If my blog is anything, it, like so many other parts of my life, is a story of a poor boy being caught between worlds. It has been a five-year attempt to bridge the gap between a person who fancies himself a serious writer and also a serious blogger. I've felt pressured at times by the demands put on me by each form. But in both personae, writer and blogger, I've felt duty-bound to be out in front of language, in the cavalry, as it were, of the way we write and talk nowadays. A writer should not only tell good stories, but should also consider what kinds of words he uses. The best words in the best order, the poet said. Writers have to know, as part of our job description, how words are being used: not just on the Internet, but also how they've been used pre-Internet, and how they're being used by real people in the offline world. In Modem-less America.
To be perfectly clear: people who rail against the Internet as keeping us from (ah!) the true and finer things in life, like nature and all that bullshit, are engaged in a fight that the Internet created, a fight that the Internet will always win. I'm not railing against the Internet, and I hope the following post doesn't get lumped into that category. I value the Internet. It is allowing me to share this post and allowing you to read it.
I begin this in a decidedly off-line locale. I'm at a desk in a studio at an artists’ residency outside Pine Plains, NY. In the lounge area of the residency, they have this amazing photography book called American Farmers. Each page has a huge, lush, wrinkle-wracked photograph of a grizzled old farmer, or a farmer with his family on his land, and each photo is accompanied by a page-long story written in farmer first-person. In one of the stories I read yesterday, a Louisiana farmer describing the damage done to his farm during Hurricane Rita said, “My house ended up five miles away from where it started.” I reread this line about 12 times: “five miles away from where it started.” How brilliant is that, I thought, how breezy and absurd and almost Shinto to imagine that a house can even have an end point separate from its start point, how brilliantly and blues-ily it turns a common saying on its head, how quickly you get a sense of the man behind the words. It was an amazing line, and it made me hungry to read the other stories in the book.
And then I got to thinking about why a line like this jumped out at me so much. Why it seemed so much like a restorative dose of iron for the anemic language centers in my brain. And then I got to thinking that maybe it had something to do with how much time I’ve been spending recently on the Internet (for work mostly) and the kind of nutrition the Internet affords a writer supposedly at the forefront of his language.
The very funny comedian Joe Mande, who I follow on Twitter, said in a recent interview that he didn’t know why anyone other than comedians and journalists were on Twitter, because it’s only good for getting information (news, cultural events, trends, TV shows) and writing funny things about that information. This was, of course, 50% a joke, because so much of Mande’s Twitter persona involves poking fun at celebrities and politicians.
But Mande's on to something. On the Internet, a big house with many rooms, I think the language that gets recycled the most and draws the most attention tends to veer between the two dipoles of information and sarcasm, news and cynicism—and more generally: yes and nah, :-) and :-(, RIP and LMFAO, and (on the subatomic level) 1s and 0s. You are either sharing information or you’re making fun of something, or you’re doing both at the same time, or you're not sure which one you're doing. After news of Gaddhafi’s death hit the Internet, Mande tweeted to his followers by retweeting something originally sent by Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain who asked “What's next?” Mande, ignoring the Middle East, policy-wonking intent of Cain’s tweet, took the opportunity to mock Cain’s role as owner of a pizza franchise: “Please say pizza party!!”
Much as I love Mande and think he’s one of the most talented standup comedians I’ve seen in years, there’s something flat about this kind of humor, something stale and claustrophobic. Even when couched in the space of an essay like this, as I'm re-reading it now, it doesn’t pop with the same energy it had the first time I read it on my Twitter feed, in “real” time. I don’t think this is Mande’s fault, whose live standup is rife with narrative charm and moral curiosity and ingenious timing that some young fiction writers would kill for. I think the reason his humor is so flat on Twitter is Twitter’s fault.
For all the work people have done to make us believe that the Internet has supplanted real life as the main mode for connecting with human beings, I still don’t think that we believe in it 100%. We don’t believe that what happens on the Internet is real. I think we think it’s a quasi-real space. It’s not that what happens on the Internet doesn’t often have real life repercussions: e.g. break-up emails, instigating Tweets leading to actual violence, kiddie porn enthusiasts getting arrested, the fall of Rep. A. Wiener.
