I remember MySpace, and Hi5…I even remember Neopets, Gia, and of course my first Sims. I’m fuzzy on where my first blog might be… I remember losing hours in StumbleUpon wormholes. I’ll never forget leaving class to hop straight onto AIM… Oh, the rush I felt sitting at a Brown University summer camp, starting my first Facebook profile, was awesome. It would be months before a majority of my friends from back home in New Orleans made the MySpace migration over to Facebook. My first taste of being “in the know” on anything remotely tech-related and I learned how to float on that new kind of suave.
There’s this assumption that “Millennials” like myself have curated digital lives. There’s another assumption that we’re “digital natives”. These assumptions cannot exist together, it’s oxymoronic.
You don’t “curate” what is natural to you. We were, and still are, just sharing as we exist. The highlights of it, mostly..but this sharing is natural. A refreshing break from the “save face and carry on” behavior of our parents. That push to express authenticity and celebrate individuality is what makes a digital native a distinct rebellion from the past. So what’s happening here if it’s not “curation”?
Save for a few trolls who enjoyed the anonymity of a digital self to allow them to behave as virtual fuckheads… Save for a few Instagram models and YouTube stars (and I’d argue before monetization YouTube was a highly authentic personal outlet for kids across the world and for most, the fame was totally unintentional)…set aside those situations, and what is it — truly?
It’s the same people, the same crazy kids, with a new tool : the internet.
I didn’t “curate” my AIM conversations, or the memes on my Tumblr blog. I didn’t carefully track my Myspace or Facebook or Twitter updates (I mean, have you *seen* the stuff I post?). Sure, today some people do. Plenty of businesses and a few humans way late to the party are running every damn moment through HootSuite and FaceTune but to suggest that “curation” is the way social media generally is and ought to be is the biggest Fuck You you could make to a so-called digital native — and here’s why:
- The internet is a freak show that exalts us all.
If I want to look at beautiful, thin, white, mysteriously rich people making smiling faces that don’t quite reach their eyes, I don’t need a new app for that — I could easily turn to the Friends re-runs of my youth. So nah, you can keep that. But if I want to — no, need to — see women who look like me, experience the ups and downs of the human condition like me, resonate with me… that is where the internet finds it’s heart.
Back when I was freakishly Harry Potter obsessed, or seeking validation for my attempts at art, the internet connected me to overlapping worlds of people like myself. People who didn’t really fit in. It wasn’t a tool to help us satisfy the rules on how we should be adjusting ourselves to assimilate— fuck that. It blew the notion of “fitting in” right out of the lexicon. Because, for most people, being your true self online is so much more fun than anything else. You can be the jock who’s a legend in Minecraft, or the down-to-earth studious girl who secretly loves YouTube beauty gurus. The internet is where you can be out, or at the very least, find advice from real people in your situation on how to deal until you can get somewhere more tolerant. Memes let us share painfully human experiences both with humor and without having to craft it into our own words. The internet is the fastest way to plug into a certain level of emotional understanding towards people all over the world while making it safe for us to open up ourselves. Online is where people can breathe.
2. We see through your corporate ruse.
Let’s allow the nauseating thought that digital persona’s should be “curated”. It begs the question: Curated for whom? Admiration and fame, maybe… but that admiration is really only just the start, isn’t it? The attention you get from having thousands of followers from “over-sharing” your life is the signal to corporate drones to start trying to quantify the brand value of that life. Considering that we all need to survive under capitalism, I have no issue with folks turning new avenues of fame into currency on their terms. Additionally, there’s nothing wrong with making this virtual world a home for your visual aesthetic. But remember: The conflation of customizable products with authentic individual expression is a long standing advertising gimmick desperate to sophisticate its tricks each quarter.
We’re now doing much of the work for these companies. Instead of creating a product and then imagining a real life to orient around it, they can browse the internet for lives essentially on sale. These companies use capital to manipulate authentic lives into living advertisements, often using young people who lack the negotiating power of celebrities, much information about the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines, or a steady job. The individual is now a brand, standing between the audience they attracted from openness and intimacy, and the paycheck that hinges on undoing some of that without losing too much “engagement”. If the audience becomes fed up with the proliferation of sponsored ads and turns on their no longer relatable icon? No issue for the company. The maximum cash value of that real person’s life has been extracted, time to move onto the next.
Even amongst the non-photogenic the pressure to be “professional” on the internet persists. My generation never came here to turn ourselves into the least offensive pitch but here we are, encouraged to “curate”. I’m talking about when “curated” stops meaning collections of your favorite things and cherished moments and starts meaning… primed. Primped, primed, (pimped, ostensibly) and ready for assimilation into a particular corporate ideology you have yet to meet or earn anything from. The idea that our online lives, our very outlet, should be sterile just in case a future hiring manager, admissions officer, or maybe even one day a bank, go poking around. Keep in mind, this is your Twitter, your Facebook profile, your Instagram, your Tumblr, your Pintrest, your Reddit, your (anon) 4chan… these things make up your digital home, and your personality. It is no business of a business to be concerned with how you keep your home or what hobbies you might be up to off the clock. The same applies to sharing cat videos, religious events, and drunken night club selfies.
