The Non-collision of Relationship and Independent George

Why the distinction between our online and offline lives is less meaningful every day.

On of my favorite Seinfeld episodes is the one in which George’s two worlds collide. It’s the one where “Relationship George” and “Independent George” battle it out for supremacy, with the ultimate battle coming at a movie theater, where George’s fiancé Susan, Jerry, and Elaine have gone to a movie without him. George arrives late, and stands up in front of the wrong movie yelling angrily, until someone tells him that the same movie is playing on a different screen and maybe he should try there. He’s thrown out of the theater, dragged away by security.

The main conflict of the episode is that George knows what will happen when his two worlds collide: “Relationship George will kill Independent George”. Obviously, however, this difference is only in George’s mind, where there is a clear separation between his love life and his life among friends. It appeals to us because we somehow feel awkward when in the same situation: I certainly remember when I introduced my wife to my family and friends…I was pretty anxious. (thankfully, it turned out great)

The Seinfeld episode is analogous to the current non-struggle we’re having between our “digital life” and our “real life”. Our “digital life” is made up of blogs, email, subscription feeds, and aggregators. Our “real life” is, apparently, everything else.

Nicholas Carr, whose writing I enjoy because he can argue the spots off a leopard, recently described the phenomena of “self-commoditization”, or “producing marketable digital versions of ourselves”. He describes self-commoditization as people creating their own private reality shows, a form of narcissism, and little more than self-consumption. And he’s optimistic about the huge opportunity this brings to those who would make money from it because “there’s little constraint on the supply of digital selves”.

Carr writes in another piece (Selling Ourselves):

“When we communicate to promote ourselves, to gain attention, all we are doing is turning ourselves into goods and our communications into advertising. We become salesmen of ourselves, hucksters of the “I.” In peddling our interests, moreover, we also peddle the commodities that give those interests form: songs, videos, and other saleable products. And in tying our interests to our identities, we give marketers the information they need to control those interests and, in the end, those identities.”

Carr’s argument, in addition to its searing doomsdayishness, comes (as most of them do) with the notion that somebody ought to make money from this. That’s how he makes the jump from our interactions with others to some sort of selling/buying relationship and, ultimately, to the intimation that our “digital life” will kill our “real life”, much like George was afraid of.

If you do happen to be in the media (whose goal is to make money) the question is an interesting one. But for the rest of us who see the difference between our “digital life” and our “real life” shrinking every second (or even non-existent), the question of making money is of little importance, and comparing social interactions to money changing hands completely obscures the situation. Much more intricate than money exchange are social standing, peer opinion, having friends, and being liked. You know, the human things. I continually bristle at the notion that our interactions online can be explained in economic terms.

I think the dichotomy of a “digital life” being somehow different from our “real life” is becoming more false every day. Not only do people understand how web technologies work, but they’re leveraging them to improve all parts of their lives. And the evils that Carr is so quick to point out (gang mentality, self-commoditization, and my personal favorite: blogospheric lynch mob!) are simply online representations of people’s behavior…behavior that hasn’t changed for millenia. When Carr gets excited about the latest emotional upswell online and compares it to selling our souls to the Devil, it is more interesting to watch him construct an argument for discussion from it than to actually go watch the event. Sure, there are issues with identity, but for the most part people are honest and are who they say they are.

Am I being too optimistic? Maybe. We could spend all of our time focusing on the tiny fraction of evil folks, hoping that by calling them trolls they would simply go away. But we’ve always had those and probably always will. Instead, I would like to see more positive stories about how people are improving their lives with technology from writers like Carr. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will happen anytime soon.

The main difference in the last 15 years of human living isn’t that somehow being online has created an alternate universe for us. It’s not that the Internet has made us into lynch mobs. The main difference is that instead of our hazy memory of what happened we have a digital record.

Does being online change our behavior? Yes, certainly, but most of it is in terms of how we do something, not why we do it. We don’t suddenly become narcissists, any more than we used to be. If we can quell the notion that social software is ruining society then we can recognize and repair those tears in the social fabric that do exist.

My wife, just yesterday, was in an email discussion made up of a group of mothers across town. They planned to get together at one of their houses, and when they met in the afternoon not a single one of them remarked how their two worlds had collided, or how bad they felt about their communications becoming advertising. They even referred to their email conversation as “talking”.

Update: I recommend reading two thoughtful follow-ups to this post that went into more depth and nuance than I did:

Published: June 1st, 2006