3. Relation: The witness signifies

In the process of witnessing, when negotiating trust and truth, meaning emerges. A witness signifies what he or she witnesses and culture is distinct in this signification. In Surinam a blue ribbon around the wrist of a child is a sign that someone close to her died. If I do not know the sign, I miss the meaning of the ribbon and may just think it is a bracelet. Through shared experience the process of signification is informed. Often though, meeting so many strangers in real life and online, we have no other option that to project our own culture to what we see or hear.

When meeting strangers processes of projection and identification define how we are witness to each other. In networks online, fewer cues for interaction are available than in physical reality. This opens up a space for projection that may hardly match desired off line physical interaction at all. Interacting with ‘intimate strangers’ is a new experience for human kind and inspires a possible new communication paradigm.

In media and in networks, large groups of people identify easily with people and situations. Dynamics of mass psychology as we know for many centuries, for better and worse, are fuelled with thousands of ‘likes’. Truth is no longer at stake; feelings take over. History has shown that such dynamics can be very detrimental for individual human beings, minorities and for larger groups of people as well. Careful deliberation, inspired by shared ref lection, results in negotiation of trust and truth. Facts matter, and include feelings as well.

Self-witnessing is core

When operating in the global network environment, self-witnessing is a necessity for preserving one’s own well-being as well as for the capacity to communicate with others. Reflection on one’s own ideas, actions, feelings and culture in relation to others inform the balance individuals need to maintain. In real life this is already not an easy process as children have to learn. In network environments this is a greater challenge. Also reflection includes daring to hesitate whereas in the digital world everything is ‘on/ off’. At the same time in networks, third witnessing perspectives contribute to the sense of self. Social networks function as mirrors in which we try to look good. If we smile, the network smiles.

We easily adopt images into our own construction of self. Self-witnessing should include the taking of responsibility for one’s words and deeds. Having an autonomous self that decides to be witness, is a condition for being able to be witness. In this decision process, one needs to be able to deconstruct the reality around. Imagination is fundamental to this capacity. Even though networks are full of imagery, deconstructing media and network noise, is not an easy task. Can we see the river when we swim in it?

The network consists of many individual contributions, but a single contribution bears fewer and fewer significance. This poses fundamental questions about the relation to self in network environments. Possibly it is not so much the relation to others that changes profoundly, but in the first place the relation to our selves that is undergoing deep change. Participatory systems have to address and facilitate the process of self-witnessing. In this process of being witness to one’s self, the self has importance, is significant and is fundamental to any witnessed participation.