We Live in Public (and the end of empathy)

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Location: Mahalo HQ, Santa Monica
Date/Time: January, 28th 2009 2:15pm
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I’ve been thinking about empathy and the Internet non-stop for the past week. If you, the jury, will give me some room to operate, I think I’ve got a couple of important, if imperfect, points to share. It might take me some time to get there; two or three thousand words to be exact.

This past week, I camped out at the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of a documentary film about my friend Josh Harris titled “We Live in Public.” It’s a cautionary tale about the dehumanizing effects of technology, a somber topic that we all need to consider in the age ofFacebook, blogging, linkbaiting, and, sadly, the MySpace and JustinTV suicides.

On Saturday night, I sat between director Ondi Timoner and Josh Harris while the film was given the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary. Winning at Sundance is the highest honor in documentary filmmaking according to most–even more so than the Oscar. It was one of the most epic and cathartic moments to which I’ve ever been witness. After ten years of work,Ondi had been given the ultimate recognition and after a lifetime of, well, living, Josh had his story told.

It was heavy.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself… Perhaps we should start at the beginning: Early 2001, New York City.

The Breakdown
Back in the late ’90s, one of my best friends was a guy named Josh Harris. He formed a company called Jupiter Communications which wrote all those crazy research reports in the Web 1.0 days that said Internet advertising, broadband and e-commerce would shoot to the moon like a rocket over the first decade of the Internet. And they were right.

Josh had a front row seat to the Internet Revolution writing those reports, and he made around $80 million when Jupiter went public. He lost it just as quickly when he started experimenting with technology.

One day, he came to my office and couldn’t look me in the eye.

It was one of those horrible, ugly New York City winter days. The ones where it’s not cold enough for the dirty snow to completely melt from the pounding sleet, making the walk to get a cup of coffee feel like theIditarod . Josh rocked back and forth in a chair and repeated a couple of random phrases to me: “The jig’s up, can’t do it, jig’s up, can’t do it–gotta get off the grid.”

I tried to comfort him. I explained that he used to be one of my favorite people to break bread with, that he had inspired me to try and do great things, and that I’d learned more from his outlandish failures than I ever did from my modest successes. However, he had become boring and obsessed with his press clippings. “Did you see Vanity Fair? We’re in the Post tomorrow!,” he would tell me toward the end. I’d ask what the press was for, and the answer placed him directly between Andy and Paris on the unknown-but-famous-anyway spectrum: “For being me!”

Later that slushy day, Josh took a couple of bags and the last of his dwindling fortune to his newly acquired apple farm in upstate New York. He had literally–two beats, please–bought the farm.

The Background
Josh had spent the last couple of months working on two art projects examining what happens when you put yourself under non-stop Internet surveillance.

One was called Quiet and one was called “We Live in Public.” The first, Quiet, was an art project that was famous in New York City’s downtown circles around the turning of the millennium. Josh had a couple dozen folks in a bunker for 30 days living in “pods” (bunks) that included cameras watching their every move. He tried to get me to move into the “hotel,” but I knew it wasn’t a good idea when I saw the people running around naked on psychoactive drugs, firingsubmachine guns. That’s not an exaggeration–that was happening in the basement of this Tribeca building.

You’ll see all this footage if you see the movie. It was madness.

Quiet was shut down by Giuliani’s nightclub task force as a millennial cult 18 months before 9/11–the milestone by which most New Yorkers, including myself, mark our lives. For me, everything in my memory is eitherpre- or post-9/11. Quiet, Silicon Alley Reporter and my adolescence are all pre-9/11. Adulthood, gravitas and the fallout from the undiagnosed PTSD are all post-9/11. (But that’s for another medium, perhaps one with covers as opposed to headers).

In the second experiment, “We Live in Public,” Josh put a couple dozen cameras all over his loft and recorded the inevitable breakdown of his life with the love of his life, Tanya. It was after “We Live in Public” that Josh came to see me, a character witness to his nervous breakdown, before heading to the farm.

