All the world’s a stage, and the internet even more so

Last week I ate dinner with a food blogger. As each dish arrived at our table it was carefully organised and presented, resulting in some rather lovely photos:

It was however quite a stressful experience, and not just because I was starving and the food smelt amazing, but because in that minute the value of the moment wasn’t in the beautiful setting, or the delicious food, but how well those things were translated onto social media. At least we didn’t go as far as some of our friends who went for dinner at Catit in Tel Aviv, a restaurant that has pioneered instagrammable plates (yes, really, click the link if you don’t believe me!).

I shouldn’t be surprised, there’s a wealth of aids out there to assist in producing the perfect image for the internet’s consumption. It’s not just plates, its mini flash bulbs and soft-focus filters for mobile phone lenses, hundreds of photo editing apps and companies who specialise in cleaning up your online reputation. Some of this is as old as time, makeup, reputation management and the like existed before the internet, but the ubiquitousness and time that is invested in it is something novel and still quite bizarre to me.

Obsessive curation/focus on presentation does make sense, as Hannah Arendt (quoted by danah boyd) observed, “everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity.” The internet stretches the notion of widest possible publicity beyond anything Arendt could’ve conceived and so public behaviour which was once confined to traditional public spaces now enjoys few of those boundaries. Thus, as I started to observe in my last post, the expectation of some of the protections afforded by un-recorded or more intimate moments no longer necessarily applies.

The price for nearly always needing to behave online in a way that presupposes the widest possible audience (even if steps are taken by moderating privacy settings etc to try and mange this) is a loss of either candour or the creation of parallel or detached identities. danah boyd observes teenagers creating coded language and second profiles to either hide in plain sight, or to satisfy the needs of multiple audiences. Whilst this works for teenagers, my anecdotal experience tells me that for my peer group (the tail end of the millenial generation) don’t modulate their behaviour in such a way. Some of my friends, mainly doctors and teachers, have opted for code names on social media, but the majority choose to use more private networks e.g. whatsapp and snapchat for the ‘good stuff’ (i.e. salacious gossip) and heavily moderate what is displayed on their social media. Whilst functional, I notice that it creates partial identities, that can appear to be a full self to a casual observer and that can obscure some of the relationship building potential of social media as someone’s real experience of life and that which they project can rapidly become disjointed.

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Can Rabbis wear short skirts?

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This blog post starts with a playsuit, this playsuit to be exact, worn in a hot and sweaty dance bar on a hot and sweaty night out in Jerusalem last week. The kind of night out where diplomats, journalists and busy professionals go to forget the bomb that killed dozens at the bar up the street ten years ago, or the stabbing at a checkpoint last week or the war that is taking place beyond the Syrian border 3 hours drive north where they’ll be heading to report in a few days time.

These nights, snatches of normality and tequila fuelled moves last seen at a year 7 disco, are sacred. And so, amidst the awkward shuffles of western journalists trying to dance in the desert gear they packed when they thought this city-that-is-sometimes-a-warzone-but-mostly-a-normal-place was the dusty wasteland the 3 minute TV clip makes out, we danced the night away.

The next morning, over breakfast and strong coffee, a friend of a friend asked me a question. “Are there any rules?” she asked, “like, is there a code you have to follow?”. Not exactly the clearest question, and so she clarified. “I guess what I’m saying is that I look to my religious leaders for spiritual guidance, and I’d find it hard to follow a religious leader who didn’t conduct themselves in a moral way”. Ok, interest piqued. I had no idea what she meant, and so I asked her, and she replied. “What I’m really saying is how can you be a Rabbi and wear a playsuit”. 

Ah, so we’re having THAT conversation…

I’ve been focused recently on the construction of online identity and the question of how much identity in online spheres can be read as performance. In doing so I’ve become increasingly aware of the other kinds of performance present in social interaction, and particularly where we present a curated or modified self to others.

The most pervasive and fascinating (for me anyway…) example of this, partly because it straddles the online and offline worlds, is that of fashion and beauty.  And so back to the playsuit. My friend’s friend (I’m not sure her and I are ever going to be friends) was saying a few interesting and I think quite important things:

a.) People make inferences about your values from the way that you dress- In this case the most obvious assumption being made was that I don’t observe (or indeed care for) Judaism’s laws around modesty. And she’d happen to be right-ish. The TL-DR version is basically that women’s bodies are a provocation to men and it is women’s responsibility to cover up so as not to tempt men into sin. I don’t value the part of my tradition which objectifies women- either by saying bodies are a provocation when on display or demanding that they are covered- but that doesn’t mean I don’t value Jewish tradition. For this particular individual, the two are indivisible, but for me the distinction is essential. I see modesty as a question of discretion, but read it as something that is much more to do with behaviour, ‘flashiness’ and what we seek attention for from others than a question of covering enough of our arms or legs. Despite this, it leaves me with a question about how someone reads unexplained public behaviour and what responsibility I have as a leader to account for my actions.

