Monday, October 04, 2010

The Late-Night Web Crawl

Saturday night found me watching the tail end of a college football game that didn’t matter. Closing in on midnight. Bored. Laptop on top of my lap. Scrolling around the web in search of old girlfriends, former coworkers, childhood friends and relatives. Googling for images of “best ass.” The late-night web crawl.

Chances are, you’ve done it, too. I don’t do it every night, but every now and then, the crawl rolls around. I’m not sure what the expectation is. You find a Facebook site for someone who has dropped out of your life. (I’m not on Facebook, or Twitter for that matter, and won’t be.) Now what? If you were on Facebook, you would drop the person a line, see what happens. Nothing happens. Nothing ever happens. You “friend” this person who is no longer your friend, have a few slight exchanges, then both go about doing what you were doing, which is living your life without that other person in it in any meaningful way, save as a memory. Facebook has become an unnecessary reminder that our memories are real, and life goes on without us.

There are times when we should all just turn off the computer and figure out something else to do. Even if it’s watching bad TV. That’s something I become more aware of as time goes on, and time spent screwing around on the web does not pan out as anything meaningful. I don’t even want to think about what goes through some kid’s head as he sends out 100 texts a day. What matters to him? What’s real? How do you build any kind of life where you even have a field of memories to refer back to when a vast majority of your time is spent thumbing a gadget that communicates nothing real?

The main reason why I’ve become so anti-Facebook/Twitter isn’t out of any sense of rejecting popular fads. It’s the aggravating realization that these things have become an unhealthy addiction for far too many people. You live in New York, where people walk around with their devices all day, you can’t go more than a few minutes or feet without someone thumbing a device or loudly wrapped up in some embarrassing personal conversation that he should not be having in public. This used to irk the hell out of me but has become so commonplace now that it’s more like an ugly shade of wallpaper than a genuine nuisance.

I remember when the internet first rolled around in the mid-90s, getting on via dial-up and a profoundly slow modem. Having conversations with people from all over the country and world in chat rooms. Man, that experience should have nailed the coffin shut. You couldn’t go more than five minutes without flame wars breaking out, strangers fighting with each other over nothing, outrageous insults … and it was all just unbridled loneliness. And the anger that generates in lonely people. I remember getting into a chat-room conversation with a woman in a small town in Scotland telling me about her life, the highlight of which was kids in the neighborhood smashing her windows every other night with rocks and treating her like the town pariah. And she was one of the more normal people! For every insightful one liner or thought, there were endless waves of unimaginative, angry people with nothing worthwhile to say. Man, this was what, 1995? 1996?

Things only went South from there. I’m not totally hung up on privacy – I wouldn’t be maintaining this blog if that was the case. But things like Facebook and Twitter are just overkill, divulging way too much personal stuff in ways that suggest blatant exhibitionism as opposed to genuinely sharing thoughts and emotions. And does so in such meaningless and inconsequential bursts that it’s hard to make sense of any of it. It’s changing the nature of communication, turning it into a disjointed monologue that makes no sense. I’m not sure what’s being communicated when I overhear a cellphone conversation that’s basically someone saying, “Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Did I mention me? It’s me. Me. Me. Are you tired of me yet? No? Me. Me. Me. Me. (I don’t give a fuck about you.) It’s me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. What? Goodbye. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. I'm really going to say goodbye now. Me. Me."

I'm always hearing stories regarding how people have become so incredibly self absorbed. People confronted on buses or trains over some outrageous cellphone behavior, and acting as if they are totally in the right, and the rest of the world is wrong for not spinning around their axis of self involvement. A coworker told me of a soccer Dad flipping out on his son's coach, cursing him violently in front of small children, literally threatening his life, the coach calling the cops, filing a police report, gathering a dozen eye witness accounts, then going to the man's home with the league president and a local police offer off duty, confronting the man, telling him he and his son were banned from the league, the guy flipping out again, risking a citizen's arrest from the off-duty cop, even at this late stage of the game, unwilling or unable to admit he was radically wrong in his actions. This is the kind of people we are creating and nurturing with these self-centric devices. People can't determine reality from their own perception of reality. I don't believe that guy was nuts -- I just believe he's become incapable of recognizing or respecting anything but his own point of view.

