Varieties of Online Experience

In 2011, Nathan Jurgenson coined the phrase digital dualism in a post on the website Cyborgology. Here is an excerpt from the opening of that essay:

Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Since then, the critique of digital dualism has been advanced by Jurgenson and the writers associated with Cyborgology with enough consistency and regularity that I think it fair to say it characterizes what could be called the Cyborgology school of digital criticism.

In the comments section of my previous post on the integrity of online practices, while discussing the value of activities that some might understand as “offline” (but characteristically wanting to guard against digital dualism), Jurgenson suggested a distinction between being explicitly and implicitly connected as a way of getting at how the online impinges upon the offline.

I thought this useful, but as I considered the dynamic, it seemed to me that it might be better to talk about two vectors or spectrums rather than one. My initial effort to describe these two vectors yielded a spectrum of material connectivity and one of psychic connectivity.

With material connectivity I had in mind access to the more straightforward ways we might be online: on a laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc. This spectrum then would run from a situation wherein we are without device and without signal to one in which we are actively engaging a device that is connected to the Internet.

With psychic connectivity I had in mind the degree to which we are conscious of the online experience. On one end of this spectrum, we are not at all conscious of the online and on the other it is at the forefront of our thinking.

I realize this was less elegant than the implicit/explicit dichotomy, but thinking in terms of two intersecting vertices offered a little more nuance. We may, for example, at any given moment, be materially connected (i.e., with easy and present access to the Internet), but psychically disconnected (i.e., not be thinking of it at all). Conversely, we may be materially disconnected (e.g., in the woods), but psychically connected (i.e., thinking of how we’ll tweet later about the experience). The other possibilities include being both materially and psychically connected, and, most importantly for my purposes, materially and psychically disconnected.

I’ve thought a little more about this schema and what it tries to capture, and I’ve realized that there’s a little more that it needs to include. This is still a work in progress, but here, as I presently see them, are the varieties of online experience that any such schema would want to encompass (including those explained above):

Material connectivity: As described above, this refers to our tangible connection through a device to the Internet. The spectrum would range from non-access to access to engagement. This kind of connectivity is, in fact, the material base of all the other forms.

Existential connectivity: This replaces “psychic” connectivity above (I think it sounds better). It refers to our conscious awareness of online realities and how that awareness shapes our thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions. The proposed spectrum here ranges from states of being in which the Internet plays no role whatsoever to those which are preoccupied with or focused on some aspect of it. It is here that we would register the possibility that, device in hand or not, our interpretation of experience is inflected by Facebook (or Instagram, or Twitter, etc.). Think here of Jurgenson’s “Facebook Eye.”

Residual connectivity: I’m thinking here of the way in which our habits may be formed by online experience so that the consequences of being connected stay with us even when we are not connected materially or even existentially. Consider, for example, the manner in which our attention may be conditioned by Internet use yielding something like the disordered states of attention that Nicholas Carr, Katherine Hayles, and Linda Stone have, each in their own way, addressed. Or, how the immediacy, convenience, and efficiency that drives online activity may render patience increasingly difficult to cultivate.

Iconic connectivity: Terminology is getting sketchy, I know, but stay with me. This category accounts for another sense in which we might be online without being materially connected to the Internet that arises from the presence of our data online. Our online profiles have a life of their own and constitute an online presence whether or not we are ourselves materially connected or existentially connected. This manner of being online may be best illustrated by the enduring online presence of those of have passed away (or, the enduring presence of their data if you prefer). Though dead, they remain, in some sense, online. Like religious icons, they are representations of a person that both are and are not the person. The spectrum here would range from having no self-created online presence, to forgotten and unmanaged profiles, to active profiles not at the moment in use, to presently acting through an online profile. We might say that, at the latter end, the icon and the person are most closely identified. I think my Facebook as Rear Window analogy works best here.

Ambient connectivity: With this category, I’m attempting to register the manner in which we may be online through activities that did not originate with us. So, for example, I may not be materially, existentially, or iconically connected, but I may still be mentioned online by a friend who is. Or, not being connected in any way, I might ask someone who is for directions to some place across town.

