Before the web (in its current behemoth incarnation, anyway), there was college (for me, at least), and before college, there were books about the past and present — books I mostly ate like chocolate. But one afternoon in my junior year, one of my professors introduced a class full of Dickens-weary English majors to something that, back in the late 90s, few of us had ever heard of. Something that spoke of the future and how utterly crazy it was going to be. From that day forward, postmodernism grabbed us all and held us tight, from the opening pages of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions all the way through the end of DeLillo’s White Noise where god knows what was even happening — seriously, that book was nuts. Our wee little twenty-year-old minds were blown.
Simulacrum? Yeah, that could maybe be a thing. And wasn’t it terrifying? “Who wants to stand in front of a church with a camera pressed to your face just so you can look at the pictures later and remember what it was like to look through the lens at the church, when instead you could have just maybe, I don’t know… looked at the church? With your eyeballs?” we wondered. What if we got to a point where no one was experiencing anything worth talking about anymore, but rather, we all just started blindly making records of things, drawing a dotted line around what would have otherwise been real experiences, all for the sake of telling other people later about things we never actually lived through because we were too busy planning the anecdote and framing the shot for later? What if we all started pretending we’d really lived inside of all these moments when we’d actually been standing on the outside, snapping away and documenting it all from the perimeter like a bunch of little journalists? What if we started to live our entire lives that way? What if we forgot how to live, how to communicate, how to be?
We were all pretty freaked about the idea of people taking pictures of things instead of just living in the moment… about people being more interested in the perception of things than in the actual things themselves. Somebody who wasn’t worried about this later invented Instagram, and now I know what you ate for lunch. (I don’t mind it, really, but back in the 20th century, we were bugging out over the idea that there would someday be no “now”; that there would only be “let’s just capture this for later.” Somehow, I guess we’ve adapted? Maybe, kind of? Or not? I have no idea.)
At the time, The Real World was about six seasons in, and its originality was starting to wane as glimmers of the future began to cloud the vision of network execs in the forms of Survivor and Big Brother, which weren’t yet on the air but were probably in the earliest stages of development. No one knew what twitter was, nor Facebook, nor even MySpace or Friendster. It was in many ways a much simpler time, or so it seems in retrospect. Life was life, entertainment was entertainment, and voyeurism wasn’t quite the bloodsport it is today. Also, I’m fairly certain all the Kardashians were still in middle school.
I’m not going to spend the following paragraphs complaining about how awful pop culture and social media are. Actually, I don’t think they’re awful at all. What’s awful is what we’re letting it do to us. What it’s making us into. Well, some of us, anyway… and others by extension. As in, people who give advice to aspiring writers, and by extension, aspiring writers ourselves.
Thanks to some of this advice, I worry sometimes that we’re doomed.
I was reading an interview a literary magazine did recently with one of the editors of a popular female-oriented website I sometimes skim — the one that made Cat Marnell famous — and in this interview, the editor’s talking about the awards she won previously for her writing when she starts forgetting which awards they were. The following conversation takes place after that:
Interviewer: What, you can’t even remember them all any more?
Editor: No, not at all. I haven’t had an award since college. I just don’t submit to them anymore. It’s a different world—who gives a shit about awards anymore? Now it’s all about Twitter followers and Klout Score. Honestly, no one gets hired because of résumés anymore. They get hired because of a Google search. They get hired because of a Twitter feed. Do you know what I’m saying?
Interviewer: I do know what you’re saying. Do you use Klout?
Editor: Yeah. The reason I was interested in it was when I read that it was this kind of empirical measurement, like a Q Rating that shows how popular an actor or actress is in Hollywood. I’ve always been a fan of hard measurements of soft sciences, so it’s fun. It’s fun, especially if you’re kind of a workaholic and don’t have a boyfriend and that’s just a big part of your life to see: oh, my Bing results went up. And: my level of engagement on Twitter went up.
Interviewer: It’s interesting that Klout looks mostly at engagement. With Twitter followers, you can even buy them if you want, but what’s actually gained from that?
Editor: I looked at it the other day to see what the breakdown was in terms of what my Klout Score measured and it was like 50% Twitter, 10% Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook…
Interviewer: It seems like there are a lot of people who are secretly concerned with their Twitter and Instagram and how they’re doing, but they don’t want to admit it. I think that’s part of why your whole personal branding series was so popular.
Editor: Yeah. I need to go back to that.
Yes. Yes, please go back to that.
Yes, please inspire an entire generation of writers to worry more about how many followers we have than how good we are at writing. Yes, please make sure we all spend as much time whittling snarky one-liners about our immediate reactions to shit that means nothing as we do working on our craft and doing something that might actually make the world a tiny bit better in some way. Yes, please let’s make everyone spend as much time, money and energy as possible on our own personal branding, because there’s not nearly enough of that already happening. Yes, please encourage as much on-the-nose, self-promotional narcissism as you can muster. Yes, please teach a class on how we can all sit around taking pictures of ourselves and blather online about how great we are, in a year in which ‘selfie’ physically made its way into the dictionary. Yes, please discourage us from having a single thought without broadcasting it immediately, from taking time to let things simmer, from remembering how to express ourselves with any measure of eloquence.
Yes, please help us to be shocking, to “learn how to be authentic,” to get more page views, to gain a following, to say ‘f*ck’ a lot and reel everyone right the f*ck in to see what the f*ck we’re gonna do next. Yes, please do your part to force us to live in a world in which who people think we are is more important than who we actually are.
Yes. Please f*cking do all of these f*cking things and more, you f*cking f*ck. Please use your f*cking powers to turn us all into a bunch of f*cking incoherent babbling… f*ck, I can’t remember the f*cking point I was trying to make.
BRB. Need to step the f*ck outside and #scream. (93 characters remaining)