Personality and Utopia

Recently I have been looking for a topic to write on that did not include WordPress hacks, templates or plug ins... it is harder than you would expect.  So I was overjoyed when I read Tom's post calling for articles to be written that reference gravatars.  So here are some of thoughts I had when thinking about gravatars, weblogs and curiously enough Utopia by Thomas More.

Just the facts, sir.

One of the main motivations I have had for the work I do with WordPress and blogging in general, is that I want to connect and actuate people.  As creatures, humans need interaction and connection.

The web was supposed to create a global community that transcended time and space, location and credence.  It was to be our Utopia where freedom and expression were the order of the day.

In this internet Utopia information would be the currency, and we would all share of it equally, thereby realizing an egalitarian society.  It would be a kingdom of conversation and exploration brought into being by our own collective hand.  Of course we know now, through the conveniently clear eyes of hindsight that we were all very, very naive.

So what happened, where did the web go wrong?

Yes, that is the question isn't it?  Why was our Utopian dream shattered?  There are hundreds of answers to that question, but mine has two parts:

  1. Our Utopian dream was destroyed by us. People inhabit Utopia, and when you fill anything with people, it breaks.

  2. A large gaping whole in technology.  There was no way for people to leverage the web to connect with each other in a real, fundamental way; in a way that email and IRC could not realize, at least not alone.

I want to talk about the second point first.  It is only recently that technology has actually caught up to our Utopian ideal of the web, through technologies like pingback, spamback... err trackback, and commenting we have finally been able to realize a level of interconnection and community that allows for real, useful global conversations.  Add in email and the various instant messaging protocols and we begin to creep even closer to that one global community.

So what is still missing?  That undefinable, unquantifiable element that all real, concrete human interaction has that the web still lacks, personality.  Or more correctly, an emotional connection that goes beyond the digital, to a much older place in the human psyche.  More on this later.

Now onto point one: People.  It is one of the great cosmic tragedies of the universe.  That which we long to create, we also can't help but destroy.  It is mind boggling when thought of, that human beings have such a divine gift to create, to express beauty and majesty in so many ways; unfortunately we have also made an art form out of the yang to the create ying... we are gifted beyond imagining at destroying all that is good and beautiful in this world.

How do we see this playing out today, specifically in the area of the blogosphere?  One has to look no further than comment and trackback spamming.  People have taken that that which we have created to connect and enrich lives and turned it into an infestation that threatens to destroy this newborn community we are striving to nurture and grow.

A wave of captchas and other user interaction roadblocks have swept the net, stifling the organic creativity and growth of the medium, and it will only get worse if we cannot find the cure for the spamming epidemic.

And this is only the current threat, looming just over the horizon line is big business and the whoring of the blogging community, unwittingly lead by people like Jason Kottke.1

So naysayer, can it be saved?

Can it be saved?  From the current threat yes I believe it can, but from the looming thunderclouds of big business just over the horizon, I don't think so, no.

The spam problem is finally being brought under control, thanks to the tireless efforts of people like DrDave and our own fearless leaders photomatt and crew.  Soon we will all be able to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to making the web actually live up to its name.

That leaves us with big business.  That my friends is a threat that cannot be beaten.  People like Kottke are going to prove that there is money in blogging, you can't get around it, you can't deny it.  Once it has been established that there are revenue streams there, *poof* game over.  Over night we will see a corporate sponsored blog plague the likes of which have not been seen since Egypt.2

Once that happens much of the legitimacy and momentum we have been able to build will be sullied and stripped away.  I personally can't wait.  I like my Utopia under the radar thank-you-very-much.

Anyway, back to that whole "human psyche" thingy.

Right, the human psyche, or how we as creatures are wired.  Human Beings experience the world through our senses.

So, senses.  Have you ever noticed how a sight, sound or smell can trigger powerful memory reactions?  We are wired to make associations and connections through data collected and filtered by our senses.  One of the last pieces that is missing from our Utopian Web is some way to use these triggers to increase the sense of connection and community.

