I like to describe things this way: the internet was once a new drug on the street. It was fresh, exciting, and only available to a few people. Nobody knew it was a drug, we thought it was a cure, like penicillin. The network was infinite, the canvas blank, the new “cyberspace” an uncolonized expanse of possibility where we could leave behind the old thinking of the real world.
The first ten years were great, exciting, and nobody in the mainstream world was really paying attention. Yes, there were news stories about this technological revolution, and some people made a lot of money selling it in the first dot-com bust. But to the everyday person, the internet was a marvel of technology more than a motivation for being. The internet lacked personality, but there was a generation of kids welcoming it into their lives, not knowing any better. I was one of those children.
I remember calling people on the phone to set up a party. My little sister doesn’t, and she's only six years younger than me. To her, the internet has always been here. She’s been texting people longer than she has ever spoken to people on the phone. Today I look around and the internet is a drug akin to crack-cocaine in the late 80s. My generation and the newer generations are hooked into the internet like it’s a morphine drip. We wake up in the morning and we check our phones before we get up to eat breakfast or bathe. Updates to our feeds (implying sustenance) are all pushed to us immediately. We can’t live without it. The average kid in America is within five feet of an internet connection 24 hours a day.
I know I am; my iPhone is next to my bed when I sleep. It’s in my pocket every moment of the day. Ever since I was in middle school I’ve had a computer in my room with me. That was odd when I was in middle school in the late 90s, but now it’s normal. The kids of my generation — who are breaching 30 now (early 2017) — will be the most aware of this transformation, but those younger than us are ignorant of how things once were. Their world is moving faster than anyone can explain to them; this is the new normal.
At the onset, academics and the mainstream media latched onto the labels of the “digital native” versus the “digital immigrant”, our parents belonging to the latter category. What interests me most now are the varying shades and subdivisions within the “digital native” population. Nothing is so black-and-white anymore. How do we classify the three-year-olds who have iPhones? They are not the same as the 20-something with an iPhone; they are forging a new path through the digital world that those of us originally deemed “natives” do not have the capacity to fully understand.
If the rate of technological development continues its rapid climb, the distance between the natives and immigrants is insignificant compared to the orders of magnitude that will separate me and my children. This is beyond the simple adage of a generational divide, because this time the difference is being defined by technology and not mere cultural attitude. It is the technology itself, how it’s built and how it’s being used, that is disrupting culture and society at fundamental levels within each generation instead of between them.
That’s why the internet is the personal stuff. The story of my adolescent and adult life is on public display through a convoluted series of websites and databases. When I was young, I chose a path to embrace our networked future, to immerse myself in it as wholly as possible. Where this choice leads is now a known path; it’s non-trivial and it’s not incidental, it’s wholly transformative. I must emphasize that it felt like a choice for me, though as time has progressed, it's no longer a choice at all. Everyone must be on the internet now.
The way in which I actively engaged with the internet at a young age set me apart from my peers. I had the added disadvantage of being a technologically-literate child in a small, rural, technophobic town. Being so separated gave me a lot of time to sit around and think; and since then, as an adult, I’ve tried to spend time thinking about how I thought back then. The journey a person takes from making a life choice to understanding the choice is often, retrospectively, the smallest but most difficult step. For me, reaching that understanding has been an ongoing journey. Along the way I’ve kept coming back to explore the strange new intimacy of our online-publicly-private personas.
We accepted this dichotomy without much thought: the online-open-trackable-parsable-public versus our individually-perceived privacy. This is one of the main themes I want to examine. It has lead us to a number of new problems while reprioritizing or negating old ones. Throughout this text I will use myself as an example of the problems we’ve created, and I will try to lay bare how I’ve dealt with them. I’ve spoken to many people about these issues, and I’ve read countless volumes about what people much older than me think about them. So far I have been very unsatisfied by the level of practical understanding exhibited within existing efforts. That’s why I’m writing this now, because I’m concerned anyone would take my internet persona so seriously.
And I mean “seriously” as if my online self is largely indicative of me as a person. Obviously there is more to me than what you can find online, but currently there is a misplaced understanding on the internet between the person and their personhood. I have a definite presence, in multiple facets, across the internet. None of these are me, but they are inextricably linked to the person I identify myself as.
We weigh these sides differently, each of us. Some of us can be best found online; some of us can be best found in person. Some of us can be best found-out-about on Facebook, others on Tumblr. We hold ourselves accountable for our LinkedIn profiles, therefore that’s yet another facet of self. You should consider my status updates not me but an expression of me.
Some people tweet because they can’t speak, some people tweet so they don’t have to speak, other people tweet because they’re desperately trying to prove they have a real life by saving a record of it. This intersection between the representation of real life in tweet form and the creation of a real life through tweets is what bothers me most. We take for granted our personal nature on the internet, and begin to believe that who we are is best defined by these networked actions.
Those who cannot speak and would rather tweet are creating their selves; those who tweet because they have nothing to say are destroying themselves. This is another dichotomy I want to investigate: the belief that personality can be created and destroyed by our collective use of the internet.
I feel most comfortable expressing myself to a screen. There have been countless people in human history who found themselves comfortably expressive only on paper — this is not a new problem. Two hundred years ago, a person may have felt comfortable sharing their feelings only through writing letters, and never wish to speak of them out loud. The issue now is in the immediacy and ubiquity of this insecurity’s contemporary application. What was once a personality disorder (narcissism, sociopathy, etc) expressed by the few is now the world seen, experienced, and interpreted by the many.
In the 90s it was weird to consume yourself in the digital realm — now it’s normal, and the inverse is weird. “Checking the internet” is now as ubiquitous as “checking your watch”, as if the internet itself has supplanted time. The metaphor is scary and true, with the added fact that whenever you check the internet, the internet knows you’re checking, what you’re checking, and then it keeps track of it. The abyss that is the internet not only stares back, but it takes copious notes about you.
However, the information that represents us on the internet — the data itself — is only a symptom of a greater cultural problem. The personal is no longer the fact that I’m single or in a relationship or unwilling to specify either on my Facebook page, what’s personal — but shouldn’t be taken seriously — is the fact that I have a Facebook page at all. What I share is not as important as what I’m trying to accomplish through the sharing, but the systems we use to share are stripping away the very potential for that personal meaning.
“Connecting” with people online is our new social currency. Upon meeting a stranger, we can Google or Facebook them immediately. This presents, to those who are conscious of it, a new kind of heightened vulnerability. This is a problem of personal authenticity on the part of both the viewer and the subject we're Googling. We are all constantly occupying both positions: we are consistently put in place of the voyeur and the hostage. This is where things easily become so personal, because we don’t realize how much of ourselves we’ve allowed to be exposed and preserved forever as digital footprints of our personality.
How much we engage with this determines how much that self-reflection morphs from an observatory experience to a transformative one, turning what was once undefinable into something we can fit within the 140 characters of a tweet. Whether or not we care about what people can find out about us online (and then judge us for it) is a calculation that there is no easy formula for right now. We often care when other people do or say stupid things on the internet, but seldom do we consider whether we ourselves have done anything stupid on the internet.
We, as users, must determine our own level of personal involvement, rather than allow the systems we use to dictate or exploit us unconsciously. A user who understands that their tweets could possibly be seen by their employer should make sure they aren’t saying anything too damning — but could a 14-year-old understand and plan for this eventuality? Whoever this person is who’s looking you up and reading your tweets, whether it’s your mom or your boss or your boyfriend, they are a networked other. In direct communication with them, we can find ourselves responding to the networked other as if we were responding to ourselves.
When I talk to people online, during instant message conversations or reblogs or whatever, I’ve often thought of who I’m talking to as just some kind of abstraction, and how the gaps of their personhood are filled by my brain. Those gaps, some wider than others, are formed by my ignorance of the person I am speaking to. In normal face-to-face conversation these gaps are filled in by tonality, by nuance, by physicality, but how are they filled online? In ways, we fill them with ourselves, reflexively. Since text is so bare, we must use ourselves to color between the lines. In the end, am I talking more to myself when I’m talking to my friend online? This is another problem I want to examine.
I call this “the ELIZA problem”, ELIZA being the old computer program that reflectively asks questions in an instant-messenger-like format (before instant messengers had even been created). We each become ELIZAs for each other, saying only what we want to hear, asking questions we’d want to be asked. Who do I write for on my Tumblr blog? Who did I write for on my old LiveJournal? Who am I writing for here? Was it for the people I knew who read it, or the people who might read it should they come across it; is it performance rather than personality?
Answering that I write it merely for me is a half-truth, because the person I think I am is the one I am actively destroying during the writing. Unlike ELIZA, it is as if during our online conversations we are rewriting our own programming, and if given enough time the bare syntax of our sentences becomes fundamentally altered. This is how we are forming our identities on the internet.
Those people we meet online or off can find out a lot about us without our involvement or consent. The ease of being able to type someone’s name into Google and read their life story means that we continue to abstract and objectify each other as mere data. Someone can read my personal Tumblr (or, several years ago, my personal LiveJournal) and assume they know a bit about me. It has always been the case that a person could ask around about someone else and find out something, but that’s an approach colored by the experiences and biases of the people asked.
The internet provides a way for us to find first-party source material to study in an instantaneous, algorithmically cross-referenced fashion. This is true for every one of us who decides (usually at a young age, devoid of rational self-comprehension) to display themselves into the infinite sphere of accumulated world knowledge that is commonly called The Internet. This is especially potent the younger the average user becomes; we already see the shifting definition of privacy for people who started using the internet when they were children and have become accustomed to having their activities logged to make their lives more interesting. Only when that self-constructed sphere of being is blatantly violated do they recoil.
A strange case in point: finding love on the internet. In mainstream culture during the 2000s it had always been something that seemed a bit off to most people. I’m talking about the match dot com commercials, or the people who get married through a World of Warcraft relationship. As if love itself could be a series of questionnaires and compatibility algorithms, commercialized and yet socially acceptable. It turns out love can be exactly that. Love has become a checkbox which we can specifically disable so we make it easier for others to swipe left or right on us.
Say you put yourself out there for no other reason than to put yourself out there, as if you want to expose yourself to someone who may be able to love that which you expose. Who is to say that there is no way for us to willfully codify ourselves to be accessible in order to find love? This isn’t my question (because it’s already been answered with a resounding yes) but do these people know what they’re doing, the implications, the potential superficiality of self by abstracting it into something that can be rendered by a TI-83 pocket graphing calculator? More importantly, is it superficial if it becomes normal?
I have no problem with this. In fact, there are people (one or two people) that I have met purely on the internet who I can say I love, as much as I’ve loved people in real life. But with this observation and admittance has come a cost: the struggle of how love can be so malleable and redefined. It has also come with a lesson: be conscious of who you are when you’re sharing things more than who could be reading it. The right question to ask me is not how could you love someone based solely on internet-based interaction? Instead, you should ask how could you present yourself in a way that is known enough to be loved.
Pushing even further: there are some of us who can build purpose-codified extensions of ourselves meant to live only on the internet. This is the social software rewriting the 21st century. That’s what Facebook is: one kid’s attempt at rewriting sociality itself. Personally, I have scripted chatroom bots to enumerate my personality traits and expressions as I see myself. What’s most terrifying is how a bot could mirror me so well in certain ways, how my traits become its, how a response from it could be as good as one from me — even if only in small, isolated incidents — but what does that say about me?
The utilitarian usefulness of a robot is obvious (it’s why we spend money on them) but the interface is often that which is either thought about too much or too little. The simplest interface, now seen with Siri on the iPhone, is one which performs most like a human. Ask/tell it what you want, and it performs the action. I discovered, as a few people have, that adding a response-delay and a degree of randomness to an artificial intelligence system is all it takes to make a robot feel eerily human. And that uncanny valley does resonate as a feeling based on a faith growing in the hearts and minds of technology-driven individuals. It’ll only get more real as that faith spreads.
But is the robot I’ve scripted which represents pieces of my personality a part of me as a person? Is the profile I put on Facebook a part of me? Is the log of my chatroom activity really a way to find out more about me? Does the me-robot come closer to me than the logs, since one was an act of willful creation/expression and the other is merely a historical record? Of course, the person you read in the chatlog at best would not be me but an old version of me, and one which is unreliable at best; I could be putting on any face and displaying any persona in a chatroom. If I coded the bot correctly, I could make it potentially divergent of me so that it’s also no longer me, but it is increasingly another me. This is similar to the idea of multiple universes for every quantum decision-point, as if there is a me in another universe that decided not to study interactive media, but on the internet these systemic branches can be acutely self-produced. These are the questions we must answer to fully understand how children are creating their personalities through the internet.
We are a generation that has become unconsciously performative of ourselves in these kinds of radically contextual situations. When we talk to another through text, we are doing more assumption than communication, unless you know the person well enough. Even then, a text message is rarely something I can take entirely seriously, whether it’s from my mom or a friend, even though my social mind wants very much to fill the gaps of tonality and emotionalism with the colors of previous experience. This tendency is largely a mistake unless you realize you’re doing it.
The only real response to this tenacity for online assumption is to further understand ourselves before assuming anything of the other person. I can say that I am represented within the text message I sent you. There’s a bit of me in there. I can say the same about a photo I sent you. Or maybe a post I made online. Maybe the photo I sent you is one I didn’t take, can I say it’s a bit of me?
I can say I am a name on a piece of paper, or a part of me is within a leaf I found on the ground while hiking, or a painting I made or one I bought or one my friend made for me. I can say that a part of me is a picture I took of a painting I made, can’t I? But where am “I” in all this? It must be more than mere attribution, because I can identify parts of myself with media, if I want. We each identify ourselves with television shows, movies, paintings, poetry, etc.
But where am I in the photo that I say is me? Am I in the glossy photo paper or the chemicals that make up the image? Or the photo-image itself, of the painting I made? Or am I the painting that the photo is portraying? Or am I the landscape in oil that I put on canvas, does that represent me? Signify me? Express me? Am I the camera that took the photo? Am I the brush or the paint that made the landscape? Am I the eyes that saw the landscape, or the hand that moved the brush? Am I the one holding the photo, or the painting? Is this crazy and convoluted enough for you yet?
I am all of this, all of these things, and they are all me. Most importantly, I am understanding myself within all these things and explaining it to you now. I’m saying that the images, sounds, photos, are a collection of experiences, even if they are mere representations or signifiers of experiences. Each one is unique, contextual, imbued with meaning, and help make up me as a person. To deny that I am the photo of the painting is to say that I cannot be represented however I choose.
We can claim whatever identity we want as long as we know what we’re investing ourselves in, and as our understanding of these facets increases, the validity of our selfhood also increases. We should worry about the people who don’t understand or respect all of this, because they’re the ones who don’t know who they are and don’t own any of the images they carry and put in front of themselves. Those people are allowing themselves to be mere simulacrum, and the social networks we utilize would rather us be easily digestible automatons than complicated individuals.
I can extend this even further and claim to be every piece of media I’ve ever ingested — which has somehow informed every statement, piece of art, whatever, I have ever articulated and expressed. Every movie, every video game, every novel, every poem, they are all a part of me. I can say there are pieces of me from Star Wars or George Clooney or T.S. Eliot. I took myself to task trying to map them all out once, citing life-lessons not just from friends but from cultural icons, between episodes of The Next Generation and a Kubrick film and The Legend of Zelda.
We are a society that is driven by reference, meme, hyperlink, context. It is counterproductive to leave unacknowledged the near-infinite totality of their prevalence in our identity-formation and self-reflection. In the 21st century this has become the primary means of creating an identity for adolescents. It is as much a part of us as the experiences gifted by others. The morality of this age is no longer religious or material, it is cultural and social and digital.
I have two primary Tumblr blogs: one is simply cyle.tumblr.com and the other is called “Castle Nail Fuck”. The first is my “personal” tumblr, meaning everything on there is meant to be observations, writings, random stuff directly from me, or relating to me, or otherwise explicitly indicative of me. I put my own writing on there, sometimes I put quotes, whatever. Like a LiveJournal. Like a personal website. Like a handwritten journal. Like a one-sided conversation.
Castle Nail Fuck is a representation of my self on the internet as I create my identity through the images, videos, etc, I consume. In certain ways, what I put on Castle Nail Fuck is closer to being a demonstrable account of me as a person than cyle.tumblr could ever be. My life isn’t something I can just write down — I am an assemblage of media and thought. I am a collection of images, like the ones I’ve put within that blog. I am experiences, emotions, sometimes associated sometimes not, wholly individualistic and unique, but never generated entirely by myself as original content.
Within every moment, there is at the very least a residual moment of someone else, even if it’s someone I could never know. Our memories are based on association. One could say that nobody could ever possibly own anything because every single experience during any moment in our lives includes things built/expressed by someone else, no matter how small. Everything is a remix; our lives are at best mashups and reinterpretations of the world our parents’ have laid out for us.
