‫Engagement is everything, a dialogue‬

Communication breakdown… It’s never the same. How I tried to extend my social network to beyond just “friends” and came off as a douche bag

In my previous post titled “Relationship: It’s Complicated” I was trying to make the point that social media interfaces and terminologies excludes the room for conflict. I came up with three proposition for intervention, one of them worked or rather took a life of its own much faster than I expected.

I was proposing to use Twitter list to follow not just like-minded people, but also people you often disagree with, as a way of both challenging your point of view and of engaging beyond our networked echo chamber. (read more about it on my post)

As I was preparing the post, I made a list of that type for myself, added a few Twitter users that I count as my intellectual/political opponents and named it “adversaries”. Just a few hours later, and even before I got to publish my post I noticed this tweet:

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@mushon I find my inclusion on that list distasteful and distressing. May it be the only thing I ever have in common with AIPAC & Netanyahu.Wed Apr 28 10:28:48 via TweetDeck

Adam Greenfield is a prominent media theorist who’s best known for writing Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing. I have seen him present more than once, he’s a really great speaker, I also assign a talk by him to my NYU students, throughout the semester it is usually one of the pieces that inspire them the most. Yet after watching him speak or reading him I was often left with a sense that his poetic theory often emphasizes the pros and de-emphasizes the cons. This left me pretty disturbed about what he represents and has won him that place in my adversary list.

With that being said, I did not expect he will see this list. It was not some attempt at teasing him or provoking him. Maybe the way I used the word ‘adversary’ was wrong? Maybe it’s indeed more offensive than I think (note: I am not a native English speaker). I definitely have nothing personal against the guy. I changed the name of the list to ‘opposition’ and tweeted back.

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Sorry @agpublic, wrong choice of terminology on my part (corrected). I hope you will accept my wish to follow you yet disagree with youWed Apr 28 11:45:41 via web

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@mushon Depends on what the disagreement has to do with, I suppose. I do admire your wish to challenge your own assumptions.Wed Apr 28 11:53:11 via TweetDeck

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@agpublic just realized we will get the chance to discuss this face to face at #futr. FWIW, I teach you @NYU: http://bit.ly/9WItnbWed Apr 28 12:22:53 via web

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@mushon Super!Wed Apr 28 12:27:58 via TweetDeck

I will indeed meet Adam at the Future Everything festival next week. At that point I managed to finally post on my blog with some context about the list and why I made it, so I tweeted Adam about it:

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Hey @agpublic here’s some context for our antagonistic exchange earlier today – Relationship: It’s Complicated http://bit.ly/friending-meThu Apr 29 02:42:23 via TweetDeck

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@mushon That was antagonistic?Thu Apr 29 07:06:21 via TweetDeck

Oops… Did I just use the wrong word again?

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@agpublic not antagonistic but in your words “distasteful and distressing”. Need more antagonism in social media as I write in my blogpostThu Apr 29 12:04:00 via TweetDeck

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@mushon But I obviously agree with that, and always have! Now I’m really not sure why you’ve lumped me in with your intellectual opponents.Thu Apr 29 12:45:59 via TweetDeck

Yeah, I can see how from Adam’s perspective I was being quite a douche, picking on him for no reason.

I had lunch with my studio partner and very good friend Amit Pitaru, a media artist and a very smart guy. Amit and I sure share an affinity for conflict, and there’s nothing we like better than arguing over lunch (it helps digestion) (maybe). I can always count on Amit to play devil’s advocate and challenge whatever opinion I might be holding. Which he did.

Amit’s hit the nail on it’s head. He argued that while I was critiquing Facebook for its reductive interaction centered around “friendship” my proposed alternative was doing exactly the same. By naming my enemies/adversaries/opposition I was creating a complete mirror to Facebook’s friends. A mirror that did not oppose but reflect the exact same reductive representation of relationship.

Adam Greenfield is not my adversary, and even if we have differences of styles in the way we discuss media issues, we are far from being the complete opposites either. I had to start by at least engaging Adam on what I was actually bothered by and why I (unintentionally) picked on him in the first place.

