Sweet Valley Twins: Reading to Understand Contemporary Social Networks

This is the second in a series of essays produced for my graduate prosem on Media Theory and Methods last term. The essays are intended to fuse autobiographical and theoretical writing to address an issue of central interest to the student.

Sweet Valley Twins:

Reading to understand contemporary social networks

by Dharmishta Rood

I spent most of my youth surrounded by the pages of books. I read a lot of things, Babysitters Club, Anastasia, books about children and teens that loved animals. I tried to get caught up in the boxcar children, but I found it too old fashioned–I couldn’t identify with anything that was going on. I tried reading Tolkien, but became bored, not because I didn’t understand the text, but because of my boredom with an archetypal male power struggle through the singularity of objects and power derived from them, though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way then. After dabbling in other genres I returned to a world that was so wholly my own, yet so alien–the social life of young girls. I grew up reading Sweet Valley Twins books.

These books encompassed much of my life and youth. I would read while walking (much like Belle in Beauty And The Beast, but with awful glasses and braces). I would sneak pages in math class when the teacher would turn around to write on the board. I still to this day can imagine when I laughed aloud in math class at a hilarious passage confusing woks and walks. I still get a smile on my face thinking of the incident (though my math teacher was less than pleased).

I began reading these books at a time in my life where I was hungry to understand social interaction, yet at the same time seeking to hide from it. I was confused and unsure, wanting to learn by watching others yet shield myself from any hurt by covering my face from the world with a book and wrapping myself in the safety of pre-resolved existing plots, the way one finds comfort in familiar foods.

I actually have almost no recollection of doing homework (although I did well in school) but remember very vividly how I would come home and finish reading a book on the stairs directly inside the front door. Social life played a large role in my childhood, as a source of stress, but also as a main interest of mine.

The central draw of the popular clique at my elementary school, of which I was never a part, was their central sense of presence–by standing in a room and saying nothing, they could announce themselves as interesting. Perhaps this was my glorified understanding of their social presence but regardless, whatever they were doing was definitely working. Their popularity was self-affirming and generative.

I hungered for these interactions and the sense of presence that came with them and my need to understand these interactions was satisfied by these books, which had conclusive endings and allowed me as the reader to see into the social interactions, take them apart and live them, without having to actively create interactions myself. Had I been able read on social networks instead of Sweet Valley Twins books would I have been petrified or liberated? Would Elizabeth, the sweet shy romantic have been torn apart by them or Jessica the social butterfly have thrived in the midst of all the action? Whose narrative would I have chosen?

For Turkle, media have become a way for creating inquiries of the self, as both a mirror in as much as a window out (1984, 1995). “The computer creates new occasions for thinking through the fundamental questions to which childhood must give a response, among them the questions ‘What is life?'”(ibid, 1984, 16) Media can then be seen as objects that help us think about ourselves, and reflect what it is to be a thinking human being. Sweet Valley Twins books, like anything that signals meaning, have contained within them their own set of meanings and social structures and like anything mediated, they can be something to hide behind, something with which to escape from the “real.”

I read about a book each day during the school year, and read them all in order (minus, of course, the numbers missing from the public library), I read in free minutes, by the hour, filling weeks, then days and months with stacks of 20 books at a time, the limit from the library. It never occurred to me that I could have purchased the books with my allowance or put them on a birthday wish list. They were too disposable to me; by the time I would have gotten one it would have been one day old almost immediately. Perhaps this set the stage for me to create consumable media to be disposed when it becomes a day old, with my current identity as a blogger and journalist.

I remember how the books smelled and the way they felt; the way I could lie down on the couch and read one, and after a while the words melted away and there were only pictures. I was both identifying as the twins yet also watching them, finally at peace with social interactions I couldn’t seem to figure out at school, while negotiating the confusion between the side of me that could talk all day to strangers and the side that can barley leave the house.

The twins in the series came to be a representation of myself, although

I wouldn’t have articulated it that way then. Elizabeth was introverted, shy, romantic and thoughtful. Jessica was outgoing, social and bold. I often struggle to meld these two aspects of my personality into one person that can interact with the world. How can one be simultaneously sensitive yet bold? Shy and outgoing? The twins in the book seem to balance each other out, causing equilibrium of blonde purpose articulated through action and control.

People use virtual worlds to do these same things–social networks become many faceted representations of ourselves. danah boyd articulates this as a linearity from concepts of self and identity–one’s internal identity and one’s social identity. Within this social identity, identity management and impression management surface at the forefront of these social issues, in portraying many facets of one’s identity one must be careful not to expose too much of oneself (boyd, 21-30, 2002).

