It could be any dinner, in any place. Every person around the table wants intimacy. And every one of you—whether you came here with that in mind or not—no matter what your intended investment, wants a relationship of some kind although you’ve just met.
Yet by dessert and coffee, you’re challenged to recall either the first or last name of any person you shared a meal with. You look around. You are thirsty, but you can’t remember a single person’s name to ask for a refill. You are at once among friends and strangers. Nameless faces together. If asked, you might be able to identify each of their avatars, know where each is a mayor of, know how to friend each of them in any given social network, but as for their names? “Hey,” you say out loud to no one in particular, “I need water.”
Where once, a person’s name was his or her primary identifier, we’re now seeing the spread of that identity as people intentionally scatter selves, supported by social systems where identities are stored and accessed. As a result, acknowledging someone’s name is no longer the same sign of mutual respect or politeness. Nor is it a necessary signifier that indicates you’re invested in them. What we may be seeing is a death of a single primary name as key identifier. It has been decentralized and decondensed. In social relationships, what has replaced it? And in what contexts do we recall and use each identity?
In Emily Post’s 1922 edition of Etiquette and Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, Post outlines didactic manifestos for interacting with one another. Whether one is a lady or a man, married or unmarried, the Queen or the President of a nation, it is clear which fork, which name, and which manner of addressing one another is appropriate. Specific scenes in that text dictated the rules for behavior, and each was predictable: a business visit, letters, at dinner.
Yet correct introductions are meaningless in a culture where boundaries have dissolved and situations are defined only by the people present in a given moment. How to behave is not an etiquette we can memorize, it’s a sensitivity that starts and ends with being able to read people in an instant. How important is it then to remember someone’s name when that sign is retrievable via any social network, any device that is likely within arm’s length?
There is a new public. The new public is one of context, one perceivable by behaviors. Remembering someone’s name, or deciding we don’t need to, is no longer a given. Our business for behaving—as executives, as friends, as inventors and scientists and designers, as humans—relies on our ability to be sharply aware of that context and shift as appropriate.
Through the shifts, people want to be polite. People want to call on one another in a way that’s meaningful. But they’re busy. And memories full. And now some people, bewildered. In a culture where work spills over into play, time zones overlap, and reference points intertwingled, they no longer have rules for calling upon one another. The rules, if any were followed at all, have changed, and our behavior for interacting is getting a serious redesign. There’s a new public for behaving. And using names as the primary identifier for one another, as one example, is becoming extinct.
But before getting caught up in rhetoric of “the death of” predictions, what is more imperative to consider is the role its demise can play in the larger evolutionary pace the Internet environment has allowed for. We’ve already seen radio give way to film, film give way to television, and television give way to the web. At least. Underlying it all is an evolving ecology that shifts and clicks along—humming at times, dragging at other—to keep up with the fast pace that is the shifting nature of the media ecology.
The death of the name is not an extinction at all then; it’s an adaptation. Just as etiquette is not dead; it’s simply evolving. The evolution of any new behavior—similar to what we saw with the introduction of radio, television, film—is bringing with it a whole new range of manners. Where once we relied on a prescribed code of conduct written by one and applied to many, that is no longer the case.
We are seeing what Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News, calls “user-generated context” take shape. These behavioral and adaptive systems are evidence that the complex dialogues among people are taking place in fundamentally new ways; lines between consumer and creator have merged, and context, not content, is taking over as a guide.
The code of conduct has been replaced with a code of context. Watches have been replaced by the timepieces that are our smartphones. And while no one under the age of 12 is using those smartphones for email, we are using social networks like Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn at a staggering rate to stay in touch. We’re not calling one another but we’re talking more than ever before. And with that, we are writing more as well. And we can confidently say, as these words are printed on this page, that the physical book is not going away; it too is evolving. To know your audience is not enough.
To the contrary
As a culture whose trades efficiency as currency, it’s curious that we’re creating more, not fewer, identities. Contrast that with Mongolian culture which has 300 words for color—and whose horses, as a result, have no name as we know it. They refer to them by color and age. Duly practical and nuanced. What we might see and consider as “white” in English, they see as variations of “ash white” and “snow white” and so forth. Perhaps we too are developing 300 words for social variation, with no one dominant name.
While technology is certainly affording us the ability to use only one identifier, and we uphold efficiency as one of our values, it would seem otherwise. Identifiers abound. Redundancy abounds. And we, in spite our ourselves, seem to value it. Multiple names, then, are a new currency.
Our signature files have out-charactered the text of our email. It’s not enough to sign a note, but to ensure that all forms of contact are known. Our own 300 colors are on display. Yet around a dinner table, it rare to have remembered even one name.
Is this proliferation waste, is it branding, or is it a display of power? Thorstein Veblen writer of The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899 suggested a position on the latter regarding wealth and power. He observed that simply amassing wealth is not enough. One must display wealth in order for it to be powerful as an act of status and power. “Wastefulness,” therefore, was a necessary part of of the display of wealth and power. Like the peacock’s feathers, he notes, “Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable it must be wasteful.” Therefore, in order to be reputable, we must be present waste. In other words, the amassing of identities—in part practical—may be in other parts, a power move. And it is in their display that there is power.
The new public
If power is in the display of multiple identities, where are they or should be be displayed? Prior to circa 2003 when social networks became popular, the mall and the movies were where teenagers would display their wealth. But since that time, the “networked place” has largely replaced these spaces. Networked publics are not a defined set of people in a bounded space, but rather a flexible category where people conceptualize the boundaries but do not control them. Because of this, networked publics allow knowing people both in the moment (e.g., around a table) and contextually (e.g., only ever at that table). The boundaries of the contexts online, however, are afforded by technology such that the practice dictates the boundaries, depending on the imagination of the individuals involved.
This new public can play a few roles:
First, in contrast to the Emily-Postian public of the past, they help us define ourselves by the boundaries set forth by the context of the group in the moment. The dinner table this evening creates one set of boundaries, and the people present set the conditions for behavior in that moment. The new public of the table made it alright for no one to know names. Change the table, change the people, and the public changes.
Second, the new public help us define ourselves in relation to the group. Because each group’s identity is both momentary and contextual, it is up to the group’s imagination to put boundaries on it. If everyone wishes to remain anonymous, but only speak about their passion about something specific, it can be so. At the dinner table, one person cannot be a name dropper; each person must image and abide by the same set of social conditions or the public will change.
Third, the new public helps us define ourselves in relation to society. Because each group helps define its context in relation to the context of the culture of a neighborhood or a city, it can do so. Therefore, if citizens wish to protest or to take action on any issue, they can do so. Their allegiance to the group remains strong and patriotism to the society unchanged.
The new public allows. Context is forgiving. Context is the new public.
This thought was first published by The Manual, Issue #1.