Sunday, August 26, 2007

Special Characters

Before I left work Friday I learned of yet another mobile phone limitation, that some web links need to be translated so that 'special characters' do not kill redirects. That may sound like gibberish, but Special Characters in internet protocol basically means some (not all) of the characters reserved for typing swearwords like /#+@^ can't be used in links. So I guess mobile phones have defaults like people do - default human behavior is to think the rest of the world is hostile to us, so don't register what Special Characters say and you'll be safe. This is street code of conduct in NYC anyway. But this made me think of how we try as hard as we can to Google our interpersonal risk away. Mobile is still uncharted, so for the most part you must do your homework on people before you leave your desk. Limitations in mobile like this are eroding all the time, but for now there are still moments for when you can't access LinkedIn, Facebook or Wink or some other people sniffer and you will be out in the real world and you don't have the slightest $+@^(&# idea who you are dealing with.

So let's assume that for now, Special Characters kill your links in the real world. I thought that was an interesting metaphor if you think of how internet links are becoming currency for how we connect with people, and the more access people have to info the better those links need to be for proving that you are worthy of being invited into a group. We rely on links as proxies for the tried and true ability to judge people's character. The less we practice character judgment the more our world becomes limited to our Five Faves. In fact if we take off those group filters like school (facebook) or work (linkedin), the rest of the world becomes Special Characters. So, how do Special Characters effectively translate who they are so that strangers like us will accept them?

Teen coming of age comedies like Superbad explore acceptance issues best. Teen Comedies are about suspending disbelief so Special Characters can play out their expressions in a world that would otherwise have shut them down. For example 20 years ago Weird Science gave two teens access to a computer girl creation program that used magazine clippings to set physical and behavioral preferences the likes Web 2.0 has not yet realized. The output of the program, Lisa, roamed around organizing parties for her creators while fending off their parents and nemeses with hotness and intrigue. Lisa would force Gary and Wyatt into situations where they had to show 'inner strength and courage', and therefore become worthy of being invited to parties. Weird Science is not completely far fetched, I mean at least Wyatt's computer had bugs, one of which turned his kitchen blue. (I think the same bugs created the backdrop to last night's deck party at the Lower East Side's BLUE). The important thing is that Wyatt and Gary proved their character and worthiness to party while in front of people.

Fast forward to today's comedy triumph, Superbad, which also gives Special Characters permission to party. Seth, Evan and Fogell need to learn how to socialize beyond their comfortable group of friends. Superbad is telling us that if we go out there and call ourselves McLovin (See Fogell and Nicola above) we will become McLovin to those around us. Being McLovin is such a strong image even cops Bill Hader and Seth Rogen agree to pull him into the back of their police car in front of a lawn-full of people so McLovin could look like a menace to society, mysterious and therefore a bad-ass. Lesser image enhancers like the Seth's ability to procure booze are not as compelling as having cops to drive your image, but in the end all of the Special Characters won by just facing the people they wanted to connect with rather than hiding in the bathroom (common theme in both Weird Science and Superbad).

So it's not about proving yourself virtually. No matter how many brands, schools and flair you add to your social networking profile, internet ego-building does not represent anything more than what you want to be and people won't believe it until they see it. There's actually lots of innovation in how to make your internet image less like yourself. Second Life lets you make ridiculous avatars, webcams can make your avatar into a cartoon character, and services that give you anonymous phone numbers like Jajah and Jaxtr all show the diminishing returns to how much time you invest interacting with people virtually. Googling people before dating was common practice 5 years ago, which gave you some bland info and minimal context, really only good for giant red flags. Now there are really powerful ways to check up on people all the time in places as commonplace as LinkedIn and Facebook, which give you better info on life chronology, tastes and buckets of photos. But many sites have experimented with 'Who's Viewed My Profile' links so you can't really check out people without triggering reports back that say you've been looking at them. So really, it's still all about flirting and how you play it off, like Michael Cera pretending to stare off into space rather than staring Martha MacIsaac's boobs. You aren't going to find anything magical in a profile, it's about how you interact.

People will get better at manipulating their profiles, sharing personal media more exclusively and judging how people interact with their profiles. What does that mean? It means that for coming generations, better social research tools will be as helpful as detergent bottles are for carrying beer - they do the job that you could have done with a beer bottle, only it freaks people out once you show them how you did it. It also means that movies that deal with how teens attempt to publicly interact in hopes of getting laid will never stop being funny.

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