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The Serendipity Revival

With the ever-present, and sometimes intruding, information age presiding over our daily digest, we have become the consumers (and creators) of a constant newsfeed. Whether we experience total access to information as progressive or destructive or a hybrid of both, our participation in the digital age seems to be unavoidable and is (for better or for worse) morphing into a democratic leveling of information. The same online source that tells us about unrest in the Middle East also tells us what Ben and Dylan had for lunch and that it was better than what they had yesterday. Our decorating choices have become as public — and even as digitally consumed by our peers — as the news of The Royal Wedding.

This isn’t yet another plea to abandon the Twitterverse or your Facebook account in exchange for the world of traditional-paper-and-print; this is merely an observation on digital participation, our inkling for discovery, and an age-old phenomenon that has been resurrected in response to this need.

A sweater fit for a tree.

In a 2009 New York Times article, “Serendipity, Lost in the Digital Deluge,” Damon Darlin noted that though the digital age is free, fast, and full of choices, “we’ve lost something as well: the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.” Though we feel a twinge of discovery when an e-mail about a vintage-trunk-turned-kitchen-table lands in our inbox, “we are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes.” Even our chance discoveries are filtered.

As of January 5, 2011, our public, personal information had amounted to “five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; [and] two billion tweets a month,” according to Rob Walker’s “Cyberspace When You’re Dead.”

Insomuch as we continue to consume everyone else’s playlist, recipe choice, witty response to Kevin’s question, and the Robinson’s toddler’s first walk across the room, we contribute to the public, collective existence, where our private experiences are praised when shared. As more public opportunities arise to publish our private happenings, our choice to keep our choices to ourselves slowly becomes a luxury. Despite this growing, infinite download, Darlin claims that “the human need for surprise” remains intact.

Since Darlin’s 2009 call for fate to somehow remain vigilant in the face of exponential information growth, an element of privacy has made a very loud comeback. We still want to keep some things to ourselves. We want to be the one to break that news, to discover that thing that no one else knows. Consequently, there is an undercurrent in our contemporary waters; our paradigm of public omnipotence is being infiltrated by secrets.

Yes, secrets are the new business model, social movement, and artistic practice; secrets are the new news.

Take the recent rise in speakeasy success. A nightlife movement claiming passwords, hidden hours, and secret-symbols-as-signage is nothing short of exclusive. Even when you know one such secret establishment exists in your city, good luck getting a reservation (unless it’s for 3:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon). Though some of speakeasy’s popularity is perhaps due to its drink menu fit-for-a-queen, or a crowd made up of historical-period-junkies seeking etiquette hearkening back to the Prohibition Era, you are initially drawn to its novelty as a secret enterprise — even if you blog about it later and even if, actually, everyone already knows about it. These hidden establishments remain seemingly removed from the infinite news-o-sphere that you spent 9-5 pm digesting.

Likewise, secrets have invaded public assembly. Flash Mobs have gained so much popularity that they are even beginning to infiltrate mainstream marketing — an inherently conflicted outcome of their initial reason for novelty. From the Grand Central Freeze to the (now annual) No-Pants-On-The-Subway NYC escapade, a local manifestation of one such secret gathering could comically infiltrate your public experience at any moment. Even if documentation of the event goes viral immediately after it’s set in motion, the plan itself remains a secret known only to flash mob participants from conception to culmination.

Lastly — and most boldly — the guerilla arts have found themselves a very unique place in post-modernity. From guerilla gardening to guerilla knitting, these secret initiatives are welcomed with enthusiasm in the public sphere.

In the guerilla guidebook (The Guerilla Art Kit: Everything You Need to Put Your Message Out Into the World, for Fun, Non-Profit, and World Domination), Keri Smith defines a guerilla movement as “any anonymous work (including, but not limited to, graffiti, signage, performance, additions, and decoration) installed, performed, or attached in public spaces, with the distinct purpose of affecting the world in a creative or thought-provoking way.” The rules? Start small. Don’t get caught. Be responsible, polite, and stealth. Bring the basics (tagging supplies, a crew of helpers, and clothing with pockets.)

Personally, my experience in the guerilla world began in a collegiate Guerilla Book Club. We (obviously) had an anonymous Gmail account, announced the reading and location of discussion the week of, and — just like it sounds — radically discussed literature in public spaces. Our movement was complete with spray-painted posters and secret lingo.

This readers’ rebellion acted as the gateway for my involvement in the guerilla knitting movement. From Washington Park with Magda Sayeg to Lee Park in Charlottesville with a group of female conspirators, I was launched into a movement dedicated to covering our collective, public space with “the fiber equivalent of graffiti.” Our victims have included garage doors, trash cans, and trees as we presented sweaters fit for public infrastructure. I am admittedly a culprit of — and a sucker for — the secret revolution. And so is most everyone else.