More generally, we might also consider the manner in which the world we live in is transformed by online reality, with real consequences for our lives, even if we remain disconnected. This may be as simple as the local Borders that I frequented closing down due to competition from online retailers. Or, it may be a more complicated dynamic, such as the way that a person with whom I seek to have a romantic relationship has had their understanding of relationships conditioned by habits formed through online realities. These more general effects of online realities on my life may not be best treated alongside the varieties of online experience above. In other words, to call these latter realities a form of being online may be pressing the language beyond its usefulness.

So what to make of these categories together? Being now five vertices, they can no longer be neatly tied together into four quadrants of possibilities. Looking at them together it strikes me that there is a phenomenological line separating material and existential connectivity on the one hand and iconic and ambient connectivity on the other with residual connectivity somewhere in-between.

I can theoretically monitor where I am on the spectrums of the former two. (Although the act of self-monitoring, in a Heisenberg sort of way, would create an interesting paradox on the existential spectrum. Am I existentially online if I am aware of myself not being online?) But I can’t do so in the same way with iconic and ambient connectivity. I have no way of knowing where my profiles have been and I may be forever blissfully unaware that someone, somewhere has said something about me online. I’m tempted to call iconic and ambient connectivity the unconscious online.

Residual connectivity may frequently be at work on me without my awareness, but I think it possible to become aware of it. Perhaps we might call residual connectivity the ordinarily unconscious online.

As it stands, this is already an overly long blog post, so I’m going to resist the temptation to keep parsing. I’ll let these categories sit for now and welcome observations and criticisms. I don’t exactly offer this as a companion to the recent efforts by a variety of writers at Cyborgology to advance the digital dualism critique (here and here, for example), but if it is of any value in that effort, I’d be glad for it.

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16 thoughts on “Varieties of Online Experience

  1. I think this is great, and I do think it is a companion to the recent work we’ve been doing at Cyborgology. Nathan discussed theoretical traps, I discussed empirical reality (to some contestation), and you’ve discussed experiential reality. I think the larger point is to show not only that online/offline are intertwined and connected, but that they are also distinct, and that the degree of entwinement is variable.

  2. really dig this! the Heisenberg paradox is essential, i think. awareness of being not-online is itself, in a sense, being online. appreciating a hike as not-facebook is partly what it means to be on facebook. digital connectivity has granted a whole new level/type of appreciating “the real” (an appreciation i do not think we can still disentangle from appreciation of “the real” for other reasons)…

    • hmm, I’m trying to understand this point about onlineness and offlineness being related in some kind of quantum mechanical or Heisenberg uncertainty principle (HUP) kind of way.

      I guess it depends on whether it is one variable or two. If being online or offline are just two different values of one variable, then I don’t think talking about HUP makes much sense. You need two different variables. In physics it would be position and momentum, or horizontal spin and vertical spin, for example. So, if you want to say that something like HUP is a useful way to think about this stuff, then you would be saying that being online is one thing that can take on a certain value, and being offline is another thing that can take on a certain value. And these two things are not compatible- you can’t know both of them simultaneously with great precision. I think its an interesting proposal, but probably not quite what you guys mean by saying that knowing you are offline may really mean you are online in some sense…

      Not sure if that’s helpful. I’m not against using physics concepts loosely, but I’m not sure this one is saying what you want it to say.

      • This is what happens when a physicist joins the conversation, I have to be more careful with these offhand analogies!

        Let me try to clarify what I had in mind when I made that parenthetical comment. I was noting that with what I’ve called material and existential connectivity, I can consciously monitor where I am on the hypothetical spectrum. So I can note whether I am on a device or not and whether that device is connected (for material connectivity) and I can be self-aware of whether or not I am thinking about online related activities (existential connectivity). As I was writing this, though, it occurred to me that if I were to become self-aware of my not being online, then in some sense (trivial perhaps, maybe not) I’m actually simultaneously altering my position on that spectrum (by becoming aware of the online, defining my position against the online). So I can’t monitor where I am at the negative end of the existential online spectrum and remain there because doing so would immediately advance me forward on the spectrum.

