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Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

Earlier today, while looking through a social media article at iMedia Connection, I came across a link to a Lakshmi Chaudhry piece in The Nation from a few weeks ago in which she takes some serious potshots at the new culture of online collective creativity.

Adopting the tone of scolds throughout time, she slams the younger generation (damn kids, get off my lawn!) as shallow and perpetually obsessed with dreams of personal fame. Citing carefully filtered sources (among them, the musings of reality TV stars and some 16-year-olds posting on a site called iWannaBeFamous.com), she draws the inevitable conclusion that as a culture we’re drowning in a sea of narcissism:

"Without any meaningful standard by which to measure our worth, we turn to the public eye for affirmation. “It’s really the sense that Hey, I exist in this world, and that is important. That I matter,” Niedzviecki says. Our “normal” lives therefore seem impoverished and less significant compared with the media world, which increasingly represents all that is grand and worthwhile, and therefore more “real.”

The evolution of the Internet has both mirrored and shaped the intense focus on self that is the hallmark of the post-boomer generation. “If you aren’t posting, you don’t exist. People say, ‘I post, therefore I am,’” Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo, a new media consultancy, told Wired, inadvertently capturing the essence of Web 2.0, which is driven by our hunger for self-expression. Blogs, amateur videos, personal profiles, even interactive features such as Amazon.com’s reviews offer ways to satisfy our need to be in the public eye.

But the virtual persona we project online is a carefully edited version of ourselves, as “authentic” as a character on reality TV….Self-expression glides effortlessly into self-promotion as we shape our online selves–be it on a MySpace profile, LiveJournal blog or a YouTube video–to insure the greatest attention."

Okay, I get it — we’re still trapped in a desperate run to catch that brass ring, but with traditional aspirations to financial or creative success replaced by notions of shallow fame, and with corporate America happy to sell us empty dreams of pimped rides and surprise makeovers.

How about this for a different take on what’s happening on YouTube, blogs and the rest of the participatory media outlets? Millions and millions of people are making the most of opportunities to create something that they think is interesting, and they’re using technology to let both friends and strangers take a look at what they’ve done. They’re making videos, recording songs, publishing rants, revealing secrets — and the best thing is, they’re generally having a damn good time doing it.

Sure, most of what’s produced is going to be schlock, and much of it will be self-promoting (hello, e.politics!), but are we to believe that EVERYBODY who’s making this stuff is doing it solely (or even largely) out of a desire for fame? I’m a blogger, God rest my soul, which means that I write in public, with a few hundred people at most reading what I write on a given day. Narcissistic? Sure, but no more than anyone else who’s arrogant enough to believe that other people might be interested in what he has to say, and that describes just about everyone writing in public (including in the pages of The Nation). As for homemade video, I am quite confident that filming a Mentos/Coke explosion is fun as hell on its own, and if it happens to entertain a few hundred thousand other people, isn’t that a net good for society?

I’d be curious to hear what Chaudhry would say about more tradition kinds of performance, for instance playing music for an audience. Being on stage is an absolute rush — there are damn few things more fun than being a rock star, even if it’s for just a couple of hours. But what you enjoy about it is a complex mixture: being looked at (elevated above the herd!) is part of the equation, sure, but much more of the high is the sheer joy of creating something with other people, both the other musicians and the crowd. A performance is a collaborative act — if you think the crowd’s emotional involvement doesn’t matter, you’ve never played in front of a dead room. Part of musical performance involves narcissism, just as some part of writing or acting or painting or sculpting or making film is deeply self-absorbed, but we don’t condemn musicians or artists for daring to put their creations out in public for people to see.

Human beings like to make things — it’s as simple as that, and also as complex as every other piece of human culture (we have an amazing ability to create very elaborate structures out of the flimsiest of elements). The interconnected world of the ‘net gives EVERYONE the potential to find someone to see or hear what we do — a very different situation than what we’re used to, since for the last century or two (since the rise of mass-distribution publications such as newspapers and magazines and ultimately television), we’ve lived in a top-driven media world that annoints certain people as “stars,” to be held up above all of the rest of us. But, the Internet’s cheap (or free) publishing tools create a more democratic environment in which the creation of culture isn’t monopolized by a handful of designated “artists.” Toward the end of Chaudry’s piece, she makes an observation that may have been intended to be dismissive but actually captures a fundamental truth:

“If these corporate technologies of self-promotion work as well as promised, they may finally render fame meaningless. If everyone is onstage, there will be no one left in the audience.”

