Performance Lifestyle & Coffee Sadism

One of the enduring myths about Social Media is that it is somehow about connecting friends, colleagues or contacts. The reason I call this mythological is not the fact that people can have 100s or 1000s of friends on Facebook – even if that is a bit weird (see Dunbar Number) – no my gripe is that friends, colleagues and even contacts have the right to make demands on you and even if they behave badly cannot simply be unfriended or unfollowed without social repercussions. Aside from that Social Media can naturally be used to support and strengthen friendships.

But if the crowds online are not my friends – what are they? Well, as Facebook would say, “its complicated”. But one aspect of our relation to them is that they are a perceived audience and we are constantly (well at least when we broadcast online) perform for them.

The Abnormality of Normality

The problem is that most of us are normal. It’s kind of a definition about who we are. Most people have to be normal – or else the concept of normality would not work. So aside from the miniscule number of abnormal or outstanding folks most people online are normal.

This normality raises a problem in the concept of performance lifestyles. How do we publicize our normality? Well, the answer is often that we don’t. Or rather, we do, but we cheat. The trick for many users is not to create a fictitious life (which nobody would believe) but to present our ordinary (normal, boring) lives in just a slightly odd way.

The simplest way of doing this is to enhance the ordinariness of the situation. So nobody watches a film or reads a book but we watch an excellent film, read an awesome book. Or a terrible book and a horrible film. This is because there is little or no value in publicizing the ordinariness of a situation – so it must be made extra ordinary in some way.

Another strategy is to constantly, almost manically, repeat the same activity. Several years ago I came across a blog that was only pictures of the persons toothbrush with toothpaste. Two pictures per day (morning and evening I guess). Now one image was boring enough but the sheer weight of all this toothpaste made the photoblog extraordinary and oddly fascinating.

The problem is that this takes an obsessive investment. It’s much easier to publish odd things that happen around us, things that stand out from our everyday experience. For the most part this is relatively harmless but in certain situations it isn’t. What is extraordinary in healthcare? Whatever it is, it violates patient privacy to put it on Facebook. Unfortunately this doesn’t always stop people from posting.

The Unhappiness of Others

Every now and then we can read reports that Facebook or Social Media is making people unhappy. For example The Anti Social Network or “They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am”: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives. This is an obvious effect of the performance lifestyle on others. Since nobody writes about the daily drudgery of normality it may seem to others that their own lives are boring in comparison.

This is why the absolute highpoints of performance lifestyles seem to be weddings and children. Both provide ample opportunities for photographs and other information spreading. They are both (relatively) extraordinary experiences while remaining in the realm of what is considered OK to boast about. Imagine if I was to boast about my new car in the same way as others boasted about their weddings? Information about the car would be considered bragging and people would ignore or unfriend me. Information about the wedding may still be seen as bragging but people will keep this to themselves and congratulate me.

Actually in one way this is one of the motivations for my own performance lifestyle project: My coffee sadism project

Most mornings when I have time I enjoy coffee at my local cafe. Not a take away but actually sitting down a couple of minutes with a real newspaper, drinking real coffee out of a real cup. This is a perfect start to the day. It has an additional bonus. I take photo’s of my morning coffee and post them to Facebook. Some images I also post to my Flickr set where I maintain a collection.

When I am being nice I call this a photo project, when I am being researcher I call it an experiment in social media. But when I am honest I call it my sadism project… as it annoys the hell out of my co-workers and some of my friends. Performance lifestyle is the need to publicize elements of your life in order to enhance the quality of it. Naturally it does not have to be at others expense – but it often seems to be.

Cortado for the public sphere

The Nordic (Finland, Sweden, Norway & Denmark) countries have for a long time led the world in coffee consumption per capita (between 8-12 kg per person and year, compared to the US which has about 4 kg). The high amounts of coffee are not necessarily the same as drinking quality coffee.

In the history of coffee the actual location where the coffee was served has played an important part in the intellectual, political and social discussion in society. Coffee Houses where important in the development and support of the public sphere. In his work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas points argues that to develop a public sphere requires things like disregard of status and inclusivity and as such the coffee house provided an excellent infrastructure.

But this intellectual discussion does not spring from infrastructure alone. Twenty years ago coffee (in Swedish cafés) was badly brewed and stood warm for long periods of time. The quality of the coffee and the discussions was rather low. But there has been a fascinating development in café culture in most (all) Nordic countries with better raw material and freshly made ‘espresso’ style coffee.

So the coffee gets better but importance of the café for the public sphere is still minimal. The café does however play an important role in providing infrastructure for the public domain. It is not that we go to coffee houses to discuss the politics of the day but by providing a public place to sit and even more importantly access to the Internet through “free” wifi the coffee house is an office for the traveler, for the creative individual, for the small consultant. It is a shelter were we can sit and work.

entering the public sphere

The coffee house takes over the role of the library and the agora. It is a warm home for the digital nomad with a laptop providing access to the larger group & context of a larger discussion. The practice of sitting in public and staring at a screen may be seen as anti-social but that is only perceived so by those who fail to see the sociality of technology mediated communication.

The role of the coffee house is not what Habermas described, it is not the vibrant places of social discussion among the people who are physically co-located but if you remove the coffee or the ability of the shops to provide wifi for the wifi-less an important access point would disappear. Habermas recognized inclusivity and the coffee shop wifi provides just that. Along with a decent cup of joe.