Look out: Death From Above
Last year, Canadian band Death From Above 1979 (their name, if you’re curious, was created at the last minute so as to dodge legal action from DFA Records) released a record called “The Physical World.” It came 10 years after their only other record, 2004’s “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.” In the intervening years, I had attended college, moved from Providence to Chicago and gone through a slew of jobs en route to my current gig. The band didn’t know these facts, of course; the record sounds like it could have been recorded back during that same autumn as the debut, when George W. Bush was facing off against John Kerry in the U.S. presidential election.
In 2004, if I wanted to explore music, I would take the 30 minute walk from my dorm to the Newbury Comics in the city mall. Web services like Ares were available for downloading MP3s for free, but I didn’t want to risk it on the university network. I saw a lone copy of “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine” one day and picked it up, having really only heard the band’s name on Pitchfork, not intending to buy in when I went down there, and only nudged into doing so by seeing it at that moment.
By 2014, this mix of ritual – the walk downtown with iPod in tow – and impulsiveness seems ancient. Finding “The Physical World” on the Internet, legally or otherwise, takes seconds. The only chance to “bump into” it, like one would in a record store, is now limited to seeing in a YouTube sidebar or having it come in after many other similar-sounding songs on a socially curated Spotify playlist.
If nothing else, the Internet – if there is any really single, organic “Internet,” rather than just an amalgam of the globe-spanning properties of American companies like Google and Facebook, bankrolled by advertising dollars and venture capital, and threatening professional death from above for publishers and artists everywhere – has in such ways offered to replace many of our social experiences with what basically amount to simulations. Often, words like “easy,” “convenient,” and “at your fingertips” justify the change – don’t walk to the record store, here’s everything Death From Above 1979 have ever recorded, right at your fingertips!
“Social”: What came after 1979
But how social is the Internet? The question comes off as both tone-deaf (where have you been during the last 10+ years of social media?) and Ted Stevens-y (he once called the Internet a series of tubes, which was widely lampooned but accurate in a strange way). The social dimension of the Internet – its impact on conversations, sharing, etc. – seems undeniable.
I recently listened to the first episode of the podcast “Upvoted,” from reddit, the self-proclaimed front page of the Internet. The story was about a man, named Dante, who had gone to prison for drug offenses, getting a much shorter sentence than he expected after a right-wing judge presiding over his proceedings was injured and replaced by a Clinton appointee. During his time in prison, he mastered drawing and sometimes sketched out what an iPhone looked like for prisoners who had been incarcerated so long that their last experiences with a computer was via Windows 95.
Near the end of the podcast, one of Dante’s friends talked about how justice was not meted out equally, not only across demographics but across Internet users. He asserted that kids who were less social and who didn’t have a lot of friends but instead hung out all day on the Internet were somehow at greater risk of punishment. I thought:
- Isn’t the entire Internet “social?” Isn’t that what has driven so many startups to record-setting valuations and fueled the ambitions of Facebook to connect every last person on the world to a website? Isn’t its difference from the physical world the notion that anyone and everyone is just a tap away, rather than cordoned-off from communications or in a faraway place? Isn’t the presence of these so-called awkward kids on a website like reddit (of all places) just the digital version of an analog community (to use a stupid digital dualism crutch) and somewhat of a problem for labeling these people as “not social”?
- What if, though, that guy from the podcast was right, that whatever “social” experience the Internet was ultimately providing wasn’t ultimately an equivalent of, nor a replacement for, what had come before in terms of “social” – the in-person social activities, or even the private rituals like record buying? What if the Internet had just as much reinforced the positions of the naturally sociable (in much the same way that it has come to entrench huge corporations, the top 1 percent of music artists, and millionaires and billionaires more generally) as it had given introverts/shy nerds/whatever label you like more freedom? What if all of the Internet’s activities really were just simulations that couldn’t overcome issues like inequity in justice?
The 1979 in Death From Above 1979’s name is the year before the Millennials generation is generally agreed upon to begin. People born from 1980 onward came of age at the same time as any number of Internet-reliant technologies. For me, born in 1986, it was the Web browser, which came into its own when I was about 10 years old, paving the way for social networks just a few years later.
The first social network I used was naturally MySpace, then Facebook in July 2004, not long before “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine” came out. I guess I’m one of the earliest users of Facebook and that I’ve explored its feature more than most (e.g., using Skype to see the entire News Feed, not just the EdgeRank-filtered results). All of this expertise and experience has done nothing to make me a “social” person in the physical world (“real life,” I guess, though I don’t like that phrase since it has so much baggage). My time on Facebook, in other words, hasn’t given me the social high or prestige that I would need to avoid what that one podcast speaker had deemed the demographic disadvantage of shy, Internet-addicted kids.
Everything on Facebook isn’t really the physical me. I don’t make long speeches in person that are equivalent to my Facebook comments. I don’t leer at faces the ways I stare at images. I don’t try to find out what news articles, lists, and videos someone at the restaurant I’m in is interested in. I don’t have anything resembling a “network” (in recruiter-speak) of actual, contactable people that maps to my list of Facebook “friends.”
