At some point, the central activity of online communication shifted from seeking to eliminating.
This is something I realized much later than I would have liked, but is fast becoming my grand unifying principle of networked life. It basically goes, when the internet was a new and wonderful place, it unlocked paths of communication, so its power was in what it could provide that was not previously there, or was only there through very limited avenues.
Today, the central feature of the internet is that everything is there, all the time, provided and consumed by everyone. That overabundance is not only abused for nefarious purposes, it’s simply, logistically unsustainable. There is so much information beaming out at us that if we're not careful we become effectively snow-blind.
So the central task of anyone seeking to consume information online in any kind of useful way is no longer to hunt things down; it’s to constantly eliminate as much as possible. To clear away sticky, screaming tidal waves of trash.
The power of this overabundance as a tool to shape society is described by Zeynep Tufekci in her brilliant book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.
In the networked public sphere, the goal of the powerful often is not to convince people of the truth of a particular narrative or to block a particular piece of information from getting out (that is increasingly difficult), but to produce resignation, cynicism, and a sense of disempowerment among the people. This can be done in many ways, including inundating audiences with information, producing distractions to dilute their attention and focus, delegitimizing media that provide accurate information (whether credible mass media or online media), deliberately sowing confusion, fear, and doubt by aggressively questioning credibility (with or without evidence, since what matters is creating doubt, not proving a point), creating or claiming hoaxes, or generating harassment campaigns designed to make it harder for credible conduits of information to operate, especially on social media which tends to be harder for a government to control like mass media.
The fact that you could extend that concept—the idea that overwhelm has replaced absence as the chief problem of information—to just about anything in current media and communication became clearer as I set out to buy a new watch at the start of the year.
I set a sort of new year's resolution to try to back away from my reliance on technology, which is kind of hacky I know, but I wanted to do it thoughtfully, not just shutting down my facebook account in a fit.
Around the start of the year, I had had a realization that I wasn’t consuming a lot of the things I wanted to, the things I was consuming were often filling me with blind rage, and I was walking around with a feverish, frantic anxiety far more often than I wanted to.
So I gave up my smartwatch and got a nice $30 Timex dumb watch. And then set out to dial back the clock in terms of how and how much information I was taking in. I shut down almost all phone notifications, went on twitter hiatus, set up a better system for finding new music other than an endless list of things to stream. I also all but eliminated daily opinion writing from what I read. When I eventually did go back to Twitter, I muted or unfollowed about 200 accounts.
One of the accounts I certainly did not unfollow was Jay Rosen, who one Saturday morning tweeted:
It's gotten so that ignoring shit is your only hope of staying informed, and if you don't pay constant attention to this fact you're lost.— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) February 17, 2018
Don't @ me with 'twas ever thus please. Thanks.
That was exactly the concept I had been trying to get my head around, mashed up with Tufekci’s study of the new censorship-by-inundation, and my own desperate attempt to make some kind of peace with the firehose:
There is something kind of sad about this. I remember in my glory days of the Internet, starting around 2002 and into maybe 2009. That thrill of the new, of seeking out what wasn’t there before. The quality of the experience was proportionate to how many blogs you knew about, how many people you followed on Twitter, friends on Friendster, mp3 downloads, etc. Now the hunt is replaced with glut. With shit.
And all there is to do is constantly, strategically, ignore it as best as we all can. And hope that what gave us that thrill, what empowered so many of us in those days is still there to unearth. Or that maybe some new tectonic plate will shift, and change how we interact.