People in the chat rooms for “We Live in Public” were vicious to Josh and his then-girlfriend Tanya. They lost their empathy for the people living under video surveillance, and what had started as a fun time playing with technology turned into a nightmare. The audience tortured the subjects in the box–Milgram would have been proud.

It took Josh five years to recover from the “We Live in Public” experiment. I’m wondering how long it will take the rest of us to hit rock bottom and recover.

Godwin’s Law Meets Harris’ Law
Josh’s experiments in 2000, during which he and his cohorts became obsessed with their view counts, parallels today’s blogging, social media and YouTube “arms race.” In his experiment, the technology robbed the subjects–and their audience–of every last ounce of empathy.

Digital communications is a wonderful thing–at least at the start. Everyone participating in digital communities is eventually introduced to Godwin’s Law: At some point, a participant, or more typically his or her thinking, will be compared to the Nazis.  But that’s only part of the breakdown.  Eventually, you see the effect of what I’ll call Harris’ Law: At some point, all humanity in an online community is lost, and the goal becomes to inflict as much psychological suffering as possible on another person.

Harris’ Law took effect last year when Abraham Biggs killed himself in front of a live webcam audience on life-streaming service JustinTV. The audience’s role? They encouraged him to do it.

Harris’ law took effect in October of 2006, when Lori Drew, a grown woman, created a fake alias on MySpace (“Josh Evans”) in order to psychologically torture 14-year-old Megan Meier. Drew started a online love affair with Megan as “Evans” before pulling the rug out and viciously turning on her victim. This “cyber-bullying,” as the press likes to call it, resulted in Megan killing herself.

Harris’ Law took effect in October of last year when Choi Jin-sil killed herself, reportedly over the fallout from Internet rumors. The bullying in Korea has become so intense that you’re now required to use your Social Security Number to sign up for a social network. This lack of anonymity is one of the most enlightened things I’ve heard of from one of the most advanced–if not the most advanced–Internet communities in the world.

Ownership of one’s behavior? Who knew?!?!?

I’m sure some of the wacky Internet contingents will flame me for saying that anonymity is a bad thing, but the fact is that anonymous environments create the environments in which Godwin’s and Harris’ Laws apply. What’s the point of starting these communities if they eventually end in pain and suffering? Anonymity is overrated in my book. (Whistle-blowers are an exception, and last time I checked, anyone can anonymously drop an envelope in a mailbox, so it’s not like the Internet needs to be there for that).

Internet Asperger’s Syndrome (IAS)
I’ve come to recognize a new disorder, the underlying cause of Harris’ Law. This disease affects people when their communication moves to digital, and the emotional cues of face-to-face interaction–including tone, facial expression and the so called “blush response”–are lost (More: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FxwHfoWdS8 ).

In this syndrome, the afflicted stops seeing the humanity in other people. They view individuals as objects, not individuals. The focus on repetitive behaviors–checking email, blogging, twittering and retiring andys–combines with an inability to feel empathy and connect with people.

Now, I’m not using this new term to make light of Asperger’s Syndrome. Far from it, I jsut can’t deny the fact that the evolution of people’s behavior online eventually parallels Asperger’s. I feel I’m within my rights as pundit to reconstitute the idea of Asperger’s to explain my own experiences and thoughts. Although I’ll understand it if you, as someone affected in some way by Asperger’s, claim your right to flame me for “hijacking” the disease. Such is the life of linguists in the age of sound-bites over debate, and skimming over reading.

If you do choose to flame me, I’d ask that you attempt to throttle back your IAS and see me not as an email-producing object, but rather as a 38-year-old searching for answers at the mid-way point in his life, when his collective experience equals his remaining time to experience life. That’s really who I am–just another kid on verge of being old who spends a lot of time thinking about the half-way mark. Be gentle with me.

