Virulent Word of Mouse

October 5, 2010

On the Internet, nobody knows you shaved

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Online behavior — Shane Greenstein @ 9:34 pm

Many years ago the New Yorker published what has now become a canonical cartoon. One dog sat in front of a computer and commented to another, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

I had never connected this simple cartoon to daily life, but that changed recently, when I scraped a razor across my face for the first time in over six years. That is the point of this post. As the post’s title says, on the Internet nobody knew I had a beardless face.

(BTW, in case you are curious…. The carton falls under fair use rules for academic discussion. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Internet_dog.jpg.  But I digress…).

This observation sounds a bit like something Seinfeld would say, and at times this post will feel like an extended episode of Seinfeld. Nothing significant happened after I shaved and, in spite of that, the story kept going.

This story illustrates something elusive about the Internet. The Internet hides some physical traits, accentuates other facets at the same time, and altogether distorts  a person’s public appearance. It almost turns online participants into the online equivalent of a Picasso cubist image. This image resembles the person’s present physical appearance, but it also illuminates many aspects other than the current appearance.

To shave or not to shave

Look, shaving a beard is not a big deal. For that matter, growing a beard is also a minor event. Normally this topic justifiably gets relegated to the mental parking lot for the detritus of life. But this story requires some background information from that parking lot, namely, why I grew the beard and why I shaved it. That sets up the observation about how the Internet alters changes to physical appearance.

So let’s start with the basics.

Facial stubble can be viewed as one of the indulgent privileges of an academic existence. To be sure, as indulgent activities come and go, this one is not an especially valuable privilege. It is rather simple. Some men hate shaving, but work in occupations or settings where they must shave to meet a strongly sanctioned social norm.No such sanctions bind in universities, and that permits some freedom. Set next to the day-dreaming and personality quirks of the many academics, a little facial hair is a minor expression of personal eccentricity.

Let me say that concretely: I work at a university. That does not mean I have to grow a beard. It is just an option.

I first took advantage of this option for the first time when I was a graduate student. That lasted four years. I shaved that beard before graduating (that is me on the left). Related, I met my wife after graduating. My wife did not marry me solely due to the clean face, but it was the visage she knew. The bearded graduate student appeared in old pictures — symptoms of a life that had not included her. She had never lived with a beard until I grew it seven years ago.

To make a long story short, I grew a beard for a second time three months after my wife gave birth to our fourth child. One morning after not sleeping well — one particularly bad night — I stumbled into the bathroom, paused as I failed to focus, and concluded it was a bad idea to bring a sharp object anywhere near my neck. I did not shave that morning.

I do not want to exaggerate. Growing the beard was not entirely capricious. The idea had arisen with the previous three children too, but somehow it had not motivated action. I cannot put it into words why it did that morning when my child was three months old, but something just put me over the top. That was that.

It is accurate to say the beard was capricious in one sense. I had no plans for how long it would last. At that point, six weeks, six months, or six years seemed equally likely. It is hard to plan for the future with a crying baby in the house.  There was always a chance it would be short. My wife did not like it at first, but slowly she grew used to it. One day followed another. The years added up.

Fast forward. This summer I got very sick for a couple weeks. There was a moment during that episode — I was still hospitalized — that led to a clean shave. The moment occurred after it became clear I was not going to get close to dying. I stumbled into the hospital bathroom, looked at the mirror, and saw a very weary face and a straggling beard. Beards look bad when they do not get trimmed and washed, so perhaps I overreacted, but I decided then that I had to shave when I got home.

Once again, I do not want to exaggerate. Shaving was mildly symbolic, but it was also almost entirely capricious.

I did not dither after getting home. I told my wife I was going to shave unless she objected (she did not), and I bought a shaver at Target. That was that.

It is not a big deal. To my surprise, however, shaving became something of a Seinfeld episode, with trivia taking center stage, leading nowhere, hinting at a senseless plot, leading to no denouement — albeit the totality of my episode is not nearly as amusing as a typical Seinfeld episode. Rather, the totality illustrates something interesting about how online life represents physical appearance.

