Pyramids or Quilts – What are we doing on this internet
I am given to fits of nostalgia. Sometimes for things that have happened in the very near past. Twitter’s website recently got some kind of face lift. I am going through a melancholy adjustment period. Those rounded corners freak me out. It’s just not the same.
Change seems to happen at an ever accelerating rate. It’s a sign of getting older. Or living in New York. Or loitering on the internet. Also, Google is putting sensors into contact lenses. (Hello FUTURE!)
Back in the day, maybe 2006, Ze Frank did a video blog called “The Show with Ze Frank.” On this show he was insightful, funny and pretty much marvelous. It rewired my brain on several occasions. I learned stuff and was exposed to many new idears.
I wanted to share an episode of it with you but the site is under construction so the transcript of that episode will have to suffice. He was reminding people to vote in the “I Knows Me Some Ugly MySpace Contest” and defending having such a contest and the idea of the Myspace of 2006.
Back then, Myspace was a different creature. Not only was it popular, it was also buggy and unreliable and not very secure. It had the tendency to log you off randomly and without warning. Oh, and it was reeeeeaaaally ugly.
“In Myspace, millions of people have opted out of pre-made templates that ‘work’ in exchange for ugly. Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.
Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your Myspace page ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time as consumer-created media engulfs the other kind, it’s possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of talent and artistic ability.”
– Ze Frank, The Show, 7-14-06
We had a place on the web that was hosted by Myspace that we could customize using html with whatever sparkling, flashing, animated, eyeblinding thing we wanted. We liked what we liked and it seems that most of us liked things to be jacked up. In doing so, we learned a little html, maybe a few things about layout, or fonts, or scripts. In the terminology of the episode, consumers became authors. And through grappling with the creative process we were empowered to express and also gained a greater depth in our understanding of the work of others. We knew enough to care about the mechanics.
I remember being completely stoked by this episode. Stoked enough to have a thought and to speak with CK about that thought. But I never blogged about it. I meant to but … it just … I couldn’t get it straight. She blogged about it and I got pissy at her for doing so before me. Because sometimes, I am a petty jerk. Since then, other people have said some smart stuff about it. They can now be pissy at me in much the same way I was at CK.
But let us continue and hope that as Joss Whedon’s character, Mr. Universe, would say, “You can’t stop the signal, Mal.” Despite whoever is incited to pissiness, Mal.
The thought I had was this – in ancient Egypt, they built the pyramids, immense and wondrous feats. It was the vision of a small group of people who either enslaved, hired or persuaded a whole bunch of other people to do the work to make it a reality. Same with the Colosseum, the Notre Dame cathedral, the Taj Mahal – I could go on and on.
In our times we have the internet.
In 2006, I thought that the internet would become our pyramid, maybe not a pyramid, maybe more of an infinite and ever expanding quilt. We wouldn’t follow the vision of a small group of people, a pharaoh or a king. We would each create our own pieces of it as we saw fit and for our own purposes. Collectively, it would become the sum of human expression in our times, not the culmination of collective human sweat to support to the vision of a few. Our monument of expression would be all the greater for the fact that it was authored by us all.
That seemed possible for a brief time but that time has passed. We’ve all gotten sucked into the gated community of Facebook and the vortex of Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn among other internet places, where you are warmly invited to come in and interact but you will interact in a certain way and you cannot paint the walls or rearrange the furniture.
This setting works for some things. Sometimes you want to chat or share some outrage or a laugh without getting bogged down futzing around with this widget or that table.
But sometimes it feels more like broadcast than conversation. JL commented to me a few years ago that social media was a bust. He felt that there was too much talking and not enough listening.
Nor, perhaps enough thoughtful dialogue.
Now famous people, professionals and media companies have carved out impressive pieces of the internet. The gatekeepers are back. Some blogs grew up to become their own media empires and some bloggers have broken out and gotten their own book deals or been absorbed into traditional media companies.
And while some folks are still making and blogging, a lot of us are now mostly retweeting, posting, sharing and liking. We participate at a lower energy level. We have dayjobs. And from a safer distance. ‘What? I didn’t say it, I just reposted it ….”
Which in itself is not a bad thing. If you’re not going to build your own blocks, choosing to selectively replicate a certain kind of block is in itself a means of expression. You help to collectively amplify a point of view or an idea and help to draw more attention to it. Curation is challenging and valuable, particularly in the face of an avalanche of available information. You are a kind of gatekeeper and broadcaster too. But curation is not creation. And part of me cannot help but imagine that corporations of all kinds are patting me on the head saying, “Run along Missy, don’t forget to like and retweet me – back to being a good little consumer.”
Alexis Madrigal suggests as much in a piece in the Atlantic about Youtube.
“So, after a brief flowering of user-generated online media rivaling the scale and reach of professional online media, we’ve seen a retrenchment of traditional media structures. Sure, millions of people still have blogs, but the bulk of content that’s read is produced by a small number of people who do this for a living (inside completely retooled media companies).”
– Alexis Madrigal, “Where Have All the Cats Gone? YouTube Is Ruled by Professionals Now“
It was an unusual time in which media companies were not paying attention to the internet. Now that they are in it to win it and watching soooooooooo closely, one could wonder if our days of quilting are over. The internet could go the way of broadcast radio and television and be one more channel on which we are entertained, brainwashed and sold to. Make no mistake, I loves me some TV on the internet.
Or perhaps we all keep blogging and building and just bide our time like the small furry mammals scurrying around the feet of giant media dinosaurs waiting for the end of this Cretaceous Period. For our next opportunity.
My challenge to myself and to you is to make an offering to the internet this year. Don’t worry if no one sees it. Don’t worry if it’s ugly or stupid. Do it. Who knows what you will find out about yourself or the world in the process. Stitch something into our quilt.
If you want to go all out and get webby with it, Mozilla has a webmaker project that could give you a steer.