And that is where gravatars enter.  Took me long enough huh?  A feature like gravatars allows us to leverage one of our triggers.  I have already had the experience of seeing a gravatar of someone who comments on this site, somewhere... OUT THERE in blogsville, and was instantly transported back to a comment that they had made, or a post that they had written.

Maybe it was that comment made me chuckle, or their post made me stop and think; the point is that at the moment I saw the image, my brain made a connection that it would have not made otherwise.  The most effective gravatars feature the visage of the person, since at that moment the commenter/poster becomes more real, there is a face with that name... a real, living breathing person, not just some text on a webpage.  Identity comes into play for the first time, in a way it never had before.

With that identity comes a touch of humanity and warmth that was not there before.  You are able to make a real, quantifiable connection with a person through their image.  Think of funerals and tributes to fallen heroes, we gather around their image, be it a lovingly framed photo, or video footage.  Image connects us in ways that sometimes transcend understanding.  And so it can be for gravatars, but there is a problem.

But first, I bet you are wondering about Live Journal's so called buddy icons.

Ah Live Journal, my aesthetical nemesis.  Yes those of you out there that are suddenly taking offense of my supposed slight of the buddy icon can cease your foaming at the mouth.  I had not overlooked them, I have merely dismissed them... now doesn't that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

The Live Journal implementation of avatars is more of a progenitor of gravatars than anything else.  Gravatars will succeed where their forbears could not because of their portability and ubiquitousness.  To have a gravatar you merely need to sign up for an account and implement them on your platform of choice.

They are platform and community independent.  Live Journal avatars are for Live Journal users only, a Live Journal user can't comment on my WordPress blog and have their avatar show up, but a MT user with a gravatar account can.

So what about that problem you mentioned earlier?

Yes, the problem.  Gravatars are a step in the right direction in humanizing the web, and realizing the Utopian Dream.  Unfortunately gravatars are being overrun by images of anime characters and barely distinguishable sections of logos.

Gravatars are supposed to represent who you are, to give a personal touch to your comments.  I am pretty sure that the majority of gravatar users do not run around with 3 foot long swords strapped to their backs silhouetting their bright green spiky hair... of course I might be wrong there.

To really get this off the ground those of us who champion gravatars need to take a long look at our image selections, why did we sign up for an account in the first place and are we really serving that with our current image.  There is nothing wrong with anime characters and logos as your gravatar in and of itself, but it is like the internet handle debate; jesuit or chrisjdavis... who am I, really... I am Chris J. Davis not jesuit.  I am a person and I have something to say, and I should not be afraid to say it... as me.

And finally the big finish, the pieste resistance, you know the end.

So what to do?  Well as I said above, if you currently have a gravatar, please take a couple of moments to think about what I have said, who are you and does your voice, your thoughts count?  If so why not make them as you, don't hide behind your gravatar.  If you have not created an account yet, but are considering it then please think about this for a moment and then make your decision.

To push the adoption of gravatars, and to help foster the Utopian Web, I will be polishing up and releasing all of my plug ins that deal with gravatars.  The first to be released will be my heat map plug in.  You can download it here.  Following that I will be releasing:

  1. My recent commenters plug in that leverages gravatars.

  2. The custom gravatar plug in that I wrote that allows for multiple default images.

  3. And hopefully a plug in/hack for bbPress that integrates your gravatar.  Done look here ยป

Well that is it for now, feel free to leave any comments you have about my thoughts on this subject, and enjoy the plugins as they are released.

  1. Please note people, I am not calling Jason a whore, I am saying that his actions will usher in the whoring of blogs by others.  Jason is living his dream, I can't fault him for that, and apparently it is working.

  2. A point of clarification here, I am comparing Corporate Sponsored blogs to the plagues of Egypt, not blogs in general.