Accompanying the recent popularity of Banksy’s documentary film Exit Through The Gift Shop, most of the Western world is now looking for Shepherd Ferry stickers on its corner stop sign. Fabric-filled potholes and knitted buses fill our buzz feeds. (But only after the fact.) We’re on the lookout for guerilla gardeners, who “fight the filth with forks and flowers.” Guerilla bannering has us turning the corner to find a flag-in-our-face declaring: “You’re A Star.”

The secrecy is as addictive as the craft. Why? As a guerilla movement onlooker, Keri Smith explains, “I get excited knowing that the artist and I share a little secret. For a moment, I am taken out of my known world and presented with an alternative, one that is unexpected and daring.”

At least the onlooker has the privilege of knowing something about her artistic confidant — perhaps that she knits the European way, or she prefers guerilla tomatoes to guerilla basil. The artist is often ignorant of the work’s effect because, by nature, guerilla art does not generate its own organized reception; there’s no planned opening and no length of an exhibit. The artist’s choice to dispense anonymous, public information — and to suddenly abandon it — automatically places a limit on the information’s dissemination. Even if the action or placement is so well received that it becomes widespread, public knowledge, it still cannot become universal: there are still some things the artist will never know (like who saw it first and if it generated more movement; like a sweater for another tree in another state … like Ohio).

Unless you are physically present as the audience or privy to the covert gathering ahead of time, these gardens and sweaters remain a subset of information limited to a select group of accomplices and bystanders until the experience is complete — until it goes viral. The participants are thrown together by chance — a chance that forms an alternative community to the filtered one we experience online.

As long as these secret actions maintain their integrity (i.e., no one spills the beans), our guerilla experience is full of serendipity. Whether we participate as initiators or onlookers, these hidden, public endeavors remind us of our ability to discover. This trace of secrecy in our cultural taste is the alternative to Darlin’s prophesied death of fate in the rise of the online age.

Or maybe, like our fourth grade selves, we just like a good, old-fashioned secret and are willing to fight for its contemporary: the clandestine, hush-hush endeavor in the public arena.

I Facebook, Therefore I Am

Last month I committed social suicide.

I deleted my Facebook account.

 

With no small sense of irony, I went to see The Social Network shortly after. What struck me about the film wasn’t the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of social skills (funny, for a guy who now runs our social lives), the speed of his success, or even how Justin Timberlake brought sexy back to hacking. All I could focus on were the dates: Facebook was created in 2004! It sounds like yesterday, yet I can hardly remember a time when Facebook didn’t exist. I climbed on board in early 2007 with trepidation, anticipating another MySpace or Bebo—too busy; little of value. Only three years later, it’s hard to fathom how we planned high school reunions, shared wedding photos, or found out if our exes are still hot before Mark Zuckerberg came along.

I intended to find out.

My intentions were noble. After nearly five years of living abroad, hubby and I were gearing up to move back home to the West Coast. It seemed like the perfect time to put an end to our virtual social lives and start focusing on our real ones.

Admittedly, I was scared. I deliberated a full week before I even researched how to delete my account, and another week before I merely “disabled” it. It took me one more week to hit the official delete button. Then I waited for the fallout.

They say withdrawal is nastiest in the first few days, but my symptoms only increased over time. Like a smoker, it was initially the ritual that I missed most. A week after quitting, I was still wondering what to do each morning once I’d checked my email accounts and my blog feed and wasn’t quote ready to delve into work. Twitter suddenly got a lot more attention.

After two weeks I really started to miss my friends. I’ve lived away from them for nearly five years, but for at least three of those years I felt very much a part of their lives. My expectation that those friends would simply revert to emailing was seriously off base. My 15-year-old cousin informed me, “Nobody emails anymore.” And with the dearth of emails also came a drought of event invitations. Sure, in the past I had to turn them down due to distance, but I appreciated the thought no less.

After three weeks, panic set in. What was I missing?! What fabulous parties had passed? Who was pregnant? Engaged? Divorced? Who was at last night’s Canuck’s game? Who hates the new Sufjan Stevens album? Who was excited about the arrival of eggnog lattes at Starbucks? Wait, are eggnog lattes available already?? How would I ever know? And would my life be complete if I didn’t?

After an entire month I was faced with a serious existential crisis. Who am I apart from Facebook? Are my social interactions less valid because I do not document them afterward? Will everyone forget about me if I never again update my status?

