On the 7th of September, on the eighth anniversary of his death, I found myself on Tumblr searching for anything that had to do with Warren Zevon. I suppose this was a search for commiseration: Warren’s music had touched my life in innumerable ways, and I wanted to see if there were others who felt similarly, who loved him enough that the reminder of his passing would still register, still hurt, even against the perspective of the specter of 9/11.
I stumbled onto a blog of a young woman who had posted a few videos of Warren, notably all four parts of his final appearance on Letterman. Earlier entries consisted of quotes from the works of David Mitchell and Joe Hill among others, clips of Doctor Who and Californication, scans of Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, etc. In short, what I saw was someone who by every indication shared much of my current cultural tastes. What I did not see, however, was anything about her. Beyond her profile picture (which I admit was attractive enough to necessitate this pseudo-stalking for something more substantial) there was nothing. No personal glimpses into the depths of her, no self-pitying rants about being lonely and unloved, no poorly written woe-is-me-isms about the unfair hand she’d been dealt. Her short bio included only her gender (female), name ([REDACTED]), age (24), likes (Kurosawa, Bertolucci, Le Corbusier), dislikes (blatantly unforeign names, apparently), and a disclaimer which stated that nothing on her blog belonged to her.
The problem here is glaring in its prominence: Apart from some small insight into her personality, she declined to surrender anything real. Here was someone with whom I could see myself hazarding an actual human connection, yet her principal online persona amounted to a blog which could have been tended by an automaton with no one being the wiser. What I had here was an approximation, an idea, a blueprint of skin and soft tissue with none of the faults and foibles and utterly imperfect yet utterly wondrous idiosyncrasies that betray a living, breathing person at the other end of the noosphere.
How exactly does one forge a line of communication with someone who may or may not be real? “Hello, I noticed that you like stuff. I like stuff as well”? How does one found the tenets of a relationship—whether platonic, casual, romantic, or what have you—when that relationship boils down to a mutual appreciation for certain strata of pop culture? What happens when the inevitable arguments—about who the Doctor’s greatest companion is, about which of Joe Hill’s short stories is the best, about whether or not “Werewolves of London” is simply a great song or an overproduced piece of monopolized nostalgia—arise?
Certainly we as human beings have long depended on our proclivities and desires to characterize us. Once the Western world had largely done away with the practice of limiting the selection of a marriage partner to a process involving the man, the prospective bride’s father, and the transaction of goats, it had fallen on individual persons to define and pathetically market themselves in a bid to appear desirable and something more than ordinary. I invite you here to think back on all those conversations at someone’s backyard barbecue which, post-introduction, invariably started with “So what do you do?” or those chance meetings with strangers at bookstores or record shops the outcomes of which hinged on the taste implied by their selections. Before the onset of the Digital Revolution, how many discretely worded ads in the Personals section of the daily paper included some self-aggrandizing variant of “I enjoy long walks on the beach”?
Let me answer: All of them.
Which in and of itself is not a bad thing—one cannot be expected to march full-bore into an interpersonal relationship based on no common ground. How ill-advised would that be? The issue, however, lies with the fact that where shared obstacles and interests might be enough material to last the star-crossed lovers and hetero life mates of the carefully edited and encapsulated multiverse of film, literature, and story for the brief entirety of their public lives, the real world is rarely so dynamic or exciting. There are gaps and valleys in the everyday minutiae that cannot be filled in with erudite banter about the oeuvre of post-rock and postmodernism. Even before the initial shine fades, relationships—real relationships—consist mainly of long stretches of dull, prosaic moments that can be traversed only by a wearied, begrudging, and ultimately loving acceptance of the very real human being opposite you. Once the great screaming fights happen—and they will assuredly happen—one cannot simply hold up a boom box, blast Peter Gabriel, and make everything better. Relationships, friendships—even ones that take place predominantly online—these are things which require a fathomless connection and understanding in order to expand beyond anything superficial, and to acquire those things one must first dig deep beyond the marrow and expose oneself. But in an overly self-aware culture where nothing is sacred and everything is ridiculed, the prospect of being willingly vulnerable is terrifying. There is a palpable risk here of being hurt, of having the fundamental you-ness be weighed and measured and found wanting, whether by complete strangers or people you could see yourself loving, and it becomes so much easier to, in a sense, not be a real person—to simply be a series of likes and dislikes and perfunctory information; a picture attached to a blog which says nothing, reveals nothing; to be a ghost in the machine of the world.