Like a Seinfeld episode leading nowhere

At first, the shave produced some fun. My youngest child refused to look at me for a few days. It was amusing while he acted that way. He only knew the face of a bearded father, and did not like the change. He would cover his eyes when I walked in the room.

He gave up after a while, and then he moved into a new phase. For several weeks he asked me when the beard would come back. It was cute to get such questions.

That stopped after a while too. That is when I thought we were done.  It felt like it was time to move on, but closure never arrived. At unexpected moments my online life made me think about the clean face. It kept returning to the center of attention — unwittingly, unexpectedly, and repeatedly. Slowly I realized there was no way to make it stop. There was no way to simply tell all my friends that I had shaved the beard, and reach closure.

Closure was impossible for a few reasons. Concretely, there were plenty of photos of me online with my beard. I could not easily replace them with a beardless picture.

In the old days one’s public face really was uniquely one’s actual physical face. In contrast, the online world one’s physical face takes a variety of forms. The web’s quasi-random storage of images gives a time-warping quality to physical appearance, making it impossible to change all the images in a definitive way and at one moment.

Try a bit of name-surfing of anyone with a long on-line presence, and put their name into the image search engine. Many photos are older, and few of them are tagged with dates. It is possible to figure out some things about someone’s appearance, but it takes work to figure out the timing of a change in physical appearance.

This results from one of the Web’s predominant features, the lack of an undo button. It is too costly to erase many of the traces of the past. Whether tame or indiscreet, a lot of a person’s past remains available online in the form of pictures, news stories, contact information, short biographies, and a surprising array of online postings.

If you do not understand this feature of the web, then here is a way to see it in action. Try a couple experiments with someone you know. I recommend (especially) a public figure photographed frequently over the last decade (e.g., Bill Clinton). Google — or any other image search — throws up dozens of pictures, which together make a Picasso-esque cubist portrait of the target. The image search gives many angles, showing different aspects of the person, both flattering and not. Such a compendium of pictures produces a combination that deconstructs a person’s recent appearance and simultaneously reconstructs it.

More to the point, the mixing removes the present. It often takes a bit of sleuthing to figure out which pictures are the most recent.

(Hmmm, compare Clinton’s photos over several decades. Those photos of Clinton from his daughter’s recent wedding seem to show that he has lost a bit of weight, don’t you think? But I digress…)

You might reasonably say that a range of web2.0 services could fix this problem. Facebook, Twitter, etc., let participants update friends about such news. That is almost right, but not quite.

First, that is just part of the web, after all, and neither service will get rid of past photos.

And in my case it would not make much difference, anyway. If you use Twitter only followers get the update. That is not everyone. Also, like many people over a certain age, I am not in the habit of broadcasting the detritus of my daily life to others.

Second, as noted, standard old photos stick around a long time. Stuff shows up from my blog, several web pages at my employer, several web pages at institutes to which I belong, little news items on the web, and so on.  Who keeps a catalog of such pictures?

In short, I would run into friends at conferences and they would make remarks about being less bushy. Later a polite person would puzzle while staring, then ask what had changed in my appearance.

(BTW, there is a polite way to figure this out. Ask someone if they had lost some weight. Nobody minds getting this question except a pregnant woman. The question inevitably leads someone to tell you what had changed… as in “Why no, I have not lost any weight, but I did shave my beard.” But I digress….)

Was there a point to this post?

Look, it is just a beard. I would like to forget about it.  But it kept coming back, wandering over trivia, like a Seinfeld episode. Nowadays I notice if a web page has an old photo. Then I email the web master to change it.

This post resembles a Seinfeld episode in one other respect. There was a beginning to this story and plenty of a middle too, but I am not sure there is an end. When I started I thought there was a bigger point to make, but now I am not sure that was right.

This story seems to resemble a cubist painting instead. Everything is all mixed up, and though it is possible to make out the object, when looked at from so many angles the entire picture is not quite coherent.

1 Comment »

  1. Actually, Facebook (or perhaps LinkedIn) is a very efficient way to notify your friends of a change in physical appearance — in addition to being used to notify changes in relationship status.

    Comment by Joel West — December 1, 2010 @ 7:43 pm | Reply


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