Of course! That’s the goal — for all of us to participate in creating our culture for ourselves and each other, rather than having predigested media products and consumer crap rammed down our throats. Social media and our dreams of a moment of fame (or a moment to entertain or to enlighten or to instruct), rather than a noxious manifestation of corporate consumerism, might actually be what undermines and supplants the corporate culture of monopolistic creation.

Colin Delany

Palestine, TX

Feb 22 2007 - 1:23pm

Web Letter

As a member of the so-called "Generation Me," I disagree considerably with many of the ideas Chaudhry expresses. It is perhaps too typical of adults to see my generation as one motivated only by consumerism, egotism and the sexualized nature of both, leading to its presence on such sites as MySpace and YouTube. While this observation may be partially true, it is a generalization so great as to be almost offensive to those teenagers for whom it's not "all about me."

Yes, I have accounts on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Blogger and WordPress. Yes, I spend a large portion of my time online. But I do so not out of a need to consider myself the most important person I know but rather because of the wonderful opportunities for communication and expression that the internet affords. Through Facebook I communicate with friends who live across the country; through YouTube I watch films from Europe; through my WordPress blog I practice writing and express my views to a readership of a select group of friends. Nor (lest I fall into the trap of thinking only about myself, as my generation apparently does) am I the only teenager to use the internet in this way. I read the blogs of many intelligent students from around the world whose perspectives are at least as mature as those of the many adults who also clamor for attention online.

I know it is traditional for adults to display a lack of understanding of the current generation of "young people." My understanding of my parents' childhood suggests that my grandparents' generation greeted my parents' with the same confusion. I have no objections to lack of understanding--I certainly have little understanding of many of the concerns of my parents' generation. But to treat us with open revulsion, as Chaudhry seems to do, is in my mind ridiculously unfair.

In deriding web culture, too, one should not lose sight of what a valuable method of information-sharing the internet is. It has allowed us to share ideas and communicate with people all over the world. From the BBC to Wikipedia to the online literary magazine I run to The Nation itself, the information we--particularly children--need to make sense of our world is only a Google search away. The actions of a few people who are as ethereal to us as their MySpace profiles should not serve to influence our entire opinion of what the internet is and can be.

Emily Rutherford

San Diego, CA

Feb 21 2007 - 8:02pm

Web Letter

While it's easy to appreciate Lakshmi Chaudhry's sentiment that the tendencies of our young narcissists are exacerbated by new media, I wonder if this article really serves any purpose other than to gratify a sense of superiority over pop culture that is so common in the left. No doubt the human tendency to show off is enhanced by the number of outlets available to create opportunities for bloated egos to wend their way to audiences though the Web 2.0, but to paint such a picture only tells one part of the story and unfortunately promotes a subtext that is shocking to see in The Nation: The demonic matrix of youth and media strike once again! These are the same tropes you'll see cycled repeatedly through the conservative press, and it is one of the many curious commonalities that left and eight share these days.

As a youth media educator who has worked with thousands of kids across the United States, I have found maybe 5 percent fitting the description of the raving narcissists described in the story. I found it particularly troubling this notion that feel-good messages from the '70s are the culprit. Many kids of color I work come from broken homes and could use TLC to build self-esteem. The anger towards this parenting approach is unfathomable to me.

The underlying motive of all children (adults too!) is to connect with others and to be loved. Media education programs help build esteem because they enable kids who normally have few venues for expression to have a voice and learn the tools of a system that is so regularly derided on these pages. This has great benefit to the society. Sure some kids want be famous. Don't we all? This is America, darn it! (After all why do we write and produce media anyway?)

Once, again, stop blaming the messenger, and really folks, "leave us kids alone!"

Antonio Lopez

New York City, NY

Feb 14 2007 - 2:42pm