Back to the point: In IAS, screen names and avatars shift from representing people to representing characters in a video game. Our 2600’s and 64’s have trained us to pound these characters into submission in order to level up. We look at bloggers, people on Twitter andpodcasters not as individuals, but as challenges–in some cases, “bosses”–that we must crush to make it to the next phase.

The dual nature of Asperger’s, from my understanding, is that it makes the individual focused on very specific behaviors–obsessively so in many cases–while decreasing their capacity for basic empathy and communication. It’s almost as if you trade off intensity in one area for common decency and communications in another area–not that the person has a choice.

Well, trading off people’s feelings for page views and Twitter followers sounds familiar to me.

What’s the Damage (Partner)?
One of the reasons I stopped blogging was because the dozen negative comments under every blog post I wrote started wearing me down. I’d write for an hour and the immediate reward was four people, under 12 different accounts, slamming me. Some were people I had fired, others were mentally unstable folks but, in many cases, they were normal people suffering fromIAS.

As you know, I moved to this email newsletter to get away from the IAS factor on blogs. It worked for the first four months, but last month, someone flamed me, calling me an idiot and my missive “garbage.” It was the first time any one of the 12,000 or so people on the list ever flamed me.

Now, I consider myself a fairly thick-skinned, tough person, but I realized that I had not emailed you in a month, and that it was probably because of that short email. The 12k suffered due to a three sentence flame by just one person, probably suffering fromIAS.

I’ve had a couple of folks introduce themselves to me in the past couple of years and say something to the effect of “Oh, I wrote this horrible thing about you but I didn’t really mean it. I really respect your work.” They are normally very uncomfortable when this happens. Sometimes, they are even shaking and stuttering. I typically pretend I don’t know what they’re talking about and tell them it doesn’t matter–a complete lie. Typically, I know exactly what they said, because you remember when folks say something nasty. I’ve come to the conclusion that all I can do is forgive them and move on.

The switch, from an initial lack of empathy to cowering in shame from their own behavior, is telling.  It proves to me that otherwise normal folks will lose their empathy online, only to regain it the instant they face the “object” (aka real person) of their scorn.

What’s at stake?
We’re all canaries in the coal mines now, like Josh Harris was back in the ’90s. We’re harvesting our lives and putting them online. We’re addicted to gaining followers and friends (or email subscribers, as the case may be), and reading comments we get in return. As we look for validation and our daily 15 minutes of fame, we do so at the cost of our humanity.

Today, we’re destroying each other with words, but teaching ourselves to objectify individuals and to identify with aggressors will result in more than psychological violence. This behavior will find its way into the real world, like it did when Wayne Forrester murdered his wife Emma over a change in herFacebook status, from married to single.

It’s only a matter of time, sadly, until this loss of empathy will hit the real world. We’re training ourselves to destroy other people, and there’s a generation growing up with this in their DNA.  They don’t remember a world when communications were primarily in the real world.

The threats we’ve seen against women online are a warning sign of what’s to come–we’re all going to face this aggressive behavior and we’re all going to withdraw from these communication services.

I’m 100% convinced that the trend in 2010 and forward will be people trying to remove their virtual presence on sites like Flickr, YouTube and Facebook. Already, I’ve noticed people are moving their settings to private–perhaps something they should have done from the start.

What a shame, because there is so much gained from sharing.

Rafe Loses His Empathy
No one is immune to IAS, I’ve learned. Just yesterday, one of my old friends, Rafe Needleman, got suckered into the blogging trap of trying to get page views. He printed a story entitled “How to be the most hated person on the Internet: Five role models.” [Here: http://news.cnet.com/8301-17939_109-10150167-2.html ]

Yes, you guessed it, he included me in the piece. My crime? As he describes it, I’ve “taken to acting like a new-money rock star, publicly buying flashy cars, strutting around the conference he produced with Arrington with his two mascot bulldogs, calling his Twitter followers the ‘Jason Nation,’ and then telling bloggers he’s too good for the medium, opting to write instead to a private e-mail list. His weapons of choice: arrogance and money.”

