NOTE: I wrote the first draft of this in June 2022 but never got it finished enough to publish. Now that Twitter’s about to die though, maybe, I figured I better get it out so I cobbled together an ending and here we are.
I’m old enough to remember the advent of web 2.0 and the not-so-static web. I remember being a comms pro when we would muse and ponder and ruminate on the impact of a bottom-up internet.
I specifically remember two parallel themes from that time:
- the democratization of the tools of publishing; and
- the divorcing of form from content.
Or, if you’re trying to sound less like a super smart influencer type douche:
- holy shit, anyone can make a website that looks legitimate
- holy shit, people aren’t even coming to websites anyway
The former was seen as both an opportunity to wrest control of information and knowledge from gatekeepers and a threat to those who saw value in fact checking, checks and balances and professionalism in information management.
Spoiler alert: It was all of those things
The latter, though, was even more disruptive. We saw it first via RSS readers, which stripped away the chrome of your carefully customized WordPress theme to deliver content in a uniform way as chosen by the reader, then in social media newsfeeds and timelines, which did the same but also introduced the variability of sources thanks to shares and likes by your friends and contacts. It was no longer about the blogs and sites you chose to follow, it was about the networks you created for yourself.
We’re not built for this…
Fast forward to the 2020s and those two parallel ideas – that anyone can create content and that all content looks more or less the same to the reader, at least in terms of form – are entrenched. We no longer seek out content and information, it’s delivered to us through (and increasingly by) our networks.
And jesus is there ever a lot of content.
So much content.
It’s a firehose and as someone who has literally taken a firehose of water to the face (ask me about it sometime!) I can tell you that a firehose to the face isn’t good for your face.
Add to that the complete and total divorcing of form from content and it’s not just a firehose but it’s a firehose full of … okay, the firehose metaphor is breaking down here… but we get SO MUCH content on SO MANY DIFFERENT topics and it’s all treated the same by our timelines.
We end up seeing @dril’s latest post-modernist irony alongside news about an earthquake that killed 1,000 people alongside some brand trying to rainbow-wash away their donations to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians with a rainbow avatar alongside NHL trade speculation.
There’s no sense of scale or proportion and so we react to things in kind.
… and so we meme
News that the local children’s hospital has converted a day surgery wing into a second pediatric ICU because it can’t handle the number of severely ill children in the region gets the same “this is fine” dog meme as observations about your favourite hockey team’s play in the defensive zone.
The husband of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives gets beaten with a hammer in his own home (the attacker was looking for the Speaker herself) and one of the Speaker’s literal colleagues turned it into a bit a few weeks later.
Everything is immediate and real so nothing is immediate and real. Everything is at the same time serious and a gag.
And I don’t even know that we can blame people (well, we can for blame the Congressman who made the ‘joke’ about Pelosi, that shit was vile). We saw throughout the height of the pandemic how much gallows humour and sarcasm can help people cope. We’re staring down existential crises (yes, plural) and our leaders have abandoned us so why wouldn’t we at least have a chuckle on the way to the bottom?
But jesus, is this how are brains have been rewired?
Feels bad, man.