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@agpublic my main beef is abt under-representation of privacy concerns in your truely inspiring writing/speaking abt the internet of thingsSat May 01 00:40:22 via TweetDeck

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@mushon Hmm. But you’ve read “Everyware,” so surely you know that privacy is one of my preoccupying concerns…Sat May 01 14:57:12 via TweetDeck

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@agpublic I know, but I feel in the privacy vs. convenience you advocate for the latter. And that’s something I’m “inconvenient” with…Sat May 01 18:29:31 via TweetDeck

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@mushon Forgive me, then, because I feel you haven’t understood me very well. I have always argued against the discourse of convenience.Sat May 01 20:10:00 via TweetDeck

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@agpublic maybe I should ask forgiveness, as I am the one who missed this emphasis in yr talks. pls pls refer me to vid doc of that if u canSat May 01 20:15:27 via TweetDeck

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@mushon No idea, I don’t watch my own videos. It’s in every single thing I’ve ever written, though, starting with “All watched over…”Sat May 01 20:30:32 via TweetDeck

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@agpublic Link?Sat May 01 20:41:21 via TweetDeck

I Found the link myself.

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@agpublic I stand corrected http://bit.ly/aOr5eq = important piece. 6 yrs ago u advocated 5 pro-human-user ubicomp principles. Did it work?Sun May 02 04:28:25 via Twitterrific

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@mushon Not that I can see – but that’s no excuse for mischaracterizing my clear and obvious intent in framing them.Sun May 02 07:25:33 via TweetDeck

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@agpublic 4 that I indd appologize! I hope though that beyond distress this will offer some sincere feedback 4 how you might be mispercievedSun May 02 13:46:13 via TweetDeck

That’s basically where our conversation ended. I moved Adam to a new Twitter list with a more ambiguous and (I hope) respectful name “Provoke-Me”.

Two days after Adam posted this:

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A Very Special Message from me, @agpublic: http://bit.ly/bqxuC4Tue May 04 09:22:32 via TweetDeck

Adam’s post, titled “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (hmmm… I wonder who he meant…) is emphasizing his critique of these ubiquitous technologies and the failures of design. He seems to have taken to heart at least some of my critique, as un-elegant as it might have been. Here’s a quote from Adam’s post (though you do want to read all of it):

Networked urbanism, read/write urbanism, open-source urbanism…sure, these things are in their infancy. But if the whole domain retains some plasticity, it’s also beginning to be shaped by parties motivated solely by their own interests, and absolutely not by any larger affinity for urban life and its benisons. To be blunt, I don’t want the IBMs and Ciscos and Microsofts of the world defining what networked urbanism can be for me…or, forgive my presumption, what it can be for you, either.

I still believe, as Howard Rheingold used to say, that “what it is…is up to us.” But only if we’re willing to get our hands dirty, challenge ourselves, and pursue insight even if it originates from outside our comfort zone. It’s what I’ve been trying to do myself, these last twelve years or so, and it would be particularly gratifying if you interpreted my efforts here in this light.

To that I commented:

Well articulated and emphasized point. This cautious tone can often go unnoticed as there is so much excitement and new possibilities these technologies bring into our urban life. Together with the 2.0 3.0 4.0… culture there’s an eager lust to always jump to the next thing, to celebrate novelty (even in the price of intimacy), to mark the networked territory by being the first to share (even in the price of our disappearing privacy).

Adam, your inspiring work has become a symbol for the networked city. Often, the excitement it brings blinds our eyes to the more nuanced and often less exciting critique and warnings that you try to emphasize. I know it did that for me. I have possibly unjustly labeled you with the enthusiasts as I was more receptive to your enthusiasm than to your critique.

As our attention spans shorten and our tools become less sensitive to the complexities of human relationship (benefiting technological simplicity, immediacy, publicity and profit) we need to be more careful about how networked words, actions and intentions are interpreted. We might be often misunderstood, and we most definitely too often misunderstand. It’s about extending our read/write media literacy.

I know I often get these things wrong. For that I apologize (blogpost to follow)

And Adam replied:

No apology necessary! Engagement is everything.

And I think it is. Engagement is everything. Yet it feels so foreign to this happy-happy joy-joy environment of social media. That’s why Adam interpreted his inclusion on that list as a rude provocation, that’s why I felt so bad about it too.

If we were having this discussion face to face we could have balanced the argument with respect and trust – just like Amit and I did over lunch. Online we don’t have that luxury so instead of risking the misunderstanding, we just don’t engage, or we hide behind a disposable pseudonym.

When we do engage using our names, we do it in the form of a “friend request” which is basically as misunderstood as my awkward “foe statement” but it is not as contested.

I found my exchange with Adam very inspiring, but I am still a bit confused. How can we use social media to actively engage in opposition and not come off as douche bags? Any ideas?