        So given my very basic understanding (possibly, misunderstanding) of the HUP — that the act of observation or measurement alters the state of the phenomenon — then it seemed like an apt analogy. Given your explanation above, I would think that it still sort of works. One either is existentially aware of the online or not so that the two states are mutually exclusive. But the act of becoming aware/measuring one’s offline-ness paradoxically removes one from that state, at least as far as existential connectivity goes (as I’ve defined it above). That same would not hold for material connectivity. I can note that I’m not materially connected, and my noting that would not change the state of affairs.

        So, given that clarification, what do you think? Does it fly?

        • Ok, so you are saying that by monitoring (or measuring) one’s existential connectivity, one alters it. One is initially not thinking in any way about online stuff, and then one thinks “oh, this is great, I’m offline!” But this very thought moves one towards onlineness in the existential connectivity.

          Its true that part of the HUP is about a measurement affecting the thing its measuring. But it really requires there to be two different things that one is measuring. Position and momentum, or spin_x and spin_z for example.
          So, to make it more applicable, I think you’d have to be saying something about how existential connectivity and material connectivity are entwined…
          The other option would be to say that existential onlineness and existential offlineness are two completely different things- not related as being a part of a spectrum. But I think this is the very “digital dualism” that you (and Nathan) are saying isn’t valid.

          Anyway, you need to have two incompatible observables in order for HUP to apply. Just one variable that is affected by the measurement isn’t enough- though perhaps the concept is evocative enough that something like the right meaning comes through anyway.

  3. I appreciated this post, Michael, though I’m still thinking it through.
    One question I’d ask is where do the different modes of internet communication used fit into this?

    I don’t use Facebook, for example (though I did for several years). I would think that for the most part the influence of Facebook on me now falls into the part of the discussion when you say: “These more general effects of online realities on my life may not be best treated alongside the varieties of online experience above. ”
    Certainly I interact with people who use Facebook and am aware that when I’m photographed by them, I may well end up on their Facebook page, but I think I’m pretty well able to not take that overly seriously and move on without undue influence or psychic dwelling.

    I’m not sure how it fits into this, but in my own thinking of how to deal with all these modes of communication available these days, I somehow separate the mode of communication with the general concept of availability. At any given moment, I may be contacted via a variety of methods- text message, phone call, email, Twitter message, etc. I try to clarify for myself whether I am available or not to a given mode of communication at a given time. Personally, I try not to use those modes of communication that present me as always available. I rarely, for example, log into skype and present myself as permanently available to be called or talked to. At least skype gives the option to specify availability. Facebook does not give this option. Nor does Twitter (though I do find Twitter less disruptive than I used to find Facebook). I would think this ability to specify availability would be an important vector in classifying the different types of communication platforms out there.
    Anyway, those are a few personal thoughts in response to this piece.

    • Boaz,

      I think you’re right. The services, platforms, and devices make an appreciable difference. Like you, I no longer use Facebook, but I know that through others I have a presence of sorts there, which is what I was trying to get at through that last category. Certainly the significance of such a presence is not necessarily great. I don’t think of it very much at all. But, of course, it could be potentially of great significance. One can imagine all sorts of scenarios in which an unintended online presence becomes quite serious (I’m thinking here of the more scandalous sort of significance). But day to day, for most people, it would be negligible.

      Your second point is well put as well. Certainly being able to and consciously managing availability rather than allowing the service or platform to dictate one’s availability is an indispensable digital discipline. I would hope that clarifying the varieties of online experience would be a first step toward then figuring out how to better live with the realities of life in a digital age (or something like that). Of course, part of what emerges from this taxonomy is that we don’t have a monopoly on agency over every manner of being online. I don’t want to exaggerate that point, as I feel there is a tendency to do, because in important respects I think we do have a non-trivial degree of agency, which we should recognize and employ.

