Thursday, July 30th, 2009

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.

28 Comments / Post A Comment

KarenUhOh (#19)

It can be daunting, trying to be the brightest pixel in the blur.

OuackMallard (#774)


HA! I want to give you some kind of award, like a cake.

sigerson (#179)

I would just like to thank that guy for the eye surgery he invented. Really a game changer technology!

The Internet never sold me a handful of dried Italian spices for $50 in Washington Sq. Park.

brent_cox (#40)

The Internet has frequently sold me the metaphorical equivalent of dried Italian spices for $50, though never in Washington Square Park.

The internet is a catalyst (i.e., makes faster, doesn't alter) for the rise and fall of trends because it is the INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY.

That's possibly/probably true, and maybe totally accounts for the "Problems With These Modern Times." Speeding up causes all sorts of issues!

That is why my tray table and seatback are always in their upright and locked positions.

JTS (#682)

When I arrived in NYC, my mom dropped me off in front of my Washington Heights apartment in her Windstar mini-van. I did have several offers to help me carry my boxes upstairs though.

I landed at LaGuardia and took a cab to Hell's Kitchen. No offers for bag help.

propertius (#361)

It was La Guardia for me too. Then a taxi ride over the Triborough Bridge, and on to 125th St., etc. Early 80s.

GiovanniGF (#224)

It was JFK for me, and I was so green that I started offering people help carrying their bags.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I don't need a bus ticket to get to the World Wide Web.

Abe Sauer (#148)

mmmmmmmmmhhhmmmmmmm that's good analysis.

I would add that this idea of "New York" needs to be defined for the purposes of this piece (and many others where "new york" actually means "a place to achieve fame and great renown/success" and not "a place where millions live and work with no aspirations toward cocaine-fueled parties consisting of models and critics all lining up to douse them with praise/blowjobs.")

As it is used by him: "the Internet is a tougher town than New York; fewer people make it here, but no one there seems to make it for long." Many would be inclined to disagree. It may be a tougher town to "make it" in, but the permanent scars – addictions, crimes, desperations, diseases, etc – on those it chews up and mangles are a danger the Internet, in all its toughness, can never provide. That is the advantage of avatar internet downfall, it's largely the made-up you tht takes the fall.

atipofthehat (#797)

The gatekeepers have never done even a good job. They aren't even qualified to make the judgments their predecessors once made (as legend has it) about what might deserve to be seen, read, or heard.

Then again, they are not really hired to let people in, but to continue to keep them out – while helping to force arts and media closer to a reductive Hollywood production paradigm in which distribution rules all, the audience is always mass, and the point of doing anything is only money.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Hey, Sharon Osbourne and The Hoff are doing a great job!

katiebakes (#32)

I just Googled to see if anyone else has mentioned the True Fact that Jamie Foxx looks like a black Matt Damon, and no one has!

Does this mean I've found a "niche"?

atipofthehat (#797)

"Black Matt Damon" could be a character on drive-time radio!

But Mr. Ripley would have to be that much more talented to pull off his scam.

Q: What does a hackneyed two-dimensional character say on a public stage?

A: Aiiight!

metoometoo (#230)

My dad arrived at Port Authority on a Greyhound bus in the late 70s. He'd spent all his money on the ticket, so he just followed the crowds until he ended up at Washington Square Park, where he lived for a little while, until he got stabbed by a guy whose bench he had unknowingly usurped. He got a job as a soda jerk at Howard Johnson's, and when he finally saved up enough money to rent an apartment, his homeless friends presented him with a set of stolen Howard Johnson's silverware as a housewarming gift.

True story!

Flashman (#418)

I arrived in New York in a steel container belonging to the Wai Shen Shipping Concern. 18 of us began the journey in Rotterdam, but after a week of lying in our own filth our numbers had dwindled to 7; one by one the weaker ones left to find more comfortable hiding places.
When we arrived in New York the ship was searched by customs officers, and our container was opened. Hidden behind carefully stacked boxes of bath toys we tried desparately not to make a sound, but one woman was carrying a chicken that begin to squawk. Unable to say a word we implored her with our desparate, ravaged eyes to do something, anything about this noise that was about to give us away and destroy whatever dreams we had of starting a new life in America. Looking around at us, glaring at her in the seppulcral gloom she understood, and soon the chicken was silent.
It was only once the port police had left and we were finally able to draw breath and let some light into the container that we saw that what the woman was holding was not a chicken at all, it never had been. Cradled in her arms was the tiny, limp body of a goose.
Puzzled, I got up and jumped overboard. My body was weak from the journey but a passing crew of scullers (the Columbia JV coxless 4) were able to tow me to shore and give me some PowerBars and it was this, as the sun rose behind the statue of liberty, that was to be my first breakfast in America.

What's all this crying about chickens and babies? I thought this was a comedy site.

Baroness (#273)

Thing is, to plunk down in NYC as an idealistic yoof, and live there, and meet all sorts, and put up with all the bother.. well that's the game of Life, and no it cannot be simulated on the Intertubulars.

Before we were beholden to glossy screens, one went OUT. Saw the town, made friends, had lovers, enemies, allies. I'm speaking of that narrow window between school and true adulthood. You stretched that window as much as you could because it was fun as hell. And romantic, in a way.

I don't begrudge the yoof today their digital present- they're romanticizing it as we speak, and they're actuallly a damn good buncha kids, I think. Maybe the article is right though. NYC seems stripped of a certain mystery. But to take it seriously, why ever leave home, when you have the Internet?

Used to be people with a certain courage would go to NYC. I can't agree that that's gone forever, but NYU alone makes me wonder. I just turned forty like Margo Channing. The youngs never feared sex like we did, mortally in the bad old days. But I wouldn't trade that life experience, and no you can't really replicate it on the lonely Internet. People need people. And the young need to get out and see life, lovely and awful as it can be. That's what makes an artist, rather than a fleeting sensation on the Internet. Sorry for the lengthy musing

tfey_hawbz (#36)

Aww, that was real purty!

evilito (#1,270)

True story y'all. I arrived in New York not because I wanted to come to this stupid town, but because I had a gig that paid the right amount of money, and said what the fuck, right? I ain't never here before, so I figured I'd come in and out, do my thing, maybe check out the Hard Rock Cafe in Time Square and get the fuck out of Dodge. THing is, my job pays a hell of a lot more here than it does in Texas, and I can do it without fear of getting my ass beat (it's adult entertainment related, and I'll just leave it at that in case I have family reading, though I doubt it, but you never know), so I stuck around. But seroius, people talk about the parties with modeals and the literaty critics and all that shit, but in all reality, New York is made up of two kinds of people: Yuppie shits and the illiterate poor who seem to exist only to serve them. I mean, really. Yea yea, there's the "creatives" and shit (god how I hate that word) and all that other stuff, but in reality New York neatly fits into those two categories: White yuppy scumbag assholes, and dark uneducated servant humiliates (that's an adjective, not a verb). So spare me the fucking self-congratulations about how fucking cool you are and in-the-know about all the with-it stuff, you goddamn yppie shitheel. Why don't you just buy a hot dog – or better yet a chicken with rice – from the Arab dude on the corner and shit the hell up?>

TerseNursePornstein promoted this comment. Because it renders her jokes funnier by comparison.

evilito (#1,270)

that's "shut" the hell up, not "shit" the hell up. I apoligize for the typo, but I think the point stands.

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