Thinking about Presence

Presence noun

  • the state or fact of existing, occurring, or being present in a place or thing
  • a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen.
  • a group of people, especially soldiers or police, stationed in a particular place.
  • the impressive manner or appearance of a person.

A term that gets thrown around a lot for anyone with an artistic bent is “social media presence.” Contracts for large publishing houses, applications for advertising, the entire industry of web development, and in small ways countless more types of jobs, are all predicated on not only a strong web presence but a clean one. In small ways, we mirror this by strictly policing what we say and do on these places to maintain our social positioning and relationships. We make decisions about how we behave based not only on how we feel at the moment, but on some murky understanding of our world, relationships, and a completely opaque theoretical future.

I must not disagree with or divide my friends for I may need them for a gofundme or a character reference in the future.

A lot of bandwidth has been filled with people opining about how much our behavior is now controlled by social media. How we police ourselves and others. How people no longer fade into our past to become varnished golden memories. How we spend hours and hours of attention glued to our endlessly scrolling updates.

Contrariwise, a lot of bandwidth has also been burned by people extolling the benefits of social media. How it binds unlikely communities together, enables new organizing and new views, and has become the new town square and market. It is the social computer, and to be off of it is to resign your say in the future. To abdicate the edge and join the past in the dust.

Neither of these is completely correct, but I feel that the answer is not “somewhere in the middle” either.

Social media as we view it today is usually traced back to the popularity growth of Facebook around 2006. It is barely a teenager, yet it’s treated as an immutable presence in our lives. Like a credit score or a social security number, your Facebook is part of how the the world relates to you and how it knows you. It’s just accepted now that your social media will be examined when you apply for a job, and even while you are still on job.

Double all of that for creatives.

A movement comes in and out of vogue every so often to switch back to the newsletter format, and many very successful creators still use them. These would work as a marketing/fan management system for individual creators. There are the usual holdouts who keep personal websites and blogs (ahem). But the vast majority of people who do creative work of any sort are finding themselves forced to manage an Instagram, an Etsy, a Twitter, a Facebook page, a Snapchat, etc. etc. If they wish to be a successful creative that is. I should be writing this on Medium if I really wanted to be successful.

There’s not inherently anything wrong with that, unless you hate the idea of corporations controlling people’s livelihoods like weirdos like me.

I think there is an additional aspect, I think we need to be present in places. We need to be understood to be inhabiting these places along with all of our fellow social medianites.

I have a Facebook, but I do not use it. It’s there because I need it for other apps, logins, and because they already have an ad-made profile of me so why not. Generally this is a positive change. However, I find that my complete ignorance of what others are currently up to there is alienating in a conversation. It places me outside of the common social context, primarily with family but additionally with friends who I made on other sites. They reference things that happened there as part of the ongoing conversation. Arguments and memes slide in and out of Facebook back into other groups. Yet here I am, presenting an obstacle to free and easy communication. The “oh yeah” and then an explanation is always required.

I am not present in that space, therefore, I am only partly present for some of my associates.

This consideration creates a conundrum. It means that I must pick and choose which services I am consuming and feeding with the additional consideration of my friend group’s awareness of me being there. This may be intuitive to some, but it came as a realization to me so that’s what I’m working with.

Presence means so much more than just existing in a space. It means that others consider me both part of the audience and part of the consenting crowd around them.

Be assured, silence does mean consent. Whatever your opinion of the bystander effect, broadcasting ideas invites dissent and takes silence as assent. This dynamic of socialization as broadcast sucks. It’s poisonous, and turns us all into a series of loudspeakers shouting at each other, because to dissent is to disrupt other people’s broadcast and become associated with it in turn. This creates vague-booking, sub-tweeting, and all other forms of passive aggressive disagreement.

The reason Facebook does not have a dislike button, is that it’s comfier to imagine a contemplative silence than a straight up dislike. Comments, whatever their content, directly help Facebook’s engagement numbers, therefore their ad revenue. It being your only way to actually converse beyond a pleasant thumbs up or silence means that there is theoretically no way for Facebook to lose. Either your post is met with accolades, silence, or tasty tasty engagement. You can extrapolate this to the other networks.

The reason “unfriending” hurts so much is that it is the removal of the presence of another person, especially if it happened due to a disagreement. Even if you just didn’t make the cut on someone’s tidying up, it hurts to feel your network reduced like that in a way that many don’t feel comfortable admitting. How many times have you thought of someone you hadn’t talked to in years, but idly considered “still a friend” due to social media affiliation, looked them up and realized either they unfriended you, unfollowed you, or whatever. That little twinge of regret/nostalgia/anger can happen, no matter what their actual relationship was to you. Their presence is gone.

Presence is a powerful motivator to participate in social media networks, either maintaining your own or others. It can grow and shrink, but the understanding that someone is present means that you “talk” to them when you use that network. It’s disheartening to broadcast to an empty room. A crowded one is far better, even if no one is talking to you or even looking at you. Even one or two people can make the effort to broadcast worth it.

I’ve spent over a thousand words focused on online interactions, but I haven’t touched how important all this is in a reality sense as well. You might say “Hey Wheeler, break this shit up huh? Make it a series?” but I refuse.

Since I am not a sociologist, a psychologist, or even an anthropologist, I cannot make any significant claims in this area backed up by science. I only have my own anecdotal experience. In it, presence is even more important than online.

The closest we can get to real presence is video chats. It gives us physical body language, real time voices, and context. However, even that is woefully inadequate compared to real life presence where all of that is unfiltered, not reliant on connection strength, and supplemented by stuff like smells, responsive positioning, and shared experience.

Every bit of knowledge I have consumed reinforces the idea that physical presence is one of the most powerful pieces of influence we can have on each other. Simply being present is how we bond, how we comfort, how we help, how we express, how we dissent, and in most general terms, how we influence each other one way or another. Whatever our understanding of the reality of others perception of us, we only really experience others through physical presence.

But social media is a handy mock up right?

My point is simply that social media as we understand it has served as a substitute for presence in an inferior and tainted way. It serves to make us feel something similar to presence and to leverage that atmosphere of pseudo-intimacy for advertisement or subscription value.

Thus, my quandary is that I have no desire to participate in this system. Yet, it is slowly, if not already finished, becoming the primary way people understand presence. So if I wish to maintain presence in other people’s lives, I must remain active on as many social networks as my friend network is active on. This is additionally complex if one day I hope to make a socially driven occupation my main one, as most creative occupations are.

Me holing up on this blog, a web island that others must consciously journey to if they want to exchange presence with me, is counterproductive, and more than a little arrogant. It’s not like I even have that many friends or web savvy family members let alone an actual audience. So presuming to set up my own social site for the express purpose of me is almost insulting to consider.

Yet, many people demand no less of their friends, and would argue that anyone not willing to make that journey should be divested of the title of friend. I don’t think that’s realistic. It’s hard enough maintaining a single relationship these days, let alone a friend group and surrendering tools is not a recipe for success.

So then must I find myself forced into surrendering my privacy, my rights to the products of my social labor, and my free attention time to these giant corporate sites in hopes of salvaging some small measure of human connection? Especially as I find myself interacting in reality with fewer and fewer friends and family?

I don’t know.

I just don’t.

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