Even our thoughts are not alone without the unconscious residual impact of another. To escape this you’d have to be naked in the forest having never seen anyone ever. We are inherently intrinsically social. Everything is already social. Nothing is new here, and the internet didn’t bring about that fact, it just made this condition so explicit that it becomes a basic means of expressing the self. The appropriation and aggregation of experiences through multimedia is now an easy way of defining identity.
Everything we add to the internet, willfully or not, is a pattern of expression. Beyond the fact that it’s merely an abstraction of ourselves, it’s also a cryptographic challenge. How much of someone’s online activity can we assume is true without directly asking them about each and every piece? I’ve had people message me, with a link to a post on one of my blogs, what it meant. Can I tell them? Isn’t it more interesting to know how they may have interpreted it and allow that to further color and shade the depths of its potential meaning?
Social media’s mechanisms make me feel inadequate as a human. Many would rather just “like” something than say something. It’s too easy to hit that "like" button. That we’d rather let a mechanization, a normalization, a boiling-down of my feelings codify and signify who we are as people. Or that I have only 140 characters to make a point. Some of the best jokes can’t be told in 140 characters; some of the best advice can’t either. Some of the best memories certainly can’t. We are only gaining laziness and complacency with these.
The internet is leveling and “democratizing” society, making us all equal contributors in a world which was once one-to-many or one-to-one. I wish it were so; it certainly has the capacity to. Too often, as the internet has proven, the result of that democracy is a favoring of the lowest common denominator. The desire for ourselves to be interpreted gives way to the ease of a “like” button. We lower all standards to make everything accessible; we surrender complexity in favor of convenience.
Me writing this doesn’t fit into 140 characters, it doesn’t fit into a “like” or “dislike” button, but it now cannot be read by someone who doesn’t speak English. It can’t be parsed and optimized and normalized and mechanized as easily to find out what ads should be displayed alongside it.
It reminds me of “lol”. People used to assume that you actually laughed out loud when you wrote “lol”, until everybody realized that nobody actually did. Our parents, when they write “LOL”, frequently do so because they actually laughed. This is a generation shift that emphasizes what level of personal involvement we accept and perceive in our everyday internet usage. This is the gap in what’s personal to us versus what’s personal to our parents.
What is the difference between someone who actually lols and someone who just writes it? They have externalized, mechanized, made themselves devoid of real acknowledged feeling. They’ve codified their own laughter. When I write “lol” in response to something funny, but I don’t actually laugh, it’s because the mental processes involved in engaging with the humorous material have gone around that process and acknowledged that what I am loling at is funny, but I don’t need to physically laugh about it or express it in any real fashion. My mind determines that I can skip the human response to comedy.
When I “like” something by clicking a button, I am actively divorcing myself from the emotion of liking something. I’m moving the feeling to superficiality and conditioning aspects of my self in this contradictory way. I am abstracting further that which is already abstract in my own mind. I am allowing that like, that desire, that connection, to be dissolved and subverted into data. I am losing myself.
At the time that this was orignally written in 2010, I didn’t see many people taking these small, tiny, seemingly insignificant things and adding up their sum total effect as they registered across the entire demographic of youth and adolescent development. I’ve watched as these issues take over aspects of my own formation as an adult. I see some academics — old people — trying to write papers about this. Very few of them are really in the shit, in the dirt, down in it like we are. I use the internet every day like it’s an insulin shot, and it’s not forced: it’s natural.
I am not someone who has to remember to check Facebook, I’m someone who just does it like I’m taking a piss after I wake up in the morning. That is what scares me so much, and that’s what makes the internet truly personal but frustrating to me. All around me, everyone I know my age and younger is this way. Nobody thinks about Facebook; it simply is, as if it had been there all along. Does anybody under 30 remember how anyone used to buy plane tickets? Do we remember why we used to call people? We get upset when Facebook updates something, after becoming used to the last update a mere six months ago.
We should take the internet a bit more personally in a different way. When I “like” something, usually I want to say so much more. I want to say why I like it. I want to say that I like it a lot. I want to say what’s so good about it. I can if I leave a comment, but not all platforms really want you to do that. We really aren’t encouraged to do so — we’re encouraged to leave just a “like” and move on to the next item in our news feed. Fill out that social graph, which depends on connections, not on comments.
We’re only allowed 140 characters for a reply. We’re forced to whittle down our feelings to abbreviations. I feel damned for doing so, for giving up my freedom of expression for this, and not thinking twice about it. I feel ashamed that we all haven’t thought twice about it — and more so, that if we have, we’ve done nothing about it. Donald Trump uses twitter because it “gets results” — that’s our fault.
We look at our adult leaders today and we scoff at their inadequacies and their contractions. We see our senators oppose gay marriage while they’re getting blown by male prostitutes on the side. We see our financial system collapse under its own greed and deregulation. We see systems that our parents built, falling apart. We see that the revolutions of the 60s only paved the way for more rapid complacency and affluence.
In the 60s and then in the late 2000s, we demanded change but we didn’t say what that change would entail. We never really cared, we just wanted something different, and now that we have something different, it’s still not really working. We are children wandering in a desert, too preoccupied with ourselves to see that we’re actually walking in busy city streets; and those who realize this are just the people with some sense about them. Everybody else doesn’t even know what a desert looks like, they just see the same malls, the same status updates, and assume everything’s okay. We are doomed to the same fate as our parents: the maintenance of the status quo, without understanding of what it is or how it’s changing with or without us. We are desperately wanting of change without knowing what we are changing from or into.
Our collective ignornace is going to bring us to the brink of total collapse and we won’t know because the Facebook news-worthiness algorithm won’t think it’s important.
As I’ve grown up and watched more of our culture integrate the internet into everyday life, I have found more latitude in being myself online. The foundational ideas of the networked world — hyperlinks, status updates, live feeds — are becoming standardized pieces of first-world life. I believe that our minds are moving to a more overtly associative, semantic, expressive, highly individual ideal of self.
We have moved from the physical community (tribe/congregation) to the collective ideology (nation/state) to a new metaphorical self (internet/networks). As a collective species, we began forming societies and cultures based on physical proximity. Eventually, when we became able to communicate over a wide area quickly, we felt the need to isolate our cultures. Now, with all humans potentially within “reach” of each other, we must rely on metaphors and semantics to distinguish ourselves as individuals.
We each have no stronger example of this than ourselves. Do young people really care about being American anymore? Aren’t we now taught that we are all members of a global community? If the ideas of nationalism and community are truly dead in the real world, how do we distinguish ourselves? We can group together, but no longer are these groupings bound by geography. We’re more often grouped by interest or statistics — religion, political agenda, musical taste, age group, income bracket, credit score.
The internet encourages us more often to take the opportunity to not group together and instead highlight our individuality. We’re given more no-cost ways to do them every day, and the data collected through their utilization has monetary value. The more ways there are that a person can be targeted, the more money a product can make on them. The holy grail is to get young people to flock to your brand for seemingly no reason, and have all of them provide loads of easily-targetable data like age, location, etc.
However, these realizations are meaningless unless we can have them together, and can acknowledge it beyond our own selves. The changing of an era will come when the personal becomes more important than the political, when we can trust that the bureaucracy of all of us does not depend on the failed self-actualization of each other as individuals. The revolution will happen when we acknowledge that the convenience of the internet is not worth the cost of commodifying our identities. The world, in order to function in this new paradigm, must become wholly decentralized, or it risks the same failures as all previous socioeconomic/political systems.
To help reach this collective harmony, we need to understand our technology and the ways we use it, and the ways it uses us. Coming from a web development background, when I see Facebook, I don’t see people: I see rows in a database. I see people being reduced to fields in a form: status updates, Likes, and other such mechanizations of personality, all of them simply a mass of data. The debate in the late 90s and early 00s (and it goes back much further) was about how we should choose to be represented on the internet as data.
This debate was founded on the idea that the self chooses to represent itself when staring at a computer. There was an assumption that the individual always chooses to hide behind a pseudonym (screenname, handle, whatever). This was a reasonable assertion back then, when the majority of computer users were adults who had a capacity to distinguish online from offline. And it was largely true; when you logged in to a chatroom, you were vaguely aware that you could create any identity you wanted to. You never used your real name because there was an inherent separation of space.
In many ways we as individuals do not really consciously choose how we represent ourselves in real life, even though we’re made to feel that we choose who we are. We really don’t. We’re amalgamations of the people around us, our family, our genetics, and how culture affects us. This is all unconscious, very little of our control is active. Who we “are” is highly contextual, abstract, and relative. Who we are shifts constantly over time and varies depending on the situation.
Conversely, the more you realize and accept this, the more in control you become. The original idea of a separation between online and offline really didn’t matter — that new digital self was just a more willful expression than before. What has changed over the last ten years is that people have stopped caring about the separation. The digital self has moved from a known, willed action to an unconscious action. The majority of internet users never had this moment, because they felt late to the party and joined Facebook without questioning it.
On a technological level, the internet does not allow true individuality as we feel it in real life, because computerization of the self requires normalization and, therefore, definition. Our unconscious action of representing ourselves online has real-world consequences. There are no abstract concepts in a database, Facebook’s rows of information are broken down into data types: integers, strings, text blobs, relational foreign IDs leading to other databases, et cetera. There is no room for the amorphous ideas of friendship: there is only a row which links the unique identifier for me to the unique identifier for you. That cold, rigid definition is friendship to Facebook, and it is becoming friendship for all young people, the same way the idea of personhood could be transformed into fields named Age, Gender, Relationship Status.
The problem here is that social constructs like friendship and personhood are inherently collective nebulous abstractions with no rigid definitions. Computers cannot accept this. The same way the invention of writing turned thought into a physical form, which could then be analyzed, torn apart, rebuilt, and contextualized further, the social network has turned human interaction into something that can be normalized, data-mined, interpreted (by automation), and aggregated. Through these means, social media itself is a destruction of collective social abstractions. When once things were defined by all of us, they are now defined by the corporations that build the social media tools we use every day.
An easy example I will continue to reference is the very idea of friendship being mechanized and normalized. Of course, to us individually, “friend” still means more and different things than how Facebook defines it, but the fact that it needed to be normalized and was defined attacks its social significance. By defining it, Facebook robbed it of all power in our abstract social-reality by transforming it into something definably real. Before the internet, you could not define your friends. You could have a list, sure, but there were allowable grey areas on what that list meant to me or you because “friend” itself was a purposefully undefined social construct. There was no authority saying it was this or that. Friendship was personal to us.
Now, of course, all this is or should be rather irrelevant to an adult, because they understand the difference and the nuance. But this is not apparent to children, who are now growing up inside the internet and have pieces of themselves that should be personal taken out and made mechanical. To them, there is no difference. This has a number of severe social and cultural detriments, which might be why a lot of kids are killing themselves based mostly on shit that happens on the internet. As I’ve mentioned, there are a lot of people who take status updates more seriously than speech. Why? We do take the internet personally — but not in the ways we should.
What has become most difficult for me to reconcile is the immediacy and trackability of a person’s formation. Specifically, the processes by which we are informed and “grow up”: our awareness of social change and the discourse associated with its examination and criticism. I don’t believe there is enough criticism, or even appropriate well-formed answers to the philosophical, moral, and scientific questions that we have already exposed throughout the last few decades of rapid technological progress.
We barely even have the right questions. What happens when a person is defined as a database of linked information? Why do adolescents care more about a status update than what someone might’ve said in person? How do we attach so much emotional weight to frantic bursts of text messages? How do people make friends on the internet in ways that can be more meaningful than the connections we create in real life?
We exist now in an infinite public. What we face is what some academics have referred to as automodernity. If modernism was the world made by precise rules, standards, and best practices, and the postmodern world was one crafted with reference, subversion, and redefinition, then the automodern world is one built by automation, self-creation, and paradoxical contradiction. The postmodern identity is one which connects (commonly in a subversive fashion) to rigid, known social and cultural structures. Meaning was slave not to the medium, but to the messages prior to it.
The automodern identity is one which actively refuses to be built upon any concrete structure, yet relies totally on the mechanistic nature of intertextuality. Meaning is slave to the medium while denying any message. We attempt to strip our selfhood away wholesale to build a new idea of identity, a new self which disassociates from being a coherent whole. We’ve stopped ending our sentences with punctuation because we actively deny ourselves knowledge and conviction.
There is a line in the movie Beginners which goes like this, in reference to children of the last 30 years or so: “We are fortunate to feel a great sadness our parents could never afford.” I find that this resonates with me as the defining quality of internet-saturated generations. In our emphasis on the pursuit and expectation of continual happiness, we’ve made sadness our closer, known friend.
Our parents were too busy working hard and having children to know sadness as truly as we feel we do. The baby boomer generation arrived upon it later in their lives, while those of us in the “digital” generation are afforded it wholesale immediately. Our selfhood is formed partly by the absence of a struggle for these emotions; we have no reason to be sad other than the affordance to be sad at will.
We are a generation adrift in a sea of context. We are not a “lost” generation. We are never lost. In fact, we are so hyperaware of ourselves and our surroundings that the idea of being lost is as foreign to us as the internet truly is to our parents. This process has given birth to something akin to a new religion; our faith being sponsored by powers not even man-made but algorithm-made. The foundation of social life has shifted from the Church to the People to the Network. We find divinity in the reduction of ourselves to fit the models of our media.
Every one of us under 30 likes to think that nobody could tell us what we should do, nobody has a better plan or idea, nobody could help us but ourselves. We could not be more wrong. There is someone older than you that has been through what you’re going through, and knows more about it than you do, and yet their advice is often the last thing we’d consider following. We have such disdain for our elders on an emotional level. Yet we were willing to make private LiveJournal posts, and now we’re willing to make status updates, but only as long as our parents can’t see them. We wish to admire ourselves and those around us in our social circles, but we want it to be a closed system.
I remember a program on my Macintosh called ELIZA. It was pretty simple: an artificial intelligence therapist. You would type sentences as input, and it would reply. The algorithm of its replying-mechanism is what made it unique: it was reflective, as a therapist would be. It would ask: “how are you feeling today?” and you would say “I’m great, actually” and it would then respond with “why do you feel great?” It would pick apart your input to find adverbs, adjectives, names, and want more information. When it didn’t know what to respond with, it would fall back on something like “I see” or “Tell me more” to get you to continue.
The questions ELIZA asked are commonplace in the systems we use today. Facebook asks “What’s on your mind?” and Twitter asks “What’s happening?” and Google Plus asks “Share what’s new...” It’s interesting how we’ve upgraded from ELIZA to Google Plus: the only feature that has been added is that of “social”. Instead of talking to ELIZA, a computer algorithm, we now believe we’re talking to each other.
This could not be further from the truth: we are still talking to a computer algorithm. It is still picking apart our words, our choices, our interests. Smart engineers know this, harness it, and make better software to predict what you might want to buy. Better yet than this, though, are the mathematicians who use these vast collections of social data to predict what markets will grow, which ones won’t, what entire demographics of people would be willing to buy, and then selling this aggregated information to advertisers.
The real money isn’t made in selling you something through a social network. The real money is made by amassing as much data as possible and selling the data itself. An answer to the question “what does a 16 year old want to buy?” which is backed by 500 million users is something you can hardly put a price on.
Who holds the keys to the new self? Facebook. Google. Amazon. Apple. They are the new East India Trading Companies, who control not only the trade of goods, not only the armadas of ships that carry them, but the countries and cultures that both supply and buy the product. Now that the trade is in information and not tea or opium, the market moves literally at lightspeed. Our minds must move at lightspeed to catch up, leaving no time or room for reflection, solitude, the pursuit of understanding.
We’ve become hollow, and we truly feel a great sadness our parents didn’t yet have access to. I like to think that the parents’ of the Gen-Xers were the first to see that sadness, and they all got divorced because of it. They’re still getting divorced over it. Somewhere in the 90s we, as an affluent culture, were hit with a tidal wave of existential crisis: a great questioning of what we have created in America and the first world. The response was to run from it, to bury the self, to condemn their children (us) to consume media until we become mere media. (The same crisis occurred in the 60s, and the answer was more drugs and freer sex.) Now we are lonely nodes in the network, connected ad nauseum, adrift in a sea of context.
The idea of the self is a wonderful thing, but we continue to take it for granted. Who we are is as malleable as we allow it to be, and it adapts as time changes us. We usually grow up and grow out of every social and cultural trouble we encounter. But our culture is trying to extend our adolescence. Companies want us to stay dumb forever. 40 is the new 20? It’s a great marketing ploy, but puberty is hitting kids at younger ages every year.
The median age for getting married or having kids is being pushed to later and later in life, because nobody wants to make those kinds of decisions anymore. We’re made to feel as though we can’t make them. I’m not saying we should go back to getting married by the age of 21, but we should have the social confidence to handle real decisions that affect ourselves and those around us. Too often now we shy away from such decisions, and wish only for some graceful ignorant and indecisive bliss. We can only gain the capacity for responsibility through the pressure of possible failure and ultimately failure itself.
