On Sharing

This orig­i­nally appeared on mis​ter​agye​man​.blogspot​.com on December 12, 2014.

I’ve been musing too much, it seems.

I had plans for this blog. It was sup­posed to be two months of ran­dom­ness, with blue­prints for imprac­ti­cal archi­tec­tural projects, and info­graph­ics detail­ing the seven char­ac­ter­is­tics that make actors ‘great’. I wrote memos for it and every­thing. It’s been three months now, and all I’ve done is preach to myself. I’m going to shake things up soon. On Tuesday, I wrote a rap. That’s right; I said ‘Recognize’ in it.

For now, more musing.

Art is partly about making things, and partly about shar­ing things. Now we have legit­i­mate artists who get paid and every­thing for inter­ac­tive instal­la­tions which prac­ti­cally leave out the making alto­gether and focus on the shar­ing. Which is more impor­tant? It’s an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion for the world to have.

Beyond the world of art, the dis­cus­sion con­tin­ues. About four years ago, I read some­where that seri­ous writ­ers always carry little note­books in which they jot down their thoughts. Impressed, I stole one and began think­ing and jot­ting. I’ve stopped now- the jot­ting, not the think­ing- after fill­ing sev­eral of the things. Looking through them, it turns out I haven’t pub­lished much. What I seem to be inter­ested in shar­ing are the entries marked ‘FB’ or ‘Nuggets’. ‘FB’ stands for Facebook, and over the years most of my deep­est, coolest status updates seem to have been drafted in these spiral notepads. It’s not a thing I con­fess with pride. Even when the thought was rel­e­vant, the com­plex­ity and earnest­ness of the process makes it really cheesy. The label ‘Nuggets’ sounds so wannabe-guru, it makes me wince.

Social media is all about shar­ing. Now we all go about our indi­vid­ual days gath­er­ing things to post online. Snapshots of sign­boards with mis­spelled head­lines, cool quotes from random sources, thought­ful descrip­tions of expe­ri­ences we’ve had- it’s all a big game of look-what-I-found. It’s a good game. I always liked the idea of ‘Show-and-Tell’, which forms approx­i­mately thirty per­cent of American ele­men­tary edu­ca­tion in Hollywood’s opin­ion. It’s a good way for us to touch each oth­er’s lives. But, as the movies teach us, there’s always kids who will cheat and buy some­thing incred­i­bly cool to show, instead of bring­ing some­thing that already means some­thing to their lives. I’ve had slow days when I’d just go to Wikiquote and browse quotes from Woody Allen and Douglas Adams to copy and paste. It’s a sort of gray area; I do love these witty people, and it’s a fun thing to share with my friends who will also enjoy them- and yet some­how it feels divorced from the expres­sion of real, hap­pen­ing life that gives social media its ideal. I’ve seen people ran­domly flip open their Bibles, look­ing for a quo­ta­tion to share. Is it wrong? It’s Facebook. ‘Wrong’ as a con­cept is hard to relate to Facebook.

There’s another way that we man­i­fest this eager­ness to share. On social media, some­times I come across videos and arti­cles with inter­est­ing head­lines or from sources I like, but I haven’t the time to check them out. But I like the idea of the thing, and I share it. It used to be a sort of book­mark­ing mech­a­nism, the way I intended. I’d share any­thing that looked inter­est­ing, so I could find it later and check it out. But I’ve found that I rarely read arti­cles I’ve already shared. Somehow I’ve done my social duty by them, and moved on. I have begun to wonder if I haven’t slipped into a sort of mind­set where my Timeline has become my inter­ac­tive instal­la­tion, and every­thing I come across is just a random bit to stick onto my mas­ter­piece. Am I shar­ing for its own sake, as a way to con­nect- or is it a per­sona I’m build­ing? Do I some­times say things I don’t really believe, or hold back things I feel strongly about, to serve this persona?

Most artists deal with this. When you look at your first draft, you have to squash the pride of making so you can focus on shap­ing it into some­thing people will want to con­nect with. There are dif­fer­ent schools of thought on the right way to do this. There’s the people who are proud of their ‘real­ness’ and ‘raw­ness’; they look down on the ‘pol­ished’, ‘pack­aged’ people, who in turn snig­ger while they count their money. But now with the inter­net we all have audi­ences, and this prob­lem of per­cep­tion has been magnified.

Another side to this issue: as a civ­i­liza­tion, we have become more for­get­ful. We have alarms and reminders and book­marks to keep us informed on per­sonal things, and the great media machine to tell us about the world. If our aids let some­thing go, we lose it too. This isn’t a new prob­lem; people have been argu­ing that cul­tures with oral tra­di­tions are stronger than cul­tures with writ­ten ones, and so forth. But our aids have gotten so good that we’re now allowed to be much worse. When I learn these days, I find myself think­ing, ‘there’s always Wikipedia, you know’. It reduces the need for commitment.

When these two con­ver­sa­tions over­lap, some­thing inter­est­ing hap­pens: the inter­net becomes our vent. We share so we can forget. I used to do blog rants on the econ­omy and civ­i­liza­tion and such, qual­ity rants which cun­ningly sub­sti­tuted the ques­tion mark for the excla­ma­tion point. With relish I would inform the Machine that I had seen through all its little tricks, then I would dust off my hands and go play XBox. Recently a friend mused on his Timeline about the pos­si­bil­ity of some con­spir­acy, some con­nec­tion between an issue in the news and a sim­i­lar scan­dal from a few years back. I was wor­ried. I fol­lowed the thread and dis­cov­ered, my, there might be. I went back to the Timeline to find out how this would affect me, and dis­cov­ered the con­ver­sa­tion had ended, pretty much. Other dis­cern­ing people had come and remarked how they had also seen the con­nec­tion, and con­grat­u­lated the author of the post for his per­spi­cac­ity. I still don’t know if the gov­ern­ment is schem­ing to destroy my life in a more tan­gi­ble way than the Dumsor is doing. But I have some very smart friends who know all about it; they were kind enough to tell me so.

If you know some­body who has a way with words, this prob­lem fol­lows you offline. I’ve often been guilty of this; killing a useful con­ver­sa­tion by fram­ing the prob­lem in some witty way, like that some­how solves it. Even when people are aware of this thing, it just kills dis­course. It hangs in the air till some­body goes ‘Ah, well’, and we move on. I’d like to blame social media for this phe­nom­e­non; it’s made all of us better writ­ers. After a few online argu­ments, you learn how to redraft your punches to defuse every hater’s wisdom. Even worse, when some­thing nice hap­pens, our first reac­tion is to think of the cool people we know who will appre­ci­ate the awe­some­ness of this thing. When there’s a nice sunset or some cool thing, we don’t enjoy it for its own sake. We take a pic­ture and share it, then we enjoy the effect. Are our lives poorer for this? I can’t tell. It’s just different.

This isn’t at all an anti­dote; it’s just a useful exer­cise to do if you never have before. You know how bad things happen in threes? Often some­thing annoy­ing hap­pens, and you bite down your response. Then it hap­pens again. And again. Then you go some­where else, and a vaguely-related inci­dent becomes your jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for bring­ing down Armageddon. We call it the straw that broke the camel’s back. Substitute the straw for a flower, and see what hap­pens. When some­thing nice hap­pens to you, don’t rush to share it. Don’t do any­thing about it. Don’t shout or shake your head; that’s all vent­ing. Just let it stew. Then it will happen again, and again, then you’ll see a vaguely related cap­tion on the back of a pass­ing trotro and it will almost hurt to fight the giggles.

Try it. It’s fun.