A letter of resignation, in both the active and emotional senses of the word

Dear pals, followers and denizens of the internet,

I’m off for a bit. Well, sort of.

To be precise, I’m retiring – for the time being, at least, but I pretty much plan/hope forever- from the bafflingly extended social media ‘universe’ that exists under the name ‘ravcasleygera.’

Bye, Twitter. Sayonara, Tumblr. Arriverderci, Google+. Not to mention Wordpress, Quora, more Wordpressmore Tumblra few BloggersFlickrFriendfeed, and god knows how many others I’ve forgotten about.

Let me clear about what this isn’t – some Paul Miller-style fleeing of the internet. I’m not even going to stop using social media. I have a Twitter account as @casleygera, devoted to my (hopefully) developing development career, and I intend to keep using that. And I have a professional website, too, which I can kinda-sorta blog on.

But the way I use social media under that name is going to be – has to be ­ ­­- very different.

A brief history of ME (in online form)

I got my first blog in 2004, I think. It was on an entirely wretched service called ‘20Six’. Before long, it moved to Blogger, then Wordpress.org, then Wordpress.com. Then I was sort-of-on-Tumblr for a while, though I had a Tumblr before that, too.  Somewhere along the line I set up a Blogger-hosted micro-blog, before moving to Twitter when that came along. And I used a variety of services, like Friendfeed, Lifestream.fm and others I can’t remember, to keep track of it all. (I had my Friendfeed RSS Feedburner’d, so people could subscribe to everything I did by RSS!)

I tried auto-importing comments I made on the web into my blog, then turned that off again. I had a public Facebook page, and agonized about whether I could find a way to transfer the ‘ravcasleygera’ username from my profile to the page. Then I changed my mind and deleted the page. Then I thought about bringing it back again, but didn’t.

(The nadir probably came early on, actually, when instead of having a blog, my Blogger page was just a background image with two embedded RSS feed modules, one showing the feed of another blog called ‘Things Rav Likes’, and another showing ‘Things Rav Made’. Because that makes sense!)

As recently as two weeks ago, I was still fiddling, deciding to ‘blog on Google+’ (that lasted two days) and signing up for Medium (where my only post is called something like ‘This is a Test Post of blogging on Medium’).

Finally, slowly, over the last couple of years, it dawned on me that the way I was using social media was not really about connecting with people, having conversations, learning, sharing interests. It was about just about plastering myself all over the internet, the way a child might right their name in big letters again and again on their exercise book, their school bag, their pencil case. Grabbing the username, grabbing the custom URL, putting it on my Flavors.me profile. It was about obtaining Full Spectrum Dominance.

“And I can’t tell you when you’ll see your name up in lights,” sang Bros. But web 2.0 – which, to be clear, I believe has tremendous value – makes it very, very easy to see your name up in lights – or at least, beautifully typographied on the PC screen. I spent hours – hours! – designing and redesigning how my name would appear on my blog. I put those header images on the background of my Twitter. I changed the colours of my Friendfeed to match the colours of my blog. I, obviously, frequently changed profile pictures, and went to pains to get them matched up across the slew of services I was signed up to.

I had a toolbar, folks. There was a Rav Casley Gera toolbar. I was 27! Not 12.

At one point my brother pointed out to me that it might be better to have one blog, about something, with a title, than to just plaster my name on every website that would have it and construe more-and-more-complex ways of bringing it all together (god forbid that anyone would miss anything). I felt genuine shock at the idea. Eventually, I relented, and the website long known as ‘Rav Casley Gera’s blog’ finally got a title, and a good one at that: ‘Here’s the Thing’. But of course I was careful to ensure my name was still right there at the top, and in the URL, of course.

I don’t want to make it sound like this was all ego. Some of it was just plain old-fashioned geekiness. Where older nerds might have geeked out maximising their PC performance or something, I geeked out maximising my social media presence. Here’s the Thing had its own Twitter feed, as did my short-lived photo blog. They had Facebook pages, too. God knows why.

