch” is conjectured as finding its etymological roots in the Yiddish glitch (“slippery area”) or perhaps German glitschen (“to slip, slide”); it is this slip and slide that the glitch makes plausible, a swim in the liminal, a trans-formation, across selfdoms. The digital divide, as with the gender divide, is a construct that allows for phallogocentrism, normative systems oriented toward the necessary splitting of selves, to stick, having lulled us into consenting to their naturalizing neutrality, despite the stark reality that such structures are not in actuality “neutral”, nor natural, in any capacity. As bodies, we are an extended narrative, eternal in our geographies, imbued with unexpected fissures that cause us to re-present ourselves, and, in doing so, see ourselves again, in new lights and explorations. However capable we are of tectonic shifts, we remain, still, unmistakably continuous. Glitch Feminism is not gender-specific—it is for all bodies that exist somewhere before arrival upon a final concretized identity that can be easily digested, produced, packaged, and categorized by a voyeuristic mainstream public.

Glitch Feminism therefore is feminism for a digital age, a heralding of virtual agency, a blooming of particularity and selfhood. “Glitch” refuses being categorized as subtext, it rejects being labeled as subversive, it does not speak for the marginal or the subaltern, as “sub-” as a prefix needs to be marked as a mode of acquiescence to our own exclusion from the canon, the academy, the Platonic ideal. The first step to subverting a system is accepting that that system will remain in place; that said, the glitch says fuck your systems! Your delineations! Your determinations as imposed upon our physicality! The glitch respectfully declines second rank to common convention.

Jurgenson’s problematizing of digital dualism opens the door for more discourse and discovery: female-identifying bodies and artists participating in the gorgeous scrambling of gender are still marking their own path within the lineage of art history; in the digital world we have claimed sure footing and a platform that allows us to explore new publics, engage in critical discourse with new audiences, and, above all, glitschen between new conceptions of our bodies, ourselves.

It is a long road ahead, we are in beta, yet the necessary “malfunction” is well under way. As for the outcome? Well, fortunately, it’s still buffering.

Legacy Russell is a writer, artist, and curator. A Contributing Editor for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG, she has worked at and produced programs for The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Creative Time, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney, and the Met. Her writing can be found in ArtSlant, berfrois, DIS, Canteen, Guernica, and more. A candidate for an MRes of Visual Culture at Goldsmith’s University, her creative and academic work explores mourning, remembrance, iconography, and idolatry within the public realm. Her performance, The Initiation, debuts December 2012 at The Museum of Arts and Design, New York.

Best GIF – Drama

tablets aren’t a new medium which will support a whole new class of publications

We live for the moment because the moment is what an image captures

Social media is a major development in the creation and delivery of propaganda

to lose a cell phone would be to induce a state of partial amnesia

Hyper-visibility and invisibility are not mutually exclusive

the image may be the most-shared item in the eight-year history of Facebook

unboxing videos are maybe the exact opposite of ASMR videos

I happen to love Instagram because I’m mildly creative and a terrible picture taker

The top decision maker at YouTube has more censorship power than any Supreme Court justice

We make ourselves protagonists and build a world in which to live and act

your steward through the wonderfully esoteric world of antique eBook collecting

The internet has made me feel like I need to know and name the important stuff the instant I see it

Few techno-utopias are as confusing as this one

Your Cell Phone Could Soon Become Part of a Massive Earthquake Detection System

The key difference between academics and venture capitalists, in fact, is not closed versus open but evidence versus speculation

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson

Since it’s the season for giving, I’d like to satirically write up some conclusions for that op-ed you need to finish. A cool way to crank out that “think-piece” before your deadline is to pick a topic—reading, driving, talking, pet-grooming, bedazzling, whatever—and say social media is making it less real, deep, true, meaningful, authentic, soulful, or whatever else makes you feel like a better type of human than the automaton masses.

