I suddenly feel the need to have a rant. So here it is.
Last Sunday Hanna and I were watching the PBS documentary America in Primetime, which is about storytelling in American television. One of the talking heads — I honestly wasn’t paying close enough attention to remember whom — went on a rant toward the end of the hour about how self-absorbed and vacuous spending your time on Twitter and Facebook is, and how in response people hunger for stories about action heroes like Jack Bauer and Dexter who (apparently?) have found something more meaningful, more “real,” to do with their time than compose tweets that broadcast what they had for breakfast.
I’d argue that there’s a lot of layers or wrong with this the-internet-is-making-us-self-absorbed-image-whores!!! argument, which appears to be gearing up for another day as the moral panic du jour. But the specific aspect of wrong which I’d like to focus on today is the way such arguments interpret personal status updates on platforms like Twitter and Facebook as “look at me! look at me!” behavior of attention-hungry divas.
|here’s me being an attention-hungry diva today|
Obviously, attention-hungry divas use social networking platforms. Just like attention-hungry divas create drama at their place of work or at the Thanksgiving table when they go home at the holidays. In other words, the Internets is a place where people behave well, like people. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
It’s not the technology that makes the asshole, it’s the person who chooses to use the technology to broadcast how much of an asshole they are.
But let’s come back to my point about tea and biscuits. There have been a lot of folks talking about the power of Twitter for social justice organizing this past year. And there’s no denying that the (relatively) accessible space of the Interwebs makes it possible to get the word out to your compatriots like never before. I got into blogging to share pictures of my year abroad with my friends and family back home. I stayed because of the feminist blogosphere.
But part of me also stayed for the part about staying in touch with my family and friends “back home.” Which today means Ann Arbor (Mich.), Austin (Texas), Bend (Ore.), Hayward (Calif.), Holland (Mich.), Lansing (Mich.), Norridgewock (Me.), Portland (Ore.), and more. These are the family and friends whom Hanna and I used to live with or live within shouting distance of. Folks whom we used to be able to talk casually with over a cup of tea, or get together with and order a pizza and share a movie with on Friday night.
We can’t do that with some of these folks any more, ’cause we’re scattered from coast to coast and all the points in between.
And there are days when that hurts like a bruise.
So I’m on Twitter ’cause it’s one way I can get snaps of the dinner my brother and his wife are having in Portland, I’m on G-chat so I can ask my girlfriend what she wants me to pick up from the store on the way home, and I’m on Facebook so my mother can share photos of her latest batch of Christmas candles, so I can find out how my best friend’s dissertation defense went down, and when my other best friend’s having a rough day and needs virtual hugs or virtual tea. I’m on Skype so I can check in by videophone at Christmas and hear my grandma read bedtime stories, or join the West Coast family after Thanksgiving dinner despite the fact that we can’t afford the vacation time or the airfare to join them.
Sometimes it sucks that this is all we get of each other right now. That this is all we’ll get of each other for maybe years to come. But I’m also damn grateful we have the technology to log on and find out that, on a Saturday night, someone’s watching a crap science fiction movie on SyFy, someone else is completing research notes, yet another person’s about to head out for live music at the bar, and a forth friend is curled up with a new advance review copy of Alan Bennett’s forthcoming Smut.
It seems to me that such updates are only self-absorbed if they’re read as a genre distinct from the “welcome-home-how-was-your-day” conversations that all of us have with our loved ones. The dense, quotidian web of co-existence.
The complaints of those who fret that the Internet is full of such fluff and nonsense (and that this is a BAD THING) always make me wonder — first of all — whether those people only ever have conversations about things of Greater Import than whether Creme De La Earl Gray or Lemon Chamomile would be the better choice for an afternoon cuppa. And second of all, why for heaven’s sake — if this chatter irritates them so much — they don’t simply stop tuning in. Because, fair enough, someone else’s grocery list might only be interesting to those of us who make snooping our profession (i.e. Historians).
Well, no one’s forcing you to read anyone else’s Twitter feed or Tumblr page. Or consider the truth of the statement that the internet is made of cats. Or learn all the truth that can be found in the Daily Mail. We might be using the (virtual) public square to catch up on the nuts and bolts of daily life in a way that is more, well, public than it has been in recent generations. But the radical privacy we’ve come to assume constitutes proper middle class family existence (“a gentleman’s home is his castle”) is a relatively modern cultural invention. So we might choose to argue that the permeability of the castle walls is troubling, but we shouldn’t argue its unprecedented. And we certainly shouldn’t view such phenomena as self-absorbed, attention-seeking behavior, pure and simple. Because it’s a whole lot more than that for many of us. It’s how we stay connected to the people we love.
Hope y’all have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend, surrounded — physically and virtually — by your families born and chosen.