As the buzz of my Hawaiian New Year honeymoon completely subsides, and all the blog posts that were percolating in my head at the end of 2012 float back into my consciousness, I also begin to catch up on my magazine reading. The rags have been piling up, and I am behind, as usual, doomed never to read them all before the next one comes. In bed last night, as I flipped through New York, trying to block out what must be a Fight Club happening above me in my neighbor’s apartment (this is so not Hawaii), I came upon a piece which is the perfect continuation of an end of year post I wrote on the aftermath of Sandy.
I’d mused about the Internet’s role in the emergence of a nurturing post-disaster city environment, about how caring we New Yorkers are to each other in times of strife, having each other’s back, even if only figuratively. That’s essentially where the article “I Really Like That You Like What I Like” starts off, with the sentence “The Internet, like your dentist’s assistant, is never kinder than when disaster strikes.” But Nathan Heller, the author, doesn’t stop there.
What follows is a chronicled lifespan of the social web, from its origination in bleak chat rooms designed for (and by) reclusive non-conformist techie types to the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter, et al, coming to the conclusion that the web is actually becoming a lot—get this— nicer. In fact, maybe too nice. (And yes, there totally is such a thing.)
Ah HA! Someone else has noticed this too! I knew I wasn’t imagining things. You must be sensing this a little too, friends, if you think about it. That slowly but surely, poke by poke, like by like, LOL by LOL, trolls are getting taken to task, status snippiness and Internet bitching have become plain no-no’s and the whole damn web is just so…supportive. For a recovering cynic, it’s enough to make a girl want to jump off the wagon.
“There is always sunshine to be found on the Web,” says Heller, “and usually we find it—trading compliments or loading our Twitter feeds with people whose goals, opinions, and politics mirror ours…What is that noise? It’s the sound of one hundred million backs being slapped, and it’s getting louder.”
I’d been getting a little sick of the gooeyness, starting in small doses. Say a friend’s banal status post like “worked up a great sweat in Zumba class!” receives 15 likes and comment variations on “you rock!” I’d refrain, wondering, “Why encourage needy status posting?” (Of which any status update is guilty. A status update is, in and of itself, a request for validation.) The support group atmosphere has been growing more palpable; I can almost taste the saccharine in my RSS feed.
By now we’ve all seen cyber-bullying get people into trouble. Heller brings up Karen the bus driver, the subject of ridicule whose public mockery won her a $700, 000 retirement payout, and @comfortablysmug, the troll who tweeted false alarms during Sandy and was then outed and shamed into disgrace. But it goes beyond that. The article mentions Jezebel and Buzzfeed and their new practice of flagging bigoted tweets, and snark-masters Perez Hilton and Gawker re-branding themselves into “niceness” and “depth”. Those of us in the New York theater scene watched an actress nearly ruin her own career with one snide tweet about a preview performance of Into the Woods—the backlash of which would make you forget you live in a nation that supports free speech. We see “Facebook etiquette” articles a la Emily Post on taking care to not seem, well, like an A-hole when you update your status, lest a future employer or mother-in-law be reading. As Heller says, “The web has not just started championing the good; it has begun policing it.” Internet karma is a bitch.
The good news is that one reason behind this shift is simply that, with the majority of our world online now, the mainstream has begun to balance out all the smacktalkers and scuzzwads. What does that mean? It means there are more nice people than mean people in the world, and majority rules.
The bad news is that the Internet has risen out of the shadows, and into its own as a central marketplace. And what do we do in markets? We buy and sell things. It’s a business landscape as much as it is anything else now. Why is this bad news? Because—and this is the other thing that had started to tug at me—you can see it in the way people relate to each other even in “friend-based” platforms like Facebook.
The braggadocio with which we all post about our lives is pure salesmanship, it’s branding. When mothers post gleaming picture after gleaming picture of their new babies, when actors post about the hot gig they just landed, when anyone posts about the amazing dinner they just created…we are all projecting only the images of ourselves that we want the world to see, and we are all eating each other up. Most of us do not write whiny complaints about our bad days anymore, at least without an attempt at wittiness, and if we do, it usually doesn’t pay off. How many mothers boast pictures of their kids throwing a tantrum? Or actors that they didn’t get the callback they wanted? Or the home cook of their burned chicken cacciatore? In putting only our best faces forward we are, says Heller, “all children now, hanging our crayon drawings on the wall and cooing indistinguishably over the collective effort.”
There is nothing wrong with painting a rosy picture of your life, or being proud of an accomplishment. The tug I feel is almost nostalgia for the genuine declarative statement and the honest response. Again, the article puts it like this: “Given the outpouring of praise online, one has to wonder how much of what you see is just a public put-on. ‘OMG your Cartagena vacation looks AMAZING!!!’ Is this an expression of envy, interest or dismissal? The distance between earnestness and disingenuousness is vanishingly small…” Are we all just trying to one up each other? Out-awesome our friends? I literally catch myself thinking in phrases like status updates sometimes, internally composing for a public forum. I am not a celebrity or politician, so why the hell am I doing that? The more I live in worlds like Facebook and Twitter, the more in danger I am of falling down the rabbit hole of affection from people I barely know, a congratulatory whirlpool, a mutual admiration society.
I posted a lot during the election season. I live tweeted next to my husband during the debates (a first!) and simultaneously posted on Facebook, until I finally just linked my two accounts. You know, to streamline my need to spew my thoughts into the ether. But it got boring after awhile. The only other tweets and posts I was seeing were other members of the choir, preaching away at me, just like I was at them. I had nestled myself cozily into my comfort zone, and I was almost embarrassed by it. My husband tried to provoke real discussion in some of his online posts, and was never satisfied. He just wanted a friendly debate with someone smart on the other side, to have a meaningful exchange that wasn’t spoon-fed to him by his own social network. I don’t think he ever found that. Most of us were busy beating the dead horse that was the “binders full of women” joke parade. The sound of us slapping each others’ backs was deafening.
I put all of this to you, friends, knowing full well that I will continue to live online, and check my social spheres at least once a day, but probably more. When something good happens to me or my husband does something sweet, I will flaunt it, and I will continue to curb my crabbiness in favor of my more personable web persona. And when my first kid is born, that precious face will be up on my page, gleaming away.
But maybe, just for the sake of argument and in homage to the sweetness that is real life, I’ll occasionally post a picture of the kid screaming his (or her) little head off.