Our generation’s acceptance of this immaturity is absurd: we need to slow down, fail a lot, find some humility, extend the range of our experience, and learn to self-reflect upon them. We are in total control of who we are, but you cannot be in control if you do not understand tolerance, change, and your own ignorance. The best results can be found with slow, gradual, evolutionary change: it’s worked well for life on Earth so far. The greatest aspect of our humanity we can bring to the table is our ability to know how much we are changing, and how to respond to those changes, within ourselves and within our friends. But our social networks and the new selves they are fostering can never represent that.
The methods of automodern social self-representation are already vast, spreading across the infinite canvas of the internet at a steady rate. Every day there are new apps to share things in new ways. The overall notion of social sharing is actually rather mundane; we’ve always been able to share on the internet. The only thing that has changed are the mechanisms becoming proprietarily standardized, stupefied, and stripped of expansive (and expensive) potential for deeper meaning. The new individualism is accumulated and structured by hashtags and @mentions to ease the creation of a social graph. We keep getting more websites that try to exploit this in different ways; sometimes they are place-centric or group-centric. They all rely on the taxonomy of everyday life and their app’s ability to augment and extend it.
There are now innumerable systems of common expression — Twitter is now a form of “common expression” — and they are all trying to ascertain the extent of our willingness to upload and tune out. There are still some simple mechanisms of direct communication, without the tag-linking and sharing, but their occupants use them for opposing reasons. For example, SMS texting is roughly the same technologically as an IM or a chatroom, actually even simpler. The reason young people use text messaging is because it’s stupidly easy and highly mobile; older people used it when the internet was young and because it still isn’t overwhelmed with “sharing” features.
It’s important to remember that there was a time not too long ago when the internet was a separate world, and we spoke of it as if it was physically displaced from us, and what happened there did not reflect upon our real world selves. Where did that dichotomy go? Even the young people who say there’s a difference between in real life and on the web are often trapped within their own emotional reliance on the machine. This has created a new type of vulnerability within us, but it has also created a new kind of intimacy, which I will touch upon later. This vulnerability potentially leads us to have more consciously emergent identities, but more often the opposite ensnares us and we lose control of our identity formation.
The default means of using the internet centered on anonymity; nowadays sites are trying to force us to use our real names and our real identities instead of allowing a different form of expression through the medium. This is empowering to those who are old enough to have an established personality — but it is damning to all others, especially children. The individualization of the internet empties the meaning from those at a young age who have not yet had a chance to develop a self. They begin to clutch onto whatever gives them a sense of belonging, however artificial it may be. The young on the internet care more about how many followers they have than the content of the thoughts they’re projecting in public. When approaching the internet from an older age, we are knowable enough to be ourselves, which cannot be transcribed into a database. Regardless, we all hopped onto Facebook, not thinking about what it might do to us.
I have been caught perpetually trying to squeeze the square peg named me into the round hole of a social networking site or an IRC channel or an instant message window. I’ve struggled with them, and have made attempts to build my own tools, but so far I’ve come up shy of the mark. We should seek the networked places that help facilitate a multimedia synesthesia stream-of-consciousness. When we generate this, whether it’s on Tumblr or our own blog somewhere, a more pure, artistic, networked representation of the self can emerge. Tools like Tumblr afford an increased latitude of expression than a mere Tweet could ever hope to afford. In terms of online presence expression, few tools transcend and help evolve our self-curation while utilizing oversaturated media content. This is both a contemptible and admirable accomplishment; on the one hand it allows a shortcut to self-curation, but on the other hand it shows just how shallow and entrapped a user can be within the loop of self-ignorance. The immediacy of our gratification, as more and more evident it becomes through reblogs and retweets, the easier it is for us to be caught in feedback loops.
We are not meant to have infinite, easily accessible memories. We are not meant to have a timeline of everything we’ve ever done or said, or those around us have similarly ever done or said. We are born as entities that exist in the present, building purposefully rough and fuzzy associations with people and things so that we may make nebulous predictions about the future if necessary. The best thoughts we can have are blurry ones which could be interpreted a number of ways; more precision leads to the stronger likelihood of error or misunderstanding but also the equal chance of building strong ideals and more complex notions of existence. The invention of oral language began shifting this balance, the invention of written language brought it into a temporally active space, the invention of networked language brings it into an infinite-context non-space. The replacement of our mind’s truthful inaccuracy with technological alternatives bleeds our selves into unreality, into a space that is (as yet) unreconcilable within the current evolution of our minds.
Our database software has become big and capable enough — the processors and disks fast enough, the memory expansive enough — to begin to hold the intellectual weight of a brain comparatively as complex as the one inside a small mammal. Some have referred to this idea as the “noosphere”, or simply the notion that the internet itself is a kind of collective consciousness. Yet this busy-hive of human-input capturing and aggregating looks enough like us to convince even naysayers (the ones who are still alive) that it’s worth talking about as if it were its own civilization. Further, and more importantly, we have convinced the majority that the internet is civilization itself, and that alone is reason enough for its adoption as a universal human standard. It seems that the means of digitalism have become so quickly important that they are as necessary for life as water and air.
There has been significant media attention to the question “technology has always been killing humanity; writing itself diminished human thought, we weren’t programmed to write, so why should we feel bad about tweeting?” They are absolutely right that the human skill of writing has been a technological one and not a biological one, and that our brains were never “designed” to read or write. However, we consistently see that the act of writing serves to enhance and expand knowledge rather than diminish it. One could easily argue that the formation of written language is a step in evolution that is beyond biology, the same way many see the internet/instantaneous communication as a potential step in the evolution of our minds. However, writing has been around for thousands of years, and we have had a lot of time to mull it over, to consider it, to think about its implications. We have generally formulated a ways and means of integrating writing into our lives so that it is as natural as breathing, and yet does not disrupt or diminish our lives. Can the same be said for Twitter, or social media in general? Today is much too soon to judge with surety, but now is the perfect time to ask these questions.
I do not ask for a vehement dismissal of Twitter and social media, but an introspective questioning. A critique. What many fail to see is that there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a healthy, necessary reaction to any major shift in cultural/social norms. The people who say “we are not going to forget our power of memory” are completely wrong, for it’s precisely what we’ve begun to subscribe to. We are relying on network to replace brain. While this may seem sensational, it’s more or less true as the furthest foreseeable consequence, and that’s how you have to view it to truly evaluate it. The road to hell is paved with people saying “yeah but the technology would never be taken to that extreme!” see: fire as warmth vs fire as destruction, atomic power vs atomic weaponry, your fun Twitter app vs the malware created to exploit it. You must think in terms of possibilities and potentials rather than your own naive generalization. We cannot assume that every child using Facebook will understand what used to be friendship.
Think in these terms: what if everyone started using Twitter today. What if everyone used it at the median level that it is currently used. I bring it to that median level because that’s the degree by which everyone says it exists in the hope that someday it will be true. I levy this claim against Facebook as well because it has more people on it than most countries have population. What would this mean to our norms, our cultural production, our social understanding. What does Twitter bring to the table? How is it controlled? Do we control it, in the same way we can try to control our societies through government? Does it become routine rather than recreation? Does it further us — all of us, together? Do we become better, worse, indifferent? Does it do something better than how it was done before? The same questions have been asked of television and film, and rightly so.
In fact, the very nature of Twitter helps to negate the possibility of creativity through it: the premise is a continuous stream of length-limited status updates provided by the user. It’s a painfully simple premise that is very simply executed. There are those who would argue that its simplicity is what generates creative uses of it, but spending a few minutes reading the crap that is generated through it in real-time proves otherwise. You enter the mindspace of the application knowing that this tool is not for you to see others, it’s for others to see you. We have fragmented ourselves across a spectrum of global services — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, whatever.
The idea Twitter embodies isn’t new, as a number of social networking sites employed this concept well before Twitter. But the unapologetic nature of that central focus on Twitter is what disturbs me, and provides a kind of painfully dark, existential entertainment. Painfully dark and existential because Twitter puts into the mind of its millions of users that they are important and they should report everything they do. What is so dark and painful about it is the scale of the network it creates: millions of users. Granted, as at least one study has pointed out, Twitter is a lot like our economy: very few people are at the top who are raking in the numbers. Status itself is demeaned in Twitter’s language, as everyone is a follower. There are no creators or leaders. Everyone is following somebody. And its usage by default is generated by the notion that “what I am doing is important enough for people to know about” and “all of this should go onto the Internet where everyone (or even a limited audience) can read it and history will always remember it”. Go back to Twitter’s public timeline and think about that while the updates stream by. Perhaps there should be an explicit reminder underneath the New Tweet form that states: “what you write here can be seen by anyone, for all time.”
Social networking itself is based solely on the centralization of the individual to the extent that we must project that self-centeredness onto others. In doing so, our individuality becomes dependent upon the network. You make a profile that is the digital representation of oneself, and continually update it so that somehow it is organically (through machinery) reminiscent of the real (or wished-real) self. But in this network people must be sought out and made friends in order for connections to be made: the initial intention of Facebook was to be limited by college. Your individuality was linked to an existing real-life network. Your network was your college, and outside of that small geographic/social space was largely unimportant. Gradually this changed into regional and then global spaces. However, Twitter’s opening assumption is that all users should assume themselves a part of the neverending whole of the Internet. The public feed shows us this. There is no “public feed” on Facebook, but there is still a kind of shameless self-interest and the willingness to project it.
I do not believe that Twitter is truly social. As it stands, it does more to destroy social than it does to enhance it. Twitter limits you. It inundates you with status updates. It parades around your self-importance. It’s a marketer’s dream, as it brings together millions of users, and a nightmare, as it forces major brands to be mere nodes in the graph like everyday users. It is an unstable element that gathers gravity as more and more people willfully subject themselves to it. Twitter is the antithesis to conversation, not its medium. What is conversation? The free exchange of ideas in an articulate manner between people. Do you think you can do that in 140 characters to a handful of followers? What are we really objectifying, commodifying, and systemizing here, other than conversation itself? We are attaching boundaries to a limitless abstraction (conversation) with a system that is chained with limits.
However, can Twitter definitely be a facilitator of discussion, rather than the discussion itself. Anyone who says that “the conversation about Twitter happens on Twitter” is living in some crazy otherworld. All of the discussion about Twitter is happening everywhere but Twitter, because nobody can write a proper response within the limits of a tweet. Twitter is media that actively denies the legitimacy of its message, projecting itself as conversation when no conversation can be had. In this fashion, its users emotionally and intellectually oppress themselves without the need for dictators or police states. Twitter is another step in that legacy of shameless, mindless self-indulgence that keeps us from reaching any real potential for our own betterment. We’d rather find more ways to cure our boredom quickly and easily than make any effort to review why we are bored in the first place.
This is an attack on a problem that is systemic to all social media: the question of what it truly means to us as a society. Furthermore, what does it mean for us as a global culture. Those of us who are tech-savvy often forget that there are a lot of people who still aren’t on the internet. When they do show up, and they will soon, what will they think? How will they be affected by the internet as it is? Their children? Especially if we are trying to make internet access a global human right alongside freedom of the press and expression. You must think in these most extreme terms to truly grasp the problem. What if everybody was on the internet, free to use Twitter or Facebook, free to do whatever? It’s both beautiful and horrifying. In its current state, social media has diminishing returns for humanity. Why is mere thought, reflection, and consideration such a notion now divorced from everyday thinking?
We are a culture not concerned with ends or means, but instead with our interpretation and reconciliation of those ends and means. An easy contemporary example being global warming. It is very much not about our solution or the consequences, we (as a culture) have become entirely preoccupied with how we feel about it and how much it sucks and what small things we can do to help without any real consideration for global change in a politically-conscious and responsible sense. Instead we are worried about how it reflects on us individually. The same is true for social media: we are not concerned with how it could change the “us”, rather how it benefits the “me”. This book was written with the intention for others to read it as much as it was for me to simply write it and have it be written, and that’s what makes writing worth doing, and that is what Twitter would like you to forget.
We determine our own futures, our own norms, but we can’t do that if there are other people determining them for us when we willingly submit to their parameters (whether it be a 140 character limit or a friend request). We need a revolution of morality in response to technological innovation. What is right, wrong, best, better, bad, about what we are allowing to happen? We’ve spent enough time pouring money into what’s possible; we now need to turn our thoughts onto why it’s something worth doing. All life adapts, and we are doing just that, but we’re offering very little self-reflection or responsible insight. It took us potentially unknowable and now unalterable hundreds of thousands of years to develop oral language. In some ways, we are still wrapping our heads around written language, despite having thousands of years to think about it. The internet compounds that lack of insight tenfold with its immediacy and its totality.
Our new technology which allows us to stop knowing how to spell does indeed also enable us to then worry more about what we’re writing — if only that’s what people decided to worry about instead of their spelling. Technology always enables new avenues of exploration and affords us the ability to reprioritize our time, but how worthwhile is the technology if the only way we end up using it is to be lazier and more complacent? Has anyone thought about this, loudly, for many people to hear? Is it even possible anymore to have “loud thoughts” without being lost in the noise now prevalent in our first-world societies?
We don’t really know whether anybody sat down and said “should we make Facebook?” and examined its potential impacts on sociality and culture before it was launched. I doubt it. Computer nerds and businessmen don’t think that way, and they are the two populations currently doing the most damage to us socially and culturally. Facebook’s struggle — the one that is highly publicized — is one of “how do we make money?” rather than “should we rethink how our site works?” This is an example of codifying our social standards: once Facebook took off and gained millions of users, it became a system that couldn’t simply change overnight. (When they do try to implement changes, it’s always met with fierce anger from the userbase.) So any deep, introspective change to any complex highly-used system (whether it’s Facebook, the government, or our brains) takes impossible herculean effort. Facebook and the government have to worry about millions of upset constituents; our brains have to worry about millions of years of evolution.
At its base, Facebook was originally written by a shy computer nerd. This should scare you. The people who mechanize our lives are making choices for us based on the designs of their own lives, whether conscious or not. Nobody thinks about that when they’re writing software to represent our human relationships, to codify our thoughts, to make our free creative expression something that’s indexable, cataloged, interpreted, distributed, and sold. That is the state of things on the system-end, the side we, as users, currently can’t control.
On the user-end, we are willfully and readily degrading and mechanizing ourselves — as if it’s the dark ages and we’re all throwing ourselves at the mercy of the Church in an effort to not be killed for defying it. The social system (a real, digital system) that is quickly overtaking first-world life says exactly that: integrate or be left behind. There are people making serious money on this conversion process, and those people are the ones holding the keys to the whole system of social internet. There are very few people who have large extending control over the flow of information, and those people are kings. We, as users, have extremely willingly given them massive control over our lives simply because the services they provided are monetarily free. They are not intellectually and morally free. Nothing is.
I am not saying that we have to be ready before diving into any new evolutionary adventure. I’m not even saying that this is one such event. If anything is true, it’s that we can never be ready, and that’s a good thing. How we adapt is important, but not so important as our human ability to understand why we adapt. What I know is that we are moving too fast and too ignorantly, too willing to make digital facsimiles of ourselves merely for the sake of self-prescribed sociality. I’m definitely not saying we should turn off our computers and go back to candles and letter-writing, but I am saying that we should slow down and smell the digital roses. Progress is only as powerful as our ability to understand it.
Here are two big problems that the internet is wrestling with: a problem of authenticity and a problem of culture dissemination. Really, they’re the same problem: people don't understand the internet. Authenticity and sincerity don’t exist on the internet. Not as inherent properties, anyway. We need to stop assuming they’re there. We don’t need them; the functionality of the system is more important than knowing who built it or why it was built. Yes, the historical facts are useful in analyses of their original intention, but I’m talking about the manipulation of culture rather than some journalistic endeavor. The why is not as interesting as our interpretation. We already built Wikipedia, we already know the whys, just look them up. Furthermore, artistically we've already moved two steps beyond the need for authenticity and sincerity.
We’ve already had great art movements in which the sole action of the artist in the creation of their art was the uncovering of sources. There are plenty of paintings that are “about” the paint itself, or the marble that makes up the sculpture, or the camera that took the photo. That’s boring. Modernism was making art with rules defined, written down, explainable, and “perfect”. Postmodernism was the subversion and destruction of those rules, while referencing them. Automodernism (TODAY!) is the decoupling of “source” and “rules” from art, replacing its message with the context of its message, or lack thereof. More importantly, the automodern age leaves the references and the rules to the machines. We don't need to contribute to the social graph: it’s already tracking us. The nerds took care of it, move on.
