Last night my husband David and I watched American Hustle. As the credits rolled at the end of the film, we had an odd conversation that went a bit like this:
Pacifica: You know the sad thing is that the woman played by Jennifer Lawrence actually killed herself a few years after all this.
Pacifica: Rosalyn? Yes Rosalyn.
David: Jozelin, the red-haired one?
Pacifica: There was no one named Jozelin. Rosalyn, the one played by Jennifer Lawrence.
David: The actress killed herself?
Pacifica: No I mean the person that the character was based on.
David: The red-haired one.
Pacifica: No, Jennifer Lawrence!
David: Jennifer Lawrence killed herself?
Pacifica: No! The woman she was playing!
David: Who is Jennifer Lawrence?
I found this conversation humorous on several levels. For one, it was yet another conversation I can add to a lengthy list where our communication makes me feel like we are inhabiting a Monty Python sketch:
It was also hilarious that David had just watched a two-hour film and still had no idea what any of the characters were called, and could only roughly identify them by hair color. (Good thing there weren’t two redheads, or that conversation might have gone on a lot longer).
The third thing that was odd to me about this conversation was the realization that my husband has absolutely NO idea who Jennifer Lawrence is. I asked him if he had recognized the blond in the film at all, and he said, nope, never seen her before.
How is that even possible?
Before last night’s revelation, I had been under the impression that being on the internet, at least in the Western-centric media landscape, was inseparable from at least recognizing Jennifer Lawrence. She is one of the most internet-meme-making, GIF-spawning, article-inspiring stars out there, and you’d have to be a serious internet ninja to manage to avoid her. Because she is likable, intelligent, talented and hilarious – a far wider variety of people are interested in clicking on things about her than say clicking on articles about Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan.
And then of course there’s the contingent who have made her even more widely ‘seen’ this year by sharing stolen pictures of her naked. If (like me of course) you did not see them, you surely read about the sharing of them in what was a media frenzy about privacy, celebrity culture, women’s bodies as public commodities, hacking, etc., etc.
Or then again, maybe you didn’t… !
It was refreshingly adorable to have my husband prove that might still be possible.
I’m rather sad – because now David DOES know who Jennifer Lawrence is, making his brain just the slightest bit more full of the same stuff that’s in so many other people’s brains.
Don’t get me wrong – I think Jennifer Lawrence is great. What I have a problem with is the increasing homogenization of information, culture, experience and opinion.
Often lately David or I will start talking about something we read or saw online, and the other person will cut us off saying, “Yeah I know, I already saw that.” This is happening with increasing frequency as our two sets of social media circles have begun to share more and more and more of exactly the same thing, regardless of whether the people are from the United States, or Venezuela, or Europe, or somewhere else.
Remember back when we thought the internet was going to give us access to EVERYTHING, removing all the middle men that were holding things back, making all things accessible to everyone all the time – liberating and democratizing information?
There was this sort of brief golden age in social media when everyone who was online was sharing different things. But then a funny thing happened…there got to be too much information – which meant that there was a lot of amazing stuff out there, but it also meant there was even more crap and misinformation and stupid stuff. We got so overwhelmed trying to find the stuff we really liked and were interested in that we began to use middle men again to filter for us. And then things started going viral.
And now? Most of what we consume online is stuff that has already gone viral. What does this imply? It’s starting to mean that people are mostly only seeing and hearing all the same things that everyone else they know is seeing and hearing.
When you live with someone a problem you can run into is sharing too many of the same experiences. If you’re in a good relationship this doesn’t mean you talk any less about stuff – but it can mean that the pool of what you have to talk about is smaller than people whose lives are more separate.
The internet is making that phenomenon worse.
While it can be a bit frustrating within a relationship if you start to feel like you’ve both already seen and heard and learned exactly the same things, it’s far more depressing when you start to feel like that is becoming true on a much larger scale – within the entire circle of acquaintances with whom you share information. More and more, we are all-seeing, reading, and watching the same things. We are probably often even responding and thinking in the same ways about the same things .
This is boring. And dangerous.
