Tag Archives: Philsophy

On Identity and The Internet

This post was spurred by a discussion with @humbertomoreira and another non-twitter friend that overlapped this afternoon.

One of the things we are currently experiencing as a result of the explosion of Internet usage is at once both a deconstruction and an expansion of our conception of personal identity. And this is radically shifting our potential for human interaction – in a good way.

Deconstruction

I say deconstruction, or splintering, because we are now able to express and find meaning for various different aspects of our personalities like never before. For instance, if you are really into hollywood gossip, you can find great content on PerezHilton, and if you really like gadgets you can visit Engadget. Either on these sites or on the various social networks you participate in, you can then share and discuss content related to these interests in ways like never before.

In the past, you might have been unable to express a niche interest or curiosity due to its lack of popularity in your physical locale. However, due to the Internet and the increasing avenues through which we can express ourselves, we are able us to connect and express views with one another based on various different aspects of our personalities.

This changes the ways that people perceive us – or how our identities are represented – because people tend to associate personal identity with the things that people say or do. If you are a baseball card collector, it expresses part of who you are in some sense. Thus, as we express more stuff, our identities take different shapes in different forums.

Expansion

At the same time, the Internet also results in an expansion in the ways that we can express this personal identity through an increased number and kind of social interactions. As my parents always told me, no two people are alike.

Some people think the ability to connect on niche topics will create echo chambers, but they miss the point that individuals represent a set of complex combinations of interests, experiences and perspectives, and as we interact with an increasing number of people, we will by definition be exposed to more potential varieties of combinations.

In other words, in the “good ole” days, the “good ole” boys would connect in one club and discuss the same 5 topics. Today, the “new girls” meet in a variety of different online settings and discuss a variety of ideas based on their naturally varied interests (i.e. one day she may comment on a NYTimes article and the next day comment on a video posted on a FOAF’s blog).

These wider sets of interactions will produce more interactions and connections than the old model based on simple arithmetic.

Transparency and Openness

At the same time as the number and kinds of our interactions are increasing on forums of interaction like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, questions of transparency and openness emerge that may be difficult for people to manage.

The more that we discuss stuff online and express more parts of our personality, the more aspects of our personal identity become available for the world to see. I think of this as the modern version of “wearing your heart on your sleeve.”

2 Ways of Dealing With Transparency

Two speakers that I watched at SXSWi highlight two possible ways people try to deal with this increased transparency.

Embrace Transparency

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com
deals with this issue by embracing transparency and creating an organization that is aligned with his personal values. He interacts with people in a professional role and personal role through the same “persona” and represents himself and his company in the same way across settings. He also encourages his employees to participate on Twitter and to engage in personal discussions with the people who call Zappos with customer service issues.

This emphasis on creating a culture that promotes transparent personal identity and positive customer service interactions has reaped him huge success and personal happiness.

Managing Multiple Personas

Another speaker mentioned that she manages the challenges of transparency by creating two separate online “identities”. She uses one identity for her “professional” interactions and another for her “personal” interactions. To do this she creates multiple accounts and log-ins for her various conceptions of her social circles, and she shares some stuff in one context and other stuff in the other.

I believe that this second approach may be unsustainable, because as our online environments become more deconstructed and expansive, we will continue to have more coincidental overlaps with people we previously grouped in an unexpected bucket.

Serendipity Makes Multiple Personas Unsustainable

What I mean by this is that conceptions of “professional”, “personal”, “school-friends”, and “work-friends” will consistently be tested as we serendipitously come across people in unexpected ways as our deconstructed and expanded personalities are expressed in new ways across the Internet (and IRL for that matter).

For anyone who spends a lot of time traveling in physical or “cyber” space, you will be able to relate to the phenomenon of increased serendipity that we have collectively been experiencing over the last few years as our worlds increasingly collide in unexpected ways.

As our ability to express and connect on various different dimensions of our personalities increases, this “I didn’t know that you were X” effect will only increase in the future.

Embrace Transparency…It is Inevitable

The upshot of all of this is that I think one should embrace transparency ahead of time and be ahead of the curve in creating and maintaining your “online” persona. While doing so, I think you should also strive to be sincere and consistent because, just as in real life, juggling multiple personalities and personas can be draining and might ultimately be unsustainable.

This move – embracing authenticity and transparency – will not only increase the amount of connections and social interactions you create – which is just super-awesome, but it will also allow you to be sure people see you for who you really are rather than having an incomplete or skewed perception of you.

What Transparency Entails

The great thing about the world we are headed towards is that it implies a destruction of overly simplistic categorizations that are behind vices like racism and other bigotry.

In other words, as we interact with more people in more unexpected ways, we will realize that our old-school and overly-simplified conceptions of personal identity that drive such vices are just plain wrong.

This is why Facebook is old school and Twitter is a step, albeit an incomplete one, in the right direction.

People are a helluva lot more than what school they went to or where they happen to have been born…

And I can’t wait until a not-too-distant future when our online and IRL lives better reflect that simple human truth.

On Humility, Creativity, and The Importance of Others.

Humility.