My husband, who hasn’t missed Facebook in the slightest and is content to have three (real) friends in the world, reminded me that, indeed I am still a valid, complete person without an online profile. He also reminded me that dissolving a Facebook friendship is not dissolving a real friendship.

If Magritte were alive today, he would say, “Ceci n’est pas un ami”. These are not my friends. They are simply virtual representations of my friends. They do not “satisfy emotionally.” Just try filling them with tobacco.

Hubby also pointed out how much more time I now spend calling my family in the evenings, reading books on public transit, and working out on weekends. These are good things.

But while we’ve all discussed the shortcomings of Facebook (it’s a time vacuum, it’s voyeuristic, it violates privacy and lacks boundaries, it substitutes virtual friendships for real ones), how often do we discuss the downside of not being on Facebook? Point blank, it’s isolating.

I’m fascinated by my one friend who isn’t on Facebook. A busy schoolteacher and a mom, she always said she preferred real relationships to virtual ones. I was pretty excited to tell her about my own departure from Facebook. But the day after I quit, she emailed to say she had finally signed up—she was tired of feeling she was always missing out on things.

Facebook has become a casual, non-threatening way to make first contact with new friends. It’s how many of my wonderful real life friendships took root in the UK. Nowadays, calling someone you don’t know well can feel intrusive and overeager. Email can be inconvenient and slow—if I want to know how Kelly is doing, I have to remember to write her, and hope she finds time to email back. As a self-employed editor, I am hugely dependent on my personal network for contracts, and Facebook has often been a source of work. And though Facebook can’t replace my relationships, it is the easiest way to facilitate them.

I resisted cell phones for years, on principle, thinking I was preserving my independence and carefree lifestyle. But when I finally bought my first Motorola I discovered cell phones just make life easier. So while deleting myself from Facebook sounded like a liberating “eff you” to technology and the constraints of modern social expectations, in fact, it just made it harder to enhance that “real social life” I had idealized.

It’s no surprise my Facebook absence is unlikely to last much longer, but my time “unplugged” revealed the lack of constructive boundaries I had previously put on my use of it. When I do venture back into that digital abyss, it will be with new parameters—I’ll never spend time on Facebook when I could be spending it with real people; I won’t use it to kill time in public places; I will not accept friend requests out of courtesy; and I will prioritize deepening my existing friendships over being nostalgic about old ones. I’ll approach it as a tool to make my relationships better, not as a relationship in and of itself.

 

Does Professional Journalism Matter Anymore?

A couple of weeks ago, a plane landed on the Hudson River, just a stone’s throw from where I was sitting at Space 38|39. I did not learn about it from CNN or MSNBC. I found out about the “Miracle on the Hudson” from Facebook, just minutes after it happened. My friend Peter’s status read, “Did a plane really just land on the Hudson?” and I immediately went to work trying to find out what he was talking about.

I went to all of the news sites I trust – CNN.com, NY1.com, MSNBC.com, and even NPR.org – to get the story, but none of them had anything about a plane landing on the Hudson. Finally, about an hour later, there it was, on all of these sites – complete with live video streams. But the scoop was on Facebook long before it was on any of these professional news sites. I learned about the Miracle on the Hudson from a minister sitting in his living room in Corona, NY.

Interestingly, just two days prior to this extraordinary event, I attended a dinner at the Harvard Club sponsored by the Committee of Concerned Journalists. The evening was centered on a panel discussion moderated by journalist and living legend Tom Brokaw on “lessons from an historic campaign.” The august panel included Nina Totenberg (NPR), Dan Balz (The Washington Post), Dean Baquest (The New York Times), and several others who have been covering the world’s news for decades, and one of the main points that kept coming up again and again throughout the evening was the changing face of journalism. Several times, the question was posed or intimated, does journalism, as we’ve known it since pre-Facebook days, still matter?

I had decided to attend this event at the last minute; I’ve been a member of the CCJ for several years, but rarely do I get to actually go to their functions, and I wasn’t even sure whether I belonged at this event. After all, I am not a real journalist; in fact, I like to say I’m an “accidental journalist.” Like a surprise pregnancy, my journalism career “just sorta happened,” but when I saw my first byline, a tiny little heartbeat on the ultrasound of a budding career, I was in love. Of course, I’m generally covering faith and artsy cultural things, like noteworthy leaders in the Christian community or photography exhibition openings. Politics is not my bag, and I wrote very little about November’s historic election (a few blog posts notwithstanding).