Wow, thanks, pal!

First off, I bought the Tesla because it’s better for the planet. Oh, heck… Who am I kidding: I bought it because it’s really sexy and fast–and good for the planet. Probably in that order. Guilty as charged! Also, I show it to everyone, Twitter about it constantly and I could care less if people have a problem with the fact that it’s expensive. So what? Who cares? It’s just a car, and it’s drool-worthy because of the technology, not the price tag.

Also, if you’re going to hate on me because Taurus and Fondue are the most lovable dogs in history of dogdom, well, I think that’s kind of low.

Since the time of Rafe writing his piece, I’ve been involved in a very long thread with the other members of the “most hated” list, including Mike Arrington and DaveWiner. Rafe regretted doing the piece. However, I’m not surprised he did it.

Rafe has a goal: To get more traffic for the withering CNET brand. We are just objects to solve this problem. Rafe dehumanized his friends in order to make them objects that get him to the next level.

It’s classic IAS.

We’re Donkey Kong to him. These big, sad gorillas that he needs to take down to get to the next level. It’s all a game, but the hurt feelings can be real. Rafe now has to go to bed for the next couple of nights knowing that he’s taken someone who is his friend–namely, me–and thrown him under the bus. For the next couple of years, folks will reference that I’m “the most hated guy on theinternet” when, in fact, my life is filled with love and joy.

Next time I see Rafe in person, he is going to do the whole nervous, coy “I really didn’t mean it, you know I respect what you’ve done” thing and I’ll say “Don’t worry about it, it doesn’t matter.”

Didn’t you ask for this?
The classic argument when someone “famous” gets beat up is to say “Didn’t you ask for this?” Well, actually, no. The reason I got into blogging was not to be famous or to get attention. It was simply to have an intelligent discussion with people I respected. The people I thought were interesting were debating stuff in the blog format, so I was drawn to it.

Now, the entire blogosphere has collapsed on itself to the point at which a respectable journalist like Rafe is so desperate to get to the top of Techmeme, he has to rip his friends apart. Not to single Rafe out; this is occurring daily. People find the 20 people at the top of the hill and rip them apart, hoping to move up themselves.

Steve Jobs has had his personal life ripped apart by otherwise normal journalists who are obsessed with invading his privacy, under the guise that he should bear his soul to us. It feels to me like these Jobs-obsessed bloggers and so-called journalists won’t be happy until they can just stream Jobs’ next doctor visit.

Oh, the humanity of it. It’s really disgraceful.

Wrapping up
Thanks to the 17 people out of 12,000 who made it this far. I know this has been a rambling email and it could have been constructed better.

In summary, how we treat each other does matter. It matters because, without empathy, our lives are shallow, self-centered and meaningless.

The Internet and technology are turning on us, just like the story in “We Live in Public.”

Right now, I’ve got over ten thousand of you to share my thoughts with, until such time as you decide to crush and beat me down by hitting the respond key to this email and flaming me. If you do that, I’ll have to retreat again, but I’m not sure what’s left except the real world. Are we going to destroy ourselves to the point at which we unplug the Internet? Are we going to have to create private areas for discourse and lose the “Open Web” gestalt?

These are just some ideas I’m putting out there for you to consider. If you like, hit the reply key and share some thoughts with me.

Did I mention, I love you all? Each and every one one of you, including the guy who flamed me last time.

best regards,

Jason McCabe Calacanis

PS1: Mike Arrington was spit on in Germany this week, and had death threats last month. He’s now taking a month off from blogging.

PS2: Some press regarding “We Live in Public”

PS3: Today I started “empathy day” on Twitter. The concept is simple: say something nice to someone and put #empathyday at the end. You can do this on Facebook or your blog if you like as well.