First, we’ll need to ignore those articles that present research in a balanced and non-sensationalist way. Instead, start with your conclusion, snag a hyperbolic headline from your editor, and cherry-pick a small subset of research to make the point you think will get the most hits, likes, comments, and high-fives.

Next, try to pass off an irrational and unsubstantiated fetishization of what you deem “real” as instead a simple, nostalgic appreciation for retro, vintage, slow, and disconnected. Seriously, IRL Fetishizing is like cat-nip for much of your reader base. And then people like me will link to it exclaiming how research says otherwise—how we remain disconnected in many ways and that disconnection being fetishized isn’t even disconnection in the first place—but, no worry: that just means more hits, troll-style!

Oh, and make sure your readers know you are wealthy by mentioning your Cape Cod or European vacations, but don’t bother questioning how being able to opt out of certain technologies is, in part, a byproduct of that privilege.

Okay, I’ll start here, and it’d be fun if you all could add some more in the comments.

Do E-Books Mean the End of Knowledge?
When I found myself packing those books at my Cape Cod summer home, running my fingers over the textured covers, I was reminded that ideas have weight. Real, physical, weight. You can literally feel the ideas in the small of your back as you strain to lift the boxes. What will it mean when a new generation can only conceive of ideas as light? When their legs never wrench and quiver under the demanding substance of the book, when thoughts cannot register as pounds on a scale, it is not just our bags that get lighter but maybe, just maybe, our brains, too. Indeed, when life is all ones and zeros it makes every one a zero.

Are Smartphones Really Dumbphones?
I remember making calls on rotary phones, the substance of the rotary on my fingers, the circular motion each number commands from my arm. What is friendship if not that same sort of circularity? A “smart”-phone call today is hardly such a moment but instead just a series of taps, jabs, and “pokes.” The playfulness of the rotary is replaced with something more demanding, even violent. No wonder talking to each other hardly seems worth it anymore.

Why Digital Photos Will Kill Us All
Before (anti)social media and those digital cameras found in the hands of all those people who have no business calling themselves photographers, finding an image of my yacht was something of a voyage itself. When photographs were paper they had a soul, a life, and a death; the paper degraded, the colors faded, the edges bent in reminder that life itself isn’t meant to last in digital perfection, but die scattered and unused in a damp basement. As I look out at the sea, I think we aren’t surfing the web, but drowning in it.

Bonus! Someone even made a silly video about this, which I assume/hope is also satire.

Are MP3s Is Spotify the End of Music?
As quickly as they came they left; mp3 files might not be as easy as streaming music, but I’ll miss the feeling in my hand as I dragged files from one digital folder to the next. The smell of the hard-drive whir. The slowness of waiting for the files to copy imbued a sense of patience into music. Watching the “time left” countdown gave me occasion to contemplate; to think about how that digital-compressed mp3 sound was always more warm than the too-flawless Spotify stream. It is too bad kids today will never get to experience handling that “coverart.jpg” file. They’ll never lovingly organize and reorganize their ‘Music’ folder, forever a lost art. You can listen to a song on Spotify, but you’ll never truly hear it.


See how easy this is? Now it’s your turn! What other topics can we give a lazy, digital dualist, IRL Fetish conclusion for? Cooking? Directions? Memory? Protest? Dying? Be sure to work in Twitter-bait like, “Web 2.0 has ensnared us in a web too pointless, oh”…okay, someone else finish that one.

my favorite twitters share a sense of wonder expressed as comedy of the bizarre

”microfame” is a structure of feeling for coping with mandatory requirements to construct identity online

Does Web 3.0 come after Web 2.0?

