During the New Year’s Day last Thursday, well over 500,000,000 tweets were sent around the world – almost 6 every millisecond. And that’s not particularly surprising. There’s almost three billion people online, and 2014 was a big year for the Internet, not to mention its 25th anniversary*. But 2014 was also the year of selfies, as marked by the rise of the comically popular selfie stick, several apps built entirely on the concept of selfies, and even smartphones that take everything from a ultra-high-definition selfies to selfie panoramas called “groupfies” to phones specifically engineered for the best selfies that shiny, new, 21st century tech has to offer. But when you get past the hilarity of many of these quirky innovations in the rising field of self-photography, selfies may just be a continuation of the Internet’s growing trend of narcissism. Actually, “narcissism” may be too strong of a word. But awkward word choices aside, let me explain.
The selfie stick is just one of the quirky innovations that drove the self-photography industry in 2014. (img from Wikimedia Commons, by Petar Milosevic)
The dominant culture of the Internet is about focusing on me, the creator of the content. I’m not saying the online audience are all narcissists – that’s not true at all. But the Internet and its subsequent technologies are, for the most part, about myself (and you) more than it is about other people. Pick any social networking site, and it’s probably about telling your life story, getting “Likes” for your posts and photos. To-do list managers and task organizer apps are about organizing your life, and Siri and Google Now exist to respond to your needs, on demand with their ever more human-like voices. I think we’re slowly but increasingly digging ourselves and our perception deeper into the hole that is a self-centered worldview, because regardless of how you interact with people online, the vast majority of interactions just aren’t as human as interactions in the real world. Nearly all of your actions online are not dealing with people, but with objects – they’re not conversations, but monologues. Say you were at the AFC Wimbledon vs. Liverpool game that just happened today, and you wanted to talk about your excitement. If you were to talk to a person, you would have a conversation: a back-and-forth of words and sentences as you exchange ideas and thoughts, maybe even predictions and bets on the game. But move that expression of excitement online, and you have a tweet or a status update, or maybe a vlog. Maybe you’ll use an emoticon or take a selfie. But that kind of expression isn’t a conversation. You write something on your timeline, and someone else may respond. It may get just one or two responses, or maybe it’ll garner thousands of passionate Liverpool fans’ replies. But that’s not a conversation like a human interaction; you’re throwing out your words into the wonderful digital void that is the Internet, and if someone else happens by, they throw their thoughts and words back into the void, so others can see it. It’s the digital equivalent of leaving post-it notes stickered onto someone’s door for them to see, and reply back with their own post-it notes on your door when you return – it’s a monologue, a spouting of thoughts aimed at nobody in particular.
On the flip-side of the argument, as I’ve talked about many times, the Internet is where communities also thrive. Many incredible world-changing and history-making communities exist purely in the virtual world. But my points still stand here, too. Pick any forum or discussion website, and it’s not so much a conversation as it is someone making a comment, and another passerby responding to your comment, and so on. We’re back to the metaphorical post-it-notes-on-your-door method, and your words aren’t really aimed at anyone in particular. When you watch a YouTube video or read a blog post and you leave a comment, the comment rarely is specifically for the creator of the piece of content. It’s for the rest of the world that also would see the content that you commented on. And there lies the fundamental difference between words spoken online and those spoken offline. And when you don’t really speak to any one person but try to have a conversation with the world, it rarely really ends up being a conversation at all. And that raises the question: if our Internet is just a collection of monologues, are we really communicating with value?
I don’t really have an answer to that. When I look at high-quality YouTube creators and well-written blogs, I definitely think we’re sharing important ideas in new and exciting ways, but again, we’re not talking to each other, so much as talking into a void, hoping someone would hear and respond to the idea you just threw out. Of course, there’s always at least an exception, and I’ve seen quite a few around. I’ve read well thought-out and civil discussions about racial profiling and gender roles around the many corners of the Internet, and those discussions are just as good as any offline. But in an Internet dominated by monologues, those dialogues are few and far between. Sharing ideas is with the world the lifeblood of many online communities, but like any good movie, I think the best scenes of our online narratives can come about when we choose to have a healthy mix of both.
* The Internet is commonly cited as being created on March 12, 1989.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Facing forward.
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