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March 28, 2009


Richard Akerman:

I like your column and laud your point, but I fail to see why "Where are you?" and "What are you doing" are any more "part of the social glue" than raging against the dying of the light. In fact they are simply more conscious expressions of the larger unconscious urge. Freud said that civilization, in all its forms, is always a (mostly unconscious) stand-off between the will to live and the urge to death: where are you and what are you and who are you are simply expressions of that tension, or of one side of it, the locating side, the side that looks for allies against the darkness. I think Twitter is the first technology that so DIRECTLY permits a tapping of that unconscious urge--not to publish, but merely to let the human spirit speak. I don't know if you WANT to be remembered for "I went to the laundry and then went to the diner"--but odds are that is what you will be remembered for. It's a hell of a lot more than most of our forefathers are remembered for. Their lot was to be nameless planks in the walkway of history.

This discussion, and Ian Brown's speculations about connections between Twitter and our fear of mortality taps into a modern tradition probably best identified with the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker and then continued more recently by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski and Sheldon Solomon (in the guise of "Terror Management Theory"). The basic idea is that we invest in activities that make us feel a part of a larger whole to assuage the terror that comes with mortality. The more recent thinking by the TMT group has been associated with a number of interesting and controversial empirical studies suggesting that even things like voting patterns may be influenced by mortality salience. Marcel O'Gorman at the University of Waterloo is exploring connections between our attachments to technology and our fear of death in imaginative performance pieces like "Cycle of Dread" (http://www.marcelogorman.net/cycleofdread.html) and in his critical writings. I could tell you more about his work but then I'd have to, um, make your mortality more salient. Best go look at his stuff. I've enjoyed both Richard's sensible and pragmatic approach to understanding social media (we have lots of data about how social media are being used so we can do much more than superficial navel-gazing) and Ian Brown's efforts to wade into things mid-stream with a different and very interesting perspective.

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