A sociological analysis must not conceive of algorithms as abstract, technical achievements

you open FB and on your timeline, there’s you, having some whole alternate life, tagged in photos you’re not in or don’t remember

We’re gonna introduce the mapping stuff so you can stalk people

I wondered whether we would all thrive in an atmosphere that so insistently merges productivity & sociability

all of my digital masks are equally me and that all of my digital ghosts mean me no harm

Kickstarter cultivates the illusion that when you use its fundraising tools, you are opting out of wage labor

Like-addled Facebook users will share anything no matter how obviously untrue it is

social media has given us many more canvases on which to paint our faux humility

nobody wants to listen to the sound of somebody trying to be cool on the internet

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson

Mary Chayko’s digitally well-connected class

One of the aspects of techno-social life that I’ll be looking at closely in my forthcoming book Superconnected: The Internet and Techno-Social Life is the reality of the online experience. To explore this issue in the classroom, I invited Nathan Jurgenson of this blog to tweet “live” with my “Mediated Communication in Society” class, billing him as a special guest speaker tweeter! Here I describe what I did, why I did it, how I did it — and what happened, much of it unexpected, as a result.

I’m a big believer in using social media in the classroom, especially Twitter, as appropriate. Students generally seem to spark to it, entering willingly, even eagerly, into conversations and collaborations that often continue well after class is over. We discuss relevant topics in the timeliest of ways, posting to our class hashtag links to articles and info that we think will interest one another as soon as we come across them, day or night. Outsiders, including authors of course texts, sometimes jump into these convos, allowing us to get to know them and their ideas personally and more expansively. At some point, the time/space/personnel boundaries of the classroom fall away. The “classroom” is always open and class (i.e. learning) can take place at anyone’s desire, whim, or convenience.

My Mediated Communication class (Rutgers University, Fall 2012) has taken this premise even further. Anticipating that my students might be intrigued by his work exploring online and offline “reality” (see, for example, Digital Dualism and Augmentented Reality, The Facebook Eye, and The IRL Fetish), I asked Nathan Jurgenson if he would join our class on Twitter sometime during the semester. I had considered other modes of bringing him to class — in-person guest lecture, via Skype, etc. But, for me, the opportunity to examine the content AND form of a socially mediated reality, simultaneously, in a class predicated on the study of mediated communication, was too rich to pass up.

I proposed that we spend an hour or so live-tweeting with him. The class would be gathered physically in the classroom and he would join in from his own remote location. Afterward, the students and I would review and reflect on the experience fairly thoroughly – our engagement with Nathan and his ideas, our engagement with one another, what we learned, what we didn’t, and why. My goal was to wring as much as possible, intellectually and socially, from the exercise.

With Nathan on board, I planned and structured the event. I scheduled it for the seventh week of the semester; just past midterms — a good time to focus closely on a set of issues already identified as important. In the week prior to the live-tweet session, the students read the articles of Nathan’s linked to above, plus a selection of critiques of “The IRL Fetish” (Nicholas Carr’s The Line Between Online and Offline, Jenna Wortham’s The End of the Online World As We Know It?, L.M. Sacasas’ In Search of the Real, and Alan Jacobs’ What It Means To See The World With An Eye Toward a Facebook Update). Students wrote responses to these articles on our internal course blog and discussion forum. We talked about them in the classroom. Finally, I asked students to narrow their concerns to a single question that they would ask Nathan during the live-tweet session and to a comment or two that they could post to the class hashtag to get the discussion started in the days immediately preceding Nathan’s appearance.

I looked over the students’ questions, making a few suggestions to improve clarity and avoid redundancy, but generally allowing them to ask him whatever they wanted, including about other topics beyond digital dualism and reality. I described how I envisioned the session proceeding: each student (there are 25) would get to ask at least one question of Nathan, which could be the one they’d pre-planned or one that arose organically during the chat. Follow-up questions would be encouraged and students could “jump in” on one another’s conversations with Nathan in traditional Twitter cross-talk fashion.

