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Word avatars

By David Weinberger

There is always a Standard Future. In the 1950s, the Standard Future consisted of people in personal heliocopters powered by home nuclear power plants. In the 1960s, the Standard Future was a little vague but it had something to do with tie-dyed suits and the Panama Red brand of smokables delivered by a major tobacco company. Just a few years ago, our standard picture of the Internet's future had colorful, graphical avatars wandering the Information Highway representing us and our interests.

As is typical, the Standard Future did not arrive. The only place avatars have really caught on is in the graphical gaming world where my avatar gets to blow your avatar into bloody meat chunks.

But there is a twisted sense in which the Standard Future has indeed arrived. We don't have graphical avatars, but we do have literary ones. As we live on the Web longer and longer, we find that we have developed—on purpose or accidentally—Web selves. We are known to those who know us as being this way or that. Doc Searls is known for being good-natured and wide-visioned. Chris "RageBoy" Locke is known for being eloquently, apocalyptically cranky. The "self" that is known consists of nothing but the words we've typed. Our words are our avatars.

But this means that there's literary distance built into our Web selves, just as there is between you and a memo you've written or you and a poem you've composed. You constructed these objects with some degree of deliberation and with some degree of awareness of how they will be received. If you were this controlling of your real-world self, it would be considered pathological; people would say you're "too tightly wound" and you're "never all there," or even that you're "insincere" or a "poseur." On the Web, on the other hand, we have no choice but to present thought-out versions of ourselves. All spontaneity is moderated by the presence of the delete key . . . although once you hit the "send" button, your addition to the corpus that is your Web self usually cannot be recalled.

Because our Web selves are written, they necessarily are created with certain readers in mind. They are necessarily social. And the social groups that result from the interaction of written selves themselves are unique; it's less like convening a real-world meeting of writers than like convening a meeting of the letters and essays the writers have written.

It's always been the case that what we write in some sense stands for who we are. For most of the writers that we read, all we know about them is what they have written. The same is true for all the work of our hands: the mason's wall in some sense stands for the mason. But the Web isn't a mere publishing medium. It's a social medium, a new public world. What we've written there is who we are.

So, take this as a plea for understanding. As your knowledge harvesters skim from the Web or intranet ideas and sentences that seem relevant to your business goals, understand that those writings were composed not just in a semantic context of meaning but were composed in and for the presence of other selves. They are who we are. The context within which they make full sense is as complex as human sociality gets. And their importance goes beyond that of mere writing.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization", e-mail self@evident.com

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