It’s all about me in the Internet age

Posted on Oct 23, 2012 9:42 AM Updated: Oct 23, 2012 9:42 AM
rchang@sph.com.sg

When that NUS undergraduate’s sex blog made the rounds earlier this week, it confirmed to me one of the most distasteful qualities of my generation.

Not the tendency to apply Instagram filters to make any picture – including extreme close-up shots of genitalia – look “artsy”, although that’s also appalling.

It is that we have no idea what is actually worthy of notice, remark and attention, because we have the ability to publish every inane thought.

Every non-event and trivial action is to us deserving of mention to a mass audience on social media, whose receptiveness – measured in “likes” – in turn deepens our self-regard.

An older colleague once diagnosed my generation in one damning sentence: “Everything you do is for the story.”

In his time, he recalled, when anything happened, you actually had to pick up the phone and call someone to tell them.

The sheer effort of transmitting information made people more discerning of what they chose to communicate. Only really big news and out-of-the-ordinary encounters were worth it.

As modern communications technology has improved, our standards of newsworthiness have deteriorated in tandem. We do everything for the story because all we do is tell stories – but so few of them are any good.

In the days of letter-writing and telegrams, when people posed for pictures twice in their lifetimes, I can’t imagine anyone wasting a frame on a picture of their lunch or sending off an inarticulate description of their mood, punctuated with an emoticon.

But, of course, it’s not the topic but the way it’s executed. Like Warholian soup cans and Proustian madeleines, there’s always been art in mundanity.

But Gen-Y and younger – and in fact I fear worse for the kids who’ve never known a world without Facebook – don’t need to rise to the top to be validated with an audience. They no longer need talent or drive to receive attention.

Plain-looking girls can look beautiful with careful angling and detailed colour treatment of their pictures. From a thousand self-portraits will emerge one that gives you the bone structure that Nature withheld.

Mediocre thinkers can post their amateur philosophising on Facebook notes and bask in the delusion of their originality – helped along by praise from their even-dumber social circle.

Two young, moronic exhibitionists can get into the national newspapers just for misplacing their sense of shame.

It’s enough to make one despair, especially if one sometimes feels, as I do, at high risk of catching this Spanish flu of undiscerning self-importance.

My Facebook page is, in places, as filled with frivolity and narcissism as any average 20something. I was in university when the site really took off with undergraduates everywhere. My sister and her husband, who at three years older are later-comers to social media, once marvelled at the fact that I had more than a thousand pictures tagged.

But my count was already substantially under that of my schoolmates.

The whole vicious circle works in reverse too. Since what is published and garners an audience must be remarkable; ergo, nothing that is remarkable can go unpublished.

One of my friends had a friend who caught her boyfriend having cybersex – which she announced through the world by posting screenshots of his lurid chat transcripts. Another had a friend who proposed, only to have his girlfriend squeal, whip out her phone, take a picture of him on his knees, a picture of the ring, and then upload it all on Facebook – before she finally said Yes.

I feel like this is a phenomenon that older generations must truly puzzle over. It used to be that the more significant and intimate the moment between two people, the more private. Now, it’s the other way around. If a tree falls in the forest and somebody saw it and posted about it on Facebook but nobody “liked” the news or commented – did it happen?

So to me, it was not Alvin and Vivian’s lack of propriety that was the most objectionable about their whole blog undertaking nor their “immoral” behaviour.

What dismayed me was the way the couple not just felt their exploits worth documenting, but also distributing and publicising.

This despite the fact that the only thing special about it all was that they thought they were.

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