Different Quotes for Different Folks: Our Totems of Chat

As I read the epilogue to Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years, I was struck by a particular sentiment that Standage could have lifted verbatim from Baron’s A Better Pencil, namely that “[n]ew technologies are often regarded with suspicion” (247). In addition to this initial resonance, what I would like to call particular attention to is Standage’s subsequent discussion of how old and new technologies come to blows at each stage of technological innovation: “There is always an adjustment period when new technologies appear, as societies work out the appropriate etiquette for their use and technologies are modified in response. During this transitional phase, which takes years or even decades, technologies are often criticized for disrupting existing ways of doing things. But the technology that is demonized today may end up being regarded as wholesome and traditional tomorrow, by which time another apparently dangerous new invention will be causing the same concerns” (247).

What we get, then, is a vicious cycle of resentment, hesitation, and adoption that seems to go on and on, forever and ever, Amen.

Image  or, better yet  Image

And here is where I’ll do my best digital impression of Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City: But what about those of us who have grown up with access to multiple reformed-rake technologies at once? Do older technologies ever cease to disappear completely, or do we find ways to still use them? Do we manage to juggle both old and new technologies simultaneously, and if so, how? And how does this wide array of options alter the ways in which we interact with each other?

As Standage quotes from Sherry Turkle, she expresses similar concerns: she “worries about the ‘flight from conversation,’ citing teenagers who would rather send a text than make a phone call” (247). But what exactly prompts this “flight from conversation”? Is it a fear of the level of intimacy that certain technologies afford? Is it an unwillingness to use them? Or is it simply a matter of access?

Take a look at the following clip before submitting your final answer (disclaimer: amateur vocal performance by yours truly, ahoy!) Below is a still from the scene I just “performed” (read: butchered). L to R: Marnie (Allison Williams) and Hannah (Lena Dunham).


Update! (as of 2/25): A friend of mine managed to find a clip of the original scene! It’s not even 30 seconds, so feel free to watch it and perform a little bit of an adaptation analysis.

And I would have to agree with Marnie: we arrange various forms of digital communication into a hierarchy that suits our needs and our personalities. In short, we create our own “totem[s] of chat.” As Marnie’s version of her “totem of chat” suggests, old and new technologies can coexist, although how harmoniously they do is up for debate, evidenced by Hannah’s inability to contact her on-again off-again booty call Adam and her unwillingness to “bite the bullet,” as it were, and call him directly.

What I’d like to argue, then, is that we all engage in some kind of “flight from conversation,” however (sub)consciously, for all three of the reasons I listed above: a fear of intimacy, a personal unwillingness, and/or a lack of access. But unlike the Roman authors who just “varied their writing styles depending on the audience they were addressing” (27), we not only cater our digital correspondences to our specific intended audience but also change that audience entirely.

If my memory serves, the major selling feature of Google+ when it first arrived on the scene in 2011 was its ability organize your friends into various circles, all of which came with a different level of access to your personal information and updates. But nowadays we don’t need Google+ to create those concentric circles of caprice for us. Quite the contrary: we have numerous options for social media that allows us to choose where we do and do not follow certain people. For instance, casual friends may opt to follow each other on Twitter because of its “microblogging” style and low level of personal connection/commitment compared to something like Facebook. Or, if we want to remove textual communication from the picture, we can opt instead to follow that friend or acquaintance on Instagram, where nothing says friendship like “favoriting” a picture of someone’s latest meal or knitting venture, #nofilter.

Clearly I’ve exposed a portion of my own “totem of chat,” so, what’s yours?


9 thoughts on “Different Quotes for Different Folks: Our Totems of Chat”

  1. Chris,

    Thanks for directing our attention toward the “totem of chat” – I don’t watch Girls and was unfamiliar with it. A student just asked me today whether he should e-mail me or come to my office hours if he has a question about my feedback on his written work. And I immediately answered, “It depends.” E-mail me if it’s something small that you just need clarification on, but please do see me if you want to talk through a question.

    I know that my presence on various social media sites, and the connections that I make on those sites, depend on my willingness to share select information. A personal example would be that I was not friends with any of my extended family on Facebook until I was completely out to all the members of my immediate family – my Mom’s side is a gossipy bunch, and I didn’t want the information shared w/o my control. My Tumblr account, however, has always had that info on it as it is not connected with my name.

    I think even on a single platform – let’s go with FB again – my method of communication changes depending on the person. I will communicate with people I know directly: through a pm or in a comment. But if I don’t know the person, I am much more likely just to “like” something I find interesting, avoiding any conversation.