(Not to mention the fact that a lot of this was repeated under different personas – I had my silly anonymous account that friends knew about, which had a blog, Twitter, Tumblr and home page; and a couple of other, anonymous, short-lived personas, too, that I used to talk about things I feared personal or professional consequences on.)

And during all of this – needless to say: nobody was paying any attention.

I don’t remember the first time I realised that nobody was actually really reading any of the acres of gunk I was spewing online. The first time I looked at my wordpress stats, probably. I guess I’d always assumed that I was doing better on Twitter – friends would reply, I’d get the occasional retweet from a random. But when Twitter opened up their analytics tools a few months ago, I got a nasty shock – most of the links I was sharing on @ravcasleygera got zero, or maybe one or two, clicks. It was at that moment I realised that maybe this kind of unfocused, look-at-me social media engagement was no good to anyone.

I’m not whining here. Why should anyone have been paying attention? There was nothing much to look at – no expertise, no pathos, not much humour. The sad fact undermining web 2.0 is that most people don’t actually have anything to say that’s of interest to that many other people. There’s a reason for 99% of the population (of those places folks even have the internet) ‘social media’ means ‘Facebook, Snapchat and Whatsapp’ – tools people use for communicating, privately, with their real-life friends. Other online communities, like Reddit and forums and whatever, can connect people with strangers of shared interests, and that’s swell. But the here’s-a-broadcasting-platform aspect of social media, that underpins blogging, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr – most of us really don’t have anything worth broadcasting.

Of course, an ordinary person can achieve a following on social media – look at Joe, for example. But I’ve realised that people tend to thrive on one social media service. You’re a YouTube star, or a Twitter genius, or a blogger. You probably have a thing you talk about – it might just be your life, but it won’t be a set of wannabe-opinion-writer material about a bewildering array of topics. You’re probably genuinely funny, as opposed to saying a lot of vaguely gnomic semi-amusing remarks.

The future

And that brings me back to the future, and why @casleygera is my focus from now on – because it’s going to be about something I at least aspire to be truly expert about. Hopefully people will have a reason to pay at least a little attention. More to the point, though, it won’t take up as much of my time – not because I won’t be producing ‘content’, but because I won’t be fiddling around signing up under that name for every new social media service under the sun.

For example: the Full Spectrum Dominance approach would be to have a Twitter, a Wordpress blog, maybe a Tumblr for image posts and quotes, and a .com as a sort of central repository for it all. Well, fuck Full Spectrum Dominance. I’ll post blogs on my main website so people can learn more about me if they visit. I could set it up so people can follow it on Facebook, but until someone tells me they actually want me to, what’s the point?

This is an approach grounded in actually thinking about how you can interact with people, rather than just about being everywhere you possibly can. If you write something useful for people, they’ll find it, regardless of whether you have a presence in their social network of sites.

At least, I hope so.

could keep up some small level of @ravcasleygera activity, of course. I could try to focus on one thing – US politics, tech, pop culture, or one of the other million topics I’m interested in outside development – and edit myself better and publish regularly and try again to build a ‘following’. But I don’t see the point. I’ve always been more enthusiastic about setting up social media accounts than updating them. And I worry that if I don’t draw a line under all of this, I’ll find myself drawn back in to fiddling about instead of producing – yuck – ‘content’.

So, no. It’s over. If I have something to say, be it an opinion or a joke or whatever, I’ll send it to a friend who I think will like it. Maybe, if it deserves more of an airing, I’ll put it on Facebook, for my friends to see. But I won’t put it on Twitter for a theoretical audience of millions and an actual audience of about 12.

Let me be super-clear – I’m not saying any of you should quit Twitter, or anything else. I’m not even quitting Twitter entirely, after all, just this account. I think most people who use these tools use them in a way that’s broadly mature and healthy. (Although the recent wave of rage over Google+’s restricted usernames shows that many people still value vanity URLs and the like very highly, so I’m not alone.) Like an alcoholic who’s the only one giving up drinking among his friends, I have to accept I’m the one who can’t have these toys until I learn to play nicely with them – in a way that’s grounded in something more than OCD and look-at-me ego.

In the meantime, I’m not taking anything down. Go read my 2000-word post about Whitney Houston, my fast food reviews, my elaborate analyses of the Obama campaign. Some of them aren’t even shit.