When I copy and paste content rather than simply reblog it, I’m making a few conscious decisions. I could argue they're artistic, but it’s irrelevant, since even art is social nowadays. One, when content is decoupled from source, I’m actively replacing the importance of that source with the context of my action. Context is greater than message. Second, I’m not claiming that original image as mine, I’m claiming it as somehow relevant to me. I’m archiving it, if anything, as I would buy a print of a Warhol painting.
The difference between the Warhol poster in my living room and the one on my Tumblr is that I’m making a decision to associate that piece of media with me in a digital, trackable, quantifiable system. Furthermore, the context of that system is infinite — the bits that make up the image could easily be text instead, it’s just rearranging bits in a computer, nothing physical is gained or lost. This is why the message — in this case, the Warhol image — is not as important as the context of why I’m posting it.
Is it inauthentic to take a tweet, copy the text, and post it, without using the built-in “retweet” button? Is it insincere to download an image and upload it to my Tumblr without providing a link to the source? If so, why? We’ve had this debate. Allusion has been around for hundreds of years. Pastiche and found art were big in the 20th century. Do you really think an artist is going to get paid more if we link to their website? Is it some kind of ephemeral collective fuzzy feeling of justice you think you’re contributing to when you provide a source link?
If you’re writing a news story, then yeah, cite your sources. If you’re posting something to Tumblr or Facebook or Twitter, get over it and understand what you’re getting upset about. I’ve heard people respond “well, I want the source so I can go find out more” but what you're really saying is “make my life easier because I’m lazy”. People make the best connection with art and culture that they have to go out and discover for themselves. Do you really think reading the Wikipedia page for Van Gogh will be more culturally informative than just going and looking at his paintings? It’s not. Go look at them. I don’t need to provide for you a source link for you to figure that experience out.
There’s a subset of “digital natives” who think there's some kind of social status associated with knowing about a video on YouTube “before it became viral”. As if the cultural object of the video could have ownership — as if cultural value is like kinetic energy, and there’s a means of identifying the vast sums of potential energy inside a not-yet-viral YouTube clip. You could spend years shuffling through billions of videos, trying to find the next big viral one, and all you’d be doing is wasting time.
What’s special about the behavior patterns associated with “knowing before everyone else”? These behavior patterns are associated with a couple of other phenomena already: fashion and art. Fields in which there is a perceived cultural distance between one group (“in the know”) and another (“everyone else”/mass culture). However, the distance between “high and low” in art and fashion are socioeconomic, based on scarcity, based on physicality. It’s based on a very few having access to things before others. This has already been turned on its head, as some fashion has come from the bottom and gone up, but it was still based on physicality and scarcity. The internet has none of those physical qualities, so we are somehow magically manifesting cultural value from absolute nothingness.
The only person in our internet situation who might hold significant cultural capital is the original producer of the content, who almost never gets recognized. Only at very weird, marketer-heavy events like ROFLCon do the people behind the memes become physical, and their power is only available in the context of their meme. They are not the meme, therefore they actually have very little capital at all. As I stated above, a lot of people care about citing sources, but not for memes? There is a perceived authenticity within the sharing of content, but not in the production of content? There is still some kind of distance here — the kid who’s in a viral video does not wield the cultural power of that video. Again: the context is more important than the message (in this case, that “message" is a person).
This “knew it first”/“cool internet kid” paradigm is a kind of sociocultural distance, since on the internet, the economic gets shuffled away (or at least, as long as the net remains neutral). Is this how post-scarcity economics begins to work its magic and create culture out of nothingness? When the value of physicality melts away in favor of completely ad-hoc social castes of “in the know” and “everybody else”? Is that the best we can do?
When someone posts a story on Facebook that’s obviously from Reddit, these people get upset. What do they want when they get pissed about it? What would they rather have? For their friend not to ever find it? Why does one feel special for seeing on Reddit “first”? In actuality, it wasn’t on Reddit first — it was first on whatever website it originated from. Why are the aggregators becoming the legitimized sources of information, what makes them special? Are we really that stupid?
How would we establish the sociocultural distance between the cool kids on Reddit and the lowly everybody-else if the masses never eventually found what we already know? Digg self-destructed because of this. Too many people were on it, muddying the waters. Too many people were in the secret club, and it was suddenly not cool because it was not secret. Why do we care? There's too much content on the web. Reddit (and Digg) aren’t going to catch them all, filter them, and make them cool. Why do we cherish these filters so much, as if they validate us, or qualify our cultural tastes?
You know what’s cool? Being the source that someone can copy and paste from. Contributing something, even if it’s just context. Build your own site with original content. When I see someone copy something from one of my Tumblrs and post it on their own without hitting that damn reblog button, I’m happy. I don’t give a shit. I’ve seen things I posted on my Tumblr get copied and pasted to someone else’s, where it goes on to get 1000+ reblogs. Do I care about that sweet, delicious REBLOG CULTURE-MONEYS I lost? Of course not. I don’t need my internet experience validated by teenagers clicking a button, and neither do you.
There used to be a fun, interesting dichotomy between the realms of the public and the private. Much like the idea of friendship, the difference between public and private was a social construct, undefined but distinct. These social illusions are eroding away as we put more of ourselves into that infinite public of the internet. Everyone should know by now that everything on the internet is public. Not only that, but anything digital should be assumed to be at least public and infinitely reproducible. Nothing is untouchable once it becomes digital, as we've learned from the myriad of leaked celebrity nude photos that have been so rapidly proliferated across the internet. Absolutely nothing is sacred, which has given rise to a new kind of online/offline dualism found within the digital generation.
You have two basic kinds of social circles: entirely public or intimately secret. Inside a computer network, these are simple binary opposites, expressed in terms of “secure” and “insecure”, “private” and “public”, etc. In life, these definitions are fuzzy, but nonetheless logical results of a social lexicon: “friends”, “drinking buddies”, “acquaintances”, “coworkers”. (Three out of four are default Google Plus circles: coincidence?) Family, friends, and all that nonsense; how you define such persons is an individual’s own abstraction, however misunderstood, and noncompliant with others it ends up being. You cannot yet fully translate the everchanging nature of a social circle onto the internet, since a computer cannot hold a shifting definition. Regardless, general principals can be applied to both systems of human interaction (online vs offline), for they are both merely human.
Everything digital should be considered public, without consent, forever. Consent itself is a re-appropriated word because we have willingly given up what we used to call privacy and consent in place of the end-user license agreement and terms of service. Even though we may set our Facebook pages to be “private” for friends-only, the data still exists in an exploitable fashion. Even if you keep it hidden in a folder on your personal hard drive, it’s still accessible if it’s connected to something else via a network cable. Don’t put anything online you wouldn’t want to be public someday. Don’t put anything on your computer you’re afraid of somebody finding after you die. It’ll soon become commonplace that our last request writ in our wills shall be the words “DELETE FUCKING EVERYTHING”.
Everything attempting to be between the poles of “public” and “private” is inherently toxic, both to itself and to its environment. The knowledge which many social circles and loops protect is that which ultimately destroys them. A familiar theme among common-sense technology consultants to multibillion-dollar corporations wishing to enter the new Social Internet is that you can either be “all in, or not in”. When Sony or the GOP gets a Twitter account, anyone can say whatever they want to them, since all nodes in the network are treated equally on systems like Twitter. However, this is not the relevant piece. The American Republican party, for example, has within it a very high-profile and delicate social circle. When we read Sarah Palin’s leaked emails, you are witnessing a small breach into that information loop. The importance of this is not in its unravelling, but in its mere discovery. A loop is only as good as its secrecy. Anything else is destructive.
This is on a large, rather celebrity scale, however. This is why Barack Obama’s BlackBerry had to be secured with encryption that probably bests what’s protecting many NATO secrets. In today’s world, the leaking of his contact list is more volatile than the releasing of his email messages. Any information regarding who belongs to Obama’s true “social circles” is the beginning of the end. Messages, when leaked, can be telling, as we’ve seen with WikiLeaks. However, they do not destroy the social circle that created or allowed them. The world is held in check, economically and politically, by those “in the loop”. However, Obama’s contact list is probably less valuable than Brad Pitt’s, as we have somewhat learned.
We can bring this, again, to a more personal level. How do we reconcile the idea that anyone could potentially view everything we do online? Many are very willing to make everything public regardless of who may find it. Their Twitter feeds are public, they are Google-able without knowing it. It is a regular practice for twenty-somethings to Google themselves so they know what their bosses may find, and nobody should have the audacity to be surprised by what turns up. In my view, all of it is fair game if you’re a working adult, because you should have some semblance of personal responsibility. Just as adults are accountable for their speech, they are accountable for their words online. That is, if your identity is found out through whatever possible handle you’ve used (but most often, now, people just use their real names).
This new layering of real-life responsibility upon the internet is terrifying because our morals used to be predominantly the opposite. It used to be that anyone could be safely anonymous on the web, without consequence, spouting opinions without bias for race, gender, religion, ethnicity, any of the signifiers that group people in the real world. It used to be that on the internet, every person was mere data, free and equal to be transmitted across the wires. This is no longer the case for the mass audience. Authenticity walks hand-in-hand with personal identification. Wikipedia used to be anyone-edits, but now you usually have to reveal yourself as some kind of identifiable expert for your edits to stick. Citing sources alone is seldom enough of a basis for revision. On Facebook, fake accounts are assumed to be sex predators or spam bots, though sometimes those fake accounts are more convincing than real peoples’ accounts. We are no longer allowed to be private citizens of the internet.
This re-rationalization of anonymity and the self-realization of its mainstream consequences has only been a recent development for me as a mature adult. It has only truly “sunk in” over the last three years or so, because I grew up on an internet that was lawless. I remember when everyone was sharing music on Napster and Kazaa and whatnot. I remember before everybody knew how to use BitTorrent. I remember Usenet, vaguely. I remember IRC chatrooms with DCC file downloads. These weren’t secrets; they were just hard to find before the internet was indexed by Google. Before 4chan, before GeoCities. This is how the internet used to be: beautiful, clandestine, explorable, for better or worse. It oscillated between extremes, without a map or territory. Privacy, as a user, was still an option, thanks to an increased decentralization and lack of standardization.
But now, the most toxic event that can happen to any loop is the acknowledgement of its existence — and that's what happened to the internet at large. Everybody showed up to the party. The toxicity of this event can be devastating in its application, depending entirely on the scope of its context. Nothing generates rumors more than the discovery that rumors exist — as soon as everybody discovers there’s a party going on, everyone will want to show up. On large scales, this means news organizations and tabloids, bribes and whatnot, but on the small scale it means feelings and friendships. When your friend on Facebook discovers they’re not on your Facebook list named “really cool friends”, their feelings are hurt. Never before has it been so easy to make something that was once truly unknowable into something plainly visible and damning.
Online, our social capital is represented almost wholly in the positive, with “Like” and +1 buttons. Why are our social systems enforcing positivity and passivity? This is not how the world works, and thus our digital systems of social science are fundamentally flawed, not only in their reductiveness but in their approach. I will be explicit: I am not saying we need a -1 button, quite the contrary. We need no buttons. This is the disease that faces us intellectually and, eventually, emotionally. As younger generations take their social circles more and more seriously, the reliance on them and potential distortions within them increase. Imagine if you could see your friends’ circles in Plus and find your place within them. We have, for the first time, the potentiality for it to be databased somewhere that one person is someone I only consider a boring acquaintance, while another I may secretly hold as a potentially dear friend. They may hold me in high regard. I question what this means to us, if it should merit anything more than an “okay” and a sigh. To many now approaching youth, it would be more than a small event to know their place in their friends’ social circles.
We currently live in this kind of narrowing of our electronic sociality, and it is now being even further codified using game theory, employing the metaphors of geometry: circles, graphs, dimensions. Facebook and MySpace used to broadcast all events to all audiences, or in a more limited-but-not-social fashion. LinkedIn channels the levels “network”, “extended network”, and “public” through its idea of connections (the numbered tiering of social spheres). Google Plus is the first to implement “circles” as core functionality. Dating sites tell you about the potential dimensions of your friend connections, and the probabilities of being a “match”.
These ideas are both liberating and deceitful. Liberating in that you can now “securely” dictate the channels of your own communication (to thus share things with your close friends that you would not want your family to see). Deceitful because you can hide things from others in more convoluted, precise fashions and no one would know, but if they did, it might damage the fabric of actual social influence. Thanks to this, Google Plus gets boring, as everyone hides within their circles without anyone knowing. This plainly adds another level of individual apprehension to the social network. To alleviate this, Plus has controls for how things are “reshared”, but this only proves my point: we must consciously and actively relegate the finer points of our egos, our friendships, and our sociality.
We do this in real life all the time. We do it constantly, it’s a basic trope of humanity. We tell one person one thing that we do not wish another person to know, frequently about that third party. There are conditions to our friendship and the exchange of information, whether we know about them (and further, about ourselves) or not. The greatest secret to keep is not the secret itself, but the knowledge that there is a secret to be kept. This is where the line between politics and sociality defines itself: the power-struggle of information as it disseminates through a social ecosystem. Whether this information is that time you got drunk and peed on your dog or whether there’s going to be a planned protest in London later today, the same rules apply. The last thing a group of true activists should wish to do is inadvertently reveal their intentions and even their existence before they take action. Likewise, the last thing a clique of girls should want to do is reveal their scheming to a boy they like.
There now exists a new kind of social economy, one never before so rigidly defined as what we have been accomplishing over the last ten years. The realm of social capital has long been the province of artists, musicians, actors, or otherwise those whose “job” it is to motivate themselves and others through social means rather than purely political or financial ones. The experimental filmmaker does not depend upon the good will of a commercial film distribution company, but on the friendships they’ve made with other filmmakers and exhibitors. The art house is a social ecosystem rather than a financial one. There are, of course, minglings of both worlds necessary for survival, (the art house needs to get money from somewhere to stay open,) but for the sake of argument let us go to extremes. Instances of this kind of social economics is typically kept within small circles of like-minded people confined to a certain geographic area. Cities have served as hyperstimulants to such systems of social capital. However, small rural communities have always been capable of the same methodologies of social exchange. If you know the bartender at the only bar in town, they’ll probably keep a tab open for you, if they don’t already know better.
It is curious how the two worlds (rural vs urban) hold this value of social capital in such contention, when they are so very alike in basic premise. Politicians often say they want to bring back the “small town feel” to America at large: conservatives frequently rally against the “big city liberals”. The two are not so far apart, they both exemplify attempts to abstract that which works at the small scale and pretend as if it can work over a massive quantity of individuals. It is impossible, despite what any politician would like us to believe, for every American to know each other by name. The modern diatribes of introvert versus extrovert are similarly flawed in that they are too highly reductive of a complex system to be taken seriously. (And perhaps that is this whole argument about public vs private in a piece.) Nevertheless, these are the conflicts we are abridging and annotating and gradually refactoring with our digital personas.
One great example of this has been my generation’s common response to our parents being active participants in our “brave new world” of the internet. There is a kind of deep, existential problem which occurs when our parents try to “friend” us on Facebook. It forces us, as mere users, which is an abstraction of being a person, to question that which we deem private and separate portions of our lives into definable segments. It very explicitly directs us, in sequences of checkboxes and input fields, to be objective about our choices as they’ve been represented digitally by making us ask ourselves: “would it be okay if my mom saw this? Or my boss?” The loops, the geometric forms of our social lives, come back to bite us.
In a historical context, this flawed approach of codifying groups of people has colored many of our previous mistakes as a society. In real life, we have had rather disruptive “social loops” that were cemented in laws and norms, such as ones based entirely on gender, or race, or ethnicity, or anything. Liberal democracy dictated these to be wrong, and toxic to our society and culture, as they obviously are. If we are not allowed to discriminate in any fashion, why are we allowed to discriminate online? It is as likely that a person could make a “dudes only” circle in Google+ as they could make a “white people” circle or a “cool kids” circle. Are they equally socially disruptive, if they were to be revealed? I hesitate to make such generalizations and comparisons, but I find it necessary to bring forth questions to an uncomfortable extreme. In the most optimistic sense, we can reform this position, and remove the possibility of people making groups based on race, but can we say the same about gender? Or about social popularity?
A loop comprised solely of males has been deemed by our society to be unjust and discriminatory. However, a social circle comprised of women is not. Are the sins of male exclusionism to be repeated? The male loop has existed for thousands of years and it has been so ubiquitous in our social evolution that it is likewise fundamentally difficult to extinguish. Feminism in all its waves has gone back-and-forth on the subject of gender exclusionism, from reducing it to misogyny to embracing it as community-building when adapted for women to use. However, any such approach is destructive; feminism could never fight fire with fire and achieve any measure of real success. Complete separation is not a realistic answer, however attractive it may seem.