172 thoughts on “We Live in Public (and the end of empathy)

  1. Does anybody read these? I don’t care. I feel like I need to say something, if someone hears it, all the better.

    It really scares me that people consider the death of anonymity to be an enlightened solution.
    I have aspergers, real aspergers, (I’m not complaining about your use of the word, it is perfectly accurate for what you are describing) and anonymous communication is the only way I *can* communicate. The only time I can really be myself is when I am behind a pseudonym, because communicating with people is a painful and uncertain process, and the pseudonym insulates me from that pain. The thing is that psychological attacks are not unique to the internet, they occur in real life too (although maybe not as much towards “normal” people), and if I’m going to be attacked, a pseudonym provides the best possible protection.

    I just want to let you know (in the million to one chance you read this) that there are a few human beings who would be hurt by your solution just as much as normal people are hurt by the problem.
    When people attack and kill one of my online identities (as has happened once or twice), I can try again in my next incarnation, and maybe be a better person. But if the law decides to kill off *all* my identities and leave me naked before the cruel throngs of humanity? Then that’s the last you will ever hear from the *real* me.

    Maybe it’s worth it, maybe some of us have to die in order to save the majority. Maybe I’m being selfish (It’s hard for me to tell). Just, when you have your empathy-filled utopia, remember that not everyone was able to join you.

    If you need me, I’ll be cowering inside the mute weirdo over in the corner. Don’t expect a response.

  2. Truer words were never spoken – cyberspace makes it too easy to objectify each other more than we already were doing IRL. We all know it’s cruel and heartless to objectify each other, so why do any of us do that??

    Because we’re scared. Damm scared. We’re terrified of being overlooked, ignored if we act ”nice” because our society almost has us convinced that nice folk finish last. Really? They do? No, they quietly finish first. The jerks might have a splashier finish but they are not in the running and never really were. We know this, but we’re too scared to remember this. Why are we so terrified of being objectified that we’re now objectifying each other just as hard as we possibly can?

    In the 1980s when all the damm fools started greedily, voraciously and narcissistically empire-building, merging company after company and laying off hundreds and thousands of people with ZERO compassion for any of the lives they were hurting, sometimes destroying… is that when we got scared, really scared. We saw that the rotten jerks were finishing first and everyone was being kicked to the curb. We got scared, and some of us broke, starting to act just like their aggressors. These broken people started turning on other people, broke them and pretty soon, everyone was fighting. They weren’t fighting back against the jerk job killeers, but by turning on each other in video games. Wow, that really showed those egotistical power-mongering job killers, huh! No, it did not.

    After turning on each other long enough in those games, then everyone started turning on each other via brain-damaged ”reality tv” shows. Yes, nearly all reality tv is brain-damaged – made by brain-damaged people for other brain-damaged people’s ”entertainment”. Get serious – who in their right minds thinks it’s ”entertaining” to annihilate another living being for ”sport”? Didn’t we grow up thinking that throwing people to the lions was disgusting back in old Rome? Or did some really disturbed people think that wasn’t such a bad idea after all? 😛

    Think about it – we weren’t standing up to Big Biz by turning on each other. No, we were hurting each other while the viscious power-mongering job kills LAUGH at us from their ritzy penthouses and vacation homes!!

    Why don’t we stop *playing into the hands of the bad guys here!!* How about we instead turn that fear and anger on the greedy pigs who caused our heartache in the first place?! Don’t go do anything stupid. Do mourn all the pain and suffering those greedy pigs put us all through. Heal so they have no more power over us. Then…

    Stop buying everything possible from any company that is *not* scrupulously ethical and honorable. Definitely stop shopping at evil WalMart which does NOT give a damm about any of us, only about every last dollar it can extract from us. Buy LOCAL from people you know. Buy organic so you don’t support evil monsanto and the other massive agri-cons.

