9.226 biography and the Web

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Fri, 13 Oct 1995 17:38:25 -0400 (EDT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 226.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: Andrew Burday <andy@dep.philo.mcgill.ca> (95)
Subject: Re: 9.224 biographies for Humanist

On Thu, 12 Oct 1995, Humanist wrote:
> who said that when he (so are the accidents of sex) realized how public the
> bio was going to be, he then modified it to retain only the serious academic
> matters, deleting the delight. This gives me pause. Not perhaps
> to me, however, that perhaps the Web form communicates the need or demand
> for a serious, laconic style.

I take it Willard meant the search form that's used to provide the
biographies, not the Web as a form (in the sense that the bound book or
daily newspaper can be thought of as a "form", i.e. kind of communicative
technology). My first thought was that he did mean "form" in the second
sense. I think my mistake suggests some useful comparisons; but I'm more
interested in the form that's used to search the biographies than in the
one that's used to provide them.

People are, if anything, unusually eager to provide personal and other
information about themselves on their personal home pages. The relevant
factor can't simply be "the Web [as a] form". It seems to me that there
are two features of this kind of database access that provide plausible
explanations of this kind of style. First, I think Willard is right to
suggest that the search form provides a context in which light-heartedness
is discouraged. Individual home pages provide a pretty well-understood
(in fact, often clicheed) context, in which personal information and even
photos are provided, often in a style of self-deprecating humor. You
might find the whole phenomenon rather peculiar or forced, but you
wouldn't fault any particular individual for using a non-serious style on
her or his home page. That's what home pages are like. Part of what's
understood about home pages, I think, is that they are basically useless
-- at least, it's permissible for them to be useless. Everyone
understands that when you click on a link that says, "Here is some
information about me!", you're asking for information that may not have
much practical value. You have, in effect, agreed to that by clicking on
the link -- in much the same way that you agree to a software license
when you click the "Install" button in a Windows or Mac setup program.
There's no such implicit agreement when you search the form for
list members' biographies. If anything, the procedure of ticking off
options and selecting from lists suggests that there will be Important
Information on the other end. It suggests that someone has gone to a lot
of effort to provide this service for your benefit, and you should
approach it with due seriousness. If you expect people to take that
attitude to your bio, you will prepare it appropriately.

I also think issues of control probably matter here. Humanist and the
Princeton web server are pretty much out of the control of the individual
who submits a biography. That is a significant difference between those
biographies and a home page. We have to trust Willard and the Princeton
tech staff to make sure that our bios are updated or even removed if we
wish. While I'm sure the trust is well-placed, it's still an extra level
of trust we have to have. One's own home page is pretty clearly within
one's control. That's not so obvious for a bio on the Princeton web

Finally, I want to suggest that we should take this individual (and others
like him) at his word. He is uncomfortable with how public the bio will
be. What counts as delightful style in the context of personal
communication can count as making a preening idiot of yourself when posted
in public. It's *hard* to be entertaining to a large, anonymous audience.
That's one reason why skilled entertainers get paid so much. Not everyone
is comfortable with the ordinary sort of web home page I have described.
Some people find it silly or self-aggrandizing. It seems to me that the
conventional style of web page has a lot to do with the fact that late
adolescents make up such a large proportion of both consumers and
providers of web pages. One of the features that makes adolescents
adolescents is their need to establish their place as individuals within a
wider society and their consequent fluctuation between extremes of privacy
and self-advertisement. Should we expect (grown) people to be comfortable
describing themselves in a casual style to an unknown audience, in a
medium largely defined by adolescents? I don't see why we should. It's
fun when someone has the confidence to try it in public, and the sureness
of style to bring it off, but it doesn't seem like a reasonable thing to
*expect*. Certainly we never had any such expectations before the advent
of the Net.

Part of what I'm getting at is that the desire for privacy may be a quite
natural result of the way the net works and our ordinary understanding of
communication in public. It may not be desirable to try to work around
those factors by requesting specific kinds of biographies, for instance.
The result of such a request might be to limit the biographies to those of
people who are comfortable performing in public rather than to get more
"personal" biographies from the list members in general.

In the time that I've been (fairly deeply) involved in the Internet, I've
become suspicious of the notion of a network "community". It often seems
that the idea is for the net simply to replace our ordinary face to face
communities, and it can't possibly do that. Biographies on a web site,
for instance, will never be equivalent to what we learn about someone in a
conversation. The net will be a community to the extent that it serves
real human needs and interests. We need to let it develop as a community,
not try to force it to be one.

I don't mean to imply a criticism of Willard's question. It's certainly
desirable to try to make the net friendly. But it's important to keep in
mind that there may be intrinsic limits to how friendly it can be, and how
it can be friendly. Community and a good feeling about community have to
be allowed to emerge from peoples' actual dealings with each other, on the
net as elsewhere.


Andrew Burday

andy@philo.mcgill.ca http://www.philo.mcgill.ca/