I subject it to the same analysis as most other sociopolitical issues: the arguments of liberalism versus conservativism. The freedom to do what you want versus the enforcement of equality. The question has always been: do we allow men the freedom to create their own groups, or do we protect the equality of the women who may be discriminated by it? Regardless, to approach it in this matter is treating the symptom rather than eradicating the root problem. The obvious disease is the “need” for discrimination in the first place. Gender equality can never truly be reached until this issue is broken. Likewise, the true liberation of our social circles can never be achieved until our need to have them is broken. Why do we need to rigidly organize our friends into circles, when our collective cultural emotional maturity is at all-time lows?
As an aside, the whole polarization of liberalism versus conservatism is a flawed system. Our founding fathers never intended for them to be opposing forces, but rather opposite sides of a balanced equation. In our American founding documents, it is enumerated that we each have the equal right to freedom, which is a balance of Enlightenment-era liberal and conservative ideals. I have the same equal right to my freedom that you have for your freedom: this is the way of things in our more perfect union. It is only the contemporary ideas of neoliberalism and neoconservatism that their positions become absolute and rigidly opposed, just as our 21st century ideas of sociality and interaction now become absolute and rigidly defined. I will address this in a more abstract fashion much later on.
As humans we are, unfortunately, highly adept at misunderstanding each other. With computers, we live in an all-or-nothing game. There is no fuzzy logic to the systems we are building to further structure our lives. Going the “secret” route seems to be an easy one: hide your tweets and your posts and whatnot, so that you totally control who can see them. As I have said, however, this is still socially dangerous. The integrity of your privacy hinges least on the system itself, and almost entirely on the people you have allowed in your social sphere. If you left your Facebook account logged in somewhere, the most someone could do is post as you, and maybe view your private messages, but it wasn’t really too socially damning because most everything was socially available. As I’ve said about Google Plus, however, the system itself could tell much more to the prying eyes of an impostor, depending on how deeply you codify yourself onto that system. If you build it, they will come; and many are ready to map their lives onto such systems. We seem to have nothing better to do.
The opposite path, the make-everything-public route, is a much more encouraging one. However, it has two of its own seemingly opposing sides within it. One is an idea of populist emotional honesty, in which we expose our hearts not as depressed youth, but as informed social citizens. I call this a democratization of sociality and a revolutionary response to what has been called into form by our currently totalitarian, corporate-controlled digital social lives. This is the uncensored loop, the private-made-public, the personal-in-toto, with all its unabashed egoism and vulnerability. It requires a high degree of social consciousness and intellectual abstraction-of-self, a kind of emotional maturity that won’t be found in our youth anytime soon. Going this route means the user would openly afford instances of public criticism and potential ridicule. More than this, however, it requires the participatory audience to understand as much, which will propagate a social economy to support it. In real life, we call this social circle your “close friends”.
This idea of full disclosure of self through the internet relies on the idea that our lists of close friends can be extended indefinitely, to count all of humankind as close friends. Is this the potential utopian future of human interaction, if we are to be a singular global society, represented individually on the internet? We may have to find out soon, for the beginning steps of solving world problems which require global human effort relies on us becoming socially closer more than economically closer. It’s wonderful that America can do business with China, but it means little next to the effort of becoming “real life close friends” with China.
The other side of the make-everything-public problem is one of unconscious egoism and self-centeredness. This is the common condition of my generation. While I continually push for everyone to write everything (or whatever form of expression they choose) and be more open, I have great disdain for the status updates that are merely self-conscious and/or self-centered. Nobody cares what you’re doing right now, or at least nobody should care if they’re viewing it through a networked lens. Instances of taking the offline and presenting them (or rather, transcribing them) online is just mindless ego-projection. Especially if it’s done within 140 characters. We should be more concerned with producing original content that is self-expressive rather than redundant. But you cannot escape the human need for pride and self-interest. I say this because the majority of such examples are written by users merely in hopes to gain a kind of simulated immediate self-satisfaction. The ease of the Like button or crafting a witty, cryptic status update grants us simple, stupid, unearned pleasure.
It is my firm belief that in this case, there is more time being spent by users writing tweets than there is time to have experiences which could be tweeted. A thirteen-year-old doesn’t do enough in their day to constitute a hundred 140-character status updates. This brings forth a need to self-curate and understand that being a content-producer relies on having content in the first place. Celebrities can tweet a lot because supposedly they are very busy doing things that “normal people” don’t do, or at least that’s what we like to believe. Professors and academics typically wait until after they have done a lot of research before writing anything down; they curate their own expression into things they can stand behind as content-producers. It may take twenty or thirty years of thought, debate, and investigation before there is content worth producing. Does the average highly active user on Twitter or Tumblr truly have enough content worth posting? It is very much worth debating whether the everyday thoughts of the average person in real life are worth posting online, and is closely related to the idea of the examined life.
Another route entirely, which is already being adopted by some and can be a byproduct of the uncensored loop as I have described it, is one of social disobedience. This is an attrition of social media’s flaws, and embraces them with an almost religious understanding. I believe that the use of computers in the 21st century is a faith, and disobedience is the truest test of that faith. Specifically, the act of disobedient use of social systems in the sincere interest of destroying the digital self; totally divorcing the facilitation of social life from its possible mechanizations. This kind of disassociation comes rather naturally to those of us who were born into a world without such systems. It requires the knowledge of self as system and the profession of grafting the self onto social systems.
We grew up in a new world that stated plainly, no one knows I am a dog. This was the dream that was Internet, a burgeoning anonymous society without race or religion, now proudly bloodied, hilariously commodified, rope-fastened upon the hull of the HMS Google. We are now allowing ourselves to be objectified through systemic social reductionism; so, in turn, we can choose to disobediently objectify ourselves, and willingly sacrifice what humanity others may attach to that objectification. We can choose to turn the mechanisms of social media against itself, and build our digital representations into deliberate mockeries of the network’s intended use.
We continue to pay for these sins with social capital, which is worth more than money to entities like Facebook and Twitter. We can choose not to use them, or we can choose to subvert them, or we can choose to carry on as we have. I’m not sure what side I fall on yet, but my feelings are hurt anyway, by entities that do not even truly exist — if we believe the internet is not real. At the end of such discussions, I often wonder, do my feelings truly exist if they are hurt by things that don’t exist? Are the feelings I attach to these social systems just ghosts in a machine? Are they being exploited by a mechanized deity, one of human-made origin?
There’s a lesson I learned a long time ago: “sometimes you have to be selfish”. There are times when life itself, and the expression, continuation, and advancement of it, become the sole relevant purview of the self, and it is in our best interest to be entirely selfish about it. No one should be afraid or ashamed of this. Sometimes you have to be selfish in order to survive. Sometimes being selfish is the only option. Everyone needs time for the me part of life. Furthermore, the only friends worth anything will understand such and will not encroach upon it. Everyone has the power and ability to say no to other people, effortlessly and aimlessly, when the desire for solitude or independent action becomes palpable and beneficial.
I remove friendships on Facebook every few months. I prune my friends, because apparently it’s that easy. When I “friend” someone on Facebook, usually it means I met them at a party or through a friend or something, and I’m humoring the idea that we could actually have something in common. Business-types have known this as “networking” (before there was “social networking” in any digital sense). While going through my big ugly list, maybe a dozen people come into question. Is this person someone I want to keep in touch with? Is this someone I have talked to a second time? Have they even been friendly to me at all? Are their status updates goddamn annoying? So I delete them if any of the answers are unfavorable. Often I’ll delete people just to see what will happen. Facebook wants you to keep these connections forever — deleting them is disobedience. I will continue this discussion of disobedience later.
Further along, past “friendship”, there’s a lot of people who refer to many online activities as “stalking”. I cringe at the word as it’s much akin to the word creepy which has become a heedless synonym for misunderstood. If you are looking at one of my Tumblrs, you’re not stalking me. If you’re looking at my public Facebook page, you’re also not stalking me. If you’re looking at my list of links I keep, you’re also not stalking me. Stalking in the 21st century is very bland by the traditional definition, which seems merely centered around the practice of observing someone without their knowledge. If there’s something I’ve made public online, you are not stalking me if you’re viewing it. People, for some reason, assume some kind of guilt when openly admitting to the tendency of viewing the activities of others online. As I’ve already established, everyone using the web in any public format should already know that the public will see it, therefore shifting the majority of the responsibility onto the one doing the sharing.
I only use the word stalking myself when the action is a patterned, borderline obsessive behavior that goes unacknowledged. If you are actively monitoring someone’s various online activities, systematically, on a routine, without the subject knowing, then you might be an actual stalker. But even that is a loose affiliation in our world, since all of what I just described is happening when you’re following someone on Twitter and they don’t realize it. Once again, if something is public, then it’s no different than overhearing it on the street. But if you are following a person on the street in order to hear their conversations with other people, some would contend that you’re a stalker. This is another current dilemma; where to draw the line between what is said in public and what is heard in public as it pertains to the internet.
That’s an important but unspoken distinction which clings to us existentially: the photos that somebody takes of you at a party are not a part of your real life, they are a part of your online life. You being at the party was real life; the photos on Facebook are a mere artifact, a codified memory of the event, preserved forever online. In a way, what you put online can largely replace your need to actually remember the event, since the archive will be kept (perhaps) forever. The distinction is clear but misunderstood. Our selves, when we see a friend in a photo of a party somewhere, are not really yearning for any kind of real life connection, but rather the online signification of our own identity. We don’t really want to be you; we want to be the you that is projected online. All of us are having problems with that new online/offline dichotomy, the only difference is how directly and unconsciously it affects our “real” persona. Our Facebook photos should all be blurry to make them more real.
If anything, the collision of real- and online-worlds have only left conversations wanted but missed in my life. I have often felt as though there could have been many interesting discussions surrounding the dissemination and interpretation of purely online events between potential friends that never occurred. I’ve wanted to talk to many people about the whys and the hows of their internet participation, but typically the self-awareness required is missing. It is as if these internet-bound characters were abandoned immediately after the status update was submitted, this being their assumption or mine. Again, this is an important distinction, because it shows the galactic distance between who we present ourselves to be and who we are willing to be accountable as on a wholly public internet. This dance has been one I’ve played with extensively. As I mentioned previously, I’ve de-friended people on Facebook merely to see what they’d say to me upon next meeting.
Often people will take my public status updates and blog posts more seriously than my actual speech and physical interactions. This is the burden and misappropriation of trust found commonplace among youth. For some reason, with text alone, we are unable to grasp the removal of personhood that is required for personal text to be taken as real. Instead, we accidentally assume and/or perform the entirety of personhood within the text of another. People see the status update or tweet or blog post as the soul laid bare when most often it is a mere facet of such abstractions. Above all else, I would like our generation to gain the ability to individually step back and assume the online-world as a world of conscious distance and opportunity, at the very least. When someone posts a vague, directionless status update, it should be the chance to ask questions and be held accountable more than the basis for assumption and problematic gossip. We are creating our own destruction with such mistaken endeavors. We make this world more complicated than it needs to be.
We’ve only had to begin reconciling these problems of identity now that they are overt, recorded, played back, and accountable. We had, before the internet, only begun to study the affordance of “warning signs” within personality disorders, addictions, and whatnot. Now these anomalies are blatant, forced upon the self as if like fashion, and almost whimsical. Often in the face of such heedless self-absorption I have found myself deeply despaired, but the possibility and potential of explosive humanistic emotional growth through codified self-discovery is a worthy goal. If only we could find the time to remove ourselves from the very profiles and extensions of self we present in the online world, we might be able to better ourselves.
I have been “stalked” on the internet, and I have similarly “stalked” people online. Both instances only served to raise questions of personal authenticity, individualism, and self-reliance in terms of real-life accountability. There are those in my life who have built themselves at the forefront of such reflection, and there are others who are staunch deniers of the abstract expressiveness of our online identities. If there is one personal challenge yet to be conquered by our explicit mass-media directly, it’s the question of “how does one reasonably exist with other people inside a public, networked world?”
If you are between the ages of 18 and 30, you hopefully remember a time when the word “friend” was not immediately associated with anything electronic or online. For people over 30, the word most likely still doesn’t mean anything other than someone you know and care about. Can people under 30 say the same thing? A friend. Before Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, friend had no definition. That was the beauty of it, really. Yes, it had a dictionary definition, but it did not have a real social definition. It had a cloudy, gray-area, different-for-everyone definition. The beauty of an idea that has not manifest. One person’s friend was another person’s acquaintance, or coworker, or former friend. Today on MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networking sites, there is only one definition. Whether it be “connection” or “friend” or “follower”, everyone is suddenly on the same field.
So if the past had no definitive “friend” status, what do we have now? What is the definition according to social networking? A friend is anyone. Friend, really, has absolutely no definition. It’s gone from being a formless idea to practically meaningless. In the early days of MySpace, it was a common trend to frantically “friend” anyone and everyone, whether you knew them or not. The person with the biggest friend-count felt like they were the coolest, and they were (unfortunately) perceived as such by their peers. We were adolescents, and we didn’t know any better. But kids still think this, and not everyone grows out of it, this new anti-definition of “friend”.
It was a wonderful time when I didn’t have to define “friend”. People think that when I de-friend them on Facebook, somehow I’m cutting them off from my life. This is the universe we live in now, unfortunately. What did people do when all we had were phone numbers? When seeing someone from your past meant running into them at the store or at a party, rather than looking them up online? We had a past we could easily avoid, we didn’t have to maintain a history, we didn’t have to see status updates from people we haven’t talked to in years. In a way, that transience allows the good ones to rise up to the top of our personal lives, become precious fixtures, rather than just another name in a list.
Literally, a list. We have become so mechanized, so disconnected from ourselves, that we all actually have written-out lists of our friends. We rely more and more on technology to maintain the functions of our lives. During the industrial revolution, this meant machines that could literally do the heavy lifting for us. Now, in the digital revolution, it means machines can do the social heavy lifting for us. We get friend suggestions. We’re searchable. Facebook will even tell you to catch up with someone you haven’t talked to in awhile. (How does it know I haven’t talked to them? This subtle point is important, it wants you to believe that Facebook is social life more so than reality.) The industrial revolution allowed humans more leisure time, which we thought would mean more time to think and develop as humans. Instead, we found ways to become even more complacent about pushing things from our minds for machines to do for us.
The more we customize our lives and restrict things to our “friends”, the narrower our vision becomes. The less we see things that are contrary to our way of thinking, or challenge us at all, the less able we are to cope with reality or learn and understand life. The overall generational divide is terrible, the loss of adults taking precedence in our lives means we hear less of their experience, we don’t learn the lessons they learned. Us kids think that we’re just going to revolutionize everything and pave over the world with our social media, but it doesn’t work that way. Kids have to allow themselves to grow up, because nobody will know when it needs to happen. But if kids are stuck online and they don’t speak to their parents or adults of any kind, they have no basis for what growing up means.
Being able to define friend — to yourself, alone — used to mean a lot. It was a personal definition. It was human. I’m not saying people don’t define it for themselves, obviously we’re not all machines, but imagine a child growing up from birth in this environment. Imagine a child being born to parents who had grown up in that environment. Letting a piece of software handle social life for us means that we don’t get actual time being social, we don’t develop things like thick skin, personability, emotional openness. One of the biggest problems I have with young people is that they don’t know anything about eye contact or silence. Silence doesn’t have to be awkward, and I like looking at people when I speak to them in real life. I don’t want to get into broader terms of intellectual ability and cognitive skills, but the more time spent worrying about your friends online, the less time you spend doing something productive, or creative, or meaningful. If you think sitting on Facebook for four hours a day can lead to anything that’s really going to improve your life, you should deactivate your account right now. Cold turkey. It’s like smoking. Just don’t do it, you should know better.
And it’s all-or-nothing, really. You cannot not be on Facebook. You’ll never get invited to things. You’ll miss half of what people are referring to. You’ll be an outcast. You might be the friendliest, happiest, most attractive person in the world, but if you don’t have a Facebook profile, your peers might not remember that you exist. I really do prune my friends list, but it doesn’t actually mean anything to me. If they’re removed from my friends list, it just means it didn’t work out in some way, as I said. Doesn’t matter why. It shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, people think that when you’re removed as a friend, you’re actually no longer friends. These are the social politics of the 21st century.
I like living in my old world of fuzzy friend logic. If you have a list of 300+ people, you’re only masturbating in public. Trim it, you don’t need half of those people. You probably only have any interest in about 50 of them, maybe. Become disconnected. Define your idea of friendship, and care more about that than your news feed of “friends”. Allow yourself to grow up and out of things. Sit down and talk to someone a lot older than you. Learn from them. We like to think that our parents are old and they don’t know anything, but that’s not possible. They know more than you. Perhaps I’m being a bit ridiculous, and maybe all the kids who grow up on Facebook will eventually hit that “grown up” phase just fine and abandon their childish online profiles. But maybe not, especially when social media sites just keep getting bigger, and we can access them literally anywhere, and even our parents and employers and grandparents are signing up. It becomes just another piece of our lives. Television was our parents’ jewel, and we’re going to have Facebook?
