Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Recline of Western Civilization (Slight Return)

I fear I'm becoming a meta-blogger. As in, I fear that I've already sat through an entire cultural cycle of the Eternal Recurrence and the only thing left to do is link to things I've already written about stupid shit that never dies. Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but what has it been, all of eighteen hours since I was just joking-but-not-really about this?

Data from the Buzzfeed network has found many fewer page views are coming from email than they used to, as other modes of sharing, like Facebook and Twitter have taken off. Since the beginning of this year, all the sites included in that network, including TMZ and the Daily Mail, have seen drop in email shares, with a big drop-off in May 2012, as the chart below via Buzzfeed shows. We have a theory for why: People are emailing around links less because it takes too much effort. Think about the many steps it takes to compose an email, even from a news site, compared to social sharing it.

Unlike email, mainstream social media platforms are automatically connected to pretty much all of the Internet. Sure, someone with a New York Times subscription is automatically logged in via their email to the paper. But that's not a norm across the whole of the world wide web in the same way it is with Facebook and Twitter. Because of that, social sharing takes one, maybe two clicks. Facebook "liking" something doesn't even involve typing a single word and voile its shared with your entire feed. Email on the other hand, involves, inputting your own email, choosing a recipient, knowing their email off the top of their head, and maybe writing a note. Or, one could copy and paste the link into Gmail and send it that way. Either way, it's effortful.

No, actually, it's not, not even by the most generous definition of "effort". It may be faster by a few precious seconds (which you will no doubt put to valuable use), but there is no meaningful way to quantify a difference in "effort" between clicking a mousepad several times as opposed to once or twice. By my count, it takes me all of six clicks (and less than ten seconds) from this page to have an email addressed with a subject line and ready to be typed. (I suppose this could be a different process if you're the kind of person who basically lives inside their smartphone screen, but then again, a smartphone screen is basically a useful playpen to contain people whose minds aren't developed enough to play with weighty thoughts yet, so we can safely disregard them.)

Now, I recognize, along with John McWhorter, that the nature of texting and tweeting is such that it makes more sense to see them as derivations of talking rather than bastardizations of writing; i.e., it's not that our culture has suddenly taken a nosedive in literacy because people would rather use three-and four-letter acronyms than coherent paragraphs to communicate, it's that people are no longer limited to physical proximity when they want to chatter idiotically to their friends. I am under no illusions that, prior to the Internet and all its gadget offspring, the people who now spend their time downloading ringtones would have been sitting around "reading Tolstoi spelled with an i and writing sestinas and villanelles instead of shopping lists." Most people have always been silly and stupid and content to pass the time chattering with their friends.

But I will be godfuckingdamned if I let this sorry excuse pass by unremarked upon. I don't doubt there are people who feel that way, but how in the world does someone actually type those paragraphs in order to rationalize those feelings without being overcome with shame and embarrassment over their pathetic laziness? You would consciously admit that the, uh, effort, the cognitive burden involved in the Herculean task of reading something interesting, holding it in your mind for a moment's reflection, and sharing it with a friend while addressing them in a little personal detail, is too exhausting for you? You have been so thoroughly captured by the internal logic and rhythm of your stupid fucking gadgets that you obsess over saving irrelevant fractions of time, only so that you can fill those fractions with other equally impulsive, unconscious, pointless activities? Jesus. I'm afraid I might have to tentatively, grudgingly side with Nicholas Carr in this instance — there's something wrong with you.

Well, hell; we do live in an age where "Internet addiction" is being talked about as a genuine mental disorder, so maybe this is something similar. Let's call it "cerebral bulimia"— a compulsive, joyless urge to gorge oneself on tidbits of trivial junk and effluvia before sticking a finger down one's throat and vomiting it onto Twitter, undigested.