A decade ago, the internet's signature feature was obfuscation. You could invent a new identity; embellish your life to make it that much more interesting; buff out the imperfections; or just hide without feeling like an anti-social creep for it. Message boards, chat rooms, and nascent blogs, all depended on a technology-induced veil, a curtain that shielded online actions. What you saw was what people had selectively chosen as representations of themselves. Sometimes, though, information flowed in the opposite direction. Insider-y knowledge that had previously been the mark of real-life, earned inclusion in a community now could be readily acquired online. The internet was an unstable space; it allowed us the ability to endlessly manipulate who we were and what we knew.
It's misleading to narrate technology-and-society as if it were a screenplay or even social movement. The way we use technology is inseparable from the marketplace, and the marketplace is only as linear as we consumers are rational, a notion that depends on all sorts of assumptions about how mankind thrives and revises itself. Yet there are moments that equate to an internet version of “bottoming out,” a place so low that change becomes the only realistic option. When things get too corrosive, too stupid, to continue on, you switch directions. It’s the dialectic of embarrassment.
Second Life ended up one of those pivotal moments. It seems like ancient history now, but the way it swung from lurid promise to outright joke signaled a broader shift in the relationship between the web and IRL (or as one friend calls it, the birth of “ORL”) fever initially looked like the ultimate realization of an internet premised on dissimulation. Despite all of its nerdy, role-playing-game trappings, Second Life was very close to the leap promised by the "virtual reality" craze that sprang out of William Gibson novels much cooler than our digital lives would ever be. Mainstream coverage was at once aghast and in awe, as if the web had once and for all been empowered to open up another world where anything was possible. We had crossed over; transmuted, malleable, and hungry to escape once and for all. In 2004, Presidential candidate Mark Warner held a Town Hall meeting there as part of his campaign. Participation was enthusiastic but somebody in the audience with wings simply would not stay put. It was distracting and more importantly, fairly useless in its added functionality, unless a social premium was really going to be placed on the wish-fulfillment involved in having wings on a regular basis.
It’s hard to say whether it was this kind of frivolity, or the mass exodus from reality, that killed the romance. Yet Second Life, popular as it remains, rang hollow—marginal despite its heady premise. The ability to play, that in-between feeling inherent in earlier social media, always retained as part of it some longing for the real world. Children don't want to live in Lego Land; they want their lives to be more like Lego Land. Some fantasy is about secrecy, impossibility and even shame, but anything as quotidian as Lego fun (or web life) is a much broader wish: one for creativity and control. Pushed too far and it loses its wistful, if arch, appeal to the other side. The radical gestures lost their point of reference, their poignancy; the daily pilfering and tiny lies were transformed into lifestyle choices. Second Life went too far and, in the process, flipped the polarities. Before long, it signaled a reversal in the web's relationship with reality, a term that suddenly no longer needed scare quotes.
This is by no means intended to be a meta-, or mega-, history of technology. What I want to focus on is a particular turn that I find troubling on an almost personal level. When Second Life went from attractive proxy to howling parody, we were left with ourselves and a bunch of increasingly advanced hardware, software, and omnipresent platforms. The digital landscape, which, increasingly, could only be understood in terms of real-life distinctions in class and race; the geography of the web was mapping to look like the geography of the physical world. At least initially, Facebook, which arrived just as the Second Life was losing its mainstream appeal, was only a hair shy away outright elitism—without a claim to a four-year college, there was no access into the network. Never had real-life circumstances come more to bear on our supposedly chimeric, inventive lives online. Soon the iPhone, a very expensive device that practically screamed boutique branding, became an important part of digital life for, well, white people with money.
And that was just it: Instead of the internet working against our real lives in provocative ways, it became an extension of them. The looking glass was now a mirror; instead of reinventing us, the web simply provided more of us to the world, and more ways to take advantage of the world around us. We speak of Yelping and checking in on 4Square as if these were activities, when they are simply the day-to-day cataloguing of our lives—or, even worse, a grimly detached version of modern life in which we aspire to be ourselves. Mediation presents itself as a friendly tool when in fact it creates distance between us and the ordinary.
