The Entire Problem With the Internet is Persona, But Really What's So Different Now?

ARE YOU JUST AN AVATAR?The Internet is a tough town, we have noticed before. Well, not a town; a fat cluster of towns pushed up against each other, organized (obviously) by language spoken, but still a place where you can easily hop from village to village. OMG it all sounds like that movie Avatar, which, by the way, according to Comic-Con attendees who saw a hefty chunk of it, will blow your mind. The biggest town problem, however, is being given a bit of an old-people-confusing airing on the op-ed page of the Times today, in a piece by smart guy and Harper’s editor (and flash mob prankster) Bill Wasik: that you are not who you pretend to be on the Internet!

The experience of moving online actually bears quite a few similarities to becoming a New Yorker. Disorienting and seemingly endless, the Internet conversation moves at lightning speed and according to unstated social rules that can bewilder outsiders. Also, like New Yorkers, residents of the Internet do not suffer fools, or mince words in belittling them, as anyone who has contributed a redundant post to Metafilter, or an earnest comment to Gawker, can attest.

In their scope, both the Internet and New York are profoundly humbling: young people accustomed to feeling special about their gifts are inevitably jarred, upon arrival, to discover just how many others are trying to do precisely the same, with equal or greater success. (For a vivid demonstration of this online, try to invent a play on words, and then Google it. You’ll be convinced that there is, in fact, “nothing new in the cloud” – a joke that a British I.B.M. employee beat me to last November.)

Moreover, the presence of an audience causes online residents to style themselves as outsized personae, as characters on a public stage.

This is largely true! There are many sheepy people on the Internet who are not willing to be themselves. It is tiresome.

But some of this is also not true; I know at least two people who can invent a Google-proof play-on-words at the drop of a hat and do so every day.

And then Wasik goes, for me, too far afield, talking about the contrast of “making it big” in New York and making it big on the Internet.

In the old model, young creatives dreamed of entertaining the millions, but in practice they could do so only by first pleasing a small group of gatekeepers: established figures who controlled access to the audience and, in doing so, protected young people from that audience, its obsessions and desertions, its adoration and its scorn….

Online, though, the audience can be yours right away, direct and unmediated – if you can figure out how to find it and, what’s harder, to keep it. What to you is a big break is, to this increasingly sophisticated and fickle audience, just one forwarded e-mail message in a teeming inbox, to be refilled again tomorrow with a whole new slate of distractions. “Microcelebrity” is now the rule, with respect not only to the size of one’s fan base but also to the duration of its love.

Well, a little, yeah! It’s confusing that you can make something that blows up and excites numerous towns on the Internet and brings in all the travelers between-very briefly. But it’s not actually how things work: there are long-standing institutions on the Internet (Wasik himself names two, Metafilter, now ten years old, and Gawker, now seven or something years old). They show (in vastly different ways) how the Internet rewards constancy, and how constancy provides a platform for these things to “blow up.” For those of us who have been working on the Internet for more than a decade, in different forms and at different outlets (think of an Ana Marie Cox), living and working online has nothing to do with micro-celebrity or making a quick hit.

As for those who came to New York City and made it big in the “traditional” way-well, I can name a dozen painters who were getting tens of thousands of dollars per painting in the 90s boom, having been “elected” by the “gatekeepers” in the old-fashioned-way and they are completely missing in action now. Micro-celebrity and fickle taste and short attention span all have to do with the way people are, not the way the Internet is. And maybe with the way capitalism is. (On the Internet, capital is attention-until actual capital is the actual capital, a tricky transition where lots of people get confused.)

And finally, I do not think, as Wasik contends, that the “young creatives” “are stepping off buses in Port Authority and trains in Penn Station” to arrive in New York, the old-fashioned way. I myself arrived first arrived here on a Greyhound bus, in the early 90s, with a big green dufflebag and immediately a bunch of guys surrounded me with offers to “help me carry my bags,” by the way. But I don’t think that happens any more! In my experience, most of the newcomers fly right in to JFK.