b.) Women in public roles are sexualised, and the onus is often on them to moderate that- It’s not just Jewish tradition that constructs female sexuality as a power that needs to be restrained or managed in the public sphere. Our society is full of examples- women don’t walk, they ‘parade their frames’, newsreaders, ‘flash their legs‘ when wearing short skirts, it’s everywhere (yes, even beyond the mail, it was just an easy target…). Column inches about female politicians are filled with discussions about their hair, shoes, and wardrobe makeovers. Women’s appearance is a public issue and female bodies are public property ripe for discussion and criticism, thus women are told to ‘cover up‘ and manage the public’s response to their bodies. I know that stepping onto the bimah (Jewish version of a pulpit) puts me into this category, and have heard horror stories from female colleagues about the kind of comments that congregants make about their appearance. Observing the internet storm around Rev. Sally Hitchiner’s fashion choices a few years ago (here and here) raised interesting questions about whether the public are able to handle the confluence of fashionable dressing and clerical status. I guess this was my first taste of a much longer conversation ahead…

c.) Private acts (such as wearing a bikini) are often compromised by the eternal presence of cameras and social media- We all (clergy or otherwise) have to be much more careful about what ends up online because there are cameras everywhere. I think this is far more complicated than worrying about a bikini picture ending up online, because its really a conversation about what is deemed wrong or inappropriate about that. Is it the picture itself? Is it what the picture shows? Or is it the forum it is displayed in? I think the answer is probably that the problem arises from the question addressed above, the implicit sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies which is what makes a photo like that ‘inappropriate’. This means I don’t have a principled problem with this kind of picture being online, I think we ought to trust people to be able to cope with the idea of seeing someone in a swimsuit and not reducing them to that image in the rest of their lives, but also would never allow one to be on the internet, because I don’t trust people to do that.

d.) It’s possible to know something is wrong and still be required or choose to go along with it– The bit I’ve figured out the least, because in spite of my quite strong views around the problems with modesty laws, I do often dress modestly out of choice. I love fashion, but also recognise that it suffers from the complex challenges that any predominantly female act of expression faces when it is constructed within a patriarchal society. These challenges include questions about who someone is dressing for, how much (and what kind of) value is placed on aesthetics, how dress is used as a symbol of money and power and how sexuality is express and/or policed. It’s because of this that outside of dingy, hot, sweaty Jerusalem night clubs full of other people with similar professional considerations, I do dress modestly and am judicious about what my curated self (and I would say buying and dressing in fashionable clothing is a kind of curation) is saying to the world.

So, what’s the answer? Can Rabbis wear short skirts? Yes. Should Rabbis wear short skirts? Jury’s out…

ROI-flections

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Me (far right) and some of my ROI buddies

Described as an “international network of activists and change makers who are redefining Jewish engagement for a new generation of global citizens“, the ROI Community is the baby of American philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Its aim is to identify and then support and develop young Jewish leaders from around the world who have a vision and a proven track record for creating change in their communities. I’ve spent the past week as one of 150 ROI newbies from around the world who were gathered together for an induction ‘summit’ in Jerusalem and have been reflecting on what I’ve learnt and observed about building a productive and creative network in the digital age.

In person gatherings matter- Taking a step out of the rat race and creating time to reflect and connect with others can feel like a luxury but its fundamental. Shifting perspective and taking the time to have intentional and deep conversations with others provides a level of connection and exploration that is easy to avoid online. There’s a level of responsibility that people feel towards one another through face to face conversation that creates stronger networks and a deeper sense of knowing someone (Levinas was onto something…).

Good tech enhances the potential for connection at events- ROI used the the E-180 Brain Dates platform to enable summit-goers to make the most out of the people around them. Brain dates are targeted meetings based around a series of ‘offers’ and ‘requests’ that people can make on the platform. Its a great way to find out who is at an event with you and to make sure that you aren’t reliant on luck and spontaneous conversation to find those who have overlapping areas of interest or skills. As someone who is not the kind of person who just goes up to random strangers at events I found this a great way to move beyond small talk and have productive and interesting conversations with the people around me.

Even those in the know feel outpaced- We heard a number of times over the week from leaders in the worlds tech and social entrepreneurship. I found it strangely reassuring that even those who have given TED talks, work for google or are on Forbes 30 under 30 lists find the pace of change in the world as frightening as it is exciting!

Content-light programming makes space for great conversations- ROI took much from the principles of unconferencing which can be summed up in the maxim that ‘the sum total of knowledge in the room is greater than that on the stage’. Using open space technology and doing things like flipping panels so that experts sought knowledge from the audience and providing ample time for peer-led sessions created a rich and deep conversation that was led by the interests, knowledge and skills of attendees. Unlike many conferences I’ve been to, I left feeling like I knew the people around me well and that we’d heard more from each other than any speaker talking down to us from a stage.

