You are Not a Profile.

August 17, 2011

I am so close to dropping off Facebook. Someone push me. Please.

I have no real illusions about anonymity. While I’ve had this blog–in some incarnation–for seven years now, I launched a website for myself as a musician barely a year ago. It didn’t take me long to start considering combining the two, but as soon as I began planning to do so, I ran into a host of problems. Many of these are a result of own laziness (I struggle to update my gig calendar or promote my shows, unless it’s on Facebook), but there are greater identity and self-image concerns as well. Do I want to unify the guy who writes stuff like this and this, with the guy who wrote this?

The funny thing is, show promotion and a couple groups (ok, one actually) are the only reasons I’m still on Facebook. The most common reason I’m so disdainful of Facebook is because there are so few things that I want to say to my family, lifelong friends, recent friends, grad school friends, and musician peers. It’s an opt-out system where unless I take the time to categorize my friendeds, everything I post goes to everyone. After silently saying “I don’t care” to myself with every status update, I realized that I just didn’t want to add to the information pollution. Granted, I still check Facebook semi-regularly just to read status updates with the same casual interest that I read celebrity gossip blogs.

Courtesy of geekandpoke.com

Perhaps I’m subscribed to the idea that in your virtual life, if you don’t establish a strong identity, one will be established for you. I realize that doesn’t really differentiate it from real (analog) life, but I harbored this illusion for a while that if I didn’t do anything online, I wouldn’t be there. Being an actively performing musician and a member of at least a few geek social circles, pictures of me just kept popping up on Facebook. To this date I personally have uploaded one picture (nearly a decade old) of myself to Facebook, and yet there are 318 tagged photos of me currently uploaded on their network.

I’ve in the past been dubbed a “contrarian” by some of my peers. I can’t really argue, since I do seem to have an inherent suspicion of social trends (Facebook, Twitter, Portland, etc.). I don’t necessarily believe that all social trends are inherently brainless and driven by mob mentality (or worse, marketing). I am just a big believer in the adage “Don’t let anything be automatic.” I believe that regular assessment of our routines is important to promote our intellectual, social, and technological development. That said, I agree with Jaron Lanier that social networks encourage users to dilute their individuality humanity, allowing it to be quantized into what essentially amounts to census figures and voluntary market research data.

Or, maybe I’m just tired of being a product.

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Compass Coffee Exterior

Is anyone else surprised that white plastic lawn chairs have survived consumer product natural selection as long as they have?

In the last couple weeks I’ve visited two coffee crashes that were among the first I landed in when I first moved to this area. Compass Coffee on Main St. in Vancouver and Common Grounds on Hawthorne in Portland both casually and humbly occupy their spaces only blocks away from their higher-traffic neighbors (Mon Ami and The Fresh Pot, respectively). Both are reliable and comfy, with no fuss and all the essentials. They are well-dressed coffee-drinking spaces with tables, chairs, board games, wi-fi (duh), and a great selection.

What’s funny is while I visited these spaces several weeks ago, I didn’t really think of them until I found myself sipping chai drink on a late evening in Starbucks. I wanted so badly to be anyplace than this generic coffee pit. That then got me thinking: how could I love Compass Coffee and Common Grounds for really looking like coffee shops while bemoaning every Starbucks, Tully’s and Peet’s for looking the same?

Easy. (Hint: skip to the last sentence of this post. You really don’t want to read this.)

cup of coffee at Common Grounds

I have a picture of the Common Grounds interior, but my shoulder is in it.

In my experience, art consistently follows one rule:

Art establishes an expectation, and creates conflict by either going with or against that expectation.

Good art follows an additional rule:

A work of art presents a series of elements which must, in the end, find a balance to create satisfaction.

Whether it’s charcoal paintings, an independent film, a break dance routine, a haiku, a lego sculpture, or a classical symphony, all are essentially (and subjectively) judged by these standards. It’s what keeps art interesting, it’s what keeps life interesting, and it’s what keeps me searching for new coffee shops and bookstores.

Drip coffee at Compass Coffee

More Compass. I know I'm being unfair to Common Grounds, but seriously, my shoulder is in the other picture.

