Years ago, I found a online journal of an aerospace engineer. Her hopes, desires and random thoughts were placed out there on the web. Fascinated, I created a website of my own. Starting out as just a journal, it later expended to music, band and even movie reviews. I watched as friends around me created Live Journals, Dead Journals and Blogger accounts. Then slowly, one by one, I saw them either totally delete their accounts or restrict them to friends or by password. Some of their posts were hilarious, but for many, it was too much, too exposed and too open.
We had a generation that grew up to despise the idea of being emo. A term attributed to emotional punk music, blaming the whining depression of a generation on people who were ungrateful for being born, as Ben Folds would put it, “male, middle-class and white.” Depression was something you didn’t talk about. Rather than people helping each other, we told people to stop complaining. After all, they weren’t starving in Africa. We fed that generation pills and sent them to therapy where people were paid, and legally bound, to listen and not gossip.
Long elaborate posts about life, love and personal revelation, once spread over a variety of different services from WordPress to Live Journal and MySpace, slowly consolidated to shorter messages of under 1,000 characters, and then under 200 and eventually under 140 characters in a service whose verb was an onomatopoeia for a bird chirping. And maybe that’s what we’ve been reduced to: birds screaming empty phrases that are loud in volume for a moment before they are buried by the collective weight of the vast digital atmosphere of the Internet.
“Don’t you see the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expresses in exactly ONE word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten” -George Orwell, 1984
60,000 years ago people started speaking. 5,000 years ago people started to write. 600 years ago people started to publish. Less than 60 years ago, people stated creating a network of computers. The technology to build newspapers could facilitate the construction of a press for about $10,000 in current US dollars. By the time of the US civil war, the cost of running a newspapers was about $2.5 million in current dollars. In the 1920s, radio was a common technology. Political speech, social speech and religious speech was common and when people began to think that radio technology could function through advertising, countries started to create governing bodies to regulate and divide up this spectrum into manageable chunks. By the 1970s, NBC and CBS became owners of over 95% of prime time broadcasting in the United States. Radio, like the printing press, once an open forum where anyone could publish ideas, quickly became a one direction medium1.
The Internet is under constant threat from copyright law. SOPA and PIPA were two very prominent bills in the United States that sought to rewrite copyright laws in such a way as to destabilize free distribution services by making them liable for copyright violations on all user contributed content. The burden would be so unmanageable that many major websites held world wide blackouts in protests. Even after such bills were defeated in the United States, international treaties such as ACTA continued to move the entire world to a position where the widest body of free speech would be reduced to a controllable one-directional medium just like radio and newspapers.
These efforts have met heavy resistance and have mostly failed, but what does this have to do with blogging, people and freedom of communication? Oddly enough, nothing. It was a distraction. Despite all of this failed legislation, user generated content on the Internet is still dominated by the control of mega-sites. People share their ideas though closed and for-profit networks like Facebook. Many people never realize they are not Facebook’s customers. Facebook’s goals are so geared toward user engagement that, although people complain about user-interface changes, those changes are carefully implemented so that people are upset enough to complain, but not overly upset that they don’t bother to learn about the new interface and spend more time engaged. This type of engagement is what’s delivered to their true customers: advertisers.
Furthermore, sites like Google and Facebook actively filter content distributed to individual users in a way to increase engagement for their advertisers in something that Eli Pariser referees to as The Filter Bubble2. What was once a vast and great Internet where everyone was posting large amounts of written content; where people had to actively subscribe to or check daily, the content they were interested in–it has been reduced to fragments of thoughts that are briefly entertained and quickly buried. Without constraining the Internet with things similar to the Great Firewall of China, a world is fooled into think they are free; that their political opinions posted on popular social networking sites actually matter.
We were afraid of the reality of opinions. We were scared of being exposed, so we hid behind privacy settings. We were afraid to be seen for who we were, so we used services that limited those who saw us. We took the massive free medium that was unfettered by the limitations of radio and broadcast TV and reduced it to YouTube; giving it a 50% market share4.
And more important than any of the this: the political situations, the domestic spying, the corruption of capitalism that pushed the perception of a media as being free when it is not. The biggest lost we have suffered from this is that fact that human beings have lost touch with one another.
During the emergence of the Internet, we were not afraid of posting because we had a textual abstraction layer from our friends and loved ones. We slowly began to realize how that barrier, which existed on the Internet, didn’t exist at all in reality. Still, we helped those who were sad. We reached out to people, but in that effort, we lost response. Instead of saying “Yes I’ll help you” or “Yes you can help me,” we deleted those publications because they showed the weakness we were taught to leave behind. We were caught up in a capitalistic reality that was forced onto us by the horrible ideologies of the Libertarian/Ayn Rand doctrines3.
By embracing modern social media mega-sites, we give away our writing, our photos and our content for free and let hosting companies make money of us from advertising. But even more than that, these social media services have created an environment that gives people a false sense of relevance. Combined with the reality show generation, it has rewired the psychology of today so that people now think in terms of what they intend to broadcast to the wold. People are losing their concepts of personal thoughts, and with that, they are losing their empathy for others.
I kept my original journal up for over seven years before a company that wrote educational software for primary schools offered to purchase the domain name for $10,000. It was a fragment of myself that I had kept open to the world longer than any of my other friends; a world that was an open wound and often brought about criticism from people who found themselves within it. It was transparent, raw, unedited, immutable and unforgiving. Although I could have re-hosted the content elsewhere, I instead decided to return behind the wall again. I removed my transparency from the world. I sold out, and without being popular enough for anyone to archive my content other than myself, I became digitally inaccessible.
In this free flowing new age of communication, these tools were created to help us be more connected to both the world and each other. Yet today we find ourselves obsessed with guarding that communication, giving some a false sense of privacy when really all our information is out of our control and purchasable by the highest bidder. In a world with unprecedented global communication, we are somehow more isolated than we have ever been in our existence.
2 Eli Pariser: Beware online filter bubbles Parker. TED Talks. March 2011.
3 Episode #617 – Money, Power and Sociopathy Weiss, Heffernan Graeber. 18 August 2012. (Reading)
4 Globally, YouTube’s Market Share is 20 Times Its Nearest Competitor’s Richmond. Videonuze. December 16, 2011.