Friday, April 10, 2009

Web Gunk

Lately, it seems like I can’t go five minutes without hearing about Facebook or Twitter. A handful of people I know have gotten on Facebook in the past year or so. The pattern’s usually the same. At first, they’re amazed by the number of people from the past this thing turns up, as if by magic, they had ceased to exist before Facebook waved its magic wand. They spend a few weeks exchanging pleasantries with the girl who gave them a hand job in the seventh grade, or the guy from their dorm who used to rule on the beer bong.

After awhile, they realize knowing these people again is no big deal, don’t really have a lot to say to each other, and the “Dude, can’t believe you still tread the earth” vibe wears off. (As if people die when we stop knowing them ... the level of self absorbtion in our society never ceases to amaze.) And they find themselves annoyed with the constant stream of updates, also noticing the mercenary sorts who use Facebook as a way to generate publicity for whatever cause they’re into. I’ve never actually started or looked at a Facebook account, save to see that home page for various people, so I have no idea what goes in the day-to-day function of it.

But I’m willing to bet the reaction after awhile is much like mine, without even using it: I spend enough time screwing around on the web already without adding another serious waste of time. When people first get into Facebook, they’re addicted, and begging you to join (in the fun). After a month, you never hear it mentioned again. It seems like some people strike a happy medium, where they check in once or twice a day to see what’s going on, post pictures for family members, etc. … only to find the guy they rode the bus with in fifth grade noted that he took a legendary shit this morning after having a bran muffin.

Which seems like the kind of thing Twitter is used for. (I’ve gathered you can stream Twitter posts on Facebook.) I sort of resent being made to feel like I’m somehow “behind the times” for not indulging in this nonsense. Facebook is a more tasteful Myspace, and Twitter is texting on a computer (although you can share the nonsensical minutiae of your day with X number of people as opposed to one, what a breakthrough). I recognize texting and Myspace for what they are: meant for kids and self-absorbed adults.

I gather the younger you are, and the more spare time you have, the more likely it is that you’ll indulge in this stuff. My frame of reference regarding communications goes back to rotary-dial phones and letter writing. Try calling five people on a rotary-dial phone … you’ll probably be wearing a finger splint afterwards. When you called someone, that meant something, and if the person wasn’t there, the phone just kept on ringing. (I even pre-date answering machines – technically, not, but answering machines were not a given when I was a kid.) That wasn’t such a bad thing, unless you were madly in love or closing some type of deal. Person’s not there? I’ll try again tomorrow. Do something else in the mean time.

It would take me days to write letters to friends, and I used to love doing that. My emails tend to still be pretty long-winded as a result. (I’ll never text anyone … texting is pure dogshit to me, the devolution of thought and language. May also be why I’m holding off on an iPhone, which I like in theory, but don’t like the idea of thumbing incessantly to send an email.) I love to communicate with people through writing. They write back, and with the people I know, that tends to be a pretty worthwhile exchange of ideas. Not “C U LTR, QT.” Or whatever the fuck else people functioning on a much different wavelength than mine put out routinely. The letters I wrote were rambling, hand-written things you had to spend time on. We should all be forced to hand-write everything for a week to gauge just how much things have changed …

… And how much easier it is to communicate now, yet people seem to communicate much less, or much less effectively, than ever before. Particularly people raised in this culture. Everything is a glib, never funny, never insightful one-liner, or symbols that suggest the person now thinks in terms of text messaging as opposed to fully-worded thoughts. For them to write a paragraph of any size seems to be an alien undertaking. You write a well-worded reply to them, and their reply is, “Y don’t U write a novel.” No, motherfucker, this is two or three paragraphs, not a novel … you ought to try reading one some time to grasp the wonders of attention span.

You grasp this when you overhear a superfluous cellphone conversation. For me, that happens constantly on the subway train, when it comes above ground in Queens. If you need a good thumbnail description of “asshole” … an asshole is someone who pulls out his cellphone just as a subway train surfaces from below ground and immediately calls someone on it. Always, and I mean always, to have a totally meaningless conversation, in a crowded public place. What you doin. Oh, not much. I’m on the train. Yeah. Yeah. No shit. Yeah. Yeah. That’s so cool. Yeah. Yeah. I’ll see you in five minutes. The conversations seem to take place only to convince the caller and listener that each is still alive and walking the earth … although they’ve already texted each other earlier in the day that they’ll meet later. That’s a strange sort of insecurity I don’t understand. I think part of it is demonstrating to the people around you that you are more important because you’re making a call on your cellphone in a crowded public place. You have shit going on in your life, people to call, things to do. (Generally, if my cellphone rings on a subway train, I let it go to voice mail. The reception on a train is horrible, and I know how uncomfortable it is to be sitting next to someone on a train indulging in one of these conversations.)

