Confessions to a Cruel Internet

Dear friend, I like to start my notes to you as if we’re already in the middle of a conversation. That was a line from a movie, You’ve Got Mail. Apologies; one should always recite a quotation with forewarning, or at the very least with inverted commas, but this unheralded interjection and its placement was apposite. You and I are engaged in a conversation, even if it can sometimes feel a little one-sided. This conversation always begins in the middle. That is because, from my perspective, the conversation never ends.

Perspective is a terrible thing. Perspective is personal. Perspective makes us alone. Thinking about You’ve Got Mail (a 90’s romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks), the movie is all about the difference made by perspective – how someone may seem perfectly awful when seen one way, and perfectly wonderful if seen another way. What appears certain is revealed to be relative. Most of that relativity is born from our ignorance, or indifference, to the people around us. We might see their exterior, but know nothing of them. Or we might know someone’s deepest thoughts, but have never looked on them with our own eyes.

Until recently, I have been ignorant of You’ve Got Mail. It rested in the waste basket marked “another formulaic romcom passes me by, quel domage…” The story revolves around two people who only know each other through the internet. Until last week, my only knowledge of it came via the references of a friend that I only know through the internet. My inclination to enjoy its lightly romantic story was not inspired by taking a journey to Paris, the city of love. On the contrary, I was desperate to fill the hours of my long-haul flight. I found You’ve Got Mail after long pondering what choice of back-of-chair entertainment would best follow The Social Network, a much more recent release. After scrolling right to the very end of the A-to-Z listing, the selection of You’ve Got Mail was instantly obvious. What better antidote to the true account of horrid adolescents plotting for fame and fortune by exploiting the internet, than the fiction of 30-somethings finding love through a chatroom?

The Social Network begins in the middle of a conversation. Two people ask questions and give answers out of turn, making it difficult to keep track of what they are talking about at any given point. If the middle of a conversation is the perfect metaphor for the ceaseless flow of internet communication, then the loss of sequence in a conversation is the perfect metaphor for how internet communication can lack synchronicity. Whilst Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly, the protagonists of You’ve Got Mail, use the internet as a medium for a faceless but nevertheless absorbingly intimate dialogue, Mark Zuckerberg is presented as unable to connect to the person right in front of him.

One could debate the merits of whether this is a conversation. If nobody replies, then probably this is not a conversation. But no conversation would ever be instigated unless someone spoke first, and people do reply to what I write, at least sometimes. This being the internet, they reply in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they just tell me what they think when they see me. On the other hand, this post is something of a reply to the emails I receive from that friend of mine who references You’ve Got Mail. If a conversation is a stream, a flow of words and ideas between a few people, then the internet is the waterfall, an outpouring of chaos. It engulfs many in a hybrid of stage whisper, sermon and rallying cry. And because the internet inhabits cyberspace, and not real space, its waterfall can keep on falling forever.

Frank: Amazing… th-this is amazing. Listen to this: ‘the entire workforce of the state of Virginia had to have solitaire removed from their computers because they hadn’t done any work in six weeks.’

Kathleen: That’s so sad.

Frank: Do you know what this is?

Kathleen: No.

Frank: What we’re seeing here?

Kathleen: What?

Frank: It’s the end of Western civilization as we know it.

You’ve Got Mail is a remake of a 1940’s Jimmy Stewart romantic comedy, with email taking the place of letters. For that reason alone, we should probably not form an opinion about how well its writers judged the future. But time and again, they got it horribly wrong. Playing games on your own is not a serious threat to people keeping their attention on what they should be doing. The insipid interactivity promoted by Facebook is the real weapon of mass distraction. In You’ve Got Mail, the personal service of a long-established independent book store is not enough to compete with the discounts and cappuccinos offered by the big chain that moves nearby. Now both of them would be put out of business by Amazon. You’ve Got Mail treats the internet as a thin additional gloss to life; it does not threaten substantive change. No wonder its 30-something business-owning protagonists come across as childishly innocent when compared to the manipulating kidults of The Social Network. For them, Facebook is not a soppy way to meet the love of their life. For them, the internet is a way to take advantage of everybody else’s soppy desires. If they meet the love of their life, it will be after earning the first few hundred million dollars. Meanwhile everyone else can meet the love of their life through a carefully designed and packaged website, and if they do not want to meet the love of their life, then let them at least meet their love for that evening.