Myspace was just as bad as Facebook/Twitter and seems to have faded like the chintzy wallpaper of that site. It doesn’t seem to occur to many people that the same will happen with Facebook and Twitter, once some other social networking site rolls in, which is the nature of this age, constant change, not in the interest of enlightenment or betterment of society or humanity. Because someone’s going to make a truckload of money from it. No other reason.

The strange thing for me as a writer is my past keeps following me around. To this day, I’ll sometimes go back and read over articles I wrote for around the turn of the century … and people, to this day, are leaving comments on those articles, some of which are a decade old at this point. I stopped responding about 2005; the editors stopped forwarding me responses around that time. But people read these articles as if they came out last week and respond accordingly. This stuff is radioactive: it never dies. It’s fun for me to read the comments now, especially the insults, which I’ve since learned are part of the deal with any sort of internet exposure. I’m not sure if the people reading don’t notice the “Published 6/28/00” note at the top of the article, or they actually think the writer’s going to respond to something he wrote a decade ago?

Much of what I wrote for the NYPress, mid-90s through the unceremonious canning of much-loved editor JS on Christmas Eve 2001, seems to have disappeared into the mist as the paper was sold at the same time and went through eras and permutations afterwards that suggested hitting the road. (We all should have quite when JS got canned, as he was what made the paper great.) And I wrote a ton of stuff when they started a section called “The Daily Billboards” which existed before the concept of bite-sized pieces of opinion and information flooded the net – we were among the first, and very good at it, too. I’ve kept all that stuff and have PDF copies of all my stories, which is much more than I thought it would be.

What I was shocked to find recently is that all the old newspaper columns I wrote in college are now permanently on-line as part of the university’s project to document all publications from the past, which they’ve done with the college paper up through 1987 (my tenure was 1984-86). It’s been a jolt for me to read that stuff again, as some of it is just the worst shit you could imagine. It was wild stuff at the time, a real departure from typical newspaper columns, but most of it feels like bluster and bad writing to me now. Of course, there is some genuinely funny and well-written material in the mix, but the bad stuff makes me cringe too hard. I just can’t link to that stuff publicly! I know there are people out there who loved what I was doing at the time and remember me fondly for it, but a lot of that stuff is just bad writing to me now. It was a talented kid trying hard to be noticed, and succeeding wildly in that campus microcosm. (The stuff that really makes me cringe was when I tried to write seriously, as humor was my forte at the time. The “serious” stuff is just so frighteningly bad. Twenty-year-olds in college have a bad habit of appearing more substantial than they are. It's just not possible for most people at that age, me included.)

The pain of it? When I went back to read that stuff (and found that my friends on the paper at the time were quietly writing stuff that still holds up well after all these years), I started reading the current campus newspaper, and the editorial writing is horrendous: dull, self-serious, studied, stiff. Exactly what I was trying to refute in my time. I’m not sure if it’s because writing skills have diminished across the board over the past few decades, or they just have boring editors running the joint. But it reads like high-school newspaper stuff instead of kids spreading their wings and having the courage to fail on occasion. I’ll give myself that much: I failed spectacularly when I wasn’t writing solid humor pieces. Maybe that’s another Facebook/Twitter offshoot: fear of failure in terms of actually creating something real, as opposed to comfortably utilizing template communication methods that guarantee uniformity and lack of risk.