An excess of candor remains a problem—the digital equivalent of a nip-slip or drunken voicemail—yet these cases are more accidental than confessional. Secret identities and alternate lives have been ferreted out, turned into a professional liability. When they persist, they are (hopefully temporary) refuges created out of need—like the online homes made by teens who don't fit in in their real-life homes. These internet lives are real life by proxy, not a shadowy, distorted version that is never intended to be realized.
Instead of remaking the world, the web is an excuse for more of it at its most mundane. The remarkably lo-fi act of using a smartphone to scan a take-out place's tattered "Like Us!" print-out, hanging in the window, fading, and possibly torn around the corners, could not be more bound up in the material world—and everything that is utterly forgettable about it. For every artful employment of Twitter or Instagram, there are exponentially more folks using these applications, and of course Facebook, to amass digital waste in way the physical world simply does not allow for. Save everything, see it retain without limitations of space and with some marginal expectation of order.
The salad days of free downloads were when Limewire allowed you to harvest all sorts of music you previously had no access to, or at least couldn't afford. It was a community built on a collective cheat—not in the way it flouted copyright, but in its blatant disregard for the ways in which, pre-file sharing, certain knowledge had to be earned or sought out as a rite of passage. Spotify isn't just legal, it's fully committed to exposing our shortcomings as consumers, collectors, or just plain participants in the grand community of music nerds. I have been told repeatedly that it’s a matter of convenience—I’m supposed to be listening at work—but couldn’t I easily bring my iPod along?
In a few short years, we have gone from anonymous experts to having all of our most distant acquaintances monitor our guilty pleasures and blind spots. The release of your work playlist isn't quite the same as topless Facebook photos; and for all I know, there’s nobody out there paying attention to what I play on Spotify. But the extent to which this stream of endless disclosures of what we're doing, where we're eating, what we're listening to exposes, even revels in, the ordinariness of our lives places us far, far from the days of obsessing over what specific music or movies to list in our social media profiles circa 2002. Instead of self-creation cooked up behind the veil, we’re absolutely laid bare without even realizing it. Even as Tumblr and Pinterest turn curation into a commodity, Facebook and Twitter continue to rule the day. We can’t change who we are. Maybe the best we can hope for now is to keep our exposure limited to what it might have been before all this social media junk got started. Not because we’re so interesting or petrifying, but because the endless drivel of the ordinary is never flattering.
At its most sinister, this amounts to surveillance, or at least the sense of being watched by no one in particular for reasons both mysterious and transparently dull. The casual accumulation of data by Facebook is a business decision; this is a nameless, faceless, pointless visibility that would lead to self-reflection if we realized its most basic ironies. Surveillance presumes that some authority, higher or otherwise, gives a damn. Instead, we are all now looking at each other more than ever. I know that people pick their noses while driving, but have only seen it once or twice. That's because we only pay so much attention to those around us in traffic. There’s too much to process, too much to bother caring about. If I buried an image of someone picking his nose at the wheel somewhere in my Facebook photo albums, would it even register? Instead of elitism and scandal, we have celebrations of the mundane. I eat at my neighborhood diner more than you. I have more to say about a store than you do. Somewhere in there is probably a heartening lesson about the power of local community and consumer advocacy and yet, at the same time, “ORL” amounts to a reinforcement of what we already know about ourselves and the world around us. What we do is no longer secret or profound, sparkling in the digital realm. Instead, we get a reminder of who we are already. We aspire to be better, or at least more file-heavy, versions of ourselves. Any attempts to do otherwise simply do not compute.
We are encouraged to observe each other’s daily lives—not our postures—reserving judgment lest we be judged. It's the negative version of the classic John Woo three-shooter scenario. Sometimes I get an irrational fear that people I am chatting with can see the rest of my desktop. I'm not worried about fetish discovery missions. It troubles me far more that, at some point, the laptop will cease to be a portal and end up simply part of the scene, swallowed up by an over-saturated world of information and familiarity that it helped create.
Previously in Web Disorders: The Eye That Never Blinks, Existential Googling and Personality Seepage
Bethlehem Shoals is one of the founders of The Classical and FreeDarko.com as well as the Twitter account @freedarko. Image via.