Sometimes civilizations must fall to make way for a new one. As ably demonstrated in both You’ve Got Mail and The Social Network, change is not always for the better. Get cheaper books, but at the cost of losing that transitory human engagement you might enjoy with a shopgirl. Make a million ‘friends’ and a billion dollars, but at the expense of having all your flaws ruthlessly examined, whether through a law suit or a major motion picture. Find a new way to reach people, but give up your privacy forever as part of the bargain. The foundations of new civilizations can be built from the ruins of the civilizations they destroy, but those foundations may give us little hint of the eventual shape of things to come. So now we have this new way of conversing, and it is civilized to converse. We are each, in our own ways, cementing this new world by how we act.

Kathleen: What is so wrong with being personal anyway?

Joe: Err, nothing.

Kathleen: Because whatever else anything is, it oughta begin by being personal.

If The Social Network is to be believed, then Facebook certainly started as something personal. It was Mark Zuckerberg’s personal statement, personal liberation, personal f*ck you, all rolled into one. But perhaps that is just a way to give the story more dramatic nuance. Really, he was probably a bright kid with a good idea and the ability to realize it at just the right time and just the right place. Others may or may not have had the same idea, and he may or may not have borrowed/copied/stolen it from them. Others have done similar things before and since. What matters is that this was the time and place for this idea, which makes the story of The Social Network to be unfailingly the story of Mark Zuckerberg, no matter who the actors are around him. Facebook is his composition. A man with a wanton disregard for the intellectual property of others became the person owning the most valuable intellectual property of all. Facebook is the key that opens millions of doors.

Confessing to the internet is cruel, for it is impossible to tell if we are absolved of our sins, or merely adding to them. Nietzsche wrote that when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. Confessing to the internet is not to look into an abyss, but to fall into it, alongside a million other souls. More eerily still, you may fall in silence, unnoticed by those around you, or you may fall amidst a cacophony. It all depends on your popularity, or the interest you provoke. In hindsight, there should have been no surprise that Facebook was a hit. It was powered by teen cravings for popularity. The internet encourages the facetious hope of connecting to all, or to that special one. One must dive headlong into it, whilst never sure of where we will eventually come to rest, whether washed up in paradise, or dashed against the rocks.

Kathleen: Why did you stop by again? I forget.

Joe: I wanted to be your friend.

Kathleen: Oh.

Joe: I knew it wasn’t possible. What can I say? Sometimes a guy just wants the impossible.

Halfthoughts, this blog, is very nearly three years old. In that time I have written a new post once a week, with a very few exceptions. My WordPress dashboard tells me that this will be my 154th post. When I started, I explained the reasons for writing it: a compulsion on the behalf of the author, ignorant of the desires of any audience. The audience was unimagined. I did say you should feel free to come back and see how it progressed, if you like. Unexpectedly, some of you have. Ironically, others never visit ‘here’, but they read these words because I pipe them over to my Facebook page. So here I am, twirling head over ankle in the furious freefall of the internet, throwing my own misshapen ideas into its midst with a reliable regularity. In that time I have written poems, and film reviews, comedy scripts and diatribes. What does it all add up to? I must confess that I have no idea. The future is as mysterious to me as it was to the writers of You’ve Got Mail. The true consequences of our collective actions are as unknown as are the consequences of transitioning to a civilization where everybody, without exception, has been socially networked from the moment of birth. Even the past, as documented here, is shapeless. Or rather, it eludes condensation. Feel free to summarize it if you like, but I cannot.

To my surprise, what You’ve Got Mail and The Social Network had in common was not that they were stories involving the internet. Their visions of the internet were too different to allow that. What You’ve Got Mail and The Social Network have in common is people. Technology changes, and technology changes people, but the essence of human desires remain the same. People want to know other people. They want to be known by other people. They want to be loved and respected, and so to be seen in the best possible of all relative lights. As we crash headlong through the internet’s fibre optic backbone, it can become the brightest of all lights, made up of a billion points of light. Its glare can be blinding. We all sit in the light, but to be in the light need not entail that we are seen. I find possibility without promise to be comforting; another confession of mine. Why not strip chance bare, accelerate it to the speed of light, and see what happens? It is no more or less the same chance as meeting somebody new in your neighbourhood book store. This is a bright new world. Remember not to stare directly at it, and try to look at it through dark glasses.

Welcome, again, to the middle of our conversation. Let us see where it carries us.

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