Tell me about where and how you engage with others online. What sort of communities are you active in, what do you use these communities for primarily and has your use of these spaces evolved over time? 

Lately I’ve been wanting to discuss or build on topics with a few people at a time. This is why I’ve been running tiny communities on a WordPress install on my own servers. It runs a P2 theme that makes it look and run like a social network. I can easily extend the functionality of the blog to include media, discussion threads, pages and topics. I’m actually co-authoring my next book this way. I also have a “social network of one” where I can post my own thoughts and ideas. It’s nice to have an unmonitored, private place to post these ideas. I can back up the entire site automatically and restore it if it ever goes down, and it’s “secure by obscurity”, so I don’t have to worry about a big company getting hacked and all of my personal data leaking out.

Publicly, I use my blog, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. All are for keeping up with people I’ve met with in real life. I use Facebook to share some on-topic news articles and some pictures of myself in new places, but I am aware that Facebook can cause depression and feelings of jealousy and missing out, so I don’t post there very often. I use Swarm (Facebook) for a small group of friends. It creates serendipitous moments where I can run into people I didn’t expect to. I also use the Foursquare search feature to find recommended restaurants around me. It’s very helpful to see where others I know have been.

Being able to meet in-person is the whole point of why I use social media.

Instagram is a more private and personal space for me. I don’t advertise that I have an Instagram account, so I feel comfortable posting many more off-topic images. It’s a good way for me to post travel images, and my parents can follow the content there easily. Twitter is something I use more professionally. I enjoy reading news articles and thoughts from others. I definitely browse more than I post there, but it is very helpful for when I’m visiting a new city and I’d like to meet the people that live there. Over time I’ve found that tagging a photo on Instagram or checking in through Facebook is the easiest way to let people know I’m in a particular city. Being able to meet in-person is the whole point of why I use social media. 

Context is often lost in a crowd.

What is important to you in terms of how you present yourself online? Do you curate your ‘self’? 

I am quite aware of what I post online. I try not to post anything negative. In fact, I opened a private Twitter account for that purpose. If I’m depressed or stressed or need someone to talk to I can post there. I also use that account to help others in similar mental states. Publicly I want to have positive, strong, professional and enhancing interactions on the web. I specifically avoid negative, political or controversial content. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have personal opinions, it means that I keep those private and work on those efforts offline. I would rather act towards a goal instead of get upset about it online. With the recent mob behavior on Twitter and online, I am very concerned that anything off-topic I say could be taken the wrong way. I feel that many people are afraid of being taken down by a mob if they post something when they are tired, hungry or joking with a small group of friends. When Twitter was smaller there was a kind of community feel to the space. It was okay to be an amateur and okay to be wrong sometimes, but now there is a lot of intolerance mistakes or things taken out of context. For example, I’ll often create a draft of a tweet and then decide not to post. Context is often lost in a crowd. 

Do you think you come across/behave differently or the same online and offline? For example, would your offline friends/family recognize you based on how you speak and interact online?

People definitely recognize me, no problem. I use the same voice online as I do offline. They would probably remark on how much less I share online than in real life. In real life I am always telling stories and excitedly sharing new information. Little of that gets to go online because I am spending less time on Internet these days. When I do spend time online, it’s usually to do writing work for a book or emails on a private network. A lot of time what gets out is through journalists that interview me. I prefer that method, because they are usually much better writers than I am, and they also understand which questions to ask me. 

What impact do you think UX has on how you craft your identity online? I guess UX actively shapes behavior, but I wonder whether it goes deeper than that, past behavior and into who we actually are.

A nice living room can make you open up to others and have conversations deep into the night. A corporate lobby can make you act sober and serious. The shape of online spaces are just as important as offline spaces. LiveJournal allowed many teenagers to vent, write and create as amateurs. This playground paved the way for some users to become professional writers later in their lives.

Some online spaces are poorly built. They create antagonistic situations and angry people. I try to stay away from these spaces as much as possible, although I will sometimes check them out to get a temperature on just how intense people can be. Sometimes they are fun to read, because they can be about nothing, like gossip blogs! I find that more and more networks are devoted to people who are online when they should really be taking a nap. Clickbait posts from networks like BoredPanda specifically target tired folks. I use the app SelfControl to block myself from websites that draw me in and waste my time.

The forum communities of the past allowed people with similar interests to congregate regardless of geography…Now I feel that most people are online to consume, not to create.

Do you believe that interactions in online spaces have had an effect on who you are offline? Do you feel more/less connected with the world, or people who are important to you? Do you speak differently or has your view of the world changed because of your online experiences?

I think that interactions in online spaces make or break an experience of online space. If an experience is hostile or negative, people are less likely to enter a new group. If it is positive and welcoming, then people are more likely to find a connection there. The forum communities of the past allowed people with similar interests to congregate regardless of geography. This was an incredibly powerful concept – the ability to connect from the inside instead of the outside.

Now I feel that most people are online to consume, not to create. They’re sharing articles, not writing blog posts. We went from a creative web with silly sites like Geocities to a web that reduces one’s identity and expression to a tiny text box. That’s why I like sites like (a new version of Geocities for static websites) – they encourage people to create and play on the web, not take things so seriously.

