And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

The (new) internet: the death of culture?

Could the digital revolution have exiled individual thought?

MICHELLE IS BORED. Andy wants to go out tonight. Jessica is looking forward to seeing “a certain sum1, lol”. This is your brain on Facebook. Or Twitter.  “RT @Tehran123: Change your location to Iran NOW to confuse the censors. #IranElection”. A codex of communication, a living lexicon (and other alliterative ambiguities). But what does it all signify?

The advent of the popular internet has foisted immediacy upon everyone. Within the last twelve months, the old clichés about the brave new world of the web transcending the old-fashioned “snail mail” have been replaced with new clichés about social networking transcending the old-fashioned “email”. Suddenly everyone has a profile, somewhere. You probably have a parent whose cautious dabbling in Facebook has cast an unwelcome light on what was previously “your” domain. This is the signifier of technology reaching the mainstream: your dad just Poked you.

So now we know what everybody is up to, in pseudo real time. Got an iPhone? Great! You can liveblog. Take a photo, beam it to Twitpic, and within 30 seconds your entire cadre of followers will know what you’re having for dinner, even as you spoon it into your mouth. They can retweet your dessert before it reaches your digestive tract, digitally digesting and regurgitating your life before your body can do it physically. Maybe this is what they mean when scientists talk of “bionic” people.

But what’s so bad about all this? It’s just harmless fun, really. Plus it’s useful. It only takes a quick status update to grab some pals to watch a movie, when before I’d have to text them all separately, or, god forbid, phone them. Well, sure. What did we do before Facebook? God knows organising a party was a lot harder back then.

But was it? Think back to the last Facebook event you created. How many people said they”d “maybe” come? How many of them actually did? ‘”d be surprised if more than 50% of the people you invited showed up, in the end. If not, perhaps you’re just very popular (or have more loyal friends than I do). The distinction, however, remains the same: it’s much easier to click a button than to actually tell someone you’re rejecting them. And so we reach the heart of the matter: the apathetic internet.

And while we’re at it, who are these friends you’re rejecting? In the worlds of Facebook and Myspace, friendship is forced. If someone requests to be your friend, you automatically add them as your own friend by accepting. Facebook at least has gotten wise to this discrepancy, renaming “Friends” to “Connections” in some parts of its interface. But this brings us to the dichotomy of internet friendships: just how meaningful a “connection” do you have to your Myspace friends? Why are you not too worried about clicking “accept” for some random stranger, while your day-to-day “real life” interactions are likely to be much more guarded? What is it about the internet that reduces the value we give intangible things?

We find ourselves racking our brains for witty one-liners to tweet or update our statuses with. Photo albums are created the same day as the events they capture, making sure to tag every last participant. In our haste to digitise everything we experience, we never actually stop to consider why. Facebook, like Google, rely on this. The more of our information we feed to them, the more they can improve their service (which is, of course, to advertise at you). But again, it’s useful, right? Facebook makes it simple to share your graduation photos with Auntie Janice who couldn”t make the ceremony. That’s exactly why we’ve become so blasé about uploading our lives online: it’s ubiquitous.

There’s no historical precedence for the scenario us 21st century kids have found ourselves in. No company has ever tried organising the entirety of the world’s information: 10 years ago it would have sounded laughable. Now you can view a map of the moon in your lunch break.

If Facebook made us information hoarders, Twitter made us vacuous and indifferent. Egocentric status updates aside, Twitter has given us the ultimate in the digital millennium: the 1-click revolution.

The Iranian elections of 2009 saw the internet, through Twitter, marshal itself against a mysterious foe. Icons were changed, timezones were updated, and Twitter was used to spread the message across countries and networks. Fantastic, the media responded – look at the success of social media. It’s not just a buzzword after all!

It’s only when we realise that the internet is as prone to the next big thing as print media is that we discover the apathy factor. It only takes a small event – a new Harry Potter movie, Michael Jackson dying – and suddenly the bloody revolution in a distant Middle Eastern country isn’t the top trending topic any more. Passive web users, satisfied they played their part in challenging an oppressive regime, can now move on to the next topic, having retweeted the revolution and negated the guilt in their mind for their own cushy existence. Take a look at the issues closer to home for the westerner, however, and see if you can guess their political involvement there. Fascist politicians elected to office in Europe? Not so easy to tweet them out then. Allegations of election stealing in the United States? Time to sign an internet petition to “impeach Bush”.

As wonderful as the advent of the internet is, it has also handed us on a plate the tools to become lazy, thoughtless and apathetic. Like alcohol or drugs, the internet can only amplify an existing character. The difference here is that the shouting drunk on a street corner can now be heard by a million people, and the ranting stoner with his conspiracy theories has started a blog. Suddenly everyone on your friends list is eager to tell you that they like “Cuddles in bed” or “Getting drunk”. It’s like everybody you know is becoming less interesting all at once. We strive and hurry to throw ourselves into boxes, to stand up and be counted along with everybody else. While the internet is a refuge for the new, the unique, the creative, it has equally become the bandwagon of bandwagons, beckoning you to become another number in the system.

So what’s to be done? Stop stupid people from using the internet? In serious terms, there”s nothing we can do except wait. Eventually there will be a realisation: a point when the digitisation of everything about us and the reveal-all nature of the users cross over to produce a catastrophe. It could be a data leak, a mass identity theft, a wrongful arrest or a global credit card scam. Who knows? But it seems likely that at some future date, people will wonder why our generation were so happy to idly sit by and tell everyone everything.

And what will we be left with? Ultimately we’ll be sat at our desks, desparately refreshing the page to see if anyone’s posted a new tweet or joined a group. Facebook will feature live streaming clips so you can broadcast your wedding, dance recital, or more likely, uninformed views on politics, pop culture or society. We’ll click a banner ad to stop poverty in Africa. We’ll sign petitions to free hostages. We’ll join a Facebook “protest” group and the anger and outrage that once motivated past generations will be converted from this clunky analogue form into digital emptiness.

Don’t mistake me for a paranoid conspiracy theorist. I don’t believe Facebook and Google want to scrutinise our very souls, or sell them to the devil. And I have nothing against people wanting to share their pictures, join groups with like-minded individuals, or tell everyone that their dog just had puppies. But when the day comes that it’s just easier to click buttons to communicate and we don’t have to emote beyond typing “:)”, I’ll be logging off.