A decade ago, the internet’s signature feature was obfuscation. You could invent a new identity; embellish your life to make it that much more interesting; buff out the imperfections; or just hide without feeling like an anti-social creep for it. Message boards, chat rooms, and nascent blogs, all depended on a technology-induced veil, a curtain that shielded online actions. What you saw was what people had selectively chosen as representations of themselves. Sometimes, though, information flowed in the opposite direction. Insider-y knowledge that had previously been the mark of real-life, earned inclusion in a community now could be readily acquired online. The internet was an unstable space; it allowed us the ability to endlessly manipulate who we were and what we knew.
…And that was just it: Instead of the internet working against our real lives in provocative ways, it became an extension of them. The looking glass was now a mirror; instead of reinventing us, the web simply provided more of us to the world, and more ways to take advantage of the world around us. We speak of Yelping and checking in on 4Square as if these were activities, when they are simply the day-to-day cataloguing of our lives—or, even worse, a grimly detached version of modern life in which we aspire to be ourselves. Mediation presents itself as a friendly tool when in fact it creates distance between us and the ordinary.
…Instead of remaking the world, the web is an excuse for more of it at its most mundane. The remarkably lo-fi act of using a smartphone to scan a take-out place’s tattered “Like Us!” print-out, hanging in the window, fading, and possibly torn around the corners, could not be more bound up in the material world—and everything that is utterly forgettable about it. For every artful employment of Twitter or Instagram, there are exponentially more folks using these applications, and of course Facebook, to amass digital waste in way the physical world simply does not allow for.
…But the extent to which this stream of endless disclosures of what we’re doing, where we’re eating, what we’re listening to exposes, even revels in, the ordinariness of our lives places us far, far from the days of obsessing over what specific music or movies to list in our social media profiles circa 2002. Instead of self-creation cooked up behind the veil, we’re absolutely laid bare without even realizing it. Even as Tumblr and Pinterest turn curation into a commodity, Facebook and Twitter continue to rule the day. We can’t change who we are. Maybe the best we can hope for now is to keep our exposure limited to what it might have been before all this social media junk got started. Not because we’re so interesting or petrifying, but because the endless drivel of the ordinary is never flattering.