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 Project Gone Postal

“Going to work” was one of the first status updates I read after I joined Facebook. At the time, I was naïve about the nature of Facebook communication, so I immediately wondered if this friend had been previously out of work and, if so, why. Had he been laid-off or fired? Had he been sick or injured on the job? Of course, he could have just changed jobs, but the lack of punctuation in the update made me think, for no real reason, of the doldrums of a familiar workplace, the type of place that becomes so repetitive that the lack of punctuation was a metaphor for how he saw his job: endless. Since I was new to social networking sites, I thought it was important for me to respond to every update, but “Going to work” frustrated me because what should I say? Telling him “that sucks” could be just as insulting as writing “Yay!” because I didn’t know how he really felt about going to work. Should I click the “like” button, but what if he works in a sweatshop? Do I really want to give that the thumbs up? I thought about telling him, “Good for you” and adding, at the end, the coy emoticon wink “;)”showing that this was a sarcastic statement meant in good fun. I felt it was better to wait for others to respond, but no one did. I assumed that everyone was sharing my problem, and in the end, I wrote nothing because I became too angry with this “friend” and his inability to use punctuation. Honestly, it would have been easier for me if he had used, for example, an exclamation point: “Going to work!” Then I would have known his excitement and would have given the perfect response: “It’s about time you lazy ass! ;)."

During my first few weeks on Facebook, I found that the more friends I collected, the more I was assailed by grocery lists, “Need to pick up milk”; exercise routines, “Ran five miles today. Whew! I’m tired!”; drinking preferences, “uncork the bottle, it’s wine nite”; sarcastic parents, “I only slept three hours last night. Thanks, (insert newborn’s name)”; and angry non-sequiturs, “Listen, I don’t care what you heard, but it wasn’t my idea!” And as I read the updates, I couldn’t help but to have an overwhelming feeling of apathy for these friends. In fact, I felt so depressed that that’s all they had going in their lives that I stopped using Facebook, deciding if they really had anything important to say they would call me. After two months and no phone calls, I received an email from “The Facebook Team” telling me what I already knew: “You haven’t been back to Facebook recently.” The email’s second sentence was simple enough: “You have received notifications while you were gone.” But, to me, it dripped of a mother’s “Oh, I-saw-your-slightly-senile-great-grandmother-the-other-day-and-she-said-she-understands-that-you’re-too-busy-to-visit” passive-aggression. So I thought, “Okay, Facebook, you win. I’ll visit.” And just like visiting a senile great grandmother, I spent most of my time trying to figure out what people were saying and not knowing how to properly respond.

During the same week I received the Facebook email, I went to a party and the conversation turned to Facebook. After I questioned the site’s usefulness, I joked about people sending status updates through the mail. “Wouldn’t that be disappointing,” I said, “to receive a postcard from someone and thinking that person took the time to buy the postcard and stamps, and then, on the back, it read something like, ‘just woke-up’.” We continued to laugh about random postcard status updates the rest of the night, but the next day I seriously started to question the nature of language. Shouldn’t we expect more out of communication? Shouldn’t language be an insightful dialogue and not simply status updates? To prove that there is more to communication, I decided to begin a social experiment/experience that I called, “Gone Postal”. For thirty days I would send all my status updates through the mail, hoping the recipients began thinking about the weight of words. It would be the ultimate postal satire. I posted my idea in a note on Facebook and within minutes six friends called me a genius and wanted to be part of the experiment. At the end of the first day, I had fourteen friends who were excited to get my status updates in the mail. And, in mid-June, when “Gone Postal” officially began, I was sending my updates to 19 people, which was approximately 15 percent of my “friends list”. Now, I thought, they’ll all share my disappointment in language.

