This thought came from an IM conversation I had with the lovely and talented Rachel. One of them anyway, there are many.
Orkut, we agreed, is in many ways more like performance art than like conversation or writing.
I had this thought the other day while I was avoiding Orkut. I thought a little about why it’s different from any other on-line forum I’ve ever been in. And it is different; people claim it’s not, say it’s just USENET or it’s just [insert your favorite].
But it’s different; that’s a given. The questions then are; what makes different, and how is it different.
There are some obvious ones. The ability to make forums on the fly is somewhat unique, so forums (communities, groups, whatever you want to call them, I mentally think of them as groups but of course communities is the technical term for them) are used somewhat like putting on a badge or a bumper sticker. This gets us so many communities that we can’t possibly use them all, yet the same core groups tend to cross many communities. This makes conversations interesting; rather than being vertical as in a coherent thread in any other space I’ve ever been in, the conversations become horizontal, and flow across many communities, fragment, and re-join. Users have to be in dozens of communities to track the conversations they start.
The fact that there’s no search ability makes this all the odder, because you can stumble into threads you thought had died, or onto people you thought were gone, in communities you didn’t know existed. It’s like a an infinite house with an infinite number of rooms, and a party that is going on in many rooms at the same time. You walk from room to room and encounter the same people, in slightly different configurations, having similar yet not the same conversation. It’s almost the multiverse out of Moorcock,
There’s a surreal quality to in, a confused, acid-trip character, a constant sliding deja vu of ‘didn’t this already happen’. or maybe it’s a dream like state, where you were in a place, but it blurs into a another place, and you don’t know how it changed, but it makes perfect sense all the same, even if the faces are melting.
So all this adds up to some peculiarities to orkut conversation.
First, I have to add this – not everyone I know on Orkut is tapped into this horizontal universe. Some of my favorite people, smart, funny, clever people don’t play this way. And they’re still enjoying orkut. But there’s a flow to the place, a current, and it strikes me that you have to let go and drift with it to really figure out what orkut is about.
So this leads me to the performance idea.
Writing is writing, you can say. But it isn’t. Writing is so many things. It’s communication, it’s mental exercise, it’s expression, it’s story telling. Writing differs for the medium. So when I’m blogging, expressing myself purely for myself with unlimited time and space, I will ramble, as I’m doing now. When I’m telling a story, I must conform to certain constraints and rules. When I’m writing a screenplay, again, I will follow the constraints of that medium, setting a scene with directions instead of with a character’s perceptions, visual storytelling instead of verbal.
Writing in a discussion forum is very different. There’s typically some limitation, either enforced (as with orkut’s annoying character limit), or implied (there’s a point where things are juts too long and you lose your audience; in the old days this was in terms of ‘screens’ because we all had a roughly fixed terminal size, though this doesn’t hold as well as it used to.) So there’s a drive to be concise. Also, if you take too much time in a lively forum, you run the risk of having the thread bypass you and your comment or quip loses it’s relevance. So you’re time-limited as well, particularly in a forum where you can’t choose various ways to view threads.
So what you’ve got is a state where remarks are short, must be timely, and are completely improvised and interactive.
Improvisation. Like theater Music. Performance.
That how orkut strikes me. We’re performing. We’re making each other laugh, but it’s not just about how well you write. It’s comic timing, it’s catching the feel and flow of a thread and maintaining it. Almost like playing with the groove, if we can switch to a musical metaphor, each of us taking turns with a solo or with a lick that sets up a solo. Because that’s part of it, when you’re trading quips; you’re not just competing for the funniest line, but you’re also trying to set the other participants up with the right joke lead in.
This is, in a sense, why orkut can be so taxing. Why it can be so exhausting. But also why it provides the giddy high for those of us who are egotists and attention whores. It’s like the stage. Everyone in the room is paying attention, while those two or three or four of us who are most on riff back and forth and entertain everyone else. tIf you’ve been that person at a party, you understand. You’re in a groove with someone, and you can’t stop playing. If you’ve been on stage with a friendly house, doing something you know is good and you’re entertaining the room, you know how this is.
That’s not to say Orkut’s always that way. Sometimes it’s actual dialog, conversation. Sometimes it’s technical, sometimes serious, sometimes in depth and intellectual. But those are tide-pools, not the open ocean.
When I log on to orkut, and find a set of communities, and find the right people hanging out there, and I have he time and the mind set, it’s beautiful. We set up our performance, trading riffs, licks, quips, jabs, whatever fits. And it may be the same people in several groups all riffing on different things; the party running a little differently in each room.
For me this is a lot of the orkut experience. The giddy joy and the burn out factor both. The fact that when I’m there, I’m on stage, performing, improvising, playing to the crowd.
I have not clicked the ‘terminate’ button yet. And you know, I didn’t think I even want to right now. On the other hand though, I’m still hanging back a little, and I’m seeing more of my favorite people doing the same thing. I don’t know if we’re collectively taking a deep breath, or if we’re all together hitting the same point of burnout, or if the place is just changing.
But I’m back here instead of there, and that’s a good thing.