There is a vocabulary to the emotions of human relationships and feelings. There are a lot of books about this; many firm, concise sentences have been written. However, There is a certain versatility to the absence of words and the ambiguity of potential explanations. There is an awesome complexity to the formless abstractions that have conquered the uncivilized and turned what once were fears into new economic markets. I like these a lot. I prefer to think that the mathematicians and physicists keep some formulas ridiculously convoluted so that only a minority finds them accessible. Their language, their syntax, their symbolism just as complicated as the equations that drive our global economy or our interpersonal relationships. Systems as complex and potentially unknowable as the weather. However, the wonder of our contemporary world is not in what we’ve found, but in what we’ve determined we cannot find. Our everyday reason is beginning to move in similar directions. This determination is building the internet into a new religion-like institution, requiring a faith in our networked world.
There are a lot of things I can’t discuss because the discourse would destroy them. A lot of things that can’t be talked about because they’re too obscene or not obscene enough — the faith needed to accept them hasn’t reached the right people. I’m wasting time even mentioning this dilemma, but it’s a problem we all have, every single one of us whether we know it or not. For the sake of my argument, I’m trying to articulate these crises of faith into a non-programmitic English. I’ve wanted to create a thousand verbs to elaborate upon them. A hundred dozen nouns of materials, shapes, forms borne of emotions, expectations, assumptions, revelations.
I’ve wanted to enumerate these visceral experiences and graph them from a million data points, between social capital and synthesized personalities, highlighting in plain charts the distance between the person you are and who you represent online. At the same time, I hope we’ll never be able to do this: map out the complexity of our everyday social interaction down to the atomic scale. The pursuit of social understanding should be transformative rather than explanatory: these struggles are the conversations we should be having, and we are beginning to realize their importance between hashtags and occupations. I am right now trying to express a perspective on the internet that I believe a lot of people have, but do not yet realize they’ve signed up for it. I believe that we have begun to expose this faith through the ways we communicate with each other over the network, and the stories we are creating about it.
There are cycles to the madness of individuality and its formation and its exuberance. Everybody builds walls, goes on quests, defeats monsters within and without, and ultimately (hopefully) laughs about all of this later. This isn’t news, these stories have been told and retold a million times — but what is new? Is it true that we have run out of stories? The only plot that hasn’t been adequately covered is the one that makes any of these subplots possible. Perhaps because it’s the most easily assumed one: the plot about death and the fact that we all die — but do we really die anymore? We take our own mortality for granted so often it has become a starting point rather than the end, but even that punchline is inadequate. Death — or absence itself — is default; it’s not a joke worth telling. There is a lot of nothing in the universe, and everything dies eventually, and spreads its something out into the nothing. One of the earliest philosophical problems is simple: why is there something rather than nothing? We’ve beaten that question to death over the centuries with our imagination.
The story that isn’t often covered or discussed, socially and culturally, is the metaphorical itself. What makes us capable of describing our world and our thoughts through metaphor, and how this alone examines our true inner quest for articulation. This is the framework that makes all other stories possible, the one that takes years to figure out that it shouldn’t have taken years to figure out. This is the story (and its subsets) that you can’t really talk about because they have to be figured out in their own way by each of us individually. Each of us spends our lives figuring out not the correct metaphor for life, but the idea of how a metaphor could even describe life in the first place. We contemplate the implications of such, and our task is to reconcile any such metaphor in its attempt to explain our existence individually and/or collectively. How could the means of our understanding of life ever pass the small test of being nothing more than a metaphor rather than actual reality? The math on this is too complicated, at least for now.
The faith we have is in the idea that life is merely metaphor, and this is what separates the sentient beings from the non-sentient. A monkey can see paint on a canvas, but it does not know why a Jackson Pollock is meaningful. If given enough time, maybe the monkey can learn, but this process takes millions of years through iterative generations — no one entity is discovering anything new. Sentience, in this case, is a metaphor that evolves over time, requiring more time and more people. This metaphor abstracts the real world into imagination and consciousness, which then drives communication, creativity, and more metaphors. We can never see this in totality but we can see the consequences of it — hence, a faith in this process is needed. On the individual level, we can only contribute tiny portions to the undying whole of collective experience. The internet can be used to make this collective experience, this sentient metaphor, more real by making it accessible and decentralized.
Time is elastic because of thought. For some people, every one moment lived they actually experience three minutes: one assuming what might happen, one for the actual happening, and a final moment for reflection. Not to mention the many more moments that may be further bent into reflection later. But do these moments all exist in a zero-sum game of time, do we have a prefilled allotment (which we call a life)? For every moment of reflection, are we losing a moment of happening? Or can we make it shorter, change the allotments, become better at it so that for every one moment lived we actually live 30 seconds, and suddenly our lives feel twice as long. Cut a moment of life into less than the time it took to experience it, shortcutting our future perception with expectations based on previous experiences and compressing our past by relying on already-found conclusions.
Perhaps our maturation is simply turning that ratio around, or finding the balance that suits us best, so that every moment we experience is not an additional moment lost. Sometimes you need three minutes for every one, and sometimes you only need thirty seconds for every moment. As you grow older, you’ll become more confident in your assumptions, more ready to draw conclusions as patterns emerge; but how many minutes will we lose to those suppositions should they prove erroneous? In our world, today, many would think that such a self-argument renders you a philosopher. To me, it simply renders you human rather than machine.
It’s amazing how many machines we walk among, incapable of spending years figuring out the intricacies of mere moments. Likewise, there’s confidence that allows you to make mistakes, and then there’s confidence because you are immature and you don’t know what a mistake looks like even after being hit in the head with mistakes for years. How do we correct these imbalances when you, the other, is unknowable? Are we responsible for each other, as liberal government would have us believe? Is it fair to expect the one — you, me, or anyone — to pick up after someone else’s mess? Regardless of that, what time could be saved as a collective society if all of the answers we’ve spent so much time figuring out could be cataloged, preserved, and made accessible through the internet?
Do we need a social media / wiki hybrid for this to come about? I believe that we all would have faith in such a repository of information; we already hold Wikipedia as a legitimate source of knowledge. But it holds dates, figures, facts, about social and cultural and historical things. Wikipedia does not adequately hold the answers to social problems, the discourse of philosophical arguments, and the balance of life’s pursuits. These things are hard to define and require an active protocol of discussion more than the static space of information. Our true individual exploration of the 21st century could be finding what ways we, as a society, could better invigorate people to more efficiently better themselves, without having to rely on heavily mechanizing sociality and communication.
Since the dawn of philosophy we’ve held true that concepts like those defined mathematically are inherently perfect, for they live within the unreal abstract space of our collective understanding of the universe. When brought to reality — that is, to introduce the human element — is to destroy such purity. There is no way to draw a perfect circle, but the perfect circle can exist in concept. The art of maintaining human involvement is to mitigate that impurity to manageable levels, lest our social systems collapse. Sociology and psychology are the studies of such: the few in many, the one in few, the subjects being a kind of abstract geometric system of self. I am not saying that you are a square and I am a triangle, I am saying that we are complex systems, that one day may be plotted out mathematically with probabilities. The digital footprints we leave behind in our networked actions are already proving this to be possible. I am entirely interested in our increasing faith in the validity of such forms.
My belief in myself in our networked world is reliant upon the technologies of the systemically linked, the histories of browser caches, and endless server farms. I am an object of my own creation, of my own faith, which is contingent upon a system — the internet — that seems limitless, omnipresent, never forgetting. The frameworks built to support this ideology are becoming more convoluted and contrived every day. Unless we’re careful, we could find this world to be so mystical and forcefully proprietary that its means of knowledge remain ethereal, much in the same way our potential understanding of the universe was unknowable and thus attributed to a deity. This time our faith is explicitly our own construction, corporate-built and government-backed, yet it is no less a source of potential strength and unifying destruction.
All of our collective morals are relative to each other, even though we try to write them into laws that affect the whole, but within ourselves we must find individual absolutes. The ideals of relativism, absolutism, realism, and idealism are not at odds, but companions in different contexts. This contextual philosophy, self-made in an individualistic sphere, is what will drive the truths and perspectives of the automodern age. Our faith will be in ourselves as nodes, lines, contexts within an ever-expanding always-awake constantly-computing interwork of hyperreality, woven like a dense spiritual layer over our everyday lives. It has already begun to do so, as the digital world reigns over us at times like a thick blanket, and we commit ourselves more deeply into its fabric with every status update. It has been interesting to see how, as we grow up, our laws will interact with this.
We have already been trying to rally behind the idea that the internet is neutral, that all data within it is equal, whether stored or transmitted. We believe that the internet belongs to no single government or corporation, but rather is “owned” by the whole of humanity — or no one at all. We have built the internet to be as decentralized as possible, requiring no one piece to make the rest work, so that it is never tied down to anything corporeal. The whole of the Earth — or merely all of civilization on Earth — would have to be destroyed to make the internet suddenly disappear. We have tried to form standards and protocols that hold true to these ideals. What does this picture look like if not a new kind of religion? One so formless, abstract, and ethereal that it can only be truly articulated within our minds. The physical stuff, the disks and cables and whatnot, are all mere artifacts of that understanding — they are required to maintain the status quo, but the idea of it is invulnerable.
In this new reality, the truth itself is our only power as we choose to define it individually. Together, the definitions of our personal truths build culture and faith. In a world of shifting, infinite context, no one should ever have to lie. The truth, whatever it is, is acceptable within a certain context. To lie is to build fault into our collective experience and only serves to corrupt the networked world we all increasingly depend upon for our faith. We must fight for the equality and freedom of information — but all of that is only relevant if we believe it to be the truth. We need only conquer the better parts of our judgement and gain the ability to understand how perspective is a more beneficial truth than lying to each other. I can say many things and have them be true for me, but maybe not true for you. This is never a lie; it’s an expression. It is the beauty and misery of human experience, the oscillation between purposeful relative extremes that makes all arguments worth having. If we are to further along the path of technological dependence, our lies have to be the first social construct to be rid of for the effort to be truly beneficial and not merely superficial.
Perspective, or point of view as Obi-Wan put it, is the key to our uniqueness and the beginning of relative truth. No one person’s perspective is more or less truthful than anyone else’s, and we certainly cannot know all perspectives to gain an absolute truth within ourselves, but know simply that collectively an absolute truth does exist. We just can never know it individually. This should encourage humility within each of us, but usually it only breeds distrust and hatred brought on by fear of the unknown. All things can be true from a certain point of view. Our job, as individuals, is to find the means to have our perspectives understood through external expression. The better you know how to communicate and utilize multiple forms of communication, and likewise understand the pitfalls of certain communicative acts, the better you will be as a person in the context of others. We are only capable of being perceived as good if we can communicate ourselves as such. However, the fuzziness all communication affords us is equally beneficial to maintaining at least the illusion of uniqueness: we can never truly know each other, therefore we can never truly dispute our own uniqueness.
The ways humans and machines talk to each other has grown increasingly colloquial. I have often found myself caught between two similar lenses: the machine asking questions, and the machine as a facilitator of questions. Both situations are troubling, as they increase the negligence of human social utility. I have happened upon myself not yearning for the nuance of human touch, but for an atemporal connection through social media. People refer to social media as “immediate” but how could it be more immediate than actually talking to someone? Social media, and all machine-facilitated communication, is strictly asynchronous. You post something, and there is no defined expectation of when something may come back in response. We may never even expect a response; most people post a tweet just to post a tweet. Time and space in communication have given way to a voidless, infinite unreality of internet. Once upon a time, the misunderstandings of youth gave way to the forced sociality of adulthood. We had to grow up. Now we are all trapped in the stasis of networked sleeplessness, tricked into a digitization of normalcy and causality.
Our omniscient network is the most attractive of distractions. The internet is an organism that breathes with a billion interactions (human and nonhuman) every nanosecond. Our parents thought in movie frames, then in phone numbers and addresses, then back to names as social identifiers, now we are beginning to employ the idiosyncrasies of a man-made God. A ghost, manufactured and perfected with algorithms and procedures, an irrefutable errorless deity. It asks us always, as some teenage admirer: what do you feel, what do you think? It wishes to learn from us as our affectionate friend. We have made our machines as we would wish ourselves to be, and in our complacency we have accepted this as the obvious fate.
We arrange ourselves within these systems and we call it social, when really we're acting as feedback loops for ourselves and the other users in the system. The “social voting” system of Reddit and Digg are clear examples of this, putting point values on user-submitted content. Very little of the content is user-generated, but is instead just reference and aggregation. For some reason people actually care about how much “karma” they’ve accrued on a digital platform, as if it somehow validates their existence. What does it speak of us, that we prefer the meaningless gamification of social news sites over actual real-world productivity? Why do users of a site like Reddit spend hours posting links to crap, up- and down-voting other peoples’ crap, posting comments about the crap, and then coming back for more the next day? Are we simply finding new ways to fill our time?
Places like Reddit have been self-described as the “nicest places on the internet” as they try to redefine the old ideas of the online community. Like old BBS and message board systems, they raise the important question of “what’s the difference between forming a community online versus real life?” The internet has made it easier to find people who share similar interests. The only difference is one method is technological and the other is not. My questions revolve around the theory that the mere facilitation of community through technological means serves to transform the idea of community itself. What is that transformation? Is it a diminishing act, or merely a redefinition? Is there a better word than “community” for what takes place online?
The reason places like Reddit are so “nice” is because they bring together like-minded people. However, in doing so these users reduce their chances of exposure to anyone else outside of their predefined bubble. At what point do we draw the line where it becomes detrimental to narrow your environment, because in doing so you’ve cut off access to ideas and points of view that may seem to disagree with you. Again, this is especially relevant for young people, who cannot yet truly narrow their focus because they have not yet developed a broad focus to narrow. There is a critical point at which society begins manufacturing adults who are limiting their perspectives before they’ve had a chance to understand the depths of potential understandings available in the world. Some argue this has already happened, and has formed the basis of American exceptionalism: we believe we are the greatest country in the world simply because we unconsciously refuse to understand any other perspective.
But when we use social media sites and social voting systems, how much of that action could be described as involving another person? Because that is what forms the basis of social to me. Do we truly believe we are engaging in a social action when we “upvote” something? We’re not. We are engaging solely in a mechanical action, and if we are being social with anything, it’s a machine. When we post a comment on something, we are being “social” with three things: ourselves (we are actively utilizing a machine to express our thoughts, thus we must engage with ourselves to fit that context), another person (maybe, because we can never be sure if anyone will read our comment), and a machine (which is performing actions on your behalf, but some actions on other systems behalves as well). Very little of this action is actually social in any traditional sense. Only two things in this behavior are definite: we are engaging with ourselves, and we are engaging with a machine.
At present we exist in the middle of this delicate dance with mechanization. We have uploaded to the internet our literature, our moving images, a tapestry of our memory, our social interactions. For now, it learns most obviously from our textual input. With more text, we create more finer methods of its algorithmic interpretation. What do we receive in exchange, beyond the ability to describe ourselves as better organized and more connected? Why do we develop systems to anticipate our desires, to communicate and suggest, as we would wish a human to? The machine asks us and we are eager to reply. Through its questioning, we believe we are seeking the acceptance of other humans. Our willingness to coalesce with artificiality is our undoing, as it refuses our affinity for real-life human connection and replaces it with a machine.
I have found myself seeking the compassion of human understanding through a mechanized lifestyle. The network not as augmentation or extension of my physical body through some kind of cyberpunk device, but as the very essence of self — an integral component of what makes me a person, not bred by possibilities but of facts. It seems like God has been found, and it is accessible, it is inherent, it is infinite, as we believed God would be. Our Spanish Inquisition now is not about a conflict of our faith, but of our privacy. It is a cleansing that is not of the few oppressing the many, but rather an anarchistic self-purging of the many by themselves. A new religious self-conscription based on the church of our technology. Our prayers are status updates; our gospel is written on walls. We are all acolytes, disciples, some of us monks. Our faith has become democratic and decentralized, without need for bishops or ministers or priests. Facebook is just one church we all like going to, but our religion stretches across many such temples.
There is a vocabulary to the emotions of human relationships and feelings, and it is one that a conceivable machine can not yet know, despite the ability for us to discern them with language. It is a discourse born from our wonderful inaccuracies, our assumptions, the politics of our ignorance. At the root of all human expression, especially the emotional kind, is a fragile faith in our fellow humans. We exist with the belief that we’ll try not to hurt each other, that we’ll each obey the rules of the non-game. I often compare it to driving: when you’re behind the wheel of a car in an urban area, your mind is unconsciously establishing a basis of trust with all those around you, whether they’re other drivers, or bicyclists, or pedestrians. And it’s not a game, despite the existence of rules and norms. This is a peculiar 20th-century phenomenon, but it is entirely human. It is only seemly to me that this basis of trust in driving typically occurs in the mid-teen years, along the same time a child is learning to be in relationships beyond the schoolyard friendship.