The game we’re being asked to play is an especially ludicrous one. We all have silly moments and guilty pleasures, but the stigma is dished out to those who share those authentic moments and lost the lottery of who might be looking at them with negative intentions, not dished out to everyone who actually participates in such moments. Reminds me a bit of the criminal injustice versus complete indifference you might experience from being seen smoking marijuana.
When we craft ourselves to be company-friendly online, we surrender some valuable freedoms and set dangerous precedents.
The creation of the internet has democratized more than we ever thought possible. It’s granted access to information, a platform, and avenues for self expression to billions of people. That is what makes this place beautiful, cool, and exciting: people. Not brands. We are the life force of this brilliant infrastructure and because of that we, the proletariat, can wield it as a tool for influence and change as much as a place for entertainment and solace. In all of human history, what else so valuable has been made so widely accessible to the masses? We are inundated with constant advertising, and we exchange more of our personal time for what dances on a blurry line of still being work time, every year. We are absolutely entitled to a space where marketing, brands, and advertising do not overwhelm.
If the “powers that be” have their way, the internet is doomed to become a giant, all knowing, advertisement. You could argue it already is. It would serve no purpose except data collection, market research, and issuing repercussions for our off-time behavior. It’s certainly not as if they’ll ever police themselves and say “Ok, we don’t need to try to hop on this trend, analyze this data… it’s not our space nor our place.” You know they won’t — they are insatiable. Advertising will swallow this new freedom whole, if allowed. We can’t let that happen. This new frontier was tamed by freaks and geeks.
When corporations turn their attention to mimicry of genuine online interaction as a marketing strategy, they largely fail. This is good news. It keeps large swaths of this enormous space that is the digital world as places of precious refuge in an existence overwhelmingly run by the Owning and Investing class and their loyal subsidiary, the Marketing and Selling class.
(Pictured above: “Empower yourself by doing free labor to empower your employer!” )
You see, the companies are jealous. It’s sad but they really are. They spend millions of dollars of Superbowl ads that will never come close to the viral fame of a cat playing a piano. They assume people are just too stupid, to short of attention span, to appreciate the “gifts” they bestow upon us: media that exists for the sake of selling us shit. But what they don’t understand about what happened between that cat and that piano was that it was genuinely cool. The best kind of cool — the cool that merely is without posturing. They try to be Twitter funny without realizing that most of the best Twitter comedians are fairly self-deprecating. They don’t want to self depreciate, it makes no sense to them to cast their brand in an unflattering light. And they try to calculate coolness, a guaranteed path to killing cool in the most soulless way.
What works on the internet is exactly what made it what it is today: people. We are real, relatable, expressive, and imperfect. We’re messy. Online is our place for being vulnerable, ridiculous, exploring, arguing, and sharing ourselves in ways we cannot at work or in many local societies. To dedicate your life to being an “internet personality” is art, and as a brilliant instructor at NOCCA once told me “Art is allowing your heart to get broken on stage.” These brands, these advertising teams fettering over clickthrough rates and using too many hashtags want the stage and the audience, but absolutely do not want to break their own hearts. Nothing messy and nothing imperfect. They want no vulnerabilities. This is why their advertising can’t compete with what real people create.
If we over-curate ourselves, we’ll suffer the same drole existence here in our most free space. Take away anything too controversial, religious, or political. Take away anything too sad. Remove complexity. Delete any shred of life that might not pass an HR review, and you’ve got yourself the illusion of an existence sans vulnerabilities. It’s not who you are, but it’s exactly what a few people looking over your data for the most straightforward analysis of how valuable you are for creating or spending capital would like you to be. The AI tools become so much more accurate when you’re categorizable. We’re priming ourselves to satisfy being “professional” on our free time.
I don’t know what radical changes will take place in politics, culture, and the human experience for the next couple generations but I know damn well they’ll be incubated here on the internet. So we’ve got to keep this place weird. Welcoming and eager to meet the next cohort of freaks, geeks, radicals, and whomever else needs it. We can’t kick out monopolies and privatization completely but we can keep a hostile attitude towards attempts to restrict our access, like defending Net Neutrality. Support newspapers and brave investigative journalists to lessen their reliance on native advertising. We can keep in mind that there is more to the internet than Google, Amazon, and Facebook and diversify our most valuable resource : attention, away from them. As with all things, we must save space for the new and daring while supporting the small and earnest. This place is not perfect, but it is ours and it is still transformable.