I just had one of the most profound conversations that I can remember with a guy who has taken an entirely different path through the same twenty-nine years we have been on the planet to arrive at the same place where I arrived tonight at an event with a bunch of “Internet” people down the street from where I live.

The discussion began exploring concepts similar to those underlying my post last week about Emotional Analysis Paralysis, in that we were discussing an idea presented in an existentialism course we both attended today, which basically suggests that:

Unexamined beliefs that are emphatically held onto, and for which reflection is actively denied, can unintentionally become “true” about ourselves in some very powerful and unfortunate sense.

And that accepting such beliefs without opening ourselves up to considering our rationales for them is a form of “bad faith” in life.

Such a dogmatic refusal to examine one’s beliefs can range from situations as simple as interpersonal relationships, to situations a complex as being the central banker of the world economy. Mr. Greenspan today acknowledged a change in one such belief in his world view in this article on Bloomberg: Greenspan Concedes to `Flaw’ in His Market Ideology

`Yes, I found a flaw,” Greenspan said in response to grilling from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “I was shocked because I’d been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.” Greenspan added he was “partially” wrong for opposing the regulation of derivatives.

“We have to do our best but not expect infallibility or omniscience,’ he said.

Part of the problem was that the Fed’s ability to forecast the economy’s trajectory is an inexact science, he said.

“If we are right 60 percent of the time in forecasting, we are doing exceptionally well; that means we are wrong 40 percent of the time,” Greenspan said. “Forecasting never gets to the point where it is 100 percent accurate.”

This humble admission by one of the most brilliant market observers in history reflects a basic truth about ourselves: we are fallible, and as a result we should always subject our beliefs to questioning and revision.

Creativity.

One of the challenges I have been wrestling with lately is finding a way to be creative in a world where: 1) chaos and massive uncertainty exists 2) I am limited and flawed and 3) inspiration is presumed to precede innovation.

The conversation not only elucidated a framework for humbly accepting certain of our principles as “true” only after examining their rationales (and in the context of a life-long process of constant re-examination), but it also wrestled with the tension between creativity as “work” versus creativity as “inspiration.”

I have been thinking about this lately in the context of entrepreneurial innovation, but also more generally as I seek to figure out just how I will make my mark.

One takeaway from our talk that I gleaned was that: hard work is almost always necessary for creativity, if for no other reason than to learn the tools of the trade – to play the guitar, to speak the language, to bring resources to bear.

But, I also took away that work is not enough. One must also create the space where inspiration can materialize.

I am still not sure if such a space is created through a destructive/Nietzschean questioning of assumptions, or if it is one that simply emerges from a more Buddhist-minded acceptance of one’s place in the world.

But maybe it is a bit of both – by destroying/challenging one’s stated understanding while at the same time accepting the world as it presents itself, perhaps one is able to create the space for inspiration and creativity to emerge.

The Importance of Others.

However, besides this internal and personal activity, another thing that has hit home in spades over the last few weeks for me is the importance of a supporting cast.

For me that is many of you who read this blog, my other friends and family, and the people I come across in the world like the new friend I met tonight.

But, ultimately, I am convinced this will not be enough for true greatness.

Given our limited nature and the necessary recursive process – self-reflection, destruction, assertion, creation, repeat – that one must go through in life, I think having a partner is absolutely essential…at least for those of us who are not lucky enough to be gifted with the kind of child genius of a Picasso or a Mozart.

In response to the concern that I (and apparently many other people) have about being “too old” to achieve greatness, Malcolm Gladwell recently published a piece in the New Yorker in which he juxtaposed the lives of Picasso (and other “early bloomers”) with Cezanne (and other “late bloomers”) in hopes that showing that we “late bloomers” should not give up hope.

He emphasized just such a notion – the importance of a supporting cast – in this piece: Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?

“On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.

Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counsellor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.) Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to accept that there’s nothing we can do about it. “

If you are the type of creative mind that needs to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it might take for your art to reach its true potential.

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others.

In biographies of Cézanne, Louis-Auguste invariably comes across as a kind of grumpy philistine, who didn’t appreciate his son’s genius. But Louis-Auguste didn’t have to support Cézanne all those years. He would have been within his rights to make his son get a real job, just as Sharie [the wife of a "late bloomer" author named Fountain] might well have said no to her husband’s repeated trips to the chaos of Haiti. She could have argued that she had some right to the life style of her profession and status–that she deserved to drive a BMW, which is what power couples in North Dallas drive, instead of a Honda Accord, which is what she settled for.

But she believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband, the same way Zola and Pissarro and Vollard and–in his own, querulous way–Louis-Auguste must have believed in Cézanne.

Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them.

We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.

“Sharie never once brought up money, not once–never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for “Brief Encounters” belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”

That we need others, and ultimately the love of *another* in life is becoming more clear as life goes on.

That we are recursively tracing our way along a strand of an infinitely complex set of possible outcomes in one fine-tuned dance that we call life is surely one of the few things we can know with certainty.

But just how we should dance, who we will share this journey with, and whether the tools, preparation and possibility will open up for us in just the right way are mysteries that only the future – or Someone much greater than me – could know.

In the mean time, I don’t think I could stop reflecting on these and other questions if I tried. Thank you for wrestling with them with me.