9 February, 2002

( 4:23 PM )
Okay, Tom Matrullo (weblogs.com link lost) and David Weinberger (here and here) and Dave Rogers (here and here and here) have been worrying the topic of voice and the web, and friendship and the web, and preaching and marketing, and they have me thinking about all of the above and authenticity and presence.
So here are some more undercooked thoughts about these Really Big Topics. First, about voice and authenticity (and when I talk about “authenticity” here, I’m using the colloquial-usage word, not the technical term Eigentlichkeit from Heideggerian philosophy, about which I have related, but more nuanced, doubts): I fear that language of “voice” and “authenticity” risks making available a rhetoric of criticism that sounds grand, but covers up the lack of a rich reasoning about what would count as “authenticity” in an inherently phantasmic medium. I know offhand what it means to say that one’s favorite mountain-bike retailer has a website that sounds authentic and human, but the website itself is a peculiar sort of representation about which to claim “authenticity.” Do we mean that the site tells us what we want to know, incorporates idiosyncratic sidebar information (a surplus of information that reminds of the ways that we know more than we need to about particular human beings), that does not address us as idiots or suckers? Is it more “authentic” to make a website like that than a website that says, in effect, “Buy our junk for high prices on our terms, you desperate schnook”? “Authentic relative to what? “Humanity”?
This is where I get edgy, because the language of “authenticity” seems to depend for its applicability on a notion of what it means to be human–but many who adopt that language choose it without having thought through what about “humanity” they deem the “authentic” part.
Can you fake “authenticity”? What if (for instance) Ben and Jerry weren’t sweetly philanthropic idealists, but cut-throat entrepreneurs who realized that they could make big bucks by pretending to be quirky, northeastern post-flower children? Would their business and commercial facade have been less “authentic,” or they simply more clever? It’s sort of a Turing test for “authenticity,” except that if you can outsmart the distinction by faking “authenticity,” I have the lingering feeling that the value of the term may have dwindled.
Then also, some of the value of “authenticity” language derives from “presence,” from the sense that an “authentic” voice conveys what it would be like for the site visitor to encounter the person behind the site. I can appreciate the personae that Dave R’s and David W’s and Tom’s sites, and I wish I knew the people who stand behind these projections. But yet, at a certain point we are our masks, we are our represesentations–so just how important is it for me to know “Tom Matrullo” after I’ve gotten to know well the author of the “Commonplaces” weblog?
Ah, but you can’t clink beer mugs (or wine glasses, or soda bottles) over the net; you can’t hug; you can’t observe that endearing little thing I do with my left eyebrow. But over the web, you can go back and reread the quite-clever thing David wrote the other day (over and over) and you can follow up the hyperlinks he constructed between his remarks and what someone else said.
Is “physical presence” better than “web presence”? It would seem that it all depends. Some people, I feel confident, I would much prefer to encounter only via the Web (and vice versa, of course). Other people engender in me such a kind of affection that I keenly miss their physical presence, even when (or especially when) I see something they’ve just written, or hear their voice on the phone line.
I’ll keep thinking about this, though.


Is it “blogmail” if you mention someone else’s blog in yours, so as to oblige them to pay attention to you?

Or is blogmail the thing you send someone to let them know you mentioned them? (I suppose it works both ways simultaneously.)

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