Two ways of thinking about social media: digital tattoos and virtual shadows

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Digital-livesAt concerts, lighters once swayed in the air during poignant moments, the audience belting out lyrics together in a moment of catharsis. Today, the group sing-alongs still happen, but the air shines with a different glow: the light of cell phones.

Last week, while seeing a favorite band, I couldn’t help but notice the sea of undulating phones around me. With my view partially obstructed by shoulders, I found my eyes constantly settling onto the glowing screen of the guy in front of me, who was recording each and every song. The screen allowed me to see clearly, and yet it seemed a strange mediation of a moment that is all about the present. Yes, by recording the full show, you get to watch it later. But what did you really experience in the first place?

Juan Enriquez: Your online life, permanent as a tattoo Juan Enriquez: Your online life, permanent as a tattoo Meanwhile, the group standing beside me at this concert had faces flushed from a little too much alcohol. They had their phones out too, the flashes going off periodically as they snapped shot after shot — arms excitedly slinging around each other. As soon as a photo was taken, they’d lean into the capturing phone and laugh as its owner typed out a message and posted it on Facebook. Was the liquor-soaked moment really one they wanted to share with everyone, co-workers included?

Both today’s talk, “Juan Enriquez: Your online life, permanent as a tattoo,” and today’s new TED Book from Damon Brown, Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed with Documenting Our Lives Onlinetake reflective looks at the nuances of what it means to have an online record of life. In his talk, Enriquez classifies social media fragments as “digital tattoos,” while Brown characterizes this mediated life as our “virtual shadow.”

Which concept meshes more with your view of our digital lives? Here, a deeper look at the two concepts.

What are they?

Digital tattoos:

“Tattoos really do shout,” says Enriquez in his talk. “What if Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, cell phones, GPS, FourSquare, Yelp, Travel Advisor — all these things you deal with every day — turn out to be electronic tattoos? And what if they provide as much information about who and what you are as any tattoo ever would?”

Virtual shadow:

As Brown writes in his book, “More than ever, we’re now focused on documenting and building the history of our lives, not on living the life unfolding right in front of us. It’s all about the check-in, the status update, the captured moment, rather than being fully present day to day. We’re each focused on what I call our virtual shadow: a collected narrative that, like a physical shadow, is symbolic of where our real selves have been, albeit a few steps behind.”

Is this a brand-new problem? Nope:

Digital tattoos:

“The Greeks thought about what happens when Gods, humans and immortality mix for a long time,” Enriquez says in the talk. “Lesson #1: Sisyphus. He did a horrible thing and was condemned for all time to roll this rock up — and it would roll back down. It’s a little like your reputation. Once you get that electronic tattoo, you’re going to be rolling up and down for a long time.”

Virtual shadow:

“Socrates had as much trouble with then-new technologies as we do with modern tech. Words were meant to be spoken, Socrates believed, rather than written down,” Brown tells the TED Blog. In his book, he adds, “[It’s] the same conflict humans have had throughout time: how do we successfully capture a potentially significant moment? It is the prehistoric caveman making images on the wall, the elementary-school class creating a time capsule, every man in an army platoon getting the same tattoo right before a battle.”

What’s the most disconcerting new technology out there?

Digital tattoos:

Says Enriquez, “Facial recognition is getting really good … Companies like now have about 18 billion faces online.”

Virtual shadow:

Writes Brown, “Google Glass can take pictures and video, check your email, text your friends, and surf the web — in short, it can record your whole life … Google claimed that they weren’t built for everyday use, but I doubt Apple planned on people texting while walking, either.”

How do we escape the grip our online lives have over us?

Digital tattoos:

Enriquez tells us, “Be cautious when faced with the choice of doing something boneheaded on Twitter or Facebook. Give it 12 hours.”

Virtual Shadow:

Brown writes, “The best way to separate mundane short-term memories from important long-term memories is to simply be as present as possible … The more aware you are of your surroundings, the more your brain can create a cohesive, solid memory. A rich memory — for instance, making love for the first time — isn’t created by an isolated sensation, like a gentle touch or the smell of a cologne, but from the collecting and connecting of all those inputs into one unforgettable multisensory experience. The brain doesn’t need better tools; it just needs us to be as present as possible when things are actually happening.”

How do photos and video play into this?

Digital tattoos:

“People don’t understand how quickly this has changed,” Enriquez tells the TED Blog. “There weren’t a lot of videos of September 11, because it was a pain in the rear to take video on 9/11. You needed a large camera and battery pack – you had to set up the camera. Now every one of us carries HD in our pockets … HD video is so simple, cheap and easy to use that it can affect a presidential campaign, like what happened with Romney.” He adds, “This 24-second news cycle, where a presidential candidate says something stupid on air and, ‘Gotcha!,’ is now beginning to apply to other people’s lives.”

Virtual shadow:

Brown writes in the book, “My favorite uncle shared some good news: He had pictures — hundreds of pictures — from our wedding day. He’d gotten some gorgeous shots, he said, and he couldn’t wait to send them to us. He also told me that he couldn’t wait to get the official video, since he’d been distracted and missed a lot. He was excited to watch a recap of what had happened while he was busy trying to capture the beautiful moments as they were actually happening.”

Is there potential for good with social media?

Digital tattoos:

“The really neat thing is that this is exactly the kind of stuff that allows a group like TED to be so successful and spread ideas,” Enriquez tells us. “And that allows Twitter to spread ideas in a very powerful way — to take on governments, take on bad officials, expose corruption, start movements, do Kickstarter. I’m not arguing [social media] shouldn’t exist. I’m saying that precisely because this stuff is so powerful, we should be careful.”

Virtual shadow:

“There is definitely much good that comes from social media. I’m a huge Twitter fan …. I think we just need to ask the same question we do with other activities: Is this affecting my quality of life?” he says to the TED Blog. “Saying technology is making us less attentive is a copout. Technology has always been an issue for us, whether it was a child in the ’50s watching too much TV or a caveman playing with a new discovery called fire. Like our ancestors, what we really need to do is find a smart way to integrate our newfound technology into our lives.”

So where do you stand, do you feel like the bits and pieces of you online are your digital tattoos, or that they comprise your virtual shadow? Or perhaps a little bit of both?

Watch Juan Enriquez’s TED Talk on digital tattoos »

Read Damon Brown’s TED Book about virtual shadows »