The same mostly holds for reddit. Reading posts in the Bitcoin and Nintendo subreddits are ways to waste time rather than reflections of what I really think about when I’m out walking or in bed. I would never make some of the comments I had made were the interlocutor standing in front of me (this is the tragedy of Internet comments, which are still good for something though).
You’re a Man, I’m an Internet Social Network
For someone who is not naturally social or sociable, the Internet – in this case, social media sites and forums like the ones discussed here – can be dispiriting. It’s possible to make new friends or relationships on the Internet (I met my spouse this way after all) but it’s also possible to have a good email exchange or emailed job application torpedoed once other forms of communication – a phone call or meet-up – enter the picture. The latter example deserves a post all of its own, but I’ll just say that Internet job postings paradoxically give everyone and no one a chance – volume is often so high that candidates who have put in more legwork in the physical world – met the right people, gone to the right seminars – are best differentiated.
Likewise, having scores of LinkedIn contacts or Facebook friends doesn’t necessarily give one an advantage in physical world situations in which cronyism, who-do-you-know, it’s-always-been-like-this, and you-can’t-sit-with-us still rule the day. And then there’s the way in which a friend’s Facebook photo at some famous monument makes us feel like we’re missing out (on physical activities and places, mostly), or some listicle about how we all need to be more “spontaneous” (i.e., insane), which of course would require a lot of activity beyond just being on the Internet all day – despite its often-cited deep “social” character.
It feels like the Internet is still a poor map of the physical world and many of the behaviors – secret meetings, hard labor, conversations that involve more than texts and “…” [this person is typing] balloons – that made it the way it was. This includes even “inefficient” processes like walking to some store to buy a Death From Above 1979 album (or, even further back, a copy of Windows 95!) – the time I spent doing that is now “saved” so that I can just waste it straight away on BuzzFeed or getting to the top of the Twitter stream. Moreover, by only giving us, in most cases (not all), simulations, it really can subtly weaken people who aren’t predisposed to being social, by giving them the illusion that they can change (“disrupt” would be the cliché word choice here) things and get ahead, when they’d probably have a better chance of doing so by just taking a walk outside and buying whatever they wanted to.
I can still listen to “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine” anywhere I go, just as I can do with “The Physical World.” If I hadn’t had the longwinded physical world experience of the former, though, who knows if the band or album would be special to me at all a decade later, or if I would have taken the 30 minutes to write this…
Writing well is difficult. Sometimes, the writer is granted brilliance that feels scarcely controllable, but these instances seems rare. Even being in one such moment provides that distinctive feeling – like standing on top of the Duomo or producing creative work with ease – capable of being be evaluated in real time and appreciated for its rarity: “I might never have it so good/easy again.” So how can writing be made easier? Simple: write everything like it’s an Internet comment.
The writer vs the vacuum cleaner
Much writing is a slog, a series of slight maneuvers that cancel each other out until finally a coherent thread emerges. It took me 5 minutes just to write the paragraph above. Writing is not unique in this respect. Even glorified professions such as programming are full of drudgery.
What consistently gums up the writing works? It’s as if there’s a vacuum cleaner sucking up thoughts from the brain. The task ahead demands lots of ideas and eloquent turns of phrase, but the reserves quickly run out, and then there’s nothing.
Staring down at blank space is like the times when, on the verge of sleep, there’s that startlingly realistic falling sensation, that causes real fear despite harboring no threat of actual mental or physical damage. That’s writer’s block: Real fear, fake consequences. The feeling of an empty idea cupboard is irrational, given that it’s impossible not to think.
Vague feelings of brilliance vs concrete sensations of inadequacy
While most writing isn’t pleasurable to produce, it usually reads better than it felt to write. The fear of inadequacy is often just a deep-seated anxiety of what to write to right next, rather than despair about the project at large.
Overwhelming, tangible brilliance can make the writer inhabit the moment and relish how power is building and obstacles are receding, yet the grind of the writing process gives her a frame-by-frame feeling of pain. Each word is scrutinized. This sort of perspective is what makes writing both pleasurable and painful: The writer may sometimes vaguely sense overall quality, but she must also regularly dwell on specific defects.
The latter tendency is what makes in-the-moment elation – the happiness at being able to step back and appreciate beauty as it is formed – difficult in all but exceptional cases. Certainly, it is painful, but it is almost necessary to chipping away at word choice, syntax, and argument until something is unlocked. This quibbling is the fallback mechanism when sweeping brilliance isn’t available; it’s the writer’s workhorse.
Internet comments vs everything else
If there’s one type of writing that feels tangibly easier than all others, it’s the Internet comment. It has a low bar to entry: Good grammar and reasoning skills aren’t required, there’s little curation, and the writer herself does not even need an environment, other than the Web browser or app in question.