I can count on walking into a Starbucks in Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Toledo, New York, and North Carolina and ending up in the exact same place getting served the exact same drink with the exact same options with the exact same ingredients. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s that same notion that allows us to continually enjoy pop music, and sitcoms, and breakfast cereal. Unfortunately, while there may be balance in consistency, there’s none in predictability.

It’s like hearing a new artist cover a song you’ve heard a hundred times before. It gives you something you’ve experienced countless times before, for the first time. Of course, isn’t visiting the same indie shop ten dozen times the same as visiting the same Starbucks ten dozen times? No. I go to Compass Coffee, and I know that I’m at 304 Main Street, Vancouver, WA. I drop in Common Grounds Coffeehouse and I know I’m on Hawthorne boulevard. I go to Starbucks, or McDonald’s, or Target, or Best Buy, and I’m in all of them from Seattle to St. Petersburg. I’m everywhere, but more accurately nowhere.

In short: Vancouver needs another coffee shop that stays open until 9:30pm.

It takes a lot of nerve to make people pay for something that pretty much everyone else gives away for free. As a corporation, Starbucks has enough money to buy an iPod (nano) for every other customer who walks in, yet they dangled internet in front of us for a $3.99 because they knew people would pay for it. They’ve got however many million customers a day, and if one out of every thousand that walks into a Starbucks opts to pay for internet access, it’s more than worth the other poor schmucks who can’t afford it.

degenerate starbucks customer

Can you imagine the degenerates that free internet will attract?

For the record, I am a poor schmuck. A poor schmuck that used to drop into Starbucks with the knowledge that I’d actually get work done. After paying $3 for a latte, there’s no way I’m paying another $4 for internet, and I would sit there and lament the fact that my poor self couldn’t afford the basic human right of internet…then I’d do something productive. Sure, I can cough up some gas money for a mocha frappe, but internet? That’s too rich for my blood. Looks like I’ll just have to suck it up and work.

Haves and have-nots make up the foundation of a proper capitalist society. What if airlines just did away with first-class, and started seating everyone in spacious seats with bottomless cups of ginger ale? Chaos. What if everyone had health-care? Death camps. What if every Playstation 3 could play PS2 games? Anarchy. The fact is, you can’t spell compromise without prom, and anyone who’s been to prom knows it ruins lives.

More than anything, I miss the intrigue. Knowing that there were people–important, influential, upper-middle class people–who would whip out their American Express and log into not just any wireless network, but the Starbucks wireless internet access. A network that never tired and never lagged, and could Skype in HD.  Where your IP was a VIP, and packets sent from lower gateways stepped aside out of respect, since your data was traveling from the Starbucks gateway. Where every attempt to drain bandwidth only made it stronger, and where the only virus was the virus of awesome.

Free Starbucks Internet on the iPhone: you're only encouraging them.

You're only encouraging them.

Of course, I have to consider where this leaves me. Before free Starbucks internet, I was a blogger on the fringes, drafting my posts offline like a second-rate citizen and sipping the a vanilla bean iced…thing that could only wet my tongue for an elite class that I would never fully savor with my full palette. With free internet, I’m just a another douche with a MacBook and an overpriced milkshake.

How could you stoop so low, Starbucks. How could you? You’re a multi-national corporation that already has the nerve to provide its full-time and part-time employees with proper benefits. Now you stoop lower. Can you imagine the kinds of people who are logging on to your network? Fourteen-year-olds with iPhones. Elderly folks forwarding jokes to their grandchildren. Graduate students! How can you handle it? How can you let your pure networks be tainted so?

You’re weak, Starbucks. I used to look up to you. Now you’re just a Tully’s with an over-inflated ego.

So yeah, I’ll see you Wednesday. The mocha frappuccino light is actually pretty tasty.

"Part chocolate. Part peanut butter. All hero." This  describes neither Iron Man nor Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

"Part chocolate. Part peanut butter. All hero." Note that this describes neither Iron Man nor Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

Way back in a past blog life I was a lot more candid, with less concerns for pesky things like coherence, honesty, and decency. I occasionally mine old gems from blog 1.0, and one I never really let go of was “unformation.” Richard Saul Wurman, creator of the TED Conference coined the term information architecture as the idea of designing information to be meaningful. Unformation, in contrast, indicates the antithesis of information architecture: presenting of information in a manner so insipid that it does more to erode inquiring minds than engage them.

Foot Locker ad: "Don't criticize. Nike hypersize. Foot Locker."