Online communities need nurturing- ROI understands that online connections can sustain and develop community, but that communities need managing and weaving to maintain their identity and purpose. They do this by providing continued offline opportunities to engage that are woven through the year and through a multitude of social media channels. I’m impressed by the way that livestreaming, carefully curated posting, blogging, webinars, facebook groups and newsletters hold together a large community through the year.

Virtual reality headsets are really cool- Got to play with one of these, it was mind-blowingly awesome.

I’m still a little overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of the experience I had over the last week. The quality of the individuals present, ranging from activists fighting to uncover sexual abuse in their communities, to the creators of the world’s first Yiddish web series, from musicians using EEGs to create guitar beats, to environmentalists singing about poop and people creating communities around baking challah or eating ashkenazi food, was truly extraordinary. It’s also a huge challenge, being part of ROI means having a responsibility to return the investment that The Schusterman Foundation makes in each of us, and that’s daunting.

Notes from Jerusalem

  

I’m sitting in a coffee shop on the border of East and West Jerusalem. Behind me a Dutch Christian tour guide is animatedly explaining the stations of the cross, opposite me are two women in Hijabs speaking Arabic and reading a Hebrew newspaper. A group of Russian soldiers are queing inside to collect their coffees before heading back to their bases after the weekend and the British teenagers who I’m waiting for are slowly emerging from their beds after a night out in an Argentinian dance bar that springs up each night in the city’s food market.

This city is one giant indentity crisis. The old city is split into four- Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian- the new one that has grown up around it is split uneasily in two. Everyone’s identity is hypenated- Palestinian-Christian, Russian-Jewish, Israeli-Arab, Moroccon, Iraqi, Persian, Georgian, Yemenite, Russian, Jordanian, German, and so the list goes on. Each of these groups has their own little neighbourhood, their own foods and their own language. Accents, slang, names annd neighbourhoods become glue for mini diasporas within this strange melting pot of a city. To be a Jerusalemite in the west of the city invariably means having come from somewhere else but feeling at home. To be a Jerusalemite in the east of the city means the opposite, having come from here but without the voting rights or anything more than an ID card to prove it.

If there’s a place on earth that is a microcosm of identity play, reconstruction and shifting then to me this is it. When I’m out in the East of the city I sometimes catch myself hiding behind my Britishness, it’s a more comfortable way of being than to be there as a Jew when that part of my identity is symonymous with the oppression of others. Other times, maybe more in the towns and villages of the West Bank than here, I make a point of being there as a Jew. It’s a tiny gesture that tries to say “I see how hard things are here, we’re not all against you”.

Then I slip back into the privileged bubble of West Jerusalem and sit in an air conditioned bookstore cafe with a friendly security guard whilst the people who live in that village who left at the same time as me are still stuck at the checkpoint because the teenage soldier with an oversized gun, grumpy from a fight with his girlfriend, is being extra slow with permits today. 

Back in the coffee shop I order in Hebrew and wonder what my German refugee great-grandparents, for whom this was the vocabulary of scripture and no more, would make of the crude jokes I can hear a group of young boys making in the resurrected language. I wonder what they would make of this state that bears their name, ‘Israel’, but lives and acts with few of their values. Then I sip my Sprite whilst a French family, newly arrived in Israel after the shootings at a kosher supermarket in Paris a few months ago, sit with their kippot (skullcaps) confidently  on show for the first time in their lives. 

My, this is a complicated place!

Too much information

I’m reading things on the internet all wrong, apparently.

Why?

Well, I store articles. Actually, I do more than just store them, I re-read articles and sometimes even download the ones I really love and archive them in my ‘library’ folder in my iCloud drive so that if they ever disappear off the web or more somewhere else (as they are often want to do when a website gets upgraded and decides to change the URL of ALL of its posts rendering links invalid and annoying me no end…) I can still find them.

The friend who expressed outrage at my re-reading of web-based gems proclaimed, “there’s always so much new to read, why bother reading something you’ve read before? You already know what it says. The conversation will move on”. 

Fair point.

There is rather a lot to read, and I read A LOT. I’ve always read the paper in the morning, and now between news sites, twitter and the growing number of blogs that populate my feedly, my morning dose of catching up with the world’s conversation can take over an hour. But it’s important. Working in a community means being abreast of the conversations that are shaping people’s understanding of the world and the issues that are impacting them is invaluable. It also means its a good idea to have a vague idea about (or binge watch entire series of) the latest teenage netflix sensations.

So, why re-read?

