A couple of weeks ago, the media was full of stories about the glorious future Twitter represented. This week, to coincide with the establishment of the Overland Twitter feed (we’re like the kid who took up hula-hooping just as everyone else got a yo-yo), it’s been all backlash, all the time. Here’s a sample:
When I read about news anchor David Gregory of NBC plunging into the world of Twittering to tell us he is eating a bagel or ABC’s Terry Moran ripping off a Tweet as he boards a plane, geez—I wonder—who are these people on their hand-held devices or home computers glued to this cliff-hanging action?
How far are we from the minutiae of someone’s stomach virus, a lost button on a favorite pair of corduroys or, to steal loosely from the late John Updike, the announcement of a perfectly coiled bowel movement in the bowl after the morning’s first cup of Joe?
For the most part, I entirely agree. As I said a few days ago, the Twitter question ‘What are you doing?’ is the epitome of banality. In the real world, it’s a phrase only barely more meaningful than the ‘Have a nice day’ of the fast food attendant.
But the more interesting question then becomes something slightly different. The Daily Beast article asks who these people are, these wastrels fascinated by such mundane exchanges. Well, they’re the same people answering the latest Facebook quiz or circulating videos of koalas drinking water or idling browsing Youtube. Isn’t that the dirty little secret of the whole internet? The web has grown exponentially not just because it’s an astonishing technological marvel with almost unlimited potential but because it came at a time when a far greater proportion of the population than ever before works in white collar jobs, jobs that have been increasingly proletarianised.
Once upon a time, if you worked in an office, you could claim a certain respectability (at least when compared to your factory-hand neighbour). Now, though, most white collar jobs have all the characteristics of an assembly-line. The tasks are easily learned and tedious; there’s no craft skills to speak of; you exercise no control over your workplace; you know you can be easily replaced. Instead of swinging a hammer, you press a button — and that’s pretty much all that distinguishes your job from factory work.
Except there’s one other thing. You spend these hours of tedium in front of a computer, and that means you can seek opportunities to divert yourself in a way not possibility for earlier generations. In that way, the growth of the internet represents a very, very low level of workplace struggle, a resistance that dares not speak its name. You might not belong to a union or even especially identify yourself as unhappy at work — you just surreptitiously surf the web all day.
That, it seems to me, is part of the explanation for the success of these Web 2.0 applications. Yes, they’re inane but they’re not meant to be anything other than inane. They succeed because they recognise that what we want from the net most of the time is inanity. We’re not looking to download free e-books from Project Gutenberg, we want to email friends with pictures of kitlers, precisely because it feels like a way to steal a second or two to ourselves in the midst of the eight hours we spend hunched over someone else’s keyboard.
Which is not to diss the internet in its totality (what would that even mean?). In some respects, the faux sociality of these networking sites seems less damaging than the other historic driver of web technology, pornography (about which more some other time).
In any case, the point is not to wave our fingers disapprovingly but simply to suggest that there are material reasons why the almost magical technology of the internet is embraced for such drearily prosaic ends. If we want to change the internet, we need first to change our lives.