    And despite my constant connection to Tumblr, the site has really no effective interface for chatting, so I don’t usually “talk” to people there in the same way.

    1. Ahhh, Caitlin, I’m very pleased that you brought up how coming out affects how we construct our totems of chat! I’d say I had the same issue while I was coming out, not so much to family but more to myself and to my school. As a freshman in high school, I wasn’t quite sure what was at stake in being “gay on MySpace,” especially since privacy settings back then were essentially unheard of. As a result, discussing issues of coming out became a thing for me to blog about because, as you said with Tumblr, I could be anonymous enough to feel “safe,” which bears a striking resonance to Katie’s post about free spaces on the web.

      1. I was still “just” young enough on myspace that my Mom could justify frequently reading through everything in my account (private messages included), so had I even had the self-identification I do now, it would not have appeared there ever. Facebook was further complicated for me because I, at one point, removed my “interested in” so that my mom’s family could see pictures I was posting when I stayed in Oxford. When I got back, I defriended them so I could have a more open space again – there were a couple aunts a touch offended by the act. It was interesting to me to see how traditional familial obligations extended to social media sites as this was still pretty early for facebook (the first half of 2010).

  2. Fascinating to think about these means of socializing as part of a “totem” instead of as a web (see Blycat’s post: https://english685spring2014.wordpress.com/author/blykat/) or hierarchy or some other metaphor. How does considering text/chat/face to face/email as positions on a totem 1) limit our analysis of these forms and also 2) open up new avenues to talk about them?

    Also, I loved your performance, but I wish that you had put on a hat to play one of the characters so that I could follow the dialog better. 🙂

    1. Janel,

      You raise a really interesting point about how arranging these media as a totem may or may not limit our analyses of them. I’d say that hierarchies of any sort always risk privileging certain forms over others, which could potentially lead to a lack of sustained inquiry; at the same time, though, I feel like once we’ve ranked forms of media we can interrogate what limits and benefits each of them has that has justified their rankings (a sort of rhetorical analysis, if you will). In an ideal world, this type of meta-analysis could be a fruitful conversation about not only the technical features but also the social implications of the forms in question.

  3. I’m going to answer your question directly, I think, as an experiment haha. Time to make this blog commenting a little more realistic to my actual internet presence.

    In terms of intimacy with another person via social media, then, from least to most intimate:

    UD Sakai
    685dw WordPress
    Text messaging
    Phone call

    (I should note that for both Sakai and this WordPress, there are certain limitations to the types of content I feel I can share. Actually, for all of these, the quality or kind of intimacy varies–perhaps this is the lesson of the experiment.)

    1. Callie, thank you for being so direct and creating your own – it’s one thing to say all of these media aloud, but seeing them in a list really allows you to see just how much we’re basically supersaturated with social media!

      But you’ve also scratched at the surface of precisely what I wanted to provoke with this post: not just that we use old and new media together but also that intimacy and quality vary SO drastically depending on the person or people we’re trying to address at a given time.

  4. Chris,
    It was an enlightening performance, thank you!
    Just yesterday I was thinking that I was getting somehow confused about how to text or even call other people because I did not know any more which application would be more convenient to the other person. Actually, I have four active ports of communication with my brother: Tango, Facebook, Email, and Facetime. We do not really have clear priorities, the priorities are usually born out of moments. Therefore I might call him via Tango and he might call me back via Facetime, and we spend couple of seconds to play the hide and seek and figure out where to find each other and finally start to talk. It’s really funny but it might get complicated in a more general view as we need to be aware of our existence in different spaces simultaneously. How to adjust our virtual appearance, including the language we use, in each space according the level of intimacy that exists between us and the other users of that particular space is also challenging. Everybody is everywhere and nobody is anywhere! You might share a picture or a sentence with an adjusted group but then you do not feel shared enough! It’s like attending formal and informal parties all at once wearing the same dress; or you have to carry a closet in your backpack!

  5. Chris,

    You offer a number of metaphors for us to work with—the cycle (or snake eating its own tail), the totem (or ladder), and then of course there is the web. Add horizontal and vertical to that mix, and we have a rich and bewildering set of terms to describe possible ways of connecting in the digital world.

    For me, perhaps oddly, the one that works least well is the totem or ladder. I don’t like using the phone, for instance, and so don’t rate its intimacy very highly, at least in most cases, but I do use email as a kind of letter-writing medium and so find it occasionally and intense form of connection. So the up-down/less-more ranking isn’t working for me.

    But it does lead to some interesting thinking!


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