Users even use social networks to hold deceptive identities–posing as those that they are not, for reasons from benign to harmful. (boyd, Donath 2004) In a lot of my own personal social network research I’ve come across people that will say “this is a very not me experience.” When they are browsing photographs or profiles they are constructing a space, a universe external to themselves. One could describe this as traversing from fictional universes, such as the twins, to “networked publics.” In reading I got to experiment with fictional identities without an audience. Though online networks have “invisible audiences” (boyd, 2002), that allow for social network users to feel anonymity and perhaps even privacy, they are not truly alone. Social networks have identity performance, and identity performance was everything I was trying to understand, and everything I was trying to avoid.

boyd stresses the importance of impression management, something that is socially learned, signaling intentions, desires and actions (2004).

It never occurred to me to seek out other readers of these books and interact with them: these books were my own personal refuge and it would have been counterintuitive to share this private world with anyone. It was an escape more than a community. I was learning from the young girls in the book. When I was reading, I was no longer myself, I was Elizabeth or Jessica, interchangeably.

I used the books to discover and explore what creates the fabric of a social relationship, binding us next to each other and allowing us to return again to the same place in a relationship. I learned this page by page and was allowed to again return to what I had built in this (novel’s) community and the(se character’s) friendships I had formed.

Social organization and also interaction can be part of this self-regulating behavior. The books functioned in the same way that gossip does–as an extension of observational learning for learning rules and both teaching and affirming social norms behaviors. “On the surface, gossip consists of stories and anecdotes about particular other people, perhaps especially ones that reflect negatively on the target. We readily concede that some of the appeal of gossip is simply learning about other people. However, we think that a second, less obvious function of gossip is to convey information about social norms and other guidelines for behavior” (Baumeister and Zhang, 2004, 13).

Though the books differ from social networks in that there is no two-way interaction, the same social paradigms still exist and social norms are (re- and de-) constructed through the text. My fascination with social networks is similar to reading these books. The social interactions are visible and can be learned from, without having to say anything back. My social network use perhaps mirrors the way that I was able to stick with the series, meeting their lives at the intersection of my own. In online social networks, instead of furthering my relationship with Jessica or Elizabeth, and thus their social connections, I’m able to analyze my own and indulge in social learning without any of the anxiety that comes with it in real space.

In education, situated cognition is the “theory that learning is influenced by context. Cognition exists in the relations among people. Learning and knowing do not exist independently but are structured by interpersonal interactions and attempts to solve real-life problems in everyday settings” (Collins and O’Brien, 2003, 324). What I was experiencing through these books was learning about social interaction. They functioned as a safe reality to understand sociability. I was learning from these girls both to augment and also to replace relationships in my life.

At the end of the day I’m left with a few questions: how can social network “reading” be framed by my understanding of myself from reading Sweet Valley Twins books? What differences and similarities exist between the networked reading that are allowed in social network spaces

My current interest in social networks could be seen as directly related to my reading of these books. I’m interested less in the possibility of participation online and more in the fact that these are real people with real-life relationships. , Their networked relations within these social networks do not require interaction as a prerequisite for the consumption of social information.

Social networks differ from my Sweet Valley Twins books because they allow the possibility for feedback. Social networks are thus a more active space for social learning, yet still not completely social in the way that having a one-on-one conversation or going to a crowded social gathering shapes a social understanding in terms of social feedback mechanisms for situated cognition. They both sit in between realities and fiction, as a safe space to learn sociability without needing to know exactly how yet to interact. Before social networks, the Sweet Valley Twins series was a similar type of safety net, and the relations that were formed and explored throughout the series were, for better or for worse, my training ground for social interactions to this day.

References

Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as Cultural Learning. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 111-121.

boyd, danah. (2008).”Why Youth Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.” Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. David Buckingham. (Ed.). The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 119-142.

Donath, J., & Boyd, D. (2004). Public Displays of Connection. BT Technology Journal, 22(4), 71-82.

Collins, J. W., & O’Brien, N. P. (Eds.). (2003). The Greenwood dictionary of education (p. 431). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Gunawardena, C. N., Hermans, M. B., Sanchez, D., Richmond, C., Bohley, M., & Tuttle, R. (2009). A theoretical framework for building online communities of practice with social networking tools. Educational Media International, 46(1), 3.

Turkle, Shery. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Turkle, Sheery. (1984). The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dharmishta Rood is receiving her Masters from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard this June, where she has been examining the cultural impact of networked environments and investigating how this affects learning and how the new technologies have changed the way people use and process information. Continuing her focus and

exploration related to online cooperation facilitates the generation of user-generated content, Dharmishta is a research assistant for Yochai Benkler at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She is co-founder of Populous, a Knight Foundation funded open source software project that allows newspapers to publish online, integrating social features and existing networks into news reading. She is also a Fellow at the Center for Future Civic Media. Currently she is particularly interested in the way that the option of participation in an online space changes readers’ interpretations of information, and

she is currently defining the notion of “networked reading” around this concept. Dharmishta holds a B.A. in Design | Media Arts from UCLA, and previously worked as Photo Editor at UCLA’s Daily Bruin and blogs at http://dharmishta.com.