      By the way, my thanks again for your very thoughtful comments on here.

      • Its a good point that we do have a certain amount of agency over how we manage our availability on the different platforms and services. On Facebook, one can write a status update saying one will be busy or without internet connection for the next week, so please don’t contact me. Or one can temporarily disable one’s account. But its not really very natural within the site architecture. Perhaps building in something along those lines could be a direction where they could improve the site and make it less obnoxious.
        I’m tempted to say that Facebook could introduce a sort of “open for business” flag on people’s profiles. Then this would really complete the metaphor of people as businesses!

        I like the term “digital discipline”! The need to develop it (and one is continually asked to do so in new ways) really is the downside of all the benefits that can come from these new ways of communicating.

        Anyway, yes, fun to keep reading and to participate to the extent I can. Since I do a fair amount of work on my computer, connected to the internet, but I very much appreciate a sense of solitude and long periods without being interrupted, these issues are often on my mind. I’ve even jotted down my own notes in trying to clarify what the meaning of “online” and “offline” is over the last few years. Really helpful to get more clarity on the topic.

  4. Boaz, I think a lot of the cases you noted could be mapped somewhere within material and existential connectivity, and residual connectivity would probably come into play in how we make our decisions about how we use different modes of communication.

    Mike, I love this. I’ve been thinking about it, and every time I think of a “but…” I read through this post and realize you’ve addressed it. When I see categories of something, my head first tries to see them as mutually exclusive, but I could map all kinds of practices and states in multiple categories, which is (I think) theoretically richer, more valuable, and more interesting than if they were mutually exclusive.

    And I dig the new digs!

    • Definitely, these categories are not mutually exclusive at all. That was a point I thought about going back and making more explicit, but I thought I’d better not make the post any longer.

      And thanks, it was time for a change of scenery and as the comments section on the last post demonstrated, that nesting system had to go. I’m hoping this look is more readable all around.

  5. i like this–it seems like making the distinction between material and other forms of connectivity could be really useful!

    if i could suggest a few tweaks: i think there’s a difference between “connectivity” and “being online,” and i think “connectivity” is actually the more important/interesting aspect to focus on (i also believe we can’t ever *fully* disconnect or go fully “offline,” specifically because we’re all connected to each other, so take that into consideration). in this vein, i love your examples for the ways “we might also consider the manner in which the world we live in is transformed by online reality”–and i think they’d fit really well in an expanded ‘ambient connectivity’ category. this isn’t as useful if you want to make a hard on/offline distinction, but if you take connection/some degree of “online” as an inescapable given, then expanding ‘ambient connectivity’ to include all the ways in which we connect to online-ness through both our specific and general relationships with others and through just being a part of the social world (as well as the ways we might be shaped by others’ residual connectivity, without ever realizing there was an online component to our experiences) would do a lot to capture both the nature of augmented reality and the impossibility of complete disconnection.

    i like “iconic connectivity” as well…and am trying to decide whether the online profiles we don’t build ourselves (say facebook’s ‘shadow profiles,’ or our so-called “data doubles,” or whatever google’s sitting on for each one of us) would fit in this category. what do you think?

    • I see the point that online connectivity is a subset of a larger category of connectedness, but encompassing that larger circle within this taxonomy struck me as less useful (or too ambitious!). The question “What are the many ways in which we relate to one another?” is impossibly large by comparison to the more modest question I tried to tackle, “What are the ways in which we might be said to be online?” In essence I was working with an unstated distinction between “being online” and being affected by the online, although I grant that this distinction may be unhelpful. I also trying to keep the taxonomy phenomenologically centered or at least limited to activities to which we could attach some degree of intentionality.

      I’ll have to think some more about the profiles we don’t build for ourselves; these had occurred to me, but the phenom. focus kept me from including them. But I’m not entirely comfortable with their exclusion either.

      Thanks for the feedback! There might be another iteration coming at some point.

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