Comments are performance art

About 30 seconds after I posted my tale of woe about losing a child’s precious videos from a faulty camera, people crawled out of the woodwork on two different social networks to shame me for not having backups. Before I move on to the meat of this post, a few points in reply to those criticisms:

  • Backups would have been good? No shit, Sherlock.
  • Yes, as a matter of fact, I do periodically offload the pictures from her camera. Sometimes (gasp) she takes new pictures, and there’s a period of time in which the files on the camera are the only copies.
  • Have you ever tried to fit a child’s camera into your household data integrity plan? Here’s a hint: imagine a handheld computer that is in an exciting and mysterious new location every single time it’s time to archive it! Sometimes that location is a mystery even to its owner!
  • Did it occur to you that perhaps the five-year-old child in question didn’t mention that she had precious memories of a dear friend on her camera, until after those files were lost?
  • Astoundingly, I don’t normally stop to catch up on my backup regimen while rushing to get the kids in the car for an outing.
  • Equally astonishingly, it did not cross my mind that inserting an SD card would be a high-risk activity. Silly me.

I have a sneaking suspicion that no one who responded to chide me has actual children of their own. But I don’t give enough of a shit to follow up on that conjecture.

In both cases, my critic was someone who is aware of me in my professional, technical capacity, and presumably follows me because they think I have some level of savvy. As such, I can’t imagine they thought that the concept of “backing up data” had simply never occurred to me before their helpful comment. So I can only assume that they took time out of their day just to shame me.

All this goes to reinforce something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, which is: public internet comments (I include Twitter replies in this category) are kind of broken by design.

There’s a fundamental tension in making a public comment, between communication and showmanship. Ostensibly, you’re trying to say something to the original poster (OP). But you’re also playing for an audience.

There’s pressure, in making public comments, to “score points”. It’s as if we’ve taken the notion of the “open letter” and made it our default mode of communication.  It’s like we’re all having presidential debates everywhere all the time: in theory, talking to each other; in fact, performing for the bleachers. Only instead of applause, we’re playing for “likes” and retweets.

Of course, this is one of those things that can never be proven. I can’t prove you phrased your reply in such a way as to win maximum approval from the peanut gallery. No matter how obvious, there’s always plausible deniability.

I did have one person admit it once. I forget why he was criticizing me, but I kept offering to start an email thread so that we could talk in more than 140 characters at a time. Finally he came out and said that he wasn’t actually interested in engaging with me at all. He just wanted to be seen disagreeing with me.

I don’t know that I can even claim this is bad per se; “speaking truth to power”, and all that. What I can say is that it’s not communication. It’s performance art.

It’s not always negative, either. Some of the best conversations I’ve had on Twitter and other public fora were ones where everyone involved was knowingly, joyfully playing to the crowd.

On the flip side, as I’ve been stepping away from social media, I’ve started to have some lengthy email conversations with a couple of friends. And it’s wonderfully refreshing. I’d forgotten how rewarding a weeks-long, leisurely paced, one-to-one correspondence could be.

In retrospect, I feel a bit silly for thinking of public comments as principally a communications medium for all these years. Which is not to say that I’m going to embark on a new era of trolling. But I am looking forward to doing more of my conversing one-to-one.

All the world’s a stage. If you want to play, make it fun for me. If you want to talk, my contact forms are easy to find. I’ll see you in email.

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