For this project, I had purchased multiple books of postcard from a local used bookstore, postcard stamps, first-class stamps, envelopes and labels. My first set of updates went out on kitten postcards, tea cup postcards, and Joan Mirό paintings postcards, and they said, respectively: “Oh my god, my kitten is so cute;” “Dislocated my shoulder shopping. Yeah, I’m that serious a shopper;” and “Sitting in a dentist office trying to overcome my fear of dentists.” And, of course, to keep the communication faithful to Facebook, everything I wrote was in third person, so all updates began with my name. At the very beginning my results were promising. Within days of receiving these first updates, friends emailed me and told that they never realized how worthless some of their own status updates were. One friend even wrote: “Honestly, I never realized how many useless items I’ve sent, or how much it would look it paper form. If it was all done in paper form, I wonder how much it would add to the landfills, and how much people would start communicating in person or on the phone???? Great case study, Bravo!!” I felt so satisfied that I decided to peak at Facebook to see if any of the participants had posted any new updates, thinking that maybe they would pose more important questions to try to start a dialogue. But only one person in my group had posted an update. The friend who had written the wonderful email about not realizing how many useless items he had sent had just posted a new update, and it read “ZZZZZ”.

It’s easy to see how Facebook--and technology in general--has been considered by theoristS to be the silver LCD pond with, in my case, a 1280 X 800 resolution that captivates many, especially those considered to be part of the Look at Me Generation. Like Narcissus, we can log into our Facebook account and see, for many, the picture of ourselves that we had uploaded for our profile. We can admire, to borrow language from Thomas Bulfinch, our bright eyes, our locks that curled like the locks of Bacchus or Apollo, our rounded cheeks, our ivory (or ebony) necks, our parted lips, and we can fall not only in love with ourselves but also with our words. We can type out any random thought and announce it across the caves and cliffs of the internet, an echo that reaches all your friends. So, for example, you can look at yourself and then type, “Brian Hall just finished comparing Facebook to Echo and Narcissus.” And, if you want, you can wait to see if anyone echo’s back…as someone just did: A thumbs up with the statement “Steph likes this.” And that point you can savor the moment of self-satisfaction for writing something that someone else liked. Her brief thumbs up validated my words and made feel like I had actually been heard; my echo received by someone, living somewhere, and in this case Pittsburgh.

During “Gone Postal”, I sent out approximately 443 postcards, announcing my status, and the one thing I missed was the instant feedback that the internet provides. But I did get some feedback through snail mail. One friend responded to two of my postcard. I sent out a status update on a postcard of quilts that read: “I wonder how the ants are getting into my house.” This friend placed a new stamp on the postcard and sent this response: “Close your door.” I was happy she wrote her response on my original postcard because if I had just received a postcard that read “Close your door” I would have had no idea what she was talking about because it came two weeks after I mailed the original update.Others had decided to send me their own status updates on postcards. My former newspaper editor and my cousin sent me updates almost daily. Occasionally, one of my colleagues would also send me her updates. Enough people were communicating with me that during the 30 days, I received a postcard almost every day in my mail, and, honestly seeing the postcard made more excited than any of the updates written on the back, updates that included, “I’m not good when I’m not busy;” “I got to go swimming!!!;” “I’m happy today;” and I received a card expressing affirmation on one of my updates: “Steph likes your update about orange crush and pizza.” I also began, during the first week, to record as many random thoughts as possible. These thoughts were ones that I might have posted on Twitter. I called these notes, which on Twitter would be called Tweets, “Sweets”. I also called my version of snail mail Twitter, “Switter”. At the end of the week, I would type these thoughts and mail them to my Gone Postal friends. My first Switter had some classic “Sweets”: “Trying to develop black and white photos.”; “Wow! I can really ruin black and white photos”; “I’m eating Mickey Mouse shaped chicken wings!!!”; “All I can say is that they’re better than chicken-shaped mouse legs!”. I was taking language to a entirely new low, hoping my friends wondered why they even bothered to read anything I had written because, let’s face it, most of what I said was pointless.

On June 12, four days before I sent out my first status update, events began to unfold that would challenge my Facebook and Twitter thesis. As I began to collect postcards, envelopes, and addresses for “Gone Postal”, Iranians went to the polls to vote for mainly Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hossein Moussavi. On June 15, I was still confirming friends from Facebook who wanted to receive my updates when, on Azadi Street in Tehran, a demonstration in green began with protesters shouting “Death to the dictator!” because many Iranians believed that Ahmadinejad had rigged the election. On June 21, my local paper gave more details of the violence in Iran, explaining how the Iranian government was trying, unsuccessfully, to manipulate the media. “Unsuccessfully” because of little social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. When I sent out my first updates, the stream of unofficial reporting on the protests began, and I couldn’t help but to compare my updates to tweets from Iran. During the week of June 21, after the news of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the woman who was struck by a stray bullet near an anti-government protest, the woman who became the symbol for the protest, I started the comparison:

 My Updates Iranian Tweets
Brian Hall had the best dinner: orange crush and pizza!”