The weekend before Nathan’s online visit, conversation began to heat up on the hashtag:

With conversation still humming on the hashtag, the date for the live-tweet arrived. In the classroom, we got ourselves organized. I divided the class into quadrants of six or so students, each of which could take “center stage” with Nathan for about fifteen minutes of the hour. Within each group, students were to ask Nathan questions more or less one at a time, though it didn’t always work out that neatly (and when it didn’t, Nathan handled the barrage with calm fluidity). Students were permitted and encouraged to join whatever active Twitter conversations Nathan was attending to as they wished, but not to carry on separate side convos, which surely would have turned the exercise into a 25-ring circus. All were to stay engaged with Nathan’s current convos and to be prepared to ask him a question when it was their turn.

When Nathan arrived online, the energy in the classroom elevated considerably. Several questions provoked immediate interest, and we were off:


We discussed the augmentation of reality…



…the online self…



…tech addiction…





…online dating…



…even how to be a more effective student.



I allowed these Twitter convos to unfold without my participation, figuring that students get more than enough of me during every other class. Instead, I acted mostly as traffic cop, keeping things moving, giving equal time to each quadrant, calling on people when necessary to make sure they got their turn and calling for a halt to new questions when too many were already in the queue. However, about twenty minutes in, something unexpected began to happen.

As the online conversations became deeper, more thought-provoking, and occasionally quite funny, I saw students begin to laugh and talk among themselves about Nathan’s ideas AND about the experience they were taking part in. These were not disruptive conversations, but respectful little sidebars that began to operate as a kind of face-to-face backchannel to the main online event. I had not predicted that something like this would happen — in fact, I had told students that they could bring ear buds to class and listen to music during what I assumed would be the quietest of all class sessions. Yet before long few if any students had their ear buds in. They seemed to want to exchange glances, gestures, and eventually words and laughter, and as they did, so did I. We were communicating both online and face-to-face, with each mode adding something to the other. I couldn’t wait to contact Nathan later to tell him that all this had been going on.

Online community, networks, and participatory culture are major concepts in this course. In this single class session we took a leap toward absorbing and internalizing these ideas and even creating such a culture ourselves. Later, I asked students to reflect on the experience. One or two students shared that they had felt a bit overloaded by the constant rush of information during the session (as I daresay many live guest-tweeters would be), though they persevered impressively and maintained that they were glad that they had taken part in it nonetheless. Nearly all students described a heightened sense of engagement with the material, with one another, and with Nathan, personally, as well. As I usually do, I had the students detail their reflections on the course blog and on the course Twitter hashtag:



One student who couldn’t attend class that day joined in from home, and discovered that



And another of our course’s authors, Evan Selinger, peeked in on the proceedings, tweeted about them, and returned to our hashtag to interact with us later in the semester:



Though the class’s sense of engagement, of learning, was palpable, I should note some important caveats. Even if I had sufficient guest-tweeters to call upon, I would not do this often during any given semester. It requires substantial course time and resources to set up, plan, run, and debrief, and I think the exercise would lose its punch and power if done too often. I also do not think this session would have worked as well with a less dextrous and personable guest-tweeter, with less provocative ideas being exchanged, and with a class that was not “into” Twitter.

I always survey each of my classes at the start to determine the level of interest and willingness of the students to use social media for class-related activities. I offer students an opportunity to opt out of social media use, to use pseudonyms online, and I require those that wish to use it to abide by a strict set of social media use policies which we discuss at great length (and which I am happy to share). I also teach all my students, ad infinitum, ad nauseum I’m sure, to use social media responsibly and professionally. In this particular class, every single student indicated from the start a willingness to use social media in the classroom, including Twitter, in new and creative ways, and to learn unfamiliar social media platforms, such as Storify, for class projects. This freed me up to imagine how to best and most productively use these media without having to worry about leaving a student behind. I’m not sure I would have proceeded with this exercise had I not had such an interested and proficient group – and, of course, such an interesting and proficient special guest-tweeter, for whom doing this had to be a challenge, but who was 100% “game”:



I think we all experienced a little #vertigo during and after our live-tweet class session with Nathan Jurgenson, but I like to think it was well worth it. The students got all kinds of insights into critical course themes and concepts, formed connections with one another and with an early-career professional who was giving them real insight into the ways that they live, and gained a truly “hands on” perspective on mediated communication.They understood that they were participating in and helping to develop a brand new way of learning, too, and to a person they seemed to think that that was pretty cool:



But my favorite outcome was the way the face-to-face “backchannel,” and the class as a community, began, during this event, to coalesce. I can even pinpoint the moment it happened: It was when Nathan responded to a query about how he was handling the barrage of questions:



We laughed loudly in the classroom then, in collective acknowledgement both of Nathan’s wit and the ambitiousness of the learning event that we were engaged in, and creating, together.

