Friday, July 10, 2015

What is the Internet?

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. I don't think there's anything particularly controversial of that fact. Nostalgia is what will in part drive me to seeing the next Star Wars movie at midnight in December when we're likely laden with snow and cold. We like to think we're better than it, that we can take off the rose-tinted glasses at any point, that we can see past the seemingly natural inclination to filter out the bad and only consider the good of what once was. Perhaps some are better at that than others. Perhaps not.

Today is July 10th, 2015, not a particularly infamous day by any respects, another that will be lost to the menagerie of time. An animated movie comes out today, called Minions, which anyone who has spent any time online knows about all too well. Minions, the seemingly shapeless, formless yellow creatures from said movie, have infiltrated every level of the web, paraded non-ironically by people on Facebook alongside text entries formed of New Sincerity, and paraded ironically by those who see a moment to contribute to the ever lingering postmodern irony of the 80s and 90s now weaponized into internet pop culture in a sort of ironic twist of fate itself. They are pictured alongside any idea or any statement someone wants to make, grievance they want to air, reinforcement they want to give, or personal diatribe they want us to endure. They are a corporate device of epic proportions, not unlike many internet fads in recent times (Paul Blart just zoomed by on his Segway, I suppose). And some of us, well, in our postmodern irony, decided it's ok to laugh at them if we are laughing at the Minions, not with them. What a strange twist on modern mannerisms.

It's impossible to use a major social networking platform without seeing them, the Minions. But then again, that's true of anything that enters the cultural lexicon these days. There's little agreement on internet eras - indeed, a medium so young is hard to divvy up - but I think it's very permissible to consider, at least in part, the internet as being pre or post Facebook. Facebook; of almost a billion and a half users, an amalgamation of content and the single greatest source of personal information that has ever been constructed by humankind, has become a sort of lens in which we view the aforementioned cultural lexicon. Minions may litter our timelines now, but before that was Left Shark, and before that was some other meme, and so on and so on. While the same can be found on Twitter, the character limits and profile limits render a sort of barrier between the content and the user. We can easily divorce ourselves from a site that doesn't require our real names, our real photos, our real history. Facebook is the giant, the one that collects our entire lives - that we contribute all too willingly - and disperses them amongst... what? The machinations of the global corporate infrastructure? My picture of me at a concert appears next to the Minion, the shark, the doge, with everyday seemingly making it more and more likely that the trend is commercial, that my info is sold to the highest bidder, that the content I see is not made by the people I have on my friends list but instead by the algorithms behind the scene that prune my content so that everything I view is formed on Facebook.

It's easy, at times, to look upon Facebook, or Twitter, or Youtube, these corporate giants, these progenitors of our news, our jokes, our content, and wax poetic of an earlier internet era. Of not having to worry about ad block, or commercials before videos, or the idea that anything conceived is filtered through the Terms and Conditions of one of the largest companies on earth. Minions, after all, are a purely corporately contrived icon, like so much of what passes as popular content these days. The commercialization of the internet has been such an overwhelming success that one wonders if there was ever really a chance for the medium at all. I Am Carles was many things to a strange cultural niche of people, but it's easy to see it as a weirdly prophetic final gasp of the individual internet landscape. It wasn't always pretty, or nice, or even, perhaps, relevant. But it just was. There was no driving factor behind it from a CEO hell bent on profit margins. Is it any wonder the blog has disappeared from internet lexicon over the last few years? A blog is individual, it is textual, it is - frustratingly to the corporate world - not a Minion, not a commercial entity that can be spread like wildfire and posted to every wall and timeline imaginable. And so it fades away as another internet fad, disparaged to far corners where people commit more than 140 characters to an idea. Much like books - forever displaced by e-readers and tablets - which can fire up an ad before we even have a chance to get to the content we want to view on them. I can read Frankenstein after I see a - you guessed it - ad for those goddamn Minions.