“Advice - your location can be identified from mobile signal - + delete all sms after sending in case u are arrested”

“Brian Hall is buying ingredients to bake a cake for my dad.”

“In spectacular case of denail, Sup Ldr blames US, Israel for protests and Neda killing. not sure who believes him in Iran”

“Brian Hall wanted to watch a movie, but I was too tired.”

“Today Iran's state tv reported that Neda was murdered by a foreign bullet. It is the only source for this claim.”

“Brian Hall is happy for me.”

 “PEOPLE OF THE WORLD: We need help and sourvernity, today it turned out we need it more than ever.”

“Brian Hall is enjoying MJ’s music!”

“R.I.P Micheal Jackson, many in Iran loved you and grew up with your songs, despite all the Regime's confinements and propaganda.”

“Reading in the sun = wicked burn”

“The streets of all major citys in Iran is like war time - civil unrest EVERYWHERE”

"Brian Hall says VACATION! What Vacation?”“We are having difficulty getting updates to u as so many of our contacts been arrested - life here is v/v/dangerous now”

I sent my second set of Sweets out the next week, but I stopped after that because, in the shadow of Iran, they felt even more ridiculous than my status updates. Plus, no one responded to any of my Sweet thoughts. If someone had responded and sent a return postcard that said, “Sweet Sweets!” or “I like chicken-shaped mouse legs! ;)”. I may have continued Switter, but since no encouraged me, I focused my attention on other Gone Postal experiments, which were very successful. In addition to my daily status updates, I sent out a list of 25 random facts about me; a quiz called “What Cotofan-Hall cat are you” where people answer ten questions and their responses relate to the character traits of one of my three cats; and I sent gifts such as pieces of newspaper to indicate I am a fan of print, and a band-aid because I am a fan of fireworks safety. In return, I received gifts, such as stickers and a packet of onion seeds.

When the project ended, I considered it a success because most of my Gone Postal friends couldn’t remember my status updates as clearly as they remembered the postcards. In fact, many told me that they will miss receiving the different postcards, not necessarily because of what I had written on the back but the pictures on the font. On multiple occasions, I heard my friends lament about now they have nothing to look forward to when the mail arrives. Their mailboxes will go back to normal and be filled only with bills. At the midpoint of the project, I had heard this same sentiment about the pictures on the postcards--from painted cats to the graves of famous actors and writers--as being the highlight for many of my friends, and I was frustrated because at that time I wanted people to read and enjoy my witty status updates. So I had dismissed their comments. I had told myself that they were too used to our visual culture, and I had been sure they would eventually read my comments because I’m the same way. I remember images before words. When I’m away from my desk, my computer, and my notebooks, I, usually, can only recall the images that I have saved or drawn more than my exact words. With this project, I, too, remember the postcards I received, such as a cougar climbing out of a toilet, and of a man sleeping, mouth wide open, on a plane. This even goes for the Iranian Tweets. I can remember the pictures from the sites more so than the actual tweets. And there is one picture that sticks in my mind more than others. I don’t know where the picture was taken, but it shows three young men in sunglasses with one giving the peace sign. For me, the most powerful part of the picture is the green taped X over their mouths, symbolizing, of course, their inability to answer Facebook’s basic question: “What’s on your mind?” Ultimately, I know that I will never remember or probably reread the status updates of my friends just as they will probably not reread or remember mine. But I will return to the Iranian Tweets because of the weight of those words. Reading about the moments within a protest, about people being beaten and shot for voicing their opinions, about the government trying to control the dissemination of information is all part of a larger context that expands beyond the writers’ personal boundaries. They are writing not only to inform the world what is happening, but also to tell others how to be safe. And for those--who were like me--who think Facebook only perpetuates the egocentricities of our society; I say we, as a nation, should embrace posting updates, of throwing language across the cyber abyss, of talking about the intricacies, inanities, and absurdities of our lives because it sure beats the alternative.

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