Mary Chayko ( is Professor and Chairperson of Sociology at the College of Saint Elizabeth in NJ and a lecturer in Communication for Rutgers University. She is the author of the social science bestseller Portable Communities: The Social Dynamics of Online and Mobile Connectedness and Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age, both with SUNY Press, and thinks she’d be able to handle guest live-tweeting almost as well as Nathan Jurgenson. She is on Twitter @MaryChayko and email at

“I’m so thankful the internet was not in wide use when I was in high school”, this article begins, a common refrain among people who grew up without social media sites from Friendster to Facebook, Photobucket to Instagram. Even those using email, chatrooms, Livejournal, multiplayer games and the like did not have the full-on use-your-real-name-ultra-public Facebook-like experience.

Behind many of the “thank God I didn’t have Facebook back then!” statements is the worry that a less-refined past-self would be exposed to current, different, perhaps hipper or more professional networks. Silly music tastes, less-informed political statements, embarrassing photos of the 15-year-old you: digital dirt from long ago would threaten to debase today’s impeccably curated identity project. The discomfort of having past indiscretions in the full light of the present generates the knee-jerk thankfulness of not having high-school digital dirt to manage. The sentiment is almost common enough to be a truism within some groups, but I wonder if we should continue saying it so nonchalantly?

“Glad we didn’t have Facebook then!” isn’t always wrong, but the statement makes at least two very arguable suppositions and it also carries the implicit belief that identity-change is something that should be hidden, reinforcing the stigma that generates the phrase to begin with.

First, the statement assumes that the net effect of social media for teens now and in the future will be negative. Bullying, harassment, and embarrassment as a result of online activity are certainly real—and not evenly distributed, with vulnerable populations at increased risk. However, social media visibility isn’t only a source of harassment but also a source of support. Things like the It Gets Better ProjectHarssmap, Hollaback, to say nothing of, for example, the many potentially supportive comments on a Facebook post where a teen comes out of the closet demonstrate visibility, harm, and support in a complicated relationship, something true long before Zuckerberg started coding. I’m not sure how we can make a definitive calculation here, but before being so thankful we didn’t have Facebook to embarrass us, we might also think of how it could have also been a foundation of encouragement, assistance, and validation that many of us might have benefited from.

Second, the statement incorrectly judges a hypothetical other world (where we had Facebook in high-school) by the moral standards of this world (where we didn’t). This assumes that most everyone having had Facebook in the past would have little influence on our current norms around visibility, identity-change, stigma, and so on. But if social media was indeed ubiquitous decades ago, we might not be so embarrassed by the possibility or reality of a little digital dirt today. Whether Bill Clinton ever smoked weed was a major political issue in the 90’s whereas Obama’s admission in the aughts was largely uninteresting. Some stigmas erode, and as past social media use becomes more common, perhaps some mistakes, some digital dirt, won’t be as discomforting as we feel today. Indeed, having a too-perfect, too-clean presence might demonstrate trickery, having something to hide, or unawareness of how these important platforms work.


I wonder if the collective cringing at our hypothetical Facebook-documented pasts is sometimes a conservative and unhealthy tendency. My fear is that the ubiquity of the “I’m so glad I didn’t have Facebook then!” refrain might sustain the stigma that we want to end. What if we, instead, proudly proclaim that we did things that we are embarrassed about and that’s okay?