Back then, even with Myspace, which was never what Facebook has become, or Google, when it was a simple search engine and nothing more, the internet seemed a bit wilder, quirkier, dirtier, less filtered. The trendy icons and content were made by individuals more often than by a corporation that studied behavior online and sought to create the most viral hit imaginable. Of course, to grow up during that period means anything will seem a bit wilder, quirkier, dirtier, and less filtered; when it's viewed through the guise of rapidly progressing adolescence, of parental restrictions and peer pressure. But there was a time when we didn't communicate what the new internet fad was on the internet itself, but in hushed tones at lunch the next day at school, because there was no way to get in touch with 345 "friends" in one quick post.

And it's all perhaps most uniquely frustrating when years of internet use have blended posts and content and writing styles together, but now it's all repackaged by some suit in a generic office trying to make you click it just one more time, so they can make one more buck. Vice is Gawker is 4chan is message boards, spunk has been around forever, inserting swear words into your piece and at the same time feigning self-awareness at what is truly bad content, irony, meta-irony, sincerity, new sincerity, parody, analysis, it's all just endless developments of styles and genres and ways to communicate that have been developed for centuries before us and centuries after us. Only now, it's impossible to avoid, it's curated by our timelines and walls, and our friends can't wait to tell us about it, and... oh my God, it's just like newspaper was before the web! One truly wonders what the 1800s Minions were. Hopefully for our ancestors sake, they spoke a bit more cohesively.

Regardless, it's easy to look back on the earlier internet with fondness and forgo the negatives; that back then, the modern landscape of information could be horribly fractured. Use this site for a map. Use this site for news. Use this site for email. Use this site for music. Many of these sites had endless copies and rehashes, there was no one-stop convenience, no grand source of information other than the internet itself; but by virtue of that wildness, there was no Great Filter, no corporation signing off on anything and everything that was posted or written or made.

It's also easy to ignore that, in all likelihood, the internet was a more dangerous and fear inducing place back then, remiss of cultural dialogues about what is truly appropriate in internet space, or who the internet is for, or how we can make it more inviting. From a purely logistical standpoint, the laws and regulations of various nations had little to nothing to say about the internet, such was its explosion so rapid and complete that the law was either clumsily applied in overly restrictive ways, or haphazardly applied in ways that didn't protect the people it sought to.

And so from the 90s and aughts we have now sprung headfirst into a form of content and communication so immense that even TV, the giant goliath of all goliaths, the thing that either killed us all or brought us all together, depending on who you read, is slowly losing to the web, losing users, losing content, losing relevance; its death prolonged by the corporate giants who have stakes in it, just like some day, the corporate giants that were birthed on the internet as it is now will vainly try to swim against whatever revolutionizes the world next. And yet, for all my ruminations on the past, of a less commercial internet, we've all, as a species, swam forward over time immemorial further and further away from the dystopia. To hear some people speak, you'd think the internet is dead, media is dead, the future is hopeless, and I will complete this sentence only if I can get it sponsored. By the way, here's a clip of something I didn't create, just to get hits! And it has a Stamp of Content Approval from Facebook itself! Now appearing on your Timeline for the next 30 minutes only! I kid, of course, but prophecy is laden with doom and gloom more often than optimism, and one wonders if that's why news is a natural extension of tragedy.

What is the internet, then? Is it the wild west of the earlier years, still, of individuals and rule breaking and subcultures? Is it just another commercial venue? Is it - dare I say it - just TV with a new skin? Was it ever anything else? Or has it always been something else? I don't know, perhaps nobody does. That's why all the guesses; by people, by CEOs, by creators, of what the next big thing will be, of how to latch onto it, and how to bring it to the forefront of our daily communication, or even of what to do on the internet in the first place.

In the meantime, sit back, and revel in whatever Minion your aunt has posted to Facebook. Perhaps the greatest irony is that we were the Minions all along; spewed out by corporate culture, and laughing at ourselves all the way.

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