The mindset of someone raised with all this gunk has to be fragmented. I wasn’t even raised with it, and I’ve noticed how much more fragmented my thoughts, and my life by extension, have become. Just because you can communicate with people much more quickly, and have so many more options to do so, doesn’t mean that you can communicate any better than how people have in the past. Communication is one thing; modes of communication are another. If you don’t learn how to communicate in certain ways, you just won’t be good at it, no matter what you do. So much of our communication these days is focused on the written word, be it simple email, Twitter, Facebook, web message boards, etc. And I’m gathering people simply aren’t learning how to write well. How to string together numerous thoughts into a cohesive statement. How to imbue their words with emotions and concepts that communicate with readers on a much deeper, more human level.

I used to get in trouble on message boards for stating the obvious: that some people on them were bad writers. I’m not talking syntax and grammar. I mean just the ability to communicate through writing. A lot of people on message boards are like cardboard cut-outs, or crash-test dummies, when it comes to writing. They’re dull, at best, which is probably why they’re spending so much time there. And these things never die. You can get off the merrygoround whenever you want, but it will keep spinning. I’ve never seen the guy or group running a message board state, “This place has seen better days – let’s close it down.” Message boards are like high school or work – you have friends, but you have to spend serious time each day hanging around a certain number of people you really don’t like, and a larger number of people you’d normally have nothing to do with. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about sound mental health, it’s that you shouldn’t spend any time around anyone who inspires negativity and loathing, and vice-versa, of course. If that’s the work situation, good luck, but to do it on a message board, all in the name of false sense of “community,” man, you tell me.

I also find an alarming number of people on these boards who went to college through the 90s and after: a strange tribe that indulges in therapy-style jargon about feelings and such, yet have a Lord of the Flies style of dealing with anyone or anything that threatens their homogenous little worlds. There’s a sameness about these people that’s spooky: liberal (but not too far left, no sir, I’m a regular joe), WASP-y (my Dad owns a chain of restaurants ... could we not talk about this ... how do you like this bowling shirt I bought at the Salvation Army?); let’s cut the crap, they’re always white, and filled with self loathing (for reasons I will never understand). Used to be you went to college to set yourself free – in the past two decades you do so to be indoctrinated with a truly bullshit way of seeing the world. Used to think the future would be a bunch of enlightened people walking around in robes … it’s more like an Alanon meeting of sensitive 13-year-olds.

The whole idea of message boards, Facebook, Twitter, etc., seems to be to generate traffic, heat, immediate contact, and contact with an unbroken flow. This is bad news for writers. One, printed media is being phased out, more rapidly in the past year or two than anyone had imagined. Two, writers are going to be making less money writing on the web for whatever given publication; no one seems to have cracked how to make real money on the web via advertising, and subscription services have not done well. Three, the writers will have to adjust their styles to fit into this condensed, fragmentary way of writing … and I’ve already noted why this is cancerous. It will be dumbing down our writing skills to reach people who don’t know how to communicate anything real and have mistaken nothingness for reality.

Worst of all, the web is crawling with people who just can’t accept how mediocre they are as writers, and they have the mistaken impression that anyone can do it. Because they’re doing it. And when someone tells them the truth, that they suck at it, that person gets shouted down for noticing, because everyone’s equal on the web. Again, we’re talking black, organ-chewing cancer of the worst kind here … but these are misguided attitudes I see routinely displayed. And these are the intelligent people! Check out the responses to videos on You Tube or the greetings expressed on Myspace pages – fucking unreal. I wish these people were joking, or parodying idiots, but they’re not. I’m picturing some slobbering, cross-eyed, egg-shaped being with a propeller beanie and one big tooth, tapping on a keyboard with one hand while eating a snow cone with the other.

Am I being too dark here? Probably, but I’m also being honest and have spent enough time with this to know what I’m writing about here. And don’t get the impression that I’m against new trends and technology. Christ, I love these things when they make sense and make clear how much easier life can be by using them. Cellphones truly are a blessing, especially in emergency situations, and I love the mobility of them. (As noted, I’ve pondered getting an iPhone, but have to be honest with myself in that I don’t really need one, despite all the cool gadgets contained therein.) Email is fantastic – it changed my life in terms of maintaining relationships that would often go months or years without any sort of support. (No one with email needs Facebook. If the god damn person isn’t in your life already, take a hint, no offense, some people just fall by the wayside, as you do for them. Are we that lonely that we need to dig up people from our past and pretend they're in our lives now? It's like a never-ending high-school reunion.) MP3s, and now video files, have simply changed how we’re going to consume these types of media, and I love it, the possibilities seem endless with this stuff. Any time I pick up a copy of Wired or talk to a gadget-leaning friend, I have my mind blown over some of the innovations that are headed our way.