"Don't criticize. Nike hyperize. Foot Locker." Well, at least it rhymes. It's about as meaningful as the cricket rule book read to a parakeet, but it rhymes.

Case in point: advertising. Sheer abundance of consumer products has pretty much killed off any sense of need, though it could be argued that the mere existence of advertising demonstrates the absence of need. Regardless, it’s become painfully apparent that advertising doesn’t really need to mean anything, it just needs to convince you that it might mean something. Parents groups raise concerns about children being over-exposed to sex and violence on television. What abut the side effects of long-term overexposure to utterly nonsensical advertising?

Employer: “What makes you qualified for this position?”
Interviewee: “Work. Money. Ecstasy.”

Teacher: “What is the capital of Montana?”
Student: “Montana: Part state. Part nation.  All America.”

Man 1: “Who are you voting for in the next election?”
Man 2: “Change I can believe in!”

Hm. Perhaps that last one was a bit too…topical.

For those unconvinced, lets do some comparison between “actual” news and fake headlines from The Onion. Telling the difference is tougher than you might think. The headlines below present the growing difficulty of separating real life from satire:

Christ’s final dinner portions grow with obesity crisis

Report: $14 Trillion Spent Annually on “looking cool”

Biden on Health Care Reform: “This is a Big F—ing Deal!”

Consumer Product Diversity Now Exceeds Biodiversity

California opens massive garage sale in Sacramento

Apple Releases Revolutionary New Laptop with No Keyboard

I had always believed that comedic satire had the advantage of speaking honestly and freely about how bizarre and chaotic reality really is. What’s becoming painfully apparent, however, is that it’s not about searching for weird or slanting stories toward the weird; real life is and always has been weird. It’s just unfortunate that news media has to work so hard to make things meaningless.

…and now The Onion presents: “what I hear when I watch CNN

“Have you noticed that everything on planes is very tiny? There’s always tiny food, tiny liquor bottles, tiny pillows, tiny bathroom, tiny sink, tiny soap, everyone’s in a cramped seat working on a tiny computer. There’s always a small problem: there’ll be a slight delay, we’ll be a little late, if you could be a little patient! We’re just trying to get one of those little trucks to pull us up just a little closer to the jetway so you can walk down the narrow hallway and there’ll be a man there in a tight suit and he’ll tell you you have very little time to make your connecting flight. So move it!”
-Jerry Seinfeld

I really wanted to find a coffee shop in this airport, since I don’t think I have Phoenix on my “Life in Caffeine” list. Unfortunately I was only able to find a Starbucks. Alas, the great Arizona coffee investigation twas not meant to be.

The quality of life on an airplane lies somewhere between freshman all-male college dorm and refrigerator box, but no one seems to notice. We drink our watered-down juice, sit in our ultra-upright seats, breathe recycled B.O. and flatulence, and sit physically closer to strangers than we are emotionally close to our immediate family. No one complains, though. We shuffle around each other in the isles, sneeze on old people, and drop suitcases on six-year-olds and no one says a thing. At the dawn of the age of the airliner, it’s as if they were playing a sick game of “would you rather…”

Travel by automobile and ship for the rest of your life.
or
Travel ten times faster, but lower the quality of your life tenfold while doing so.

Bad food. High prices.

No...he didn't. Yes. I did.

Of course, someone has to make money off of this travesty, and, as we all know, it’s not the airline industry. Once you’ve lowered your living standards to plane flight level, suddenly you desperately need to feel privileged. Eating at a high-priced Burger King after getting off of a plane flight just adds insult to injury (or injury to insult), so I opt for the comparatively ritzy bar and grill. If I’m going to get ripped off, I at least want to enjoy the food. It’s also fun to listen to people spending $12 for chicken strips and $7.50 for a beer gripe about the superficial excess of Southern California.

Well, the turkey club sandwich was horrid, and now here comes the bill…

“He’d just been hosed pretty hardcore.”

Once again, if you haven’t read William Deresiewicz’ article “Faux Friendship,” I highly recommend it.