When Jezebel very publicly shamed racist teens after Election Day, “Glad I didn’t have Facebook when I was their age” was an especially common response, implicitly arguing this sort of behavior is best hidden. The response sends the message that those shamed teens should try to run from and hide these tweets. What if, instead, in ten years those teens-now-adults used those tweets and their lingering presence in search results as a teachable moment? Let’s promote the idea that those embarrassing tweets, or anyone’s embarrassing digital dirt, can be used to validate identity change and growth.

When we applaud not having records of our own embarrassing past, a document of how we’ve changed over time as individuals, we are equally celebrating the cultural norm that expects perfection, normalization, and unchanging behavior. What if more people wore past identities more proudly? We could erode the norm of identity consistency, a norm no one lives up to anyways, and embrace change and growth for its own sake. Perhaps the popularity of social media will force more people to confront the reality that identity isn’t and can’t be flawlessly consistent.

To be clear, selective (in)visibility is very important, especially for vulnerable populations. However, when more people, especially those with non-vulnerable, less-stigmatized identities, are confronted with their pasts­­­­—documented, archived, and searchable—maybe, just maybe, it will encourage an understanding of identity as more fluid. This re-understanding might be more tolerant of the non-normal and accepting of change and difference.

Maybe those many social media users in high-school today will look back ten years from now and find it hard to fathom why we ever put so much effort into reinforcing the myth of identity consistency. If/when having granular self-documentation from early teens well into adulthood is the norm, it will be very difficult to support the fiction of an identity that is unchanging, intrinsic, natural, or inevitable. That a person isn’t just what one is but a non-linear process of becoming rife with starts and stops and wrong turns may grow to be increasingly obvious.

A world where a little digital dirt don’t hurt would benefit those most vulnerable. When Krystal Ball ran for congress in 2006, barely-scandalous photos of her at a college party became some of the most Google’d images in the world, which might discourage some women from running for office. Let’s get realistic about the fact that most everyone has photos that do not reflect their current selves, and that’s fine.

Or maybe, instead, we’ll continue to support the norm of identity-consistency by celebrating the lack of evidence of our own change. The consequence might be to force on today’s young social media users an even more restrictive path towards change, growth, and identity fluidity.

Nathan on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson

Lead image of Joan Didion via. The longer quote, 

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

the Cyborgology school of digital criticism

A simple piece of software got us through the dark ages of computing

The Decelerator Helmet is an experimental approach for dealing with our fast moving society…a perception of the world in slow motion

War existed before social media, but not like this. This is a new thing

he’s the one who was violated. But he knows that won’t stop anyone from clicking “play” over and over again

A book is basically thousands of tweets printed out and stapled together between pieces of cardboard

does it even make sense to distinguish between the natural and technological sublime?

ideally, real human users will leave social networking altogether

Build a world where Facebook is obviously the inferior mode of communication and fast food just seems gross

Do we buy iPads b/c they change & improve our lives? Or because we need something we can believe improves our lives?

We’ve got enough stuff going on inside a race car. We don’t need to have cell phones in there, distracting us

document the moment, and then worry about passing it around later

biological storage would allow us to record anything and everything without reservation

Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services

terms ‘digital media’ & ‘new media’ do not capture very well the uniqueness of the ‘digital revolution’” [pdf]

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“Silicon Valley doesn’t just reflect social norms — it actively shapes them in ways that are, for the most part, imperceptible

Perhaps it won’t be long before Google, not Gallup, is the most trusted name in polling

I took pictures of the panopticon while watching other tourists take pictures of the panopticon

the skeumorphic has begun to feel – in Lyotard’s terms – pornographic

styles change hands so quickly it is ludicrous to discuss who “thought of it” first, but simply who did it best

the Internet lets us say more, but what we actually end up saying is more distracting than informative

Think of our password problem as being like polio

the system they’d developed could raise $3 million from a single email

Silicon Valley imagines itself as the un-Chick-fil-A

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