Sunday, July 15, 2018

Where Have You Been, and Why Are You Here Now?

We’re back.  It’s years later, and here we are crawling back.  And we’re out of practice.  And weak.  But bear with me, because I think it’s worth pausing a minute to explain, as best I can, why we’ve been gone and why we’re back now.  

To be fair, I don’t even know if we are back.  I can only speak for myself.  So for now, and with crossed fingers — Mithridates: are you there? — I’ll abandon the first-person plural, lest I appear to be writing as The Royal We.

Edit made, then: I’ll explain why I’ve been gone and why I’m back now.  Not that it makes a damn bit of difference one way or the other in the Grand Scheme of Things (which, incidentally, is starting to look increasingly like an Actual Grand Scheme), but because maybe this seven-year drift out and back might allow me room to reflect on the progress of said Grand Scheme, through what exactly it’s done to me.
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For sure, there are lots of personal reasons that figure into why I’ve posted exactly once to this blog in seven years — why, when I visited the home page just a moment ago the URL didn’t even auto-complete, and I had to type the whole damned thing and hit Return to conjure it up.  Let’s run through those quickly:
  • Small children getting older, meaning later bedtimes, and thus fewer opportunities to sit down, in a moment’s tranquility, to gather my thoughts.
  • Small children getting older, meaning more commitments over and above the eight-hour workday.  To take one example, I’ve been coaching a soccer team [pause for laugh track].
  • Recommitment to fitness.  When I’ve had an hour free in the evening, I’ve been out running, or on the elliptical.
  • Peak TV — which, among other things, helps to get me on the elliptical.
  • Exhaustion from the recommitment to fitness, which is all the greater because I am on the cusp of middle age.

So fine: I have needed to make, and have made, personal choices.  Not much about that is interesting or meaningful outside of the four walls of this room.

But there are two other factors that might be, and here they are: (1) around 2011 I got hold of my first smartphone, and (2) around the same time, I got lost in social media.  Now it is not my intention here to cast ballots for or against iPhones and Facebook.  I will, however, testify to how these two innovations changed my relationship with the Internet, with the result that I have been reacting to a great many things, but not thoughtfully, and not so very productively, either.

When Mithridates and I founded this blog, we were genuinely excited about the ability that the Internet and digital media conferred upon us — that we might communicate our ideas directly and immediate to anyone in the world, untroubled by the constraints of time and space and without submission to the preferences of the gatekeepers who had, by virtue of owning printing presses, heretofore held the privilege of deciding What the World Would Read.  This after for my part, I had spent more than a decade performing an elaborate Dance of the Seven Veils to literary agents and fiction publishers who were at the least immune to — and probably nonplussed by — my awkward attempts at seduction.

We were genuinely beside ourselves with excitement.

And we generated content.  Content of all kinds: political commentary, legal analysis, film and record reviews, news roundups.  We were, the two of us, trying to produce an online general interest magazine.  And this was in addition to ridiculous serial first-person fiction I was writing and a blog where I published letters I had sent, public and private, back when I wrote letters.

On a given day I might imagine what would happen if the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi challenged Triangle Man, They Might Be Giants’ reigning champion, to a fight.  On another day Mithridates would propose an elegant, neutral solution to probably the single most significant political problem facing the country.  And when we weren’t creating, editing, posting, commenting on one another’s posts, we would rush over to review the site analytics, where we would learn that in the past three days, we’d had three visitors.  To the entire site.

If you were using Google Analytics ten years ago, then you would know that at least back then (can’t say what it does now) it tracked visitors by state of origin.  Notwithstanding that extremely blunt instrument for traffic analysis, we were still able to know exactly who was visiting our site — because our user base was that small and consisted entirely of firsthand acquaintances.

And while it is true that the internal satisfaction that comes from writing — of framing, rendering, and recording one’s own thoughts for Some Future, Slightly Different Iteration of Self to review later — there comes a time when the Self downloads and installs its latest update, squints into the computer screen, and asks the question:

Why do I keep doing this, when next to no one (else) is reading it?

And along comes Facebook.  And Twitter.  And Facebook and Twitter promise some greater satisfaction, in the form of (1) an audience of Friends/ Followers, and (2) a (limited, in the case of FB) promise that some of your content will find its way into a feed for those Friends/ Followers to look at, every night, between 10:30 and 11:30 PM.  And if your Friends/ Followers like what they say, they can hit a button and tell you so.  

And that’s gratification.  To be sure, it doesn’t mean much: Likes and retweets are unlimited resources.  They never run low, they cost nothing, and so they’re easy to give away.  But if you’re me, and you’ve been sending query letters into The Literary Void for years on end, if you’ve run at various times five blogs that have over fourteen years accumulated more comments from bots than from real people … well, let’s just say a guy can get hooked on Likes.  (Not so much the retweets, in my case, because I’ve never really taken to Twitter like I have to FB.)

