musing on making things real

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by: danah boyd

"The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves." — Hannah Arendt

Have you ever found yourself not saying something that is on your mind because you're afraid that if you say it, it will become real? This is a really interesting conundrum in the context of blogging because it has to do with the ways in which public performances make ideas real. Arendt argues that one of the primary roles of the public is to make things real. People seek out witnesses to validate their emotions, ideas, actions, or mere existence. Our stories become real when we have other people to share them with, when other people saw and experienced what we experienced. Having no access to public life can be maddening (literally) because everything might as well be a fable with no witnesses to validate what took place. Ah, Pan's Labyrinth.

The Internet has allowed us to take the most "intimate" thoughts and ideas and perform them in a public before witnesses. This makes real every neurosis and stupid act – stuff that might simply have slipped away before. It makes it possible to be heard. But at the same time, when you know you're going to be heard, you have to think twice. Do you really want that fleeting thought to be that real, to be that present for collective memory?

I was going through some notes i took when interviewing bloggers and teens about the things that they did to try to erase relationships that once existed. They went through a series of public and private erasures. De-Friend on every site imaginable. Erase all blog entries and profile posts professing love. Change from "in a relationship" to single. Erase from address book and block on the buddy list. Erase all SMSes. Erase all emails. Erase all comments. Burn all letters. The goal of course is "out of sight, out of mind" but the problem with the entwined nature of technology is that it doesn't work out this way. People stumble across their exes on others' profiles, in their friends' comments. They pine away, obsessively checking their ex's blog/MySpace to see if there's any sign of misery that will make them feel better because even if they know better than to track them down in person, they can't resist the anonymous stalking online, even if it prolongs the hurt.

Relationships are funny things because while they are extremely intimate, they are also quite public. Going back to the horrid holiday of pink confetti, it's interesting to think about how relationships are to be performed in public through romantic dinners, PDA (even holding hands), and simple physical proximity. People want to be seen to be in an intimate relationship – no matter how rough that relationship is in the backstage, there's a desire to make the frontstage look all rosy. Yet, when it ends, the desire to erase all is confounded by the public performance of it. Sure, Amy can erase all of the "I (heart) Kevin" comments on her profile but the effects of a public performance of a relationship can outlive the documentation of it. And the publicness of each person means ongoing heartache and reminder. This, in many ways, is the flipside of being able to continue friendships after one moves or goes away to college. Relationships continue even when one wishes they wouldn't.

I can't help but wonder about the "realness" constructed by networked publics. How does persistence of some performances screw with this? How does the intertwined nature of things not allow for forgetting? How do people respond by refusing to acknowledge aspects of themselves in networked publics? Why is it that some people desperately want to make real the most sordid "intimate" details?

Enough musing… back to work…

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