Bad comments are easy to the point of near-unthinking, but even apparently good ones can be produced in a flash. The show-off Internet comment – a missive that can include copious amounts of evidence, conspiracy theories, personal anecdotes – is a staple of Reddit et al, and their volume speaks to a writing form that not only exhibits effort (if not always quality), but also scales tremendously.
This combination is unique. There is plenty of substandard prose and poetry on the Web, but it lacks the airs of greatness put on by Internet comments. A comment can be:
- Easy to write (thus reinforcing subtle norms around the great artist who effortlessly churns out masterpieces
- Superficially convincing (even if the reasoning is poor, the author may overwhelm with length, cherry-picked numbers, flowery language, or a combination thereof)
- Instantly applauded (forget a publishing deal; upvotes and likes can confer immediate gravitas to the text)
Thinking about these perks, why doesn’t the Internet comment become a literary form? Its real advantage, staked in the three foundations enumerated above, is its built-in audience – by far the most irritating obstacle for any writer in any context. There’s major schlep blindness in not trying to turn such a facile mode of writing into something with aesthetic and philosophical value.
It’s easy to write an epic Internet comment (whether a tweetstorm or rambling Facebook status update) because there’s no intimidating void to fill, no vast spaces to traverse without knowing what tone, language, or evidence to use. Even a bad comment will get attention because the audience is there to seize upon it; a good comment will be acclaimed or, in an even better indication of its impact, viciously attacked by insecure dissenters.
A while back, I wrote, on the occasion of Google requiring a Google+ account for YouTube comments:
“Every commenter is an expert, or at the very least a potential conversation hijacker whose hastily gathered yet half coherent sentiments can trigger thousand-word outbursts from her faceless peers.”
My language was over the top, but I still feel the same about the comment’s power as a low-hanging enabler of expertise and catalyst for raw word production. It’s all about the audience and the ability to show off, knowing everyone is already watching.
Microsoft has updated Bing so that it now pushes Klout results to the top of its many of its results pages. Ostensibly, this is a move to provide better content and to keep pace with Google’s own efforts at integrating Google+ results into Google Search. It also squares with Microsoft’s generally aggressive commitment to social search, which can be glimpsed in its relationship with Facebook and Facebook’s Graph Search functionality in particular.
“Microsoft believes that content is so powerful that is almost doesn’t matter whether Klout’s “experts” actually have any real expertise. If enough Klout users vote up an answer, it will still likely be a worthwhile addition to Bing results, Ripsher said.”
If one had any doubts about the internet’s objectivity or its “openness” (to use another overused adjective), then this peculiar development should allay them.
“The internet” is often characterized as an almost untouchable, coherent, self-contained system that can provide definitive knowledge and answers. The rise and insane hype around services like Quora and Klout are the current symptoms of this characterization, although it actually began long ago with Google and Wikipedia becoming (for relatively well-off internet users, at least: a relatively small portion of humanity) the go-to resources for queries, and with social networks then becoming echo chambers and in effect new realities for their respective users. As I have mentioned before, onlookers who regard these services in these ways seem to overlook the fact that the internet is actually a manmade thing and not a law of physics or deity.
On the contrary, the sheer volume of information available thru all of these channels in turn has led to the internet becoming, for many commentators, akin to the burning bush on Mt. Sinai, able to dictate authoritative wisdom at will, although it arguably one-ups even God’s favorite flaming plant, since much of that wisdom is “crowdsourced,” too. Now, the so-called crowdsourced structure of many online services – Google’s collection and subsequent application of user data, Wikipedia’s group editing, Reddit’s upvote/downvote system – is a hopeful development not because of the veracity of its content but because it, at the very least, shows that there are human agents who drive the internet, rather than some unstoppable, robotic force of nature that we often vaguely call “the internet.”
So how is that crowdsourcing intersects so snugly with the prevalent narrative of a self-driven internet? How is that search engines (the clearest, most obvious metaphors to a wisdom-producing computer from, say, Star Trek, yet another debt that tech owes to imagination and the liberal arts) are now, in many cases, conduits for social networks and other crowdsourced news? I don’t think it’s odd at all, actually, since it confirms that the internet, as a source of knowledge or truth, is just as subjective and contingent on human inputs as anything else. I mean, let’s look at some of the major drivers of internet content:
-Google: uses proprietary algorithms and integration with proprietary social networks (most notably G+). Results system can be gamed or “bombed” to promote certain results. All of this despite its promotion of “openness.”
-Twitter: proprietary social network that suggests certain celebrities or popular users to follow, primarily because said persons are the best evangelists for Twitter itself (as a tool/service).
-Klout: dependent on mostly amateur “expertise” and opinion, as noted above by The Verge.
So Microsoft is hardly putting anyone or anything newly “under the influence” of amateurs. The entire internet is built around these types of subjectivity that inevitably result from human input and tinkering.
-The ScreenGrab Team