Shaping mine/yours/our digital presence

I was asked to give a presentation for an undergraduate class on the topic of technology and to discuss a little bit about what I do and my use of technology at work and in my personal life. The invitation came at a perfect time as I have been thinking about my responsibilities as the Web Content Manager at a small Midwestern liberal arts college.

For over 20 years I’ve worked with technology doing what I love, making art. I’ve traveled the world as a designer, web master and digital artist. I am used to receiving information and making it visually interesting but this is the first time where I must manage so much data, data that is changing every day, every minute, make sense of it, package it, present it, and consider how this data represents our future and how we will communicate online based on the data that we see today.

As a Web Content Manager my days are full of:
number of page likes
pages visited
amount of time on what page
bounce rate
countries visitors are from
pixel size
em size
number of mentions
plus ones
thumbs up or thumbs down

And this is just a fraction of what I am managing. All of these bits of information are an ephemeral representation of this institution. It is our digital footprint.

This data is a compilation of what the college is, the people who make up this college, our values, our vision, and our culture. I am not talking just about the website. I’m not talking just about the college on Facebook or Twitter. All of the data that is out there, that is accessible to others, are pieces of ourselves, of our connections, of who we were, who we are, and who we are going to be, all of this exists, it exists in the vastness of cyber space.

Daily I consider how to wrap my head around all of this information. What do all of these charts and graphs mean. What should I do with it? How can I understand it? I feel like I’m standing before an ocean of numbers, letters, colors, images, and videos, all representations of our digital selves, and I must organize this, categorize this, make sense of it and present it to my superiors so they can say,

“I see it! It’s making sense to me now! I can see the beginning and I see the path for the future!”

There I stand before them, holding a digital sculpture, a work of art like no other I have ever made, a symphony that I created from chaos and into something organized, manageable, beautiful but ever changing within the confines of this bubble in which I have encapsulated it.

I think of others who have taken an artistic approach to visualizing information and presented it in a way that makes it tangible to others. Artists such as Stephanie Rothenberg who have brought to light the hands of labor in global digital trade—who is making tangible the routinely intangible components of virtual exchange.

Reversal of Fortune: The Garden of Virtual Kinship, by Stephanie Rothenberg, shows us the real and virtual. The garden’s lifecycle correlates to monetary exchanges through an online crowd funded charity between the developed and developing world. Each plant correlates to a borrower on the website requesting funding. Each continent has a computerized irrigation system that waters the plants. The amount of water depends on investment information taken from the website; the circulation of finance is made visible.

Visualization designers such as Wattenberg and Viegas showed us the knowledge structures over time in the Wikipedia editing processes. History Flow shows the history of the Wikipedia article on chocolate. Other images within this project shows where Wikipedia articles have been deleted and replaced with offensive comments. Vandalism of the information changes the visualization of the data with abrupt zigzags or blank spaces.

Everyday, I consider how to make tangible the data that I’m over-seeing. I am constantly questioning how one can effectively manage, categorize and prioritize digital connections, online conversations, while shaping perceptions, influencing others about our brand and what we represent as an institution within various online platforms. It is a challenge but I believe it can be… it can be… something.

I want so desperately to say, “done” but it will never be done. It will only evolve and continue to evolve until digital information is no longer out there, until we stop interacting with it, until we are no longer wishing to connect with people or places outside of our physicality. And this, I think, will never happen.

I often think of the writing by Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Massage”. He discusses the power of electric technology and how it is altering our environment and leaving no part of us untouched. Media completely surrounds us and touches all of our senses, immersing us into a community that is fed information instantly and continuously. Society is affected by all aspects of media; written, aural, and visual, affecting the human sensorium causing a change in thoughts and actions in a media rich environment.

He says that artists and poets have a strange ability to see this media induced environment for what it really is. (McLuhan, 88) Artists today are encouraged to view society and represent it in a way that the audience has not considered. All information, cultural practices, rituals, life, etc., have facades. Hidden underneath is light, darkness, anything that has long since being analyzed and deconstructed in a way that is unique, informational, enriching, or catastrophic. The artist has an ability to re-visualize through metaphors, symbolism, and sarcasm in order to articulate a subject that was there all along. 1

McLuhan states that the artist is rarely “well-adjusted” and cannot go along current trends. An artist cannot fall into the rituals of modern society if she is to have a critical view. An artist must be able to theorize and analyze what is going on around her in order to present a deeper understanding of the obvious. If societal blemishes or embellishments are ignored by the artist, then she does “go along current trends” in that she becomes absorbed by media and unconscious of her surroundings. As the Web Content Manager, I must contain myself from analyzing those embellishments superfluously. There is a strong desire to pull that information and put it on display to be observed and discussed while ignoring other (pertinent) information that affects the ROI.

I recently read an article in Wired magazine called, The End of Unplugging. The author talks about his attempt to run away from technology by escaping into the wilderness of California. During his 200-mile hike he left his emails, tweets and Internet activity behind until he reached the summit of a peak where he was surrounded by people taking pictures, sending tweets and having conversations on their mobile devices. The author, who was initially very annoyed, came to realize that you cannot escape technology. One might for a small fraction of time but those days will soon come to an end as more and more of the earth is blanketed with broadband coverage.

I hardly ever ‘unplug’ after my workday as I am continuously monitoring the college’s online activity even at 5am. But I seldom feel that I need to ‘unplug’ and the idea of escaping technology might disintegrate as younger generations accept that this is, and has always been, part of their lives. But since I’ve been actively enhancing the digital identities of larger and larger organizations, I struggle to develop and maintain my own digital identity. How do I creatively represent the multiple media-scapes while also putting significant effort on my own digital projects? Not to mention maintain my personal life with friends and family? Obviously, it can be done. But thinking about my role in constructing digital entities and balancing them is difficult, appealing, challenging and fascinating. For me, technology has developed and is a part of how I think as I am confronted daily with what was, what is, and what will be the legacy of our digital presence.

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