Saturday, July 02, 2016

Can Conformity be overcome?

I have a confession, while overseas I've allowed many personal disciplines to slip, including but not limited to not reading my facebook news feed. And for one particular reason:

Car-crash appeal.

Aka morbid curiosity. It began with the hashtag brexit incident. For those few that have randomly stumbled across this post. I come from Melbourne, Australia as does the vast majority of my social network and overwhelming majority of what fb algorithms allow me to see in my newsfeed.

I must also confess I don't actually know the pigeonholes, but my morbid fascination was around how such a large contingent of remote and uninformed people relative to an issue felt the need to opine on it. Obviously major world news brings with it a wealth of mildly amusing memes, and if it's a 'slow-life day'* sure share a joke.

But the amount of people opining and attempting perhaps to inform me about the brexit honestly baffles me and makes me a little sad. Flash forward not a fortnight and I woke up to the close of polls on election day, a process I'm sufficiently removed from that I've really enjoyed not having to hear anything about the election at all. The early election is a holiday bonus to me. And please don't worry about educating me on our nations preferential voting system and campaign contribution for first preference votes and all of that, I know it, and I am still glad to be spared the inconvenience of voting, in much the same way as buying cheap shoes in a foreign country is a perk above the sunk cost of spending hundreds of dollars on a flight.

What I ravenously picked over my newsfeed for was that which would satiate my appetite for conformity. And I found it in the democrasausage. The overwhelming coverage given to its presence or lack of at a polling station was the common thread to my newsfeed.

Now I'm often described as a cynic or at the very least cynical, whether I accept the charge or not, I get pegged with it and functionally it means that my opinions and observations can be immediately dismissed because everyone knows cynics are bad and that Oscar Wilde quote.

But for the record I'm aware that democrasausage is just a bit of good fun, an accessible way to celebrate Australian irreverence during the solemn duty of voting. At worst celebrating a sausage in bread, and how united everyone is in doing so is a slippery slope argument for Australian Nationalism. I don't think the progressives though are going to slip down that slope though. They'll be back on the streets of Fitzroy looking for 'authentic' Kim Chi before the votes are tallied.

What fascinates me is the inability of technology to transform our lives. We should be, thanks to social media living in an unprecedented age of self awareness, and perhaps we are. What sparks my curiousity is that we behave as if we don't.

Fb changes are most often unwelcome to fb users, and full disclosure, my battle to not install fb messenger is still ongoing, and I'm still hashtag winning. One change I did welcome though was the little box in the upper right hand corner of browser based fb that told me what was trending.

It was a handy salient guide on what not to post about. If the number one trending topic is the x factor finale then that box told me it was covered, for the first time in history (as far as I know) I had something that informed me what topics my opinion was most devalued on. Imagine if you will, planning a holiday overseas and seeing a table of currency exchange rates. Like a true economist lets assume you are indifferent to which country you holiday in, you can see plainly that your money is worth 10 times as much in China as it is in the UK (even post Brexit vote).

The foreign currency market is actually a shitty analogy because it is far more complicated than what 'trending' tells us. Trending tells us how many voices are talking about the same shit, I'm asserting of course that despite all the marketing material out there, social media is not where conversation takes place. Trending tells us what people are shouting, not conversing about. It tells us simply on what topics our opinion is worth dick all.

I don't feel like I was ever particularly prone to posting topical world news related status updates, but admittedly I'm not going to go validate that feeling by trawling through my data. What I'll simply say is that I appreciate the reminder 'trending' gives me to keep statuses personal or fantastical.

I've sited many times the fantastic art/social anthropological project of exactitudes
The Amsterdam based photography project exploring the phenomenon of why people in expressing themselves wind up dressing exactly the same.

This is what I see in the newsfeed, and the interesting paradox offered by the trending/self-awareness age we live in. So I'm a contrarian, my behavior is pretty predictable, whatever people on aggregate find most interesting I find least interesting.

Attention being focused though, as a practice it's easy to determine what is most interesting to the aggregate, but the inverse doesn't really work, there's a multitude of thing people aren't interested in at all. Just like there's millions/billions of people who shae the title of 'world's poorest person' vs the one title holder of 'world's richest person'

What though if there was conformity around contrarian thinking. If you reading this were persuaded to follow my practice of never posting about anything that was 'trending' and this idea went viral?

Well nothing could ever be 'trending' if everyone was anti-trend. Which historically has been a trend before with the rebellious hippies (who all dressed the same) and the punk rockers (who all dress the same) and returning to the springtime of my youth - grunge (who all dressed like lesbians still do) which is to say that being anti-conformist generally results in conformity.

Alternatively though, if everyone actually just kept their status updates and tweets personal, local and possibly non-topical, the trending threshold could be theoretically set real low - like 3-5 people discussing the same thing could be the trendingest topic in the world (presumably all the guests at a dinner party)

But if I can wax cynical, that low threshold is probably only ever going to be a theoretical one. My suspicion is that we are actually on average, not very self aware.

When we watch a Jon Oliver or Seth Myers clip on youtube explaining the Brexit to us, feel a swell of emotions and log onto social media to share that emotion, we don't seem to catch ourselves and laugh saying 'oh gee whiz, I'm acting like a 12th century village peasant running to the town square/tavern whatever to repeat the news I just heard out on a country road, and not like a person living in the 21st century who watches entertainment content not even intended for me as an audience from half a world away through means available to 98% of people I can personally reach in a medium that applies algorithms to ensure that not only I but everyone connected to me tend to see content that already agrees with their opinion. What a quaint waste of my time.' 

It doesn't happen and it probably won't. I will remain fascinated by conformity in the light of self-awareness though because there is no answer and I can't relate to those who derive some small pleasure or comfort to conforming.

I'm sure also there is an exactitudes set for me, my tribe of people who have somehow wound up all dressing the same despite no coordination whatsoever. I'm sure this post has been written and posted by people other than me over recent weeks and years also.

I'd just rather spend an hour writing this than 30 seconds posting a link about the brexit or how my vote is never wasted in the Australian Federal election.

And I'm going to eat whatever the hell I want today. My vote's going towards hamburgers.

*a day where nothing of particular interest happened in your daily actual or mental life.

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