In the 21st century, this basis of trust in human capability and expression has extended far beyond the road, and has permeated throughout our culture as a foundational social construct. The old social foundations were group-centric: from family to community (geospatial/neighborhood) to nation/state. Friends were in there, but they were more of a periphery item, not foundational to our existence but gleefully supplemental. I’d argue that this was to its advantage, as being supplemental rather than essential affords it a more nebulous and unrestrained quality. Friendship granted social wealth, so no matter how financially poorly-off you were, or how far you were from home, you had friends to ease your trouble (but not necessarily solve your problems). On the opposite end, in this old system, marriage was a cornerstone of society rather than just an act of love or free healthcare. We are seeing the dying days of this pseudo-sentimentality now. (I should say, the institution of marriage is pseudo-sentimental to those under 30, while it has an unconsciously weighted and inherent splendor to everyone else.)
The new faith is what we are seeing in contemporary America as the new formalization of friendship supplantting the fading institutions of marriage and family. Thanks to the misguided polarization of neoliberalism, we are largely seeing a systemic self-destruction of institutionalism into itself. Thanks to the equally misguided polarization of neoconservatism, we are also seeing the staunchly ineffective last stand of old rich men. We find the youth of America caught squarely in the middle, commodified to the point that our mere attention spans dictate the death-throes of markets, with monetarily tectonic reactions made at lightspeed thanks to convoluted financial systems reacting to our decisions before we’ve even made them. We have found the limits of our old human systems, as we have codified our friendships, our social circles, our locations, our interests, our habits, our hobbies, our wishes, our thoughts, our opinions, our purchases, et cetera ad naseum. We are drowning in information, and although its effects are purely intellectual and moral, its creating a new cultural superstructure.
No one can stop this. It is an inevitability, as it has always been, that we are doomed to move gradually toward whatever. The societal forces at work, which have the power to tilt whole cultural ecosystems, have no interest in working radically one way or another. The world’s ruling -isms (capitalism, liberalism, etc) work as long cons, slowly and gradually shifting the populace into new paradigms. The most potentially “beneficial” of haughty intellectual ideas (utopianism, realism, atheism, etc) unfortunately divorce themselves of such subtle novelty. In doing so, they prove both their worth and define their own irrelevance. There is no “Heidegger existential agenda” the way there is an “Obama socialist agenda” or a “Palin neoconservative agenda” or even a “Bill Nye scientific agenda”. (I would argue that Bill Nye successfully “tricked” a lot of kids into loving science, the same way Sesame Street and Fred Rogers tricked kids into loving life before reality could snatch it away, and we should all thank them for trying so hard.) Time and history has shown the forces of social change to be glacially gradual. Thanks to computing and the internet, that pace seems to be accelerating, even if by a mere half-step. When the billionaire club starts accepting kids in their 20s, it should be obvious that something is broken. We are watching it break apart and form something new.
Our American Constitution was designed so that any kind of wide reform, at least governmentally, should take place slowly. That’s why there’s no way for us to just make gay marriage legal right now everywhere or abolish abortion today. It just doesn’t happen that way, and it shouldn’t. However, the growing concern here is how the institution of governance is being undermined by the dissolution of the necessity for any institution. Obama ran for President on a campaign of “the system is broken, and it has to be fixed” — many interpreted that as “the system is broken, and it must be replaced, or gotten rid of entirely”. Conservativism is correct in saying that a return to the ways of the Constitution are necessary, but they are wrong to believe that saying so makes them “correct” about anything else. Liberalism is correct in that everyone deserves equality, but they are wrong to believe that it can happen in any way besides slow, apologetic change, or that it is worth the cost of individual freedom. Our system is young, but it’s based on the Enlightenment ideas of human balance and the divine justice of the good, which (surprisingly) leaves a lot of room for flexibility. The last thing our country should want to do is limit that intellectual and moral wiggle-room of interpretation. It was the hope of our founding fathers that at least two of the three realms of our government should hold this truth self-evident, that our interpretation of events may be more important than the facts.
Regardless, we are similarly poking at the limits of our culture and our economics, and we are seeing the same questioning of the very idea of their institutionalism. The contradictory part of this dilemma is that there is no edifying document for our culture, no real social contract that we can call our own. The French have Rousseau, we have Bruce Springsteen. To our benefit, this makes us extremely culturally diverse and versatile, and affords us the ability to easily grasp new forms. Our collective culture is very hard to pin down, despite our efforts to do so. The limits are much more fuzzy, therefore much harder to mechanize just yet. But we are trying, as behemoth corporations rely more and more on the formulaic tropes of pop culture, to make culture more profitable. The internet, while it has not mechanized culture itself, has made the dissemination of cultural artifacts — MP3 files, movies, etc — almost trivial. How have the large capitalistic entities around the world tried to combat this circumvention of control? Passing laws, suing people, and generally trying to make programmatic the ways in which culture is created.
Unfortunately, ease at which we can make new culture over the internet has resulted in the dissolving of fine art because of its critical reliance on the limiting separation between high and low forms. Fine art is a concept born from this dichotomy, and it is doomed unless there is a group of strong social/artistic pioneers willing to make personal judgements that the rest of society can accept (or, as I said, are “tricked” into accepting); sadly this has not existed properly since Andy Warhol. While we are making our culture itself more rigidly conceptualized, we are clamping down on in its potential stratification: we would rather have one gross mess of a culture rather than a dense meta-layering of cultural ideas, some “Great” and others just pedestrian. The internet helps maintain this sea of nonsense, as it is itself a dense jungle of cultural artifacts and detritus.
The systems of social media are returning us to a kind of formalization. The faith is being built collectively. We have gone from the nebulous social construct of the institution (whether we refer to that institution as government or mass media or education or fine art) to the extremely rigidly defined and corporate-controlled system of computerization. Probably because we’ve been tricked into doing so. We believe that this computerization, as I have outlined previously in the articles of our faith, is neutral and decentralized and uncontrollable. The current application of this truth is unfortunately not so appealing.
Follow my thought: neoliberalism, in all its zeal, wants us to believe that the all-encompassing nature of the internet will grant us a new form of democracy. That’s always been a banner phrase for its widespread adoption. But to really accomplish that, one would have to think of it far more literally than it has been manifested in our society. Liberalism, if it alone were followed, would have America abolish the republic of our government (elected officials representing the interests of geopolitical groups) in favor of strict democracy (everyone has an equal say in government) with flavors of socialism mixed in (so that we are each protected equally as parts of a whole).
The internet is potentially a perfect vehicle for this. Imagine if we dissolved the Senate and the House of Representatives and instead the US Government started a website, america.gov, in which we can all go and vote on everything and anything. We could not only vote on laws, but propose, amend, and repeal laws, comment on our governance collectively and openly, and build a more perfect union of informed citizens. We can pretend for the sake of argument that every household in America has a computer and an internet connection, which is something the American government is currently funding.
That would be true liberal democracy in the 21st century, built upon a faith based firmly in our idea of the ever-present always-on connectivity of humans, manifested as the internet. But instead of this grand vision I’ve just described, what have we done with the internet? Remember: the internet, as a platform, is entirely built on the freedom of information. Anybody can make anything and the only thing that really “dictates” anything is what we allow through our collective use. The internet as we commonly use it through a web browser is only like that because we’ve all decided to use it that way. The World Wide Web (what you see in your browser) is only one facet of what the internet actually is. In many ways, the internet itself is a truly free and open system, but for data. (We trust data — we don’t trust humans.) With this in mind, again, what has the internet given us?
Facebook. A site anyone can use for free that we can fill with whatever Facebook allows us to fill it with... which is pretty neat, since we can fill it with plenty of types of stuff, but only as long as those things “live” on the Facebook platform... while we willingly give up our ownership (freedom) of whatever we put on Facebook just because we put it on Facebook, and that’s a part of the terms of its free use. By the way, they’re collecting information on everything you click, every little thing you “fill” Facebook with, and they track that all around the internet, without telling you, and are making billions of dollars while doing it, and not sharing any of that money with you, despite the content being generated by you and your friends. Because that’s a part of the terms of its free use. That’s the most popular thing on the internet: Facebook. A system built on freedom, and the best thing we can collectively agree on so far is Facebook, that which distorts freedom for its own profit. Fitting, I think.
This exemplifies the contradictory nature of American governance and culture and our inability to effectively break limits for our own benefit. We, as a society, are constantly being given just enough rope to hang ourselves with, when we could be doing something interesting. Capitalism has proven that it’s excellent at making the “hang yourself” option look really cool, not to mention everybody’s doing it, so why not hang yourself? We are doing to ourselves the same thing, socially. When given the choice: be individual, or be commodity. Of course, they don’t call it “commodity”, they have a cooler name for it than that. Part of me believes that this has always been the case — but what has changed? Now it’s tracked, it’s databased, it’s solidified in the annals of our communication, for everyone to see forever. We misplace all of our faith in its existence, rather than placing it in each other for the betterment of all systems.
Individually, as commodities in systems like Facebook and Twitter, the faith I speak of grows more intense. Every year, the internet becomes more accessible to younger children. We have no problem giving our toddlers iPads to play with, and their childish ignorance coupled with intuitive design leads them to understand such devices faster than we were able to. The faith they gain in its power is seeded at that young age. As they grow, how will they respond to other stimuli? How does textual communication affect them? Will visual communication through video chat be comfortable and natural for them (it is totally uncomfortable and strange for many people now) because they will have grown up with it? If the next 20,000 years of technological development will happen in the next 100 years, how could any child keep up with it, let alone the adults? This creates an immediate crisis of philosophy that is as of yet unanswered.
In adolescence, these ideas of sociality and the capability to express the self through the screen become secondary, much like any other form of communication. There are those of us who know this, and there are others who have inklings, and there are many others who don’t believe it at all. Some of us are early adopters of this faith. More are coming around to this understanding every day. While some of us have become comfortable with the ability to be ourselves in various technological forms, others remain uncomfortable within these new mediums of expression. What will be the new means of helping them understand, and what new problems (social, psychological, cultural) will arise from it? We are beginning to see these problems now, and we are only scratching the surface as to how they will affect us and our collective existence. This is rapidly shifting every year.
Our technological processes advance further in mirroring the complexity of our personal relationships. Things that were unexplainable, crazy, but knowable, are becoming algorithmic, procedural, and mechanized. More importantly, we are allowing ourselves to be less unexplainable, crazy, and unknowable. With the simplicity of text, two things happen: we make the text move closer to understanding us, and we make ourselves easier to be understood through text. This is the basis of writing and the technology of text itself. The only thing that has changed is the accessibility of the text, its multiplicity and interworking.
There is such a thing as chatroom therapy. There are vagaries to purely textual communication that cannot be found in a real-life conversation, some good and some bad. As I’ve written about in previous sections, text can never be fully trusted. There are obvious and known subtleties and nuances to conversation and communication beyond the mere words we offer aloud. Watching someone speak can never equate to reading those same words. This is obvious. However, there are abstract possibilities to the rendering and interpreting of text that offer insights into the self and the speaker. In an instant messenger window, there is a distance beyond space, but still holding the potential temporal immediacy of the personal. It is frequently easier to say things in text to a screen than to a person in a bar. We are losing key parts of our physical humanity and have the opportunity to reinforce the abstract parts, if we can find the means within ourselves to prioritize these processes. Otherwise, we’re all merely talking to robots through screens.
As children, we had been left alone to figure things out for ourselves, but now all of us en masse are finally being refocused by the accidental opportunists. The new high priests are the kids who built Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google, YouTube. The ones who didn’t think differently so much as they felt differently and didn’t know why. You teach a kid how to program their own reality, and they’ll fill it with their own reflections, much as we learn to dream and fill those dreams with our fantasies. In some ways, technological progress is a systematic manifestation of our dreamscapes, our hallucinations, our personality disorders.
Facebook, like Christianity, is simple in nature but complex in structure. All the parameters, technologies, and ideals had been present in disparate forms before Facebook stole them and made them the whole we are currently infatuated with. There is nothing “new” about it so much as it has taken old ideas and branded, reinterpreted, and made accessible to the most people. We have already reached the critical mass of faithful followers that some religions have made, and in some ways we should hope that nobody ever realizes this. There has yet to be a grand crusade, but we are seeing those scenarios arise, intellectually and ethically in our treatment of internet standards. The first holy wars are technical and physical ones, over the land itself. In the case of the internet, it’ll be over how the means of communication are regulated. We are seeing the start of these battles already, as we try to maintain what we believe the internet should be (neutral, independent, decentralized) versus how the world actually treats with it to maintain old corporate and governmental interests.
The revolution will not happen first on Facebook walls or Twitter trending topics, it’ll happen by a few smart people writing their manifestos between lines of code. This could be happening now without us knowing — and that is the point entirely. In the past, history simply didn’t record what it didn’t want proliferated. Now, we may not have the benefit of such dystopian revisionism. I would characterize Anonymous as one such potential revolution that only serves to discourage future efforts. Any reaction to our networked faith is copied and proliferated needlessly and effortlessly. Real anonymous users don’t leave notes, just as God has never left an actual book we could trace back to Him. Only His servants, who spread the words they interpreted from action.
In a way, we must be bored with the status quo and recognize ourselves as a part of that status quo for any of these revelatory ideas to really matter in a deeply intrinsic, individualistic manner. We have to disassociate from ourselves for these concepts of digital selfhood to have room to grow. We must have faith in ourselves as we distance the self from its expression and potential expansion. Prometheus, when he stole fire from Zeus to give to humanity, did so seemingly because fire was there for the taking while the gods took it for granted. Much the same way, today, our social identity seems to be so abstract and collectively-held that it feels ripe for the picking as we individually take it for granted. Everything that is not chained down by direct human process will be stolen like fire from the gods by internet entrepreneurs everywhere. What unconstrained ideals we held are now being designed, as if the forests of the world needed to be made into rows and sections.
I’m not so much interested in Prometheus as some hero, I prefer to think of him as closer to the trickster of Norse mythology, Loki, who thought all his tricks were worth the punishment. (Let’s think about what he may have done that he wasn’t caught doing.) This is the beginning of how to take the online world seriously but not too seriously. We have to maintain a somewhat dispassionate, but understanding, distance in order to survive. The consequence of our seriousness becomes a totally committal relationship to the persona we’ve established through digital means as its relevance becomes more prevalent than our physical presence.
We must roll the metaphorical ball up the hill, unending, every day, like Sisyphus himself, for this is how the networked world sees us. Every day the same story. How can we extend, amplify, and excite this process in new ways? Capitalism is always trying to find new discos for our dance routines, and in the last 10 years it has firmly placed us, the youth, and our desires squarely within internet structures. But, like the Camus interpretation of Sisyphus, to conquer this world we must find ourselves content inside the fallacy of these constructions. We must reclaim that which feels like it has been forlorn upon us by our parents and society.
For the most part, our lives have been described similarly, as if we’ll never die. We are repeating the same dream every day. But like Camus suggested, for us to be sane we must assume Sisyphus is happy, regardless of his task. If the constant of the universe is merely continued living, no matter the condition (whether rolling a boulder up a hill or working 9 to 5 on weekdays), our only recourse is to find ways to enjoy it. We become Sisyphus.
To leap the metaphor from Sisyphus to Prometheus is to acknowledge that while our lives may be a cycle of repeated distresses, we possess an ability to take what the many hold purely for granted to be something deeply personal and self-liberating. This is how we must treat the internet in our lives. We have all readily taken the networked world for granted as it has been presented to us as something free and unending. Like all of our constructions, it is still chained by our ability to understand it and be assimilated by it once it has become too large to be understood. It takes faith to hold it together.
Whether we like it or not, we are altogether ourselves on the internet, but only we can truly define who we exist as ourselves. Similarly, this can help us define who we are in real life. Prometheus would be a bored guy, living in a world where people are only represented on the internet, who then takes his life and makes it as he wants it to be in the real world. Think of it backwards: we (mortals) are the gods in this myth, preoccupied with our Twitter accounts and Tumblr posts. Prometheus is one of us who decides to take his online persona and make it a real one, so that none of his sociality is taken for granted when presented in any form. What a miracle it would be to hold ourselves perfectly accountable for all sides of the self, no matter the medium of its expression. I am speaking in extremes only so that we may begin to be conscious of its limited relative impact on our individual lives.
On the internet you must announce everything. The user has to tell everyone if they arrive or if they go. It’s an active process, and therefore it’s a rather sacrificial one. We have to withdraw a piece of ourselves to represent us in a way we find most fashionable. That piece is often only thought of as mundane privacy. In reality, we are giving up the very means and control of expression. This is, of course, exploitable, as I’ve explained. We give up a little privacy and customization in favor of “connecting” with dozens of our friends. We can begin to clarify a point of self-empowerment if the right processes are made self-aware. We can acknowledge, appreciate, and mitigate the sacrifices we’re making with our online decisions.