I just didn’t anticipate communication skills going down the toilet conversely to the rise of technology. If anything, I thought more and faster options would mean better skills – if people were forced to communicate all the time at top speed, they’d simply get better at it, be more expressive and descriptive. Writing is like any other endeavor – the more you do it, the better you get at it. I think the issue is we pull ourselves in a thousand directions with all these innovations, performing high-tech juggling acts every day, and often end up doing a number of things either passably or poorly, and nothing very well. If you never had the foundation of someone teaching you how to write well, and then had time to nurture this skill, it appears all you can do is tap out graceless one liners and have conversations that are more like monologues where no one really listens to each other.

When I see someone dogging a cellphone on the street, you know the type, the motherfucker can’t be off the thing for more than a minute at a time, I can’t help but think that person is more in the love with, and addicted to, the concept of using the device than feeling any real need to communicate with anyone on the other end of the line. The overheard, meaningless conversations bear this out. I gather people are more enamored of their iPods and all the accessories that go with them than they are the actual music on the iPods … the music is secondary. Simply having one, and displaying it publicly, that’s the main thing these days. How we got into this bizarre state of affairs, I’m not sure. Gadgets are now more valid than art.

It’s not an age thing. I’m hoping there are younger people out there looking at their friends and associates caught up in this crap and thinking the same things I am now. I’m assuming there are still plenty of sane people out there. I spend five minutes around someone stuck on his cellphone, texting or talking, and I just want to get the hell away from that person, whatever his age is. The lack of manners involved with this is another huge issue, but people stopping conversations to read a text or answer a call has become so routine that I don’t think most people notice what a breach of manners that is.

Am I full of shit? Making too much out of all this stuff? I hope I am, but suspect I’m not. If there’s good stuff I’m not seeing from things like Facebook and Twitter, texting, Myspace and such, someone, please, for the love of Christ, enlighten me. All I’m seeing is a childish waste of time masquerading as progress. Something that starts out fun, but turns tedious real fast. When I eat candy now as an adult, the first five seconds are a blast, and then I start feeling like a horse’s ass for eating such junk clearly aimed at kids in every conceivable way. Here’s what happens when I eat too much candy. Happy Easter!


Andy S. said...

I recall when I first read about Twitter, I couldn't believe that anything so inane would catch on, but it has. And if you want to be conversant in current marketing and advertising techniques, you pretty much have to learn it. What's really scary is seeing all these personalities on the net who feel they have to be on every platform. "Friend me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, read my blog, subscribe to my newsletter," they beg. It's become a cold war in communications; each new development ramps up the level of paranoia and insanity, while lowering the level of dialogue that takes place. The Twitter thing has really pushed it over the top, in my view, and I'm at least a little bit heartened by the fact that I'm not alone. There was an article in the newspaper (yes, that old thing) yesterday about how some young people, teens even, are becoming overloaded with all of the instant "communication" and are unplugging themselves. Let's hope that becomes a trend.

Anonymous said...

Well said, gentlemen!

Anonymous said...

Two thoughts, Bill. OK, three: First, great post.

Second, my main issue with message boards, e-mail, MySpace, Twitter, etc., is the manner with which people use them, how they are emboldened to say things they wouldn't normally in a face-to-face conversation. That anonymity factor, free of any real consequences, really bugs me.

Third, a co-worker of mine a few years back made the observation that no one over 30 should have a MySpace page. A funny line, but the goddamn truth. And now, I feel that age limit should be lowered. Once you're out of college and employed a year or two -- yoink! -- away goes the MySpace page.

My main point here, though, is that I've yet to hear about anything truly worthy, beneficial or financially successful come out of these new platforms. Sure, it's a growing sector, but still, shouldn't there have been something really grand emerge by now? All these things are merely an extension of advertising, PR and all that racket (no offense to your experiences).

In that respect, OK, sure, facts are easier to find, people easier to contact (in terms of business), but the benefit stops there.

And c'mon, it's just a few jelly beans...

Chris (who once contacted you about Bill Stafford and commented on your subway-stairs asshole encounter... just lettin' you know who's out here reading...)