Interview with Hrag

Joelle-Where do you live and what do you do for fun/work/learning?

Hrag-Brooklyn, and I love to listen to podcasts, go on walks, read, the usual stuff, but I particularly love discovering new local restaurants. Not the fancy ones but the small family-run joints.

Joelle-The original Facebook Portrait project started in the latter months of 2008. One of the things that strikes me is the difference between how optimistic people were about the ability to use it as a force for good ten years ago. I think that optimism is still felt in some areas, much less so in others. Overall, how do you feel about your use of social media now compared to ten years ago? Do you still feel optimistic about using social media (if you ever did to begin with)?

Hrag-It’s a necessary evil. Well, in 2010, I curated a show about social media art and by the end of the monthlong exhibition, I sensed that the optimism we all mostly felt was not going to sustain itself. Artists like Nate Hill were using it to allow people to invite him to their home so he could perform there and it was clear that people’s motivations were often really strange and dark. At the time, I decided to wait a decade before publishing the show catalogue, and boy am I glad I did. Social media has turned from a techno-utopian possibility, to a surveillance tool that could destroy your life.

The amount of death and other violent threats I receive via social media far outweighs those I receive any other way. That should tell you a lot, but I also need it for work, to network, to stay in touch with people, including family. If I didn’t have Facebook, I would be less in contact with my family in Syria, as Facebook was often the only reliable way to connect with them during the war.

Joelle-I’ve often found the way people interact with strangers on certain social media platforms—how they communicate, the words they choose—can both inspire and degrade. What sort of boundaries do you keep i.e. what you are willing to post, what won’t you post, or comment on, for that matter?

Hrag-I have rules. One is I don’t post photos at home, because I need a no-go zone. A safe space where I can sit around and be myself and people have no access to that. Other boundaries are, don’t brew, just deal with it. It’s hard not to brew based on a comment on social media. Also, a recent thing I’ve started doing that I don’t regret is blocking people. Veken, my husband, encouraged me to do that and he’s right. No one has a right to your time, thoughts, or energy. If they don’t respect you, then sorry, you can stay abreast of my activities another way. I’m not a public servant and I don’t work for them. Also, not everyone is a good faith actor. Some people are just trolls and perform on social media, and I have no time for that.

Joelle-Have you connected, and established relationships, with people you’ve met on social media (not via dating sites) you wouldn’t have otherwise? How has that impacted your life – good or ill?

Hrag-Yes, definitely, and 90% of the time it’s been wonderful. There isn’t a single social network I haven’t used to find people. I think it’s a great insight, but that was more true before than today.

Joelle-One person I spoke to recently characterized herself as a “deactivator” – meaning that in her approach to social media overwhelm she would go inactive on her accounts when she needed to step away and regain a sense of self, privacy, control… Heuristically, this makes sense.  Deleting your account is a simple shortcut to solving the problem of overwhelm. I’ve done it, though I never feel completely distanced. Given how much it’s embedded in our culture, even if you aren’t an avid user, it’s become an unavoidable aspect of modern life. Have you found yourself in a situation where you needed to deactivate? Was it effective in achieving what you needed for yourself?

Hrag-Not really, since I don’t see it as something separate from me. I don’t put on airs or pretend I’m someone I’m not on social media, so for me it’s like breathing. But that also means being able to say, ‘No, not right now.’ I may want to be present with my husband and not care about social media. That probably sounds easier than it is, as there have been many times my husband will yell at me for being distracted on social media.

Joelle-Do you think the success of these platforms are generation sensitive in that, we are at peak use, or were at peak use, and interest will eventually taper off, or, is this our generations’ Edison light bulb? Where do you see it going?

Hrag-It’s a tool, like the telephone, and we’ll use it in different ways. I think the future of social media will be more discrete networks that connect us with other people that share our interests. I think the bigger issue is we should regulate it, since it’s clearly not working without regulation. I don’t think a private company that serves more users than any one country should be able to write up rules of conduct that can’t be scrutinized or openly criticized. They are allowed to do far too much under the radar, and that has to change. I think they’ve peaked, but then again, soon the internet will be another space we inhabit and we won’t be able to differentiate between internet and non-internet, which is partly already true. The number of young people I meet who are obsessed with likes, follower counts, and other things always amazes me. Recently, someone was in awe that I had tens of thousands of Twitter followers, and I think that’s funny. Would I be upset if I didn’t? No, but clearly it influences the way people look at me and I have to be conscious of that.

Joelle-Most people agree that it’s a pretty great thing to have so much information available through the internet and I think people like being able to share information so easily through social media platforms. That hasn’t changed. But, the other side of that is that a lot of the information we see is at best biased and at worst, completely fabricated. Do you feel like you are able to spot or decipher truth from fabricated or distorted truths? How so?

Hrag-Yes, generally, but it’s becoming harder. We just don’t have time to parse every item online, and the level of deception is quite impressive. I don’t see that part ending well.

Joelle-If you could change anything about social media, what would it be?

Hrag-I think we need to teach social media and online literacy in all schools. It’s amazing to me that people can’t differentiate between a well-researched article and an opinion. Also, it’s sad that people continue to say, “I saw it on Facebook,” or “I saw it on Twitter,” as if that’s a source — how about saying who posted it? Of course, the platforms are designed to flatten that difference, and it all looks the same. I hate that, and that has to change if we’re going to continue to have fruitful conversations online.

Joelle-Bonus question: music, book or movie. Pick one and list your favorite.

Hrag-I’m a sucker for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. I am normally an electronic and house music fan, but if I need to center myself quickly, I go to Berlioz.