Let me qualify my statement: we believe the Internet is real when it benefits us to believe it’s real, or when there is sufficient photographic or video or verbal evidence to make us believe something is real.
Ostensibly, everything that happens on the Internet has an analogue in the real world, which is what gives it its powers of persuasion. For example, to go back to the farmer who lost his house in Hurricane Rita: a hurricane devastates the gulf coast. Then the news of the hurricane gets reported by all the major outlets in a dry, almost numerical style (CNN, AP, NYTimes, HuffPo, Fox). Casualties, deaths, wind speed, counties without power, bland statements of “fact” by “authority” figures. There are photographs of people caught in the act of crying. And videos of rubble and demolished neighborhoods. What people in other parts of the country experience of this major storm is not the rancid smell of a barn filled with dead cattle, not the bittersweet helplessness of a pragmatic, god-fearing man watching the farm he’s worked on his whole life float away: what we experience, what gets reinforced by every new update and story, is the very specific tone of pity and urgency that is the language of the news, multiplied and refracted by all the various ways it has of reaching us. In response to that news, we often find a corresponding tone, crafted through a very reductive and specific use of pitying and mournful language: WTFs and OMGs and “praying for the Gulf Coast tonight” and “thinking about all my fam in NOLA” and, for those who are more cliché-averse, the typical lack-of-commentary-standing-in-for-pitying-speechlessness: “Rita. Damn.”
So often I see writers, good writers!, opting for this latter form of emoting on the Internet, tweets or status updates that hope to convince us, because of the gaping negative space around them, that what the writer is experiencing is a type of emotion that is ineffably deep, that surpasses their ability to define it. It is an attempt at poetic understatement. It is meant to say a lot by saying a little. But really it's saying nothing.
Instead, what has been created, I think, is an epidemic of flat, tonally-homogenous writing. Bad writing, lazy writing, is the true stamp of the Internet Age, a reflection, I presume, of our lazy thinking. I see this kind of writing all the time on the Internet, written by people who are otherwise very good offline writers (see: Joe Mande). We are writers and one of our duties is to try to use language to reflect what’s going on in our heads, not to avoid language. Our job is to be out in front of language, to be diligent custodians of language, to weed out clichés and tropes and laziness, to recognize when certain modes of verbal expression have started to grow a fungus or decay, to know when to chuck them out and replace them with newer, better ways of saying things.
I think this is part of why the farmer’s line hit me with such force. It seemed totally foreign to the kind of language and sentiment you might read about a hurricane on the news, and it gave me an understanding of just how scrupulously curated and managed, how strangled and lifeless, much of the writing we find on the Internet is. Granted, the farmer’s line wasn’t 100% original. Granted, the line came as part of a longer narrative about the farmer’s life, and granted that narrative was part of a photographic book where (I admit) perhaps the shock of the line lay in the fact that I wasn’t expecting powerful turns of phrase. The point remains that the farmer’s response, his first-person experience of what would have been flattened into a pitiable, “tragic” news event by every major media and Internet outlet (and then snarked upon or mourned by online responders “my thoughts are with you”), his line was both elegiac and funny in the same breath. Part of why I had to read the line a dozen times was because it was not a tone my Internet-saturated brain immediately recognized as a viable response to this kind of tragedy. Where was the pity? Where was the overt, melodramatic sadness?
Nowhere. Instead, the farmer seems to be chuckling at his own misfortunes.
But it’s not a snarky chuckle. It’s not a chuckle that makes you laugh at him or at anyone. It’s a joke that we know is full of real loss and pain, but from the lips of a man who seems to have incorporated real loss and pain into the fabric of his existence—to the point that they are almost indistinguishable from other emotions, like humor. He’s saying, in a way, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I know what happened better than anyone. I know it’s an event that I’ll probably never live a day without thinking about. And to show you that I know this and that I don't care for your pity, I’m going to make you laugh and show you how it even messed with my ability to use language in the regular, boring way.”