But of course there’s a catch to Like-fishing on Facebook, and it’s this: unless you’re Dan Rather (who somehow, some way, is getting away with it), nobody wants to read a 1000-word post on Facebook.  You have to keep it short.  You have to keep it snappy.  Hell, in most cases, you’re best off simply recirculating something short and snappy that someone else — some distant person you’ll never meet, if he/she even exists at all and isn’t instead and in fact 100 lines of code written to generate and release sentiments optimized for viral distribution — wrote three days ago in a meme square.

So the trade-off is as follows: you can spend your evening on Facebook, snapping off a dozen or more clever and poignant observations, under three lines please, and actually elicit one of five prefabbed reactions (Like, Love, Sad, Angry, Funny) from a dozen or more people, or you can spend an evening on Blogger, trying against the odds to write a single nuanced, complex, insightful post, secure in the knowledge that no one other than possibly Mithridates will ever know it exists.  And in a seven-year moment of weakness, I chose Facebook, fully realizing that I was adding nothing of value to the discourse —even snapping off, from time to time, clever and poignant FB posts bemoaning the devalued state of FB discourse — but it was enough to know that I was actually participating in a discourse.

And that’s Facebook, which doesn’t even have character limits.  Don’t even get me started on Twitter, which is distinguishable from Facebook principally in that Facebook’s object is to make you feel good through surface-level interaction with Friends, while Twitter’s is to make you feel terrified and hopeless through surface-level interaction with strangers who hate you and want you to die.  We credited Twitter with destroying tyranny in North Africa, and we were quite surprised when it was later deployed to destroy democracy in Europe and the Americas.  But the truth is that we should have seen this coming.  Building things, and then sustaining what you’ve built, is hard.  It requires nuance and complexity and insight, and just you try to fit that into 140 characters.  Destroying things is easy — it takes comparatively little text to insult people, or to alienate, frighten, or incite them to violence.  Character limits call for incisiveness, the elimination of niceties.  They favor the clever, and clever turns quickly into snarky, and snarky into mean.  You might think that doubling the character limit to 280 would open the door for a more constructive discourse, but by the time that happened, the rules of engagement were too well established in the Twitterverse, and the concrete had set solid.  They had only doubled the number of barrels in the gun.

Is there a more telling commentary on the state of our social, political, and intellectual discourse than this: that someone actually reduced the phrase “too long; didn’t read” to an acronym — and that, without irony, it caught on?

But I worry I’m piling on here, when the truth is that by virtue of social media I access more information, from more sources, than I ever would through a web browser or search engine.  A hundred, maybe a thousand links flash by my eyes each day, via FB and Twitter.  That’s great news.  We all, each of us, curate collections of content, and through our relationships on social media and the authority we accrue through those relationships, we are able to share those collections with hundreds of direct contacts, and they proliferate onward to thousands, maybe millions.  And with a cell phone in my hand, I can do this from a moving train, from the beach, from under a desk during this week’s mass shooting.  This is powerful, and actually empowering.

But for me, in this moment, it’s not enough.  It’s not enough, because while I may be curating that collection of content, reading an article or watching a video, passing it along, attaching an endorsement, a wry comment, or a brief expression of outrage, I’m not creating anything.  And I have been allowing that part of my brain that formulates and expresses ideas to atrophy.  Eight to ten years into the Social Media Evolution, I am emotionally sharp — I LOL with the best of them, and I can rise to anger at a moment’s notice.  I just don’t think anymore, like I used to, and I certainly don’t write anymore.

That needs to change.  Because the state of the world today has me thinking — a lot — about what’s important.  And what I read and see online, including and especially on FB and Twitter, prompts me to think even more, and (I hope) in a more sophisticated way.  There’s room here, on this blog, for me to write all this down.  It might be that only a handful of people actually find it here, and every one of them takes a brief look, rolls his/her eyes and types TL;DR in the comments.  But I’m back in the mode now where it’s important to me — and it can be enough — just to write it down.


So here goes.

3 comments:

Mithridates said...

Yeah, I'm here. It was a good eight year snooze. Read this on my phone - but writing the comment from an actual computer using two hands to type. Feels good after all these years.

Welcome back. I'm gonna try (did those italics even work) to sneak some in while Vercingetorix isn't looking, but you know how he is. Now let me go catch up on news for the past eight years and see if Obama finally got around to legalizing pot . . . wait . . . what the . . . FUCK?!?!?!?

Phutatorius said...

If Vercingetorix wants to rally us to neutral ground, I'm game. But for now, this is the place.

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