The Internet is a thing that exists. Now what?

By Jonathan McJunkin

I wrote this column on the Internet. A website called will reward every 100 words you write with a picture of a kitten from public flickr streams, sometimes even kittens inside buckets or flower pots. It is possibly the most Internet thing that exists, combining the weird obsession with cats that springs from the web’s position as an introvert paradise with short attention span gratification, multitasking and use of common data available to all. The pinnacle of humanity’s greatest communication technology has been reached, and we all can haz. To many people, the Internet is srs bzns, and the new world it creates does a lot more than give us fun new toys to play with. Though it could be seen as simply a tool used for information and entertainment exchange, the Internet is not the new television, or the fourth generation of the telegraph. In a time when social networks act as extensions of experience for millions, the Internet and social media are the first wave of technology to create anything close to what could reasonably be called a world within itself, allowing the consumers of the Internet to not only use the tool but live it. According to some culture commentators, social media turns people into brands. Online, you create a persona that Facebook distills into a system where you can choose what picture you want to go along with the day you were born and friendship is something you can see. You can now read socially, and if you choose to you can tailor your consumption of media to fit whoever you think you are. Google will help you, tailoring your search results to fit your previous searches, interests, and expressed ideas–making the world of human knowledge seem like one’s own personal Disney World of confirmation bias, and making us even more like “the type of person who reads NPR” than a person who happens to read NPR. Nathan Jurgenson wrote in The Atlantic last month that social media, like photography a century before it, gives us an altered way of viewing life–we party with the intent of creating Facebook images, we observe in 140 characters or less, and we condense our life into status updates as it goes down so we can share it with our friends. To him, this goes beyond simply capturing what we do anyway and gets to be a motivation for our lives themselves. As he puts it, “the tail of Facebook documentation has come to wag the dog of lived experience.” This type of theorizing is dangerous stuff. Though Jurgenson is himself young, a lot of this kind of discourse is just a case of kids-these-days-need-to-get-off-my-lawn: pundits of the previous generation misunderstanding youth culture and exaggerating its faults. I recently read an essay that demonized movies with sound, saying that it was impossible for viewers to process both pictures and actors talking, therefore leading to the death of critical thinking. As far as I know, that has not happened. A lot of discussion on what the Internet and “new technology” means is so hyperbolic that it is ridiculous on its face even now, without the benefits of hindsight. Modern novelist and defender of the Old Guard Jonathan Franzen recently said that the impermanence of e-books compared to paper books is “not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.” Apparently the end result of not touching paper while reading is the destruction of civilization. He also said, of the distraction of the Internet, that “it’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” I don’t feel the need to refute these claims in detail. Taste is subjective, and literature has survived hundreds of years of changes to media and technology–Franzen doesn’t set his own text on a printing press. Literature has been written using gChat, and in the words of Internet poet (and Facebook friend of yours truly (he adds everyone)) Steve Roggenbuck, “If I’m tweeting, it’s literature. And if you don’t like that just go, take a bath, you know.” While Franzen takes his bath, let’s return to Jurgenson. How are we affected by the way we relate our lives to each other? I don’t think I would go quite as far as Jurgenson does. Though I do think the Internet shapes our lives in more ways than we realize, I don’t think it’s something we necessarily need to get worked up about. No matter how integrated or seemingly essential Facebook gets, it will never be the Matrix. The world is real; it will always be real. Though the Internet has given us the impression that when we shout into the void, the void tweets back, there’s no substitute for human connection–and if anything, Facebook strengthens these connections by making it easier to keep in touch than ever before. It’s important to think about how the world we live in affects who we are. The Internet has changed the availability of information, and the way friendships work. That being said, any claims that it has changed the nature of human existence, that we’re in some ways being led in our lives entirely by something as immaterial as social media, are almost certainly reaching. Is posting a status about an experience anything fundamentally different than telling a story about it at the family table? Life might change with new technology, but it’s still life. And there’s one key difference between real social experience and Facebook that I haven’t mentioned yet: you can log out of Facebook.