Take care of yourselves, diffuse online ‘audience’. I look forward to checking the stats next week and finding out seven whole people have read this – and then not telling you all about it.

'As a college student, the future Thought Leader is bathed in attention. His college application essay, “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life,” is widely praised by guidance counselors.'

Some thoughts on the finale of ‘The Office: An American Workplace’ because why not

So I dragged myself through the ninth and final season of The Office: An American Workplace - having given up some time around season 5 - because I’d heard the finale was good. I finally just watched that final episode. (Breaking Bad? Pshaw!) 

I’d put it off and put it off, because the penultimate episode left me with a dodgy taste in my mouth. Spoilers ahoy: 

People always said that the British Office was primarily a love story, with Tim and Dawn’s slowly blossoming romance providing the emotional underpinning of David Brent and Gareth’s comic antics. I thought that was bollocks, in a sense: of course, Tim and Dawn’s relationship mattered, but what brought them together was the fact that - unlike David and Gareth - they both realised how stupid working at a paper company was. The fact that they got together mattered less than the fact that Dawn got out, and Tim was on his way out too.

This posed a problem for the US Office, which kept Jim and Pam around long after they got together. Maybe I’m an unromantic workaholic, but: what’s the point of Jim and Pam’s shared awareness of how stupid their jobs are blossoming into romance if it doesn’t help them actually get out of the stupid jobs? When Pam became a salesperson, I understood that it was necessary to keep her in the Office to maintain the focus there, and god knows that’s better than having her pop in pushing a baby stroller every episode. But it seemed to be saying: as long as you have love, it doesn’t matter if your dreams never come to fruition. That seemed gross.

So imagine my delight when season nine offered Jim a real way out of Dunder Mifflin - his unrealistically-successful sports marketing startup - and imagine my tension as the show had Pam gradually freak out and effectively force Jim to give it all up. By the end of the penultimate episode, we’d been treated to a greatest-hits DVD of Jim and Pam’s relationship, which should have been a delight but was tempered by the fact Jim was using it to show Pam that he didn’t need a rewarding job, didn’t need self-respect, as long as he had lurve.

Then came the finale. Oh, what a relief! Admittedly, the whole Pam-sells-the-house plot was a bit forced, but who cares - at least it let them leave. It finally, at the last possible moment, let Jim Halpert leave a stupid job he got after college and probably planned to stay in six months. And it gave Jim a chance to vocalise what the show seemed to have had every character except Stanley and Darryl forget - that working at Dunder Mifflin is stupid and boring - or rather, as Jim put it, “stupid, wonderful, boringamazing.”

Of course, that wasn’t all there was to like. And, no, I don’t give much of a shit about Steve Carrell - but I do admit that his reveal was magnificently done, and managed to surprise me even though I obviously knew he was turning up. I could literally imagine America cheering at the sight of him, even in weird silver fox mode.

But the finale also built, with remarkable skill, on the interesting themes that the show had built up over the last half of the season, as the documentary began to air and the characters slowly came to the realisation their lives would change. The panel, which could have been mined for dreary Dwight-awkwardness laughs, instead provided a nice opportunity for the more minor characters to remind us of their roles, and the audience members brilliantly stood in for us as we reminisced about wondering what took Jim and Pam so long, or why she was so weird about him leaving before, and so on.

And, yeah, Erin’s parents. Whatever.

It’s become something of a norm for shows which long spiralled out of control to regain a modicum of dignity in their finale. Even Roseanne, the last season of which was as much of a betrayal as any, managed to win back some respect with a pleasingly bonkers finale which revealed the whole preceding season to be the figment of the fictional Roseanne’s imagination.

But I can’t think of another example of a show which, over the course of a whole final season, pulled itself quite gracefully up from the depths of late-season silliness (and things had got quite desperately silly), explored new territory and in so doing, also quietly but determinedly rediscovered its sense of self and the grounding in reality which made it so compelling in the first place. It had go ‘full meta’ to do it, but in the end, the American Office finally remembered what the British one never had time to forget - “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”

I turned on the radio at the weekend to hear a senior Catholic bishop using the word ‘disgrace’ in reference to the sinking of a ship carrying African migrants off the coast of Italy.