It kind of reminds me of what we’ve done to produce. We waste the energy and money to transport foodstuffs from all over the world – bananas from Ecuador, grapes from Chile, avocados from Kenya, salmon from Norway, yet our food choices often remain surprisingly homogeneous. (Did you know that 5000 varieties of potatoes still exist today? How many of them have you ever seen let alone tried?) You find the same-old same-old varieties of apples, potatoes, corn, etc, in most grocery stores - because the space is filled by the things people easily recognize, and are the most bright and shiny and “normal” looking.
This is kind of how people end up clicking on links too…
Limiting diversity in our crops not only narrows down the variety of nutrients we consume but also puts populations at higher risk of suffering from disease or famine.
I feel like the way we have begun to share and reshare information online is also making what we consume less and less diverse and nutritious.
Ideas need to be mixed and thrown together in odd and surprising ways – we need constant new strains of thought, just like we need new genes in the breeding pool to improve our diversity and potential for future survival. We need new to be around new ways of seeing and doing and making things, to help inspire us to create more robust, diverse and interesting ideas in the future.
When I was about 11 or 12 I was talking to my best friend, and somehow the song “When the Saints Go Marching In” came up – and she had no idea what I was talking about. This baffled me. To me this was a song everyone knew. I wasn’t even sure why or how I had learned it – but I felt that spoke to its ubiquitousness more than anything else. I mean come on – this was a song that was one of the preset tunes on my 22-key Casio keyboard! I could play that song on the recorder AND the ocarina! How could she not know that song?
“When the Saints Go Marching In” seemed so inescapably American that it was a strange shock to realize that someone who I grew up with and was seemingly exposed to so many of the same things as me could have somehow had no contact with it.
But she and I often shared new things with one another.
She had parents with decidedly different backgrounds than my parents, and we were exposed to fairly different cultural references. As we grew up we began sharing the things we’d seen or heard at home that interested us – she brought things passed to her from her parents like Peggy Lee, amazing classical records, films like “The Russians Are Coming,” and memories from Cape Cod and Israel - while from my house and family I brought her things like the Grateful Dead and all sorts of other classic rock ‘n roll, tales from Alaska, Renaissance Faire paraphernalia, and flavors of the spiritually esoteric. And we both brought in lots, and lots of books.
This mixing of the cultures of two such different families, plus our own two distinctive brains and curiosities developed into a passionate quest to learn about new things to share with each other. This wonderful cross-pollination that occurred over many years, (and continues today) completely shaped who we both are. It’s one of the things I am most grateful for.
It’s that kind of sharing that I miss. But is it even possible to have anything that resembles that online? Very little of what I see online reflects anything much about any of the uniqueness of the people I know and what they think and have experienced, but rather the common denominators of the hive mind.
Going viral, and companies like Upworthy and Buzzfeed who exist specifically for the purpose of making content go viral, have made the internet a much more boring and homogenized place. Everyone is sharing the same video, talking about the same issue, gossiping about the same scandal and giving to the same charity.
Viral content has a nasty ripple effect as well – once something has gone viral, every major news source feels the need to cover it and have a take on it, trying to ride the viral wave and catch a few of those clicks. If one newspaper has a story discussing the complexity of a twerking issue, everyone has to have their angle on the subject, whether it’s the New York Times or the Daily Post. If one magazine has an article about an actress appearing to have had eyelid surgery, significantly changing her trademark look, absolutely everyone has to have their say about it, whether it’s the Atlantic or TMZ.
If we want better than this, I think we might need to take it upon ourselves not to do the easy consumption – to seek rarer strains of information and share THAT with one another rather than the things we are being fed so easily.
Maybe that sounds like a waste of time – but the more we make an effort to take in new and different information ourselves and then share it with each other, the more organically new conversations, new thinking and new connecting can happen, and the more inspiration, sudden strange ideas, and eureka moments can be had.
As people on Facebook, on twitter, and on other social media platforms, I believe it’s our responsibility to take a bit more time to think about what we are sharing. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t be sharing silly stuff, or funny stuff, or stupid stuff – that is part of the fun of the internet. But I think instead before we hit the share button, we should think about whether or not something is already widely spread – and if so, maybe consider looking for something more obscure but equally interesting to share instead – to do our part and encourage the biodiversity of the web
Let’s try as consumers and sharers and producers of information, to be more a little more interesting ourselves. Because in the viral culture, a little bit of interesting can go a long way.