The Internet operates on a funny sort of logic, promising active networking and communication yet in reality exacerbating our primal instincts to curl up like a pill bug into a big ball of ourselves. Even in its nascent stages it became an exponentially simpler method of bypassing the usual avenues of interaction. If we wanted to find new people we no longer had to slog through the cocktail party circuit or risk catastrophic blind dates or awkward meetings with friends of friends, friends of relatives, relatives of friends. We didn’t have to expand our social circles one sad little concentric step at a time. We no longer had to run through the checklist of pre-approved small talk bullet points and throwaway questions about who people were, where they were from, what sort of music they were into in the hopes of finding some thread of mutual passion upon which we could capitalize. The Internet eliminated all that bother by allowing us to plug directly into whatever we were searching for. With message boards, chat rooms, and user groups dedicated to specific subsets of culture and technology we were relieved of the burden of having to explain ourselves. The people who cohabitated our little corners of the Web knew why we were there; they became our new friends by default. We didn’t need to swap life stories. It wasn’t necessary to know the why or how of them, only that, in those strange early days of the Net, we found others who liked the same weird crap we liked, and it was enough.
The downside here is that we can forget how incredible it can be to make friends with a stranger out in the real world, how the most intense love can spring from even the most heated animosity or lack of any initial common ground, or how the deepest connections are forged by shared experiences, not shared interests.
But, of course, putting yourself out there takes vulnerability. Vulnerability is hard, and we, as a rule, tend to go for what’s easy; by that logic, closing ourselves off is the easiest thing in the world. We quote the words of others to do our talking for us, send each other links to articles and stories in lieu of actual conversation, post pretty pictures to adequately convey our current state of mind, all to avoid having to proffer a single identifiable human emotion. We keep in touch with relatives by emailing them mawkishly inspirational chain letters once in a while. We regurgitate memes to approximate the feeling of being in the loop.
The Internet as a source of culture and expression has seemingly reached equilibrium in a state in which a select few create, while everyone else curates.
Microblogging platforms, particularly Tumblr, have almost single-handedly elevated curating into an art all its own. Entire blogs exist—some of which are among the most widely visited on their parent sites—which are nothing more than massive recycling factories of material pulled from all over the Web. An interesting pathology results wherein the traditional dynamic of the maker and the made is reversed: Where personal blogs are a reflection of the person, the curator becomes a reflection of the curated blog. A person who aggressively posts humorous though unoriginal material gains the illusion of themselves being funny, while someone who exclusively reblogs photos of waifish, melancholic girls standing in austere rooms and monochrome fields is seen as a tortured artist.
Which isn’t to say that what one infers is inaccurate, only that—in returning to my original point—despite pages and pages of content, nothing is actually revealed. Fight Club’s narrator filled the void in his life by poring over Ikea catalogs and stockpiling his condo with furniture. Curators, existing primarily online, fill theirs by sifting through aggregator sites and stockpiling their blogs with image macros. What cat gif, you can almost hear them saying, defines me as a person? In both cases, there is the implication of anesthetized, machinelike thought processes, wholly detached and impersonal. Beneath the piles of stuff, there is only emptiness.
(As a somewhat related aside, may I point out Narrative Science’s program which allows computers to mimic human reasoning and write news articles that read as though they were written by an actual journalist? Feel free to insert your obligatory machine overlords joke here.)
It is likely that I am overstating things. It is likely that curators simply post things which make them happy. But then, isn’t that the saddest attempt at being happy one can undertake? To surround yourself with constant reminders of what you don’t have? Wouldn’t it make you infinitely happier, infinitely more fulfilled to take your own photos, create your own art, write your own jokes, and travel to that country you keep posting photographs of? If the purpose of your blog is to inspire yourself, shouldn’t there be a goal beyond simply being inspired to blog some more, like some bizarre Ouroboros, devouring your own tail?
My friend Dani recently wrote something lovely in which she ecstatically rants about those who merely want to be happy: “That’s what you want, really? You want an emotion? You aren’t looking for verbs? You don’t want to create, or inspire, or add, or experience, or grapple, or struggle, or learn, or reach, or break, or see? You care more about the product than the process? You want to feel the same thing, over and over? You want to be high on Dopamine for the rest of your life?”
What saddens me most is how much we’ve squandered this great potential for interaction. By using screen caps and memes, animated gifs and the artwork of others to speak our thoughts for us, we’ve weaponized the passivity inherent in traditional media like television and print, instead of actively participating in the open lines of communication the Internet was created to provide.
The guerilla artist Banksy once paraphrased a line from one of Winston Churchill’s speeches. Banksy was speaking of the state of modern art, but I believe it applies here as well: “Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”
I never thought I would live to see the day where I would find myself missing the blogs of angst-ridden, ennui-stricken teenagers who posted horribly misspelled missives about the cold darkness of their tormented souls. They were a relentless assault upon the English language, but they were something tangible, something real.
They say love conquers all/ You can’t start it like a car/ You can’t stop it with a gun, opines Warren Zevon in his song, “Searching for a Heart”. I hold no such lofty aspirations. Right now I would settle for searching for a thumb, a kneecap, a lazy eye, a bit of bowel—anything to let me know that the other person is, indeed, another person.