Still, the invitation came, and I felt curious. So I went. And I discovered upon entering the very crowded cocktail hour that I had been correct: I did not belong there. I perused the framed and autographed political cartoons up for auction (to benefit the CCJ) and had one very poignant conversation with a man in a suit and tie that went something like this:

(Me) “Where’d you manage to score that glass of wine?”
(Him) “Right over there.”
(Me) “Thanks.”

I sat down and checked my email about thirty-five times on my iPhone, trying to look like I was a very serious journalist on deadline (I was, in fact, typing on my friend Frank’s wall). The truth was, I did have a hard deadline, but my research was over and it was time to actually be sitting at my laptop writing, not scanning through my inbox on my iPhone at an event I really should not have been attending.

When they finally dimmed the lights – our cue to move into the banquet hall – I was so relieved; this was why I had come. My table was filled with fascinating people with long legacies in politics and journalism, and I enjoyed hearing them dish the inside scoop on the Madoff scam, foreign relations, and of course the election. A few times I got to give some input and I was delighted (and surprised) by how much I actually knew about these topics. (Though I admit, there were a few times where I pulled the old, “well, you know when he… yeah…” Nodding, wide-eyed, eyebrows raised, waiting for my counterpart to fill in the blanks and then, when he did, followed up with, “…exactly…”

Works every time.

The meal was delicious (mmmm, crab cakes), and as I was sipping my second cup of decaf, the lights once again dimmed in the banquet hall, and the panel discussion began. Tom Brokaw did a great job as moderator (I took notes, since moderating is one of my roles at IAM). The panelists went in several different directions, even, at times, disagreeing with him (like the time Tom Brokaw made the statement that “all reporting is investigative journalism to some extent” and then Dean Baquet took the microphone and said, “I totally disagree.” That was fun.)

Throughout the evening, I sensed a simmering discomfort beneath the surface of much of the conversation I heard. Those whose careers have been built on the tried and true elements of journalism are now frightfully aware that their skills may be irrelevant if they’re not first on the scene. It is getting harder and harder to be the first to report the news, because whichever Tom, Dick or Harry is closest by when news happens is going to scoop even the most ardent first-responders in the media with his cell phone images and Tweets.

The face of journalism is not just changing; it has changed. And from what I could see that night at the Harvard Club, the pros are aware that there is no more “business as usual.” In the old days, reporters showed up at newsworthy events or press conferences with a notebook and pencil. Now we have digital voice recorders, video cameras, and cell phones. We can research stories in seconds, thanks to Google and online archives. We can post our stories within seconds of the event happening, assuming we have the freedom from our editors to do so.

Of course, while we’re running spell check, Joe Blogspot is liveblogging in the corner, and by the time Professional Reporter has run his piece online, Joe has already blown their punch line on his personal post.

But with all this said, it is still vital for journalists to be there, fleshing out stories, getting the bigger picture, researching backgrounds, even if they’re not breaking the news. Even though I had already moved on to other news by the time all of the “Miracle on the Hudson” stories emerged in mainstream press, it was good to get some more specifics about the captain of the plane and the survivors on NPR’s Morning Report. As a frequent flier, it matters to me why the plane went down, and it will take good journalism to discover whether it was really a collision with an unfortunate flock of low-flying geese or something more sinister. If US Airways is letting planes with bum engines take off, I want to know about it. I am counting on journalists to let me know whether I can trust US Air; their reporting will influence my comfort level the next time the pilot tells the flight attendants to “prepare for takeoff.”

So back to the big question: is professional journalism obsolete?

Not by a long shot. The world still needs real journalists, but not necessarily to report the news first. People with iPhones just might start taking over that responsibility. But it will still fall to journalists to get the full story, and to report the meat of the matter. All I learned from Facebook was that a plane had landed on the Hudson. But an hour later, on a major news web site, I learned that all of the passengers had made it to safety, that they thought it was caused by birds flying into the engine, and that Capt. Sully was a highly respected pilot and, in general, salt of the earth type of guy. These are things the public wants to know.

At the Harvard Club, the general consensus was that the face of journalism is, indeed, changing, but the people who mattered – the big guns of the evening – did not seem scared in the least. In fact, they seemed totally at ease with the fact that their professional lives as they knew them were in flux. I think true journalists thrive on flux. Journalists are some of the most creative, innovative, resourceful people I know.

Gone are the days when the public would first hear the news from the six o’clock network news. Gone are the days of superstars anchoring the eleven o’clock p.m. hour. Instead, news is flowing 24/7, and with everything that is happening in the world, the world needs people to tell them about what is happening.

The whole story of what is happening.

And that is, and will always be, the responsibility of those who bear the title of “journalist,” a breed of professionals the world will always need.