Untangling the Web by Aleks Krotoski

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on my reading.

Anyway, I’d been eagerly awaiting getting hold of Aleks Krotoski’s Untangling the Web. I heard Aleks speak a few years ago at a UKRC conference, (I shared her interest if not her expertise in Second Life at the time!). She’s had such a great mix of roles too: both an academic career and reaching out to build public awareness of the web, and she was an inspirational speaker.

There’s such a wealth of detailed research and interviews with leaders in the field informing this book, but equally true to form, it’s an accessible read that you’ll want to stick with.  It covers a good bit of ground: from how the web impacts on individuals and their identities, their friendships and love lives, its role in protests and much more.  From how we live our lives to how we approach our deaths,   It’s a shortish book, so doesn’t go into a great deal of detail on each issue, but gives some really useful insights into research and current thinking, and there’s a great list of references to pursue further.

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Her chapter on online identities was intriguing, given that Tim and I had just been discussing the professional vs personal dilemna that some public sector tweeters face. Aleks argues that the pre social network online “anonymous” identity is as valid as any of our offline constructions.  She argues that “the old web, a place where identity could remain separate from real life is rapidly disappearing”, while the work of Facebook, Twitter  is one  “where people who have arrived on the web since 2003 only want online interactions supported by “authentic” identity”.    I take that argument on board completely: for some, there will probalby always be a place for anonymity and experimentation online, but I’d still argue that those of us commenting on our own policies should have that authentic identity if only to build credibility within the conversations that we’re having.

Obviously, we alll have the right to privacy even while we’re busy sharing (and creating) aspects of our lives online.   it was intriguing how Aleks herself has played with her online identity, shaping and creating it as far as possible that during writing of the book she apparently set hares running, manipulating an exaggerated version of herself online.

Equally intriguing was technology’s incursion even into death.  I wasn’t aware, for example, that burial with technology is now quite common in China.  And why not, if we consider how taking wealth and status to the grave is millenniums old in certain cultures?

We all know how social media can help people to coalesce around events, and find out information – the London Riots of 2011 were a prime example of that.    But I hadn’t realised even earlier than that – in the wake of the 2005 bombings in London, a whole community had grown up in Second Life initially to share information, but later as a virtual memorial that enabled people to come to terms with what had happened.  Aleks goes on to describe how what Danica Radovanovic labels our “phatic culture” (ie a culture of sharing the little details of our lives) has a genuine impact on those left behind after death. Little remnants of us survive our physical lives, while the type of grouping together described above can create a sense of belonging that can survive longer than traditional grieving processes.

And Aleks goes on to argue that how we use  technology is indeed “responding to our human psychological instinct to belong”.  And we tend to coalesce around like-minded people.  So,instead of exploring the whole world that’s available to them, younger people who have grown up with the web will tend to friend and connect with people that they know.  The web isn’t really opening up our horizons, but reinforcing divisions such that we all only really see our own “little slice”.  

A bit like this post, which has just been a little slice of what this really readable book has to discuss!

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