I assumed an Italian bishop had denounced the influx of migrants from Africa to Italy. Imagine my surprise and relief at the realisation that the speaker was in fact the Pope and that it was the sinking he considered a disgrace, not the migration itself.

Like the transformations taking place in Burma, the remarkable change of tone in the church effected by Pope Francis feels fragile and difficult to count on. But while remaining cautious, we must allow ourselves to hope for real and lasting change for the better.

You probably know about Google Fiber, their much-ballyhooed ultra-high-speed internet project in Kansas City. But it turns out Fiber isn’t the only ‘broadband revolution’ happening in Kansas. Two young activists are providing community-owned networks in poor areas of the city through their organisation, the Free Network Foundation.

"We don’t build networks for people. We teach people how to build networks, outside of people asking a for-profit company to build it for them," explains Isaac Wilder, its executive director (and a former Occupy protester). Communities pay around $1500 for network equipment and own and maintain it themselves, paying no monthly fee. "Would you rather own your home, and the landlord has to do the maintenance but you don’t have any equity, or would you rather own your own home?" asks Wilder.

It seems like an interesting project, and the founders are clearly well-intentioned people. But Google Fiber, in a low-speed mode, is also available free. Each household has to pay a $300 installation cost, and a neighbourhood only gets Fiber when enough people sign up. But nevertheless, Fiber doesn’t just offer ultra-fast internet to those willing to pay, but free internet to those unable to pay - and without having to share in the upkeep of the equipment.

Anita Dixon, vice-president of the Mutual Musicians Foundation, serves as the mouthpiece of the poor black neighbourhood - formerly a thriving jazz area, and still filled with jazz bars - that’s the focus of the video. Her arguments why Google Fiber isn’t a solution to her community’s connectivity needs are oddly unconvincing:

"When they [Google] came into the community there was a lot of excitement, but then when the criteria came down, we knew that it wasn’t us," says Dixon. "We knew that whoever sat at the table and said ‘we’re going to put that rabbit [Fiber’s logo] in front of your face and everything and everyone’s going to love it… after we got the message, we got the message: this is not for you.”

So here’s the question: what on earth does this mean? That a couple of anarchist-minded jazz-loving twentysomethings might want to launch a community-owned alternative to commercial broadband is not surprising. What’s interesting is that a poor community finds the community-owned approach more attractive than an apparently semi-philanthropic effort by a major corporation.

"The amount of money was probably the biggest thing,” Baker adds in the accompanying article. And, yes, $1500 between a community of musicians is less than $300 each, or $25 per month for one year. But I’m struck that in the video Dixon seems to emphasise a more cultural divide. Google, she seems to be saying, with its bright colours and big ad spends, is for wealthy people - or maybe even white people, which amounts to practically the same thing in Kansas.

"Technology needs to be presented in a cultural fashion," says Dixon, ”and it needs to be understood that this is something which is going to perpetuate the community.” 

You don’t have to be Margaret Thatcher to find the idea that technology’s job is to ‘perpetuate the community’ pretty problematic. From the sounds of thing, the Free Network Foundation’s model is actually that the community’s job is to perpetuate - i.e., maintain - the technology.

Time will tell how the Free Network Foundation works out. My prediction is that five years from now, the network infrastructure they’ve installed will be non-functional, that Fiber installation costs will go down, and the community will eventually end up joining the Google project. But I could be wrong.

What I think is striking is this: like so many non-market approaches to perceived market failures, the Free Network Foundation purport to be addressing a practical problem of non-availability of a commercial product for poor communities. But in practice, their pitch - and the appeal of their product - is mostly cultural and ideological.

It seems like that’s often, even usually the case. There remains a deep-seated desire for non-market solutions, particularly in communities which perceive themselves as ignored or trampled by commercial actors. That’s understandable. But broadband equipment seems a singularly inappropriate service with which to experiment with community ownership, especially when a corporation with an unusually good ethical record is offering a free commercial alternative.

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