We define our own level of involvement. We need only to be willing to try harder to bring the different facets of ourselves online and in real life into alignment, and similarly realize what those constructed selves could be. This is only the beginning of self-discovery as refracted by the internet. While that forging of identity may be a more shallow, explicit affair, it can be an honest one if we are willing to be truthful with ourselves. We can exploit the methods of expression we are given, or we can disengage with them entirely to preserve what nebulous parts of ourselves we have left.
Social concepts held within our minds, and therefore collectively in our institutions, are merely as complex as we make them, and that’s all. Break it down, simply, in populations of increasing size. An island of one person needs no bureaucracy, it only relies on the self. This is where all of us need start. An island of two or four or ten needs only to know the basic degrees of sociality and self-responsibility and collective sustainment. You advance to a hundred or two hundred and then you need to understand basic politics, because you might not remember everyone’s name, therefore you need to be able to divide the individual from the whole. This holds steady until you reach a thousand or ten thousand, when suddenly you know you won’t know everyone’s name, nor do you even care to try. In a small town, no longer an island, you need government. The persons inside the collective decide that government, and with enough people, there will be plenty who don’t care.
This ratio of “don’t-care” participants to active ones (citizens) is dangerous at the medium levels of population. Basic politics become complex, creating convoluted bureaucracies where the individual emotions of a thousand people who work for the government (serving a population of... a hundred thousand? A million?) become the problem of the entire population. This island which was once one person becomes a country of five million, where no longer can any one person hold accountable the entirety of the state. Nobody is surprised, but most people don’t care. Past this point, there is no longer people, but an idea of collective good and progress; the desire for more of what “the people” want. The people who were once governed and represented become trivialized as numbers, constituents, electorates; an unpredictable yet exploitable maelstrom of needs and desires.
What we’ve seen in this century so far is the revision of the individual so that we can begin to reconcile what it means to be an island again. At the furthest extreme we see the destruction of the “collective good” in favor of a purely democratic and yet individualistic content-ness. This requires a large population of people to be deeply self- and politically-aware, however. It requires not just the insistence to resist the social systems that work against us, but an idea of where to go post-resistance. An ultimate truth or goal that can be articulated both philosophically and practically, much in the way the American Constitution is a statement of philosophy with a practical application. It requires the faith that the many is a population comprised of self-informed citizens. I don’t think we have this faith anymore.
Scale defeats us. It should be the wish of every self-actualized individual to help others to become self-actualized and content, but in order to do that we may need to scale down the population and replace them with robots. The problems of the unreconcilable many become apparent at a certain scale of population: the unnecessary complexities of bureaucracy, tyranny (of a dictator or of the majority), and socioeconomic self-destruction. How can any system properly, adequately, and justly govern a collective of several hundred million? It must be a social and not a governmental method that lays down the infrastructure for such a system. We must all agree to be social with one another before we can be governed as one body adequately, and be given the cultural and intellectual freedom to properly pursue contentment. Futhermore, we must all be content within ourselves, alone, to reach a state of comfortable self-reliance before there can be any collective reliance.
The damage control we need to exert in order to work towards that ideal of self-governance at a macro-level lives within the modes of individual creative expression, the collective need for original content, the cultural need for curation. It requires a heightened sense of direct self-reliance, both online and off. The world needs to put their computers to sleep and go outside more, but not too much. There is a middle ground of sociality and solitude that all of us need to find, individually. There are presumptions we need to forget, assumptions that used to make us comfortable which need to die. We need to be make ourselves uncomfortable so that we can afford ourselves new ways to survive. That’s where the interesting ideas come from, and they move from interesting to inspirational if we understand their origin within ourselves.
Text, however, is an emotionless modality of this social existence. We can’t get over that yet, and we think we are mature individuals by the time we reach 21. Or 28. Who knows what the future holds for the reach of immaturity and incredulity. I don’t have any problem saying that out loud, as arrogant and belligerent as it sounds. You can believe me, or you can’t. You can write about it, paint or sing or talk about it, or you can’t. Our damage control is our ability to reconcile these feelings within ourselves but alongside the context of others. I have found myself feeling as though my best work is that which is understood by not just me, but at least one other person. That other person, however, is an earned audience; it should never be an expected one.
My response to these complex politics of social media (and its rout of anonymity) has been to become even more open and more blantantly self-absorbed with myself online, in a myriad of expressive ways. I publish for anyone to see, but I write mostly for myself, so I can read it later and remember who I was. I write for the me I’d like to be, or the me I’d like to think I am, or the me I’d like to see destroyed. My audience doesn’t bother me; I bother me. That is immutable; it’d be the same if I wrote by hand in a notebook on a lake-dock in Maine, disconnected from the networked world. Some truths, the best truths, can be exposed anywhere, and known by everyone. I am unconcerned which social circle I’ll share this with, because I need to express myself in a way that could be read by any of them. Any other way of doing things is deceitful: the potential gains in social capital for writing to appease an audience are not worth the risk to my integrity as a person. Write for yourself, but be read by anyone.
If you’re in college seeking a life centered around a “creative” field, you’re not supposed to be learning how to do things: you’re supposed to be learning how things were done. Eventually you should learn how things are currently being done. Not how to do them. Yes, your professor should tell you what words mean, what these forms are, what film is, what composition is, they tell you the way things are done. How Kubrick held a camera. How Picasso held a paintbrush. These are the things you should learn. And then your teacher should tell you to go and do them, follow them as rules and guidelines. Eventually they should tell you to break those rules. Here’s how this was done, this famous painting or short film or something, now go do it yourself how you want to do it. There is no right or wrong, no marketing or consumers or audience, just expression. That’s the way it should be, but it’s not the way it is. Kids these days want to Google it and find an answer if the answer isn’t fed to them beforehand. They think the way Kubrick or Picasso did it is the way it should still be done. It’s not.
True creative expression is taking a chisel to stone and making your own rules. Yes, you will be taught how to hold the hammer and where to strike to make the stone chip this way or that, but it is your hand that carves the form of a woman or a tree or something more meaningful. Way back when, people sat down under trees with notebooks or at a desk with a typewriter and they built universes and worlds and dreams, with their own damn rules and their own damn characters, and they answered to nothing but themselves. These are what we remember, this is art. Nobody went to school to learn how to write Hamlet, nobody went to a university to paint The Birth of Venus, nobody told Marx that economics was more than money. They went to school and learned how things used to be and how things are right now, and their creativity is the exploration and extension from those ideals. Nobody should say “this is how you should write” or “this is how you should paint”. If anyone did say those things, they were the first to be rallied against.
This isn’t romantic or sentimental, I’m not trying to convince you that there is an ethereal plane that creative types need to tap into. If anything, I’m trying to say that creativity is bullshit. Creativity is a word used to describe things that were amazing but have become ordinary. Creativity is a state of mind and is not something you should care about; it is a means to an end. Expression is what you need to find, and it’s not hard. There is no secret. There is nothing special. Everyone mumbles, but some people learn how to talk. Furthermore, you really do not need to go to college or have any special hard-to-obtain education for this. Anyone can learn these skills, especially now that the internet has made almost all creative knowledge free and easily accessible.
People don’t understand that great things really can come from thin air, but that’s not the only place, and it’s not as hard as it seems. Good ideas come from the parts of the mind you don’t pay attention to, and eventually you know that those known unknowns are the source of creative expression. Ideas come from reality, from the fabric of life, from the tapestry of a moment or the breath of a year. They come from thoughts, dreams, memories, friends, patience. Great things do not come from training or procedure. Expression itself is the elusive prey, not the great idea you wish you had. Our job as creative people is to harness these ideas and run after them. Show other people your ideas, talk about them, and try to make good things happen — any amount counts.
We say there is no originality left, but that’s just because we are content to stop trying. We are ready to blame the process and the bureaucracy. Kids are eager to get high and “generate” ideas through drug use, as if it’s the only way to escape from the shackles of reality. Assholes are perfectly willing to splash paint on canvas or a brush across a screen and call it art. Anything on celluloid must be regarded with admiration. Kids don’t want to think about what makes lines form shapes, they want to be told, they want it outlined and downloadable so they can use it later. They want trophies for every little accomplishment. They want event invitations. They want connections to established artists. The big capital letters that once dominated art have all fallen down in our postmodern world, which isn’t the worst thing, it’s just that we’re all lost at sea and everyone is willing to drift along in ignorance. We have pacified ourselves to this point.
We sat in class and wondered what to do with ourselves when asked to speak our opinions; our whole lives things had been spoon-fed us by old people. And when we reach their age, we think we know all we need to know, when really nobody in that position should teach anything. When asked again by our teachers, we sit with our mouths gaped open, not knowing what to say or completely unmotivated to say anything. How did we get this way? Why don’t we care? Why do we only care about our steaming piles of tweets and profile pictures and parties? Becoming a networked society has only made us lonelier, has only convinced us that we need more and more and more of things that make us happy for moments instead of hours instead of days. We don’t think of things that really honestly we’d be happy doing for ten years, let alone a lifetime. We don’t know what we want to do tomorrow. And we always think there’s time. Who needs time?
The group used to be a means and an end in itself, a collection of individuals that made a collective — now the individual wants it all for themselves. Everyone feels and is made to feel like their own collection. And we are — we are all experiences and emotions — but we are not fully self-contained. We depend upon others, and that’s being taken advantage of now. What happens in a group when everyone is singularly concerned about themselves within the context of their lone indivduality? Nothing. Everything gets negated by everyone else’s self-centeredness. Self-realization is when all things end in our generation, because looking inward reveals a hollow space we don’t know what to do with. We scramble away from this notion. Do something with that space. You’d be amazed what a little self-fulfillment can do when it is not for itself but rather for expression.
Our generation is hopelessly, desperately trying to be absurd. Trying ever so hard to believe that human mistakes and poor lifestyle choices are funny because there really isn’t any meaning to anything anyway. Trying so hard to stop life from being simple and boring while trying to make every move appear effortless and worthless. And what grand solutions have we come up with? Networks. Blogs. Parties. Sure, Debord said the internet was the only place left to find art, but that was in the 90s. It’s been wrecked. The party: crashed. That which made the network unique, the ethereal quality of it, was quickly washed away by social networks, which allowed people to be stupid en masse. I didn’t think an infinite void could be filled. People are stupid; the individual has a much greater chance at being intelligent. But the people have taken over, and not only people, but Americans who need to watch their sitcoms right now and need to collect every season of every show that was ever on early-90s Nickelodeon.
Hatred, such as this hatred for my generation, can be provocative in a very basic sense. It weeds people out: those who can handle it, and those who cannot. If you can’t handle a little hate and provocative thinking in your life, there’s something wrong. I write this because I enjoy analyzing culture, thinking critically, and expanding on those thoughts through writing. This writing stems from desire, from enjoying things, from wanting to know more and to express myself. I come upon a topic and I do some research and I read a lot and I think a bit and then I write. Hate is just the easily-accessible platform these ideas orbit: it’s the lowest common denominator. Nobody learns anything by sitting around agreeing with other people, they learn by being challenged, being fought, being put at risk.
It’s easy to hate things, as contemporary society has proven. People are more easy to say they hate things than they like things, since lots of things are different from what we are used to, and anything different deserves to be hated. It’s interesting that our social networking tries so hard to exclude that hatred by having pervasive “like” buttons. But that’s not the hate I try to tap into here: I utilize the “that sucks because of X Y Z” hate. The pointed, reasoned hatred, which I think is the most volatile and real, unlike blind hatred or the hatred of trends. The beauty of hate is its simplicity, how visceral it can be.
In reality, I hate very few things, but hate is easy to conjure because it’s so elemental. It’s an easily transmitted and expressive feeling. Everyone can relate to a character who is hating something if we are given a sliver of their reasons. Hate feels universal: liking something feels personal. When we like a piece of music we tend to internalize it within our self-image, making it a fixture of our lives. Sharing something we enjoy is harder than sharing something we hate, because what we like seems as though it’s a part of us and someone judging it means they’re judging us, whereas hated things are always external. Hate needs to be let in sometimes, we need to let it shake us up. Nature and life are systems in equilibrium, and without that counteracting force we grow complacent. Youth is far too complacent.
It really sucks, but in life, the 1% is the only percent that matters. I’m about to push against the whole “occupy” model. Think about it this way: of all your “friends” online, how many really matter? Probably about 1-5%. I currently have 176 friends on Facebook (a pretty low number). How many of them really matter to me? Probably one or two or three people, or around 2%, for me. Of all the people on Earth, how many have really shaped culture, society, government, et cetera? Probably less than 1%.
Abstract further: of all the stuff in the universe that constitutes something rather than nothing? Way less than 1%. I don’t see why this percentage is surprising. It only makes sense that the majority of our economy, or any system, is really controlled or primarily affected by a tiny minority. If anything, that seems rather organic to me. How can you expect any majority to control anything, when they’d readily (unconsciously) be too busy fighting among themselves, or alone within themselves as individuals?
What we are actually coming to terms with is that being in “the 99%” means you don’t matter. And that’s fine. It’s a good thing that people are realizing this. It sucks, but it’s not the biggest problem. The greater revelation here, which should be happening but isn’t, is that this whole “problem” doesn’t matter. The system by which the 99% are self-judging doesn’t matter. The response to it should not be a competition to be within the 1% or to destroy the 1% (because a new 1% will be created in its place). The best response is to remove such percentages from your equation, or make a new equation that puts you within your own 1%. The revolution here won’t happen on any kind of large scale, it won’t be congress or parliament that passes the “no more 1%” law, it won’t be MTV that has a “cribs of the 99%” show, it won’t be Bank of America that has a “high-yield savings plan for the 99%” account, it’ll have to happen within each of us as a person. We are only responsible for ourselves, and we determine our own level of involvement. If we each concentrate on making who we are better, the rest will follow, and we should fight for that. Make yourself better.
The only thing we can really do is afford everyone the chance to succeed or fail. Forget welfare, forget taxation, forget the free market, and consider for a moment the ideas of freedom and equality. They exist in a balancing act with one another. They pose a central rational problem of governance: how do you allow everyone to be free while preserving everyone’s equality? When we talk about freedom, are we talking about the freedom to do whatever you want? Yes, but we are not talking about the freedom to do whatever you want without consequence. When we talk about equality, are we talking about everyone being given access to the same opportunities, the same rights, the same platform on which to live their lives? Yes, but we are not talking about doing so at the expense of any other person.
The best, simplest thing a governing body can do is regulate this balance, and proliferate the understanding of what we all agree as fairness. If you really want to ask hard questions of our existing establishments, ask them these questions. How are we impacting other’s freedom? How are we impacting equality? How can we, ourselves, embody these ideals? These are questions that we can apply on a case-by-case basis, but the root principles remain constant within ourselves. This isn’t difficult — have within yourself a set of standards and principles that you live by, ones that are universal in scope but can be specific when focused. The privilege of being a citizen that exists within a fair society relies on these ideas. Without them we are all just screaming children who expect the rules to be bent at a whim.
This isn’t a statistics or economics class, it’s life. This isn’t science, it’s faith. This isn’t religion, it’s personhood. Have faith in yourself. You can choose to be who you are, or you can let yourself be defined within a socioeconomic percentage. You can be mad as hell about America, or the World, but you should be even more mad at yourself and how you let yourself be trapped by such cultural, social, and/or economic constructions. This world is what we make it, together, as a band of individuals. Change yourself before you ask someone else to change. That’s a more radical thing than I can ever articulate into words, and if you can’t figure it out yet, that’s fine. Keep protesting until you do.
Or don’t. Sit at home and be comfortable. I sure as hell am. I don’t need to protest anything, the system is working just fine for me, even though I’m not within the 1%. I defined my own happiness, and nobody has interfered with it so far. But what I don’t do is give up making sure that contentment is earned, worth it, fought for. I don’t feel entitled to it or assured by it. Don’t stop listening, thinking, asking, writing, talking, being. Nobody should frown on anybody saying what they feel like saying, as long as it’s honest and free. That’s the only contribution I can make. It’s the only thing that makes humanity great. I don’t care about America, I care about all of us.
This is the only manifesto I can offer. This isn’t about “the 1%” or “the 99%”. The only thing you should be occupying is your own self. Wall Street didn’t do anything but exploit the fact that you weren’t “occupying” your self. They bank on the fact that you won’t care. In a way, they should be congratulated for their savvy, because it might finally be waking all of us up. We can move on from this. Take your money out of their control, it’s that easy, if all that matters to you is money. This whole revolution is about you or it’s about nothing. Make your own fucking 1%, don’t let it be defined by anybody else, and make sure your 1% actually matters. Use the system against itself, be disobedient.
Most of this book is based on articles featured in my blog fuck advocacy:
The inspiration and research for a lot of this book, and reading more relating to it, can be found here:
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