    If you really want to fight back against the greedy power-mongers who have been callously destabilizing American society for over 20 years now, the answer is simple. Don’t support them at all. Don’t ignorantly support them through their subsidiaries – Clorox bought Burt’s Bees – only buy from Burt’s Bees if you really love Clorox. Instead of continuing to blindly and stupidly turn on each other, how about we stop playing Big Biz’ games and instead start having as absolute little to do with them as we possibly can.

    What would be great is if we could contribute what we know about various companies to one reputable website. Liars would be permanently banned from that website. The rest of us could contribute what we know about every company so we can start putting our money into companies that are seriously cool. The ”bad” companies would have to play by our rules if they wanted our money. Lol, if we got enough people on board, the ”bad” companies might begin to settle down.

    I think teh internets could become a lot friendlier once we stop letting the nasty mega-corps have power over us. Whatdya think? Anyone else with me on this? ☺

  3. To affirm Hobbes…catch Michael Moore’s latest flick,
    Capitalism: a Love Story.

    We’ve complacently let this happen. It’s going to be difficult
    to get things under control. We have a lot to lose if we fail.

  4. Tonight I was going to see “we live in public” I participated in Quiet – because of my busy schedule I will have to wait for the DVD or another showing. As a participant Quiet was very disturbing, and there was a lack of empathy for the sake of the “project”. The one thing that links what you are saying to Quiet is empathy is losted when people invest everything in their persona without understanding or feeling or knowing their own deeper private lives. what I found there was an avoidance of depth, which resulted in lack of empathy, and lack of soul. I am still very curious about the movie. Ironically during a shooting it was Ondi who set down the camera for a moment to empathize over what I was saying, I am curious what the resulting film reveals.

  5. To remark on IAS – “Internet Aspergers Syndrome” – I believe
    the majority of online communication over social networks
    is intended to extend and more importantly increase and enhance
    our real-world interactions rather than avoid or replace them.
    Great new sites like cuyx.com
    make meeting people close to you easier so you can develop
    real-world relationships if you choose.

  6. …Everything in this article is exactly what I’ve been saying
    for at least the last five years. And it’s good to finally
    see it laid out in a most eloquent piece. Thank you. I’ll
    have to track down “We Live In Public” at some point.

  7. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Sticks and stones might break your bones, but words can never hurt you. This is the Internet; grow a thicker skin or GTFO.

    Also, LOL at the leftist faggotry in the latest comments. Corporations have nothing to do with this. People do. Take a step out of your ivory towers and take a look at the real world. Man up and grow some balls.

  8. I was diagnosed with Aspergers at a young age. I consider the comparison between Aspergers and Internet anonymity/lack of body language entirely logical. Interestingly, in learning to understand people without an instinctive understanding of body language, I find it easy to see why normal people would struggle to express themselves properly without these tools.

  9. you know, on the topic of internet-aspergers,
    I have aspergers. and I’m more than a little offended by you
    trying to pin those dicks on aspergers. I understand you
    aren’t saying they actualy have it, but let’s just call it
    what it is- being a dick. MAYBE they are handicapping
    themselves. maybe your right. but these people seem to be a
    lot worse effected than people WITH aspergers are. Maybe the
    term we should use is a simple one- moron.

  10. It’s hard to say. One thing that strikes me… I could have written much of this in the mid ’90’s when I had similar issues happen on Usenet newsgroups. And then again on public mailing lists. And now I’m watching history repeat on blogs and such (which, with commenting and threading and so n are becoming like re-invented usenet groups…)

    Anyway back then, because I had used my real name (no one in those days imagined what the Internet would become), I actually wound up with physical, credible threats to my personal safety. I withdrew from everything online for several years, then slowly came back online with an pseudonym and I take care to make sure as little info about me goes online these days.

    But time goes on, puts things (even flames, yes) into more perspective. It would be interesting to see what you think of all this 10 years later.

  11. Jason – please read Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most significant intellectuals of our time.
    His concept of liquid modernity has been striking at this for decades, and I think you would enjoy it.

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