And so his house ended up five miles away from where it started.
Deep events have a deep effect on language. We know that trauma can often cause a normally verbal person to fall mute or to start speaking gibberish or to use a forgotten first language. I believe this is part of the power of good writing or why good writing, surprising swerves of phrasing, upended cliches, often hit us with the force of real life. By means of imagination, writers can access this language at depths equal to or greater than others. That is a writer’s value, his charge, his power.
The events we “experience” on the Internet—and we can experience more catastrophes and traumas per minute than maybe any civilization before us could have dreamed—this onslaught of experience isn’t overwhelming us, as many believe. Quite the opposite. I think we’re not experiencing these events at all. And the proof is in our language: our Internet experiences are not having any noticeable effect (or any beneficial one) on the way we use words. It leads me to believe that when we’re “experiencing” life and the news and the world via the Internet, we’re not really experiencing anything but the Internet.
Our language isn't registering these catastrophes the way real people do. Our language is only experiencing the Internet. Simply put, our language is not keeping pace with our technology. There is a whole new realm of emotion, inferior to real emotion, that we might call E-Motion. It’s a 1s and 0s reduction, I think, of actual human feelings. An approximate mix of imagination and empathy which dwells in the quasi-real space, usually devoted to art and religion, that the Internet has now officially colonized.
This form of emoting (“Hurricane Rita. Steve Jobs. Gaddhafi. Damn…”) has already become a cliché, but it is a cliché specific to the Internet. It’s a cliché that only works if you understand the Internet as a place where words are used in a way that is emotionless and informative (CNN) or emotionless and cynical (Gawker). These E-Motions operate on a simple equation: an abundance of language (i.e. info) = a lack emotion; but a jarring lack of language (e.g. Apple’s spartan tribute page to Steve Jobs) = real emotion. The Internet has taught its writers the lesson that the less you use language, the more E-Motion your writing will have: “Steve Jobs. 1951-2011.”
The Internet is an epic abstract work, our contemporary scripture, with no physical embodiment and no God-like single author, a text written and added to every moment by the Yahweh-like force of millions of humans around the world, the most persuasive and powerful and mythic narrative humanity has yet to create.
I don’t really think the Internet is our modern day bible, our New New Testament. What I have come to believe is that the Internet is the biggest novel ever written in response to the question: “What is reality?”
The Internet’s answer has, for the past couple decades, only grown louder and more strident and authoritarian: “I am reality.”
The Internet, if it were a novel, would be a demanding and entertaining one, not only because of its length, but because it is, like so many demanding and great works of literature, antagonistic to other forms of art. Were I to blurb the Internet like the gargantuan novel that it is, I might say that it is “a fiercely almost mind-alteringly self-referential novel, which uses language in a way that makes banal words like ‘poke’ and ‘like’ and ‘friend’ seem new and exciting. But the creators of this work often get too carried away with their own dull language and believe that their work is deeper and more real than it actually is, deeper and realer than life itself.”
Think back to the first time that you heard someone use “friend” and “like,” these Zuckerverbs, to describe Facebook-specific behavior. “That bartender tried to friend me.” I know it’s hard but think back to what you felt that first confusing moment you heard it, digested its ridiculousness. “Don’t you mean the guy behind the bar was being nice to you by chatting with you and buying you drinks? Why not just say that? And don’t you mean he befriended you? If so, that’s still a weird way of describing what happened to you last night.”
There was a subversive thrill to the deviously simple, almost retarded diction: friend (v.). The reason this was a new and exciting way of using language was that its simplicity alluded to a new-seeming way of making human connections on the Internet, a new experience. What we really meant was “The bartender I met in real life went on his computer at some point after we met and opened Facebook, a sophisticated Internet-based socializing software, and logged into his “profile,” which is a compilation of information and media about himself, and sent an automated request via the Internet to link his Facebook profile with my existing Facebook online website, and I found this automated request in my inbox early the next morning at which point I realized said bartender from previous night was trying to connect with me based on our real-life interactions.”
