My first elementary school principal would tell us once a day (and expect us to yell it out with her) that “You are Special.” It was a kind of mantra for her, and I think she believed it too. She wanted us to believe it anyway. But, even when we were in 3rd grade, we knew that being special wasn’t something that everyone could possibly be. Sure, we could all be unique, but special? We reserved the word special for things that couldn’t be done by everyone. We wanted special to be something we could do out on the playground that no one else could. We wanted it to be special for doing more than just existing.
I come back to this now because I think there is a kind of “special” that is being created online that is far more dangerous than the kind we tell our kids. This special refers to anyone that blogs or tweets. It refers to anyone with an opinion on anything, anyone willing to raise their hand and vote. We are starting to attribute the same across-the-board specialness to anyone with a profile.
We have long believed that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but only recently have we been able to read everyone’s opinion ad nauseam. Only in the past few years have the opinions been plastered for us, challenging us to respect all of them.
We trick out our Twitter backgrounds and write tons of biographical information, aiming for being special to anyone who comes across our presence. We seek the comfort of our own spaces online as being the one true harbinger of everything that we are, the sum of our photos, videos, thoughts, beliefs, and connections. This should make us special, right?
And yet, special isn’t a state of being. It is a badge of honor, a judgement pronounced by others. No amount of self-proclamation, promotion, or posturing is going to stand in the place of “special”. It isn’t your information that makes you special, it is how valuable you are to another person. It isn’t your social capital (the connections you amass) that makes you special, its your challenge of those connections.
You are special only if you have made yourself special to others.
You should be indispensable.
Your regrets and biases and flaws are a part of this too. Those elements of our profiles that stay hidden to everyone but those we trust most. That ability to vulnerable and completely open, that is where special is found. Only when we get past our promotional facades of our online profiles will we be special to someone. Our bios won’t do it. Our @ symbol conversation aren’t good enough.
We can’t all be special, at least not to everyone. So, let’s stop trying.
Some semantic and philosophical acrobatics here.
Are we inherently special?
If your principal said it, then wasn't it so? If you disagreed, did that negate the truthfulness of the statement? If she thought you were special, then you were, right?
I think of my siblings here. At 20, 16 and 10, they are amazing kids. They are special. In fact, my belief in their specialness is so strong that I would extend it beyond my own subjectivity. They are special to the world. Take a look at Tobias and Isabelle. You've got to have a feeling of inherent specialness existing in those two that exists beyond your parenthood. If someone were to argue against it, I'd argue they weren't looking closely enough. They weren't trying hard enough.
Even when looking at my students, I see each of them as special. I can't argue that I see greatness in each of them, but specialness, yeah, it's in there.
Do you really think we're building profiles because we think we're special? I don't think I am. What I mean to say, is I don't think that's why I do it. I think I'm building these things to be present in a space I can't be physically present in. I think I'm building these things to have an archive of who I thought this version of me was in this moment. Are we attributing specialness to these people or are we attributing personness? More people are in my world an available for my education because of this. You wouldn't be a person to me if version of you hadn't been online first. Are we asserting specialness or extensions of personhood?
I love that the democraticization of voice has led to this moment. Admittedly, we're not where we should be with the distribution of access, but I think we're working on it. What I love is that we're coming to terms with what means to believe what we've said we believe for hundreds of years. I wonder if we've meant it. Parts of this post make me think you're finding it frustrating. That's cool. We've always known this experiment takes work. Right now, though, it means more intellectual work than it's ever meant before. If everyone gets a voice, what do we do with that? How do we change? How will we change when the rest of the world comes online? Will their presence signal an assertion of specialness or an assertion of personhood?
I would disagree with what you have said about my kids. They are special to
me, but they will still have to prove their specialness to others. There are
some students I have had that were special to me. They changed me. That is
what made them special.
They were all unique, as are my children. But, special? I believe that
everyone has the capacity to be special to someone, but unless they make
themselves special, it isn't the case. My principal said this as a blanket
statement, but she didn't know us. Was she saying, “you are special to me?”
If so, she was a liar. You cannot be special without making a connection,
without being a part of someone else's life in a personal way.
I do believe that we are creating profiles in order to proclaim how we are
different and similar and special. We are proclaiming that we are people,
but only in relationships with other people and ideas. I'm not saying that
our whole online existence has to be about making ourselves more special,
but that is a great element of what I do. I have a need to be significant
and important to others. I am not merely extending my personhood, I am
trying to market myself as something that is special.
I would make the case that we are not friends because I existed online, but
rather that we are friends because I became special to you. There was a
binary state that was switched. I wasn't special to you, and then I was.
That is a change.
I have no idea what will happen once everyone gets online. I think that is a
great mystery. I just don't think that we can state that everyone who will
get online will be special. They may be special to some people, but I think
that they have to earn being special to the rest.
I will concede that they will all be people, though.
This may be seen as irrelevant by some and irreverent by others, but your post reminded me of George Carlin's thoughts on the subject. To paraphrase:
“If all children are special, are all adults special? If not, then at some point a person goes from being special to not special. Seems like that's an important moment in a person's life that we ought to recognize. On the other hand, if all children are special and all adults are special, being special pretty much loses all of its meaning.”
I agree that the quality of being special depends (maybe not quite 100%, but close) on our connections with other people, whether it be online or not. Those connections don't even have to be two-way; I obviously think George Carlin was special, and he didn't have a clue I existed or was any different from anyone else. He might have judged me to be decidedly non-special. Having nothing else even remotely special to comment, I'll stop trying. 😉
I have never heard this quote before, but I think it definitely fits right
in to my way of thinking here. I definitely want to know the point where you
“become special” or “stop being special” I think that those points
definitely exist and only if we can figure out where they are can we
actually tackle what it means to be special in a greater sense.
While you might not have been special to George Carlin, I still think you
had the potential to become special and that potential is what matters. Your
capacity to comment on this blog means that you can become special to me. By
engaging you in the conversation, I am leaving the door open for more people
to become special to me. It is only when we leave that door completely
closed that we start calling everyone special. When we don't let anyone
challenge us or create something new with us, everyone by default becomes
this enigmatic version of special that has lost all of its original
I have never heard this quote before, but I think it definitely fits rightrnin to my way of thinking here. I definitely want to know the point where yourn”become special” or “stop being special” I think that those pointsrndefinitely exist and only if we can figure out where they are can wernactually tackle what it means to be special in a greater sense.rnrnWhile you might not have been special to George Carlin, I still think yournhad the potential to become special and that potential is what matters. Yourrncapacity to comment on this blog means that you can become special to me. Byrnengaging you in the conversation, I am leaving the door open for more peoplernto become special to me. It is only when we leave that door completelyrnclosed that we start calling everyone special. When we don’t let anyonernchallenge us or create something new with us, everyone by default becomesrnthis enigmatic version of special that has lost all of its originalrnmeaning.