I’d rather leave legacies like that, or what I’m doing now, than wasting time on meaningless one liners, insincere Facebook relationships, or getting too far into message boards, which tend to be a colossal waste of time and talent. Hell, what I’m doing now could be considered a waste of time, but I think you gather that I’m at least trying to communicate something other than an insipid emoticon or glib one-liner. I think what turned me away from writing after Dad died was I looked back on what I was doing, and most of it was criticism, harsh and bitter at times, but somebody who wasn’t creating anything of his own, but spending most of his creative talents commenting on other people creating some type of art. It felt like bullshit. A lot of things felt like bullshit after Dad passed on, but that one stuck with me, that I’d rather be the one putting it out there for people to accept/reject/embrace/despise … whatever they felt, so long as they read along and felt something. There’s such a glibness now in terms of how the web works that I’m pretty much OK with anything that takes a real chance, or tries to hold your attention for more than five minutes. I don’t think people who are shaping the web realize how destructive it has become to minimize and sound-byte the entire process … it truly is destroying people’s ability to think, reason and feel beyond anything but the most shallow thoughts and emotions.

So, I guess, an old girlfriend googles my name, comes across this site, reads this, and thinks, “He’s still an asshole.” And I’m fine with that. You can always count on me to be an asshole. I will not let you down! But I wouldn’t know how or what to comment on with an old friend’s Facebook page, assuming I was in that network, shooting back the occasional message that really had nothing to do with anything, but we all felt better in some odd way about life because we were banded together by some website that sees us, ultimately, as a dollar sign. As opposed to our actual shared memory. I’m all alone out here, no social network, which is not much different from a kid with a spiral notebook, writing at night on his bed in a small town in rural PA. Or the same kid sending a story to a college editor his second day on campus and striking gold. Or the same kid doing much the same with a city newspaper and making his way into that fold. It’s all comes down to a guy, alone in his room, trying to fill out a blank page with something worthwhile, that will last beyond the act of reading it. That’s the difference. I don’t want what I do here to be disposable, as so much of it is. And if it’s going to last, I want it to be representative of who I am. Not some fake “everybody’s my friend” template. I think that vibe is what I look for in the late-night web crawl. Not realizing I’m just looking at myself and wishing I was doing what I’m doing right now.


Paul said...

As a small-town dude I have been astonished repeatedly over the last year or so at how devoted urban denizens are to their little handheld devices. (I love that story I read about someone who cancelled a date with a Facebook status update instead of phone call.) It's something you don't see up here -- even the people who have these things are not followed around by free signals everywhere they go. Alas, we have to ignore others through tried and true classic methods, like being gruff or drunk.

It's really interesting that your LeisureSuit stuff that's ten years old is being treated by people as if it's current. Perhaps your 25-year-old college columns aren't far behind. I don't think the Internet has really been conceptualized properly by most of us -- people treat it as such an ephemeral thing, like walking down the street and hearing snatches of music from cars, smelling food from restaurants, and finding someone's lost Polaroid on the sidewalk --but it's essentially instead becoming a slightly hidden but permanent record of everything you do. It feels anonymous, or distant, even when you're immersed in it, but unless you're named John Smith and leave a really milquetoast life, you're essentially publishing the minutiae of your life for people (and businesses) to use as they see fit, and it will never go away. It's fucking weird.

That said, I am going to my library book sale tomorrow to buy actual paper books with cash, and you will never know what they are or what my pithy comments on them are.

Beatles Comment Guy said...

I actually found about your writing from those Leisure Suit articles, which were marginally less old at the time. I think I was looking for stuff about "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" and stumbled on your review.

Your writing must be a real labor of love. No kidding, no flattery; I can't believe you're giving it away for free. Honest to God, I'd be willing to fork over 50 bucks for a book you wrote.

William S. Repsher said...

Thanks for the kind words. Not so much giving it away for free as tired of the hustling and self promotion required to "make it" as a writer. Would gladly allow someone to do that for me for money and allow me to do what I do! But the original impulse I had to write as a kid has come full circle to do what I'm doing now -- to get a blank page and let it roll to see where it goes. That's good enough for me. (Throw money into the equation, even better, but I don't need it now.)