Why “friending” someone in this context makes sense and feels new and subversive is because the person using it has not only been following the novel we call the Internet, but also has an ongoing investment in the new trends and subplots generated by the Internet. A trend (and I think of Facebook as one of the Internet’s most persuasive subplots) is nothing but a compelling narrative writ large on a given society, a cultural subplot with a beginning-middle-end just like all narratives. The Internet, in this way, is a subplot machine. It survives and sustains itself by producing and keeping people eager for the next subplot, the next installment, the next trend, the next blog post. And nowhere is this more apparent than in regards to the Internet’s almost antagonistic relationship with good writing and powerful language.
The Internet is turning language into a “feature” of reality, branding words in a way that is meant to make us believe these are the most important and perhaps even the final way that these words will ever be used. Final—at least for now. Think of “bookmark” and “tab” and even the word “language” or all the delicious ambiguities implied in: “I went around the house with my laptop opening and closing windows.” The Internet would like you to believe you will never use “friend” to describe anything but this very specific process of linking one Facebook profile to another Facebook profile. The Internet will never champion alternate uses of this word to describe, say, a poet’s idea of death (“a beautiful friend/who remembers”). It’s the same way technology companies offer the most advanced features on a phone, and then next year an even more advanced version of that phone appears: but it still has the same name and might even be called, The Most Advanced Phone Ever, Version 4s.
All that the new number or letter at the end of the new phone means is: “to be continued.”
And it is this “to be cont.” feeling about the Internet which makes me dubious about its true value for writers. At the level of language, that’s partly why I’m not convinced the Internet is really changing "Life As We Know It" all that much. The English language hasn’t deeply changed; if anything, it’s been colonized by new types of vampires who want to make regular words like “friend” into much smaller, less meaningful words than they’ve ever been. Thanks to the Internet, language has been crammed and re-appropriated into a banal kind of speak, a circular closed-circuit English.
Yes, a tweet is a new form of micropublishing on an online platform called Twitter, but it’s also something that birds have been doing for millions of years, are still doing, and will do long after buzzards have had their way with the founders of Twitter. So when you stick a national flag and copyright symbol in the word “tweet” to refer to something done on Twitter, you’ve flattened the word so that it only means one new very specific thing and excludes all else. Of course, it’s ridiculous for me to argue that I can’t use the word “tweet” without it somehow alluding to Twitter, but if I did use it just to refer to, say, the sound I hear outside my window, anyone reading it on an iPad or a computer would have a moment where the true meaning of the word was momentarily eclipsed by the image of a stylized curvilinear blue bird and a mess of @ symbols and RTs.
Basically I think the Internet has been fighting a battle with reality that it can’t win. It is trying to convince everyone who believes in it that reality, or what we call “reality,” is actually just the boring places where there is no Internet. "Reality" is a place where tweeting is the sound a bird makes, a place where there are no bars listed on Foursquare, and no bars on your iPhone. A place where houses end up five miles from where they started.
But what the Internet and all the writers who have bought into its deeply persuasive fiction don’t seem to understand, or at least what they don’t express enough online, is that “reality” is not a boring place without a modem, reality includes the Internet. Reality gave birth to the Internet, and reality will exist long after the Internet. Reality is not only the boring places without a signal; it is the idea of a signal and the word signal itself; it is birds tweeting and comedians using Twitter; it is the cleaning crew who vacuum the floors of Mark Zuckerberg’s office, and it is the website Facebook.com; it is also a farm in the Gulf Coast where a man lost his farmhouse and spoke of it with a deep sense of humor and pathos and dignity that you rarely read online; it is this quiet, bird-bothered artists’ residency in the Hudson Valley where I should be working on finishing my novel, but have instead spent the morning and afternoon writing about why the Internet corrupts language and getting carried away with myself.
Carried away like that farmer’s house during Hurricane Rita, which ended up miles from where it started.