Tag Archives: social networking

the night thoreau spent on the internet

The other day, I saw a YouTube commercial that told me my armpits might be the wrong color (!?!). I watched the commercial twice because I couldn’t believe I’d understood it right. Surely it must have been talking about pit stains on clothing. But no, armpit discoloration (!?!) is apparently a Thing I should react to by buying a particular brand of deodorant.

I stopped watching TV after high school. For a long time, the few good things on it didn’t seem worth bearing the commercials for. It’s funny how things change and a decade later, I’m watching high art commercial free on TV and getting so tired of trying to dodge inane commercials on the Internet that I sometimes wonder if the Internet is even worth it anymore.

Technology and materialism are on my mind because I’m teaching Transcendentalism in my junior/senior English classes. Transcendentalism is my favorite unit to teach. I forget sometimes that a lot of adults don’t know what it is, but thanks to greeting cards and bumper stickers, most people know Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century neck-bearded dude who lived alone for two years in a cabin at Walden Pond and stopped paying taxes to protest the Mexican-American war. This was during the Industrial Revolution. Transcendentalists cautioned that new technology–like, you know, trains–was distancing people from nature and each other, that modern conveniences were actually making life more complicated and less connected. It’s crazy how prescient these writings are.

It turns out Thoreau was also a mindfulness pioneer. He writes that he went to Walden Pond “to live deliberately,” and so much of the writing he did there is about noticing and being present. During the Transcendentalism unit, I do mindfulness activities with my students, including eating and walking meditation (the latter is really just going to the beach) to expand their ideas about what it means to be deliberate in daily life. I also ask them to experiment with living deliberately by giving up three “conveniences” for a week and adding one thing to their daily routine that Thoreau would approve of. I’ve had kids give up video games, social media, listening to prerecorded music, makeup, mirrors, microwaves, sugar, driving…one year, a girl camped out in her backyard for a week. On the first day of the experiment, I showed these videos in class to contextualize Thoreau in the present day:

After, one of my students showed me Zen Pencils (an awesome web comic to which you can submit quotes for Gavin Aung Than to turn into comics), specifically “129. Marc Maron: The Social Media Generation” (check it out!). The comic struck a chord with me because I do the living deliberately experiment with my students, and this year, I decided to give up “pointless” Internet browsing and to write something every day. The latter makes the former hard because it means I’m on the Internet when I’m trying to avoid it. But what has been harder is determining what is “pointless” browsing and what isn’t. I told myself I could check email or otherwise use the Internet to actively communicate with people or conduct business. What I was trying to stop doing was cooking dinner with Gmail open, constantly glancing over at my laptop to see if I have a new email or chat. I do this a lot even though it makes me less present for whatever I’m doing and bums me out when I don’t see any new emails or chats.

To complicate matters, in my ongoing attempt to have a rich Internet life without Facebook, I started a song of the day blog on Tumblr. I don’t fully get Tumblr yet and it annoys me to no end that I can’t comment on people’s posts. I understand from a New York Times article that the idea is to promote meaningful, civilized discourse on the Internet, which is cool, but I suspect most people default to liking or reblogging without commentary, which isn’t discourse at all. And yet, I keep refreshing my dashboard to see if anyone has done just that. Is it pointless? If it’s not pointless once, when does it become pointless? More than once a day? More than once an hour? I don’t know. All I know is, in terms of the Internet, I feel unsatisfied. In terms of my experiment, nothing feels different because I don’t think I’m really doing the experiment.

When my class discussed the “Digitals” and “I Forgot My Phone” videos, one of my students commented that technology is just evolution. None of it’s bad; it’s how you use it. This is true. We can use technology deliberately and mindfully or we can become, as Thoreau would say, tools of our tools. But how do we know the difference? I’ve felt for a couple of years now like the Internet is dangling in a crevasse, with knowledge and intimate connection on one side and commerce and social exploitation on the other. Ten years ago, the Internet wasn’t primarily a place for shopping. It was a way for people from all over the world to connect with each other, not over what we bought but over what we thought. We created content out of our own lived experience and imagination. Of course this still happens, but I fear it’s being drowned out by blaring YouTube commercials, reactive status updates, and addictive but empty feedback.

Sometimes, I dream of pirate Internet. Alternative URLs would start with “qqq” instead of “www” and they would direct those of us in the know to an underground Internet, a place where we were in control. It would be like the Trystero in The Crying of Lot 49, another prescient text I’ve taught in my senior English classes.

say anything

I’ve had a secret blog for nine years. It’s not totally secret, but if you don’t know about it already, you’re probably not going to find out. Blogging is one of three things I’ve experienced in my adult life that has changed my life. At first, my blog was just a place to post online quiz results and a way of keeping in touch, before Facebook, with some people from college. Over time, though, it became much more than that. There is a positive to lack of privacy on the Internet (that is, if it’s carefully controlled lack of privacy). I can say anything on my other blog, and because I have said anything in an interactive forum where people have listened and questioned me and related to me and supported me, I’ve learned to accept parts of myself I never thought I could. I’ve learned to own my own words and the self they represent, not to be embarrassed of shit I wrote there when I was 22 because it was necessary for me to write what I wrote then in order to write what I’m writing now. For me, blogging isn’t just a way of recording the past; it’s a tool for moving forward.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to open up that space, to have a way of sharing the important things that happen there with everyone, not just a select few people. Of course, the irony is that the growth that happens over there is only possible because of the security of the site. I don’t have to worry about relatives or bosses or students or whomever finding it. So about a year ago, I bought this blog with the intention of producing a version of my other one that is fit for public consumption. I still don’t want this blog associated with my real name on the Internet (I don’t want to be Google-able), but the idea is that…well, also about a year ago, I did a radical thing, which was to delete my Facebook account. In a way, I created this blog as a way of going rogue from Fb. Because I don’t have a problem with social networking or curating the self (actually, I love those things); what bothers me are products that are billed as something they’re not, which I came to believe is absolutely the case with Fb. On the surface, it’s a free service that facilitates connections between people, but underneath that, it’s a manipulative marketing tool that exploits a human longing for meaningful interaction in the interest of generating wealth for a small handful of people. I didn’t want to be part of that anymore, but it was hard to cut ties with acquaintances I knew I wouldn’t interact with anywhere else.

A few weeks ago, I dreamed I was uploading some photos to Google+, which I don’t use for photo sharing in real life. I was uploading a picture of someone standing next to a piece of graffiti and got a message from Google that said, “It looks like this person is committing a crime.” In the dream, they froze my account and wouldn’t even let me check my email until I filled out some kind of legal form. The thing about this dream is that it doesn’t seem that farfetched to me. I believe Google’s “Don’t be evil” slogan less and less as the Internet becomes primarily a vehicle for data mining and advertising in the guise of “social networking.” Blogging is, to me, a way of enjoying more of the positive aspects of social networking (self-expression, maintaining and developing friendship, exchanging new ideas) while minimizing the negative aspects (superficiality, lack of controllable privacy, insidious marketing). If you’re reading this and we used to be Facebook friends, I still want to socially network with you, I just don’t want to do it on Mark Zuckerberg’s terms. I invite you to keep in touch with me here.


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