I recall my first year of grad school being crazy enough without the complications of electronic social networking. As if I didn’t have enough reasons to feel old in my early twenties, on my first day I had a student abbreviate a discussion with me into another language (“Hey. Can we convo? LOL. Sorry, I like to abbrev.”), and soon after I felt the outward pressure of dealing with virtual friends—hereafter referred to as “friendeds.” After much prodding from my peers, I finally opted to give Facebook a shot, but only if I could assure that I could have all the privacy I wanted, and more. I resolved to only “friend” people that I had actual face-to-face interactions with, but my interactions on Facebook were limited until I discovered my personal Holy Grail: ultra-paranoid privacy settings. Thanks to the setting which removed my searchability on Facebook, I was free to happily enjoy all Facebook had to offer from the confines of my virtual cloaking device.

As the years have gone by, however, the ever-widening user base has had some undesirable results. While Facebook features (Facebook chat, applications, video, etc.) have consistently expanded, I’ve always had my private little wall that prevented “that one creepy guy from the coffee shop who I really never want to talk to” or “that obnoxious girl from my sophomore physics class,” or “my high school graduating class” from attempting to “friend” me. Sure, you can always ignore the friend requests, but can’t they just not know I’m there? Regardless, I’m proud to say that I’m still app-free and I have resisted the urge to upload video or engage in real-time chat. I also was completely invisible to all but those I actually wanted to communicate with. What’s nice, is that I have had that choice.

You can run, but you can't hide.

You can run, but you can't hide. At least not anymore.

As of December 10th, I can still opt out of search results, but I have no means to opt out of being “friended” by  “friends of friends” if they happen to see my picture or name in a group or wall post. “But they’re your friends’ friends,” Facebook says. “Why wouldn’t you want them to be your friend?” Well, if you’ve got one Facebook acquaintance that’s “friended” all of Northwest Ohio—and we all have got at least one who has—then that opens you up to all of Northwest Ohio as a “friend of a friend.” My real friends’ friends are not mine, so why on Earth would the Grand High Facebook council assume that I want to have the friendeds of my friendeds be able to see me? Facebook friendeds of friendeds are exponentially further away from being actual friends. Sure, there might be some that are, but does that make it worth opening me up to all of the friends of a guy a met once at a conference in New York?

The painful truth is that social networks like Facebook and MySpace have the power to dictate social privacy trends. What makes Facebook different from myspace is its respect of privacy, which has steadily eroded with every new app. Every “feature” which enables users to share more establishes a new trend which eventually becomes a standard. Not only do these new features presuppose that people want to share as much as possible, they actually encourage people to make public things that they would have never considered to display in the past. As much as I hypocritically condemn the self-important web 2.0, whether or not you want to share pictures of yourself doing a keg-stand in a unitard isn’t my business. However, you make it my business by giving all of your pro-unitard-kegstand friends access to me.

I notice that every time I type “friend,” it means less and less until the word is almost meaningless. I wonder if having 1,283 “friends” on Facebook has the same effect on actual friendship?

“This information is name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, friend list, and Pages. The overwhelming majority of people who use Facebook already make most or all of this information available to everyone. We’ve found that most people who do limit access just want to avoid being found in searches or prevent contact from strangers.”
-Facebook Blog

With every consumer product, whether it be music, clothing, food, or what-have-you, there is a mastermind and a target demographic. When the item is released upon into the public, someone had to have been the brainchild to say “This is exactly what I had in mind! People will love this.” This idea is particularly baffling to me when I hear about large-scale productions such as The 41 Year Old Virgin Who Knocked up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It or Stan Helsing and realize that people had to conceive these films and put forth significant, time, effort, and money to producing them. Perhaps, like the dozen incarnations of Coke and Pepsi that came out in the late ’90s, they’re just banking on one very specific demographic, but these poorly conceived, humorless cesspools dressed up as “parody” consistently tank at the box office and rarely make enough money to warrant their production. Why do these things happen? Why?

I bet Rahm Emmanuel bought one.

If you’re going to produce something of questionable market value, do so on a small scale. Case in point, Obama family paper dolls. Sure, the obvious question is “why is it necessary to produce paper dolls of the Obama family?” Action figures, Barbie dolls, and bobble-heads I can almost understand, but cut-out paper dolls? I have to wonder whether little Sacha and Milea Obama are happy or horrified at what must inevitably be poor depictions of themselves in two dimensions. When it comes down to it, I guess I’m just curious who’s buying these things.

By the same token, who the heck is reading this blog?