Last year I read Nicholas Carr’s book ‘The Shallows‘. It’s one of those “this is your brain on the internet” books and was nominated for a Pulitzer a few years back. The book basically makes the argument, supported by various studies, that the internet is making us stupid (but in a few thousand more words than that). Carr is particularly worried about skim reading and our ever-decreasing attention spans and blames, amongst other things, the nature and pace of production of online content for this. Whilst people who know things are debating the truth in his claims of digitally enabled cognitive decline (like this LRB piece which notes the opposite might be true) I recognise some of my own fears in his argument.

I’m interested in how we can hold onto the kernels of wisdom we find in the things that we read, and by that I don’t mean letting words wash over us and stopping just long enough to package them into a 140 character bundle and send on to others for them to do the same. When the conveyor belt of the internet’s journalism engine delivers endless missives on its  eternal high speed setting, where is there room to sit with and truly explore ideas?

This afternoon I was teaching a text that I know well, really well. It’s my piece of text, my Bat Mitzvah portion. My student, a week from his Bar Mitzvah, confessed that he’s getting bored of the story. He has a portion that I love, its the story of twelve spies sent on a mission to see ‘the land’ and who return in disagreement. Ten think the land is impossible to inhabit and two think that its manageable. The ten manage to win over the community that sent them and as a result the community is punished and forced to wander in the wilderness. 40 years later, the people are allowed to go into the land. Nothing changes in those 40 years except for the people, the land remains the same but they return with a new generation who sees challenges in a different way.

Its the message of this story that cuts to the heart of why I re-read things. Whilst texts don’t change, our context does, and encountering ideas with a fresh pair of eyes can offer new insights, reflections and reactions. I want to hold onto writing that makes me think, and whilst the constant flow of newness online can create an exhausting pressure to consume, I’m holding onto my bookmarks and downloads as anchors in a sea of information!

Oh, and this is one of my favourite re-reads and the piece that sparked my interest in privacy and the world of information.

Civic engagement and technology

Internet feminism is enjoying a bit of a moment (as is internet misogyny, but more on that later…) with bloggers, twitter personalities, facebook groups and online campaigns shaping what is becoming known as feminism’s fourth wave. The growth of this new feminism, which is often strongly intersectional, and therefore part of a broader sub-section of the internet that is rapidly defining identity politics online, is fascinating. On one hand, it has energised and inspired a new generation in non-party political activism and created a strong sense of community and momentum that many young people can struggle to find within their school communities. On the other, the type of discourse that has emerged is often lacking in the nuance that face to face engagement sees and suffers from the soundbite and mob mentality that seems to pervade any mass public online conversation.

This week I read a 6 year old paper about young women and the ‘participatory possibilities of online cultures‘. Written on the cusp of this wave, it observes that “the New technologies facilitate young women’s capacity to play with gender and to resist feminine stereotypes” and I think this is definitely something that has proved to be the case. There is no doubt that the online debate around gendered toys  has impacted on the behaviour of brands and shops and this mass movement is a good example of how online conversations have promoted civic engagement. Other examples might be the campaign to get Jane Austen’s picture on bank notes or more recent projects to challenge school dress codes. As the fly on the wall (and in the phone) Channel 4 documentary ‘teens’ showed recently, engagement in these kinds of online campaigns is not necessarily met with support in the offline spaces teens inhabit but encouragement and mentoring from an online community enables young people to continue to develop a voice and opinions.

Where I think the paper really missed the mark was in its comment that “For young women especially, these activities may provide less intimidating, more familiar modes for doing politics and for acting as citizens.” Whilst its true that it is easier to find like minded individuals online, and that people do definitely develop political voices and find spaces to express them, those spaces are often felt to be in some way unsafe. The last few years have seen prominent feminists hounded off twitter by death and bomb threats, and young women at universities experiencing a surge in ‘lad culture’ on and offline. Much of these negative behaviours are facilitated by the anonymity and often impersonal nature of online interaction.

It’s not just the behaviour of ‘trolls’ that is responsible for this ‘unsafe’ feeling, but rather something that runs deeper and reflects the challenge of 2D interaction with people.The largest student feminist online community (and offshoot of the oxford university ‘zine’ of the same name) has come under constant scrutiny for its development into what is perceived to be a heavily policed and self-censoring space where expression of ideas is often quite aggressively censored, prompting a number of students to publicly remove themselves from it. This criticism is probably true of a number of the fast moving conversations about identity politics online which have quickly developed their own vocabulary. It’s exactly this kind of policing of ideas or that has been blamed in part for the ‘closet tory’ phenomenon at the recent election.

When I think about digital technology and civic engagement I therefore have mixed feelings. On one hand I do think it promotes a stronger sense of participation and momentum around political issues, making the debate accessible and keeping people engaged. On the other I worry about the tone of conversation and the lack of respect that comes along with it, I’m concerned that ‘clicktivism’ can become a substitute for real action, and I think that the nature of politics and civil issues fighting youtube and netflix for screen time potentially creates a paediatric and ‘tweetable’ conversation lacking in necessary nuance.