Sunday, April 05, 2009

The rare ould times

As of over a year ago, the estimated number of blogs in the world was perhaps as many as 200 million. For something so novel, growth rates tend to go exponential rather quickly and then plateau once either the fad wears off or there are no people left without blogs. How many there are today is probably far greater. How many of those are active is anybody’s guess.

And as with any “new” thing (I readily admit I’ve been asleep at the wheel on this one), I have spent rather more time than I should have in exploring my new playground. With the benefit of hindsight, it was time definitely better spent at the pub. I now feel much less insecure about my own unremarkable and unoriginal ideas.

I also feel terribly old. The rapid evolution of the internet gives a false impression of time: the days of crawling unsteadily and uncertainly out from my cave of Windows 3.1 and into this brave new virtual world armed only with Netscape Navigator 2 seem a dreadfully long time ago. Who remembers, or even ever knew in the first place, what SLIP was? There were no blogs in those days: there was nobody to read them even if there was. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

Fast forward roughly 10 years, and now the internet is held together not by hyperlinks and shonky routing protocols like the old days, but blogospheres, social networking sites, Google AdSense and tracking cookies. My heart still lives in the past because the technological progress has masked a disturbing social regress. None of the things we “rely on”, such as MySpace, FaceBook or Twitter (whatever the hell that is), has made us even the slightest bit happier or better off. If anything the opposite is true. The mantra behind social networking is one of connecting people. They make communication easier, but in the process devaluing it at the same time.

Who puts the same amount of effort and creativity into a FaceBook status update or wall post as they might with a hand-written letter? How many people even send hand-written letters? Would anyone go to the trouble of buying dozens or even a hundred envelopes and stamps, writing down the first thought that comes to them and perhaps what MP3 they’re currently listening to for each envelope, then going to the post office and mailing them to everybody they know? You may remind me that this is an unfair comparison, and you would be right—but that is exactly my point. The way we communicate is in many ways devolving to fit the medium.

The same argument can be applied to publishing literature via blogging. It’s incredibly easy and there are no direct costs involved, and this easiness has two direct consequences:

  1. It opens the playing field to anybody with a computer and an internet connection.
  2. Little to no effort is required.

This can have no cause other than to lower the standards. Prior to the blog, publishing was an expensive and time-consuming process. Firstly, you had to have money or you had to convince people with money to invest in the whole adventure. Would enough people pay money to find out what you had to say? While this may be in many respects a crude form of quality control, it did at least wrap some level of meritocracy around the whole process.

If I seem overly harsh, bear in mind that this comes from somebody who is currently married to somebody they met online. Of my closest circle of friends, IRC was the initial contact point for roughly half of them. I am not blind to the possibilities on offer. Indeed, I have done well out of it all; it’s the rest of society I worry about.

My generation grew up in a time where, though it was a large part of our early lives, we can still remember what life was like before the internet. This gives me a perspective that will one day no longer exist. As a socially awkward teenager, I saw a type of purity in text-based chatting and message board posting. It stripped away class, age, race and face, leaving everybody to deal directly with the person within. Finally, the ugly bastards were on equal footing with everybody else.

That’s what I remember thinking at the time, though hindsight now paints a very different picture. Like Karl Marx and Christopher Poole before me, I forgot to take into account human nature. Anonymity insulates people from lasting and/or painful consequences for their actions. This kind of liberation that set me on my course of self-discovery and growth can just as easily set others on a course that, if the early warning signs are ignored, leads to 4chan or, even worse, emo. With freedom also comes responsibility, such as the responsibility not to write blogs like this.

Emo boy/girl
Typical emo boy/girl.

Writing them, as we can see, is easy. Reading them can be another story. Going too far down the rabbit hole of the blogosphere is, from my recent and brief experience, not at all rewarding. Can you imagine being telepathic? It might seem like an excellent thing at first. Now imagine not being able to turn it off. Imagine trying to think or sleep with the thoughts of a million self-pitying adolescent girls swirling around in your head at once.

This, sadly, is what an ever-increasing part of the internet is. Given its original purpose and the vast potential it had, is it any wonder I am nostalgic for the pre-commercialism era?

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