I definitely feel that many people are more serious on the web now. I miss the playground it once was. This is why I make my own spaces to be silly and create in. When I find other creative people we create in these spaces. On the early web people were used to seeing unfinished projects, ideas and websites. Now we are used to seeing professionally managed blogs, photo shoots and content. It makes it difficult to be an amateur, and without being amateurs we cannot grow.

Online spaces help me keep in touch with others and build friendships while we are no longer in the same location.

Is having an online forum to interact with others in important to you?

It’s incredibly important. The communities I interact with are always somewhere else. Online spaces help me keep in touch with others and build friendships while we are no longer in the same location. 

In relation to your own experiences, do you see online spaces, such as social media, as inherently positive, negative or neutral?

I think the spaces are inherently neutral, but the content is not. Content can be charged positively or negatively. Some spaces can increase the chances of negative interaction and negative content being posted. It also depends on the people. Some spaces are designed well enough that they discourage negative people, but others make money off of people getting angry on them and being negative. The Trust Engineers Podcast talks about how depressed people will pay more for items and sell their items for less. Negative people and negative posts can improve revenue for ad-sponsored content networks and link farms.  There are significant ethics issues with these social experiments on network users, but no regulations are in place to prevent them. The best thing to do is be aware that the space that you’re posting in can have a significant effect on your emotions. That way, you can act accordingly and not get sucked in. 

Amber Case

I asked about whether interactions online have had an effect on you – but I also wonder whether our interactions affect technology? I think back to the early days of Twitter for example, when users started adding # to things, and eventually the hashtag just got adopted into social media. Does this kind of thing happen often do you think? Is it an important part of technological evolution?

I think this happens frequently. When users begin to change the shape of their interaction on a network, it is a good sign of the network becoming popular and maturing. I think it’s a very important part of technological evolution. Many people have a lot of power. Then the network can warp to the needs of the community. It becomes dangerous for the network when it stops following the needs of the community, though. When MySpace became too noisy, many people left for Facebook.

This micromoment can last for 15 minutes, but the dopamine is addicting.

Sometimes the media discuss whether digital technology is making us narcissistic or making our interactions less meaningful and authentic. Do you think this is the case with your own interactions?

We could say the same about TV and telephones. I believe that people value meeting up in real life more than interacting online. People were trained on media for years. Now they are making their own. Instagram and Facebook are a whole new version of “keeping up with the Joneses”, except that now starts more intently at a younger age. Now it is about “micromoments”. Who can get the right clothing, the right moments, the right characters, the right geography and the most likes? This micromoment can last for 15 minutes, but the dopamine is addicting. 

Looking to the future, where do you think our online identities are heading? I wonder about topics such as identity theft and corporate data collection, as well as the possibilities of virtual reality. Do you think these and other things will shape our future selves? Are they of concern to you, as you navigate your online environments?

Online identities used to be anonymous and fluid. You could sign in as one person one day, then change it the next. You could be any username or avatar or gender you wanted, without people questioning you or asking for your real name. This is more how people grow up in real life. People change and experiment. Maybe someone is into punk for a year, but now they’re into soccer. There’s a leniency and the ability to experiment. Awkward photos are locked away in a family scrapbook. Now identity is tied to our offline selves, our histories are linked as well. The old photos follow our profiles everywhere we go. Unless we lock them down or remove them, we have a geological history following us wherever we go. When I grew up I’d use a specific avatar for a few years, then archive that identity and create a new one. This allowed me to be flexible in my presence online, as well as explore the web with a new lens every once in a while. I still do this, especially if I’m studying a group of people and I don’t want my interactions to affect how they act in my presence.

I think that Virtual Reality could be quite therapeutic, actually. I don’t think it is as suited to intense video games as it is to calming, minimalist and empty spaces.

In terms of data ownership, I’d prefer that I owned my own data and then licensed it to healthcare providers, social networks and other sites for temporary periods of time. The data would reside with me on my servers, and would be used by others when I requested it. This would prevent giant losses of data.

I think that Virtual Reality could be quite therapeutic, actually. I don’t think it is as suited to intense video games as it is to calming, minimalist and empty spaces. When the world becomes too full of notifications the only way to get some calm time might be to add more technology to empty it out! Simply zoning out in a peaceful immersive world at a nice beach is pretty relaxing when you use an HTC Vive. I think a lot of the innovation in the virtual reality space will come from artists experimenting with a new media.

We can’t create a copy of our desktop world in a virtual one. Just like you wouldn’t create something desktop-based for mobile, we need new media that fits a new technology. A lot of people are trying to port existing games over to VR, and I don’t think this is the right idea. I think something where the interactions are very simple and exploratory will be the most exiting first. I wouldn’t mind a large cave exploration game. We could create something that was formerly a neat text based interaction game from the 70s or 80s and it would inspire people. The idea is to give people spaces they might not normally be able to access. Simple mazes, relaxing spaces, and outer space! 

Read more about Amber Case and her work here.


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