Everyone on the Internet

January, 2014 ∙ 6 minute read

There’s a wonderful quote in the 3rd season of Portlandia that keeps drifting into my spare thoughts like a tickle in the back of my throat when I’m trying to go to sleep. The sketch is of a spontaneous disaster of a weekend getaway featuring the first real step in the nascent love interests of one of the show’s primary characters. The spur of the moment, promisingly romantic, weekend trip to Italy leaves the hipster duo holed up in their hotel room with mis-matched sleep cycles and no real experiences beyond the airplane and the scenery of the inside of their lodging. The weekend is a waste of time, money, and relationship opportunity, but they dutifully capture and Instagram the original, romantic, exciting intent of the spontaneity. Their friends back at home are enamored with the trip photos, but Fred gets somber:

Everyone on the Internet—they’re not having as great a time as you think they are.
Fred
I think it’s because people are just cropping out all the sadness.
Carrie

The romantic notion of what Fred’s character wishes his spontaneous getaway to be is actually what I remember as the reality of my own unexpected weekend escape. It makes me nervous to compare my memory to the disaster and humor of the Portlandia sketch, but this is pre-Instagram so you’ll have to just believe me. On the way home from a wedding in Texas, a bumped flight turned into a night in Vegas with my barely-girlfriend, our newly married peers, and a to-good-to-be-true allocation of hotel rooms. We were self conscious and church-bred innocent, but it was as exciting in the moment as it is fun to tell the story years later. Even better, that barely-girlfriend ended up being my wife. Memories are admittedly malleable (and there is good research backing up the idea that our brains don’t work like hard drives and that we literally create a-new each memory as we recall it), but I’m pretty happy with how that one has created itself again and again over the years. I like the idea of remembering as a creative act. Which is why it’s not so strange that our digital memorabilia have a tint of drama and romance to them. An ability to crop out the sadness or play up the moment. To show only what we wish to remember and to ensure the proper future creative act of recalling those memories.

What’s really interesting to me, is the idea that these memories, these little acts of creation, are globalizing. I was in a pub in Sewickley, PA the other week explaining hashtags to my parents over a beer and I remembered again how fascinating the shared digital experience is in the grand scheme of things. My favorite hashtag by far is #nofilter. It’s the dichotomy of needing to communicate that No really! It looks exactly like this, with the wonderful truth that the existence of the photo is a very strategic filter on how you want the world to perceive your life. And to top off the irony, you make sure to connect said directed experience with every other #nofilter going on in the world at that moment. Brilliant! Beyond even my musings years ago about cultural feedback loops, we’ve moved to a place where it’s erie that everyone is having the same #hashtag experience (well, at least our socioeconomic peers that is).

And yet, I secretly revel in the experiences that I don’t share. The moments that happen off the grid. I go out of my way sometimes to not record and not broadcast. I don’t know if someone else in the world is experiencing the exact same thing as me, but I like to suppose that they are not. That my experience in time is mine and only mine; not to be shared (in both senses of the word) with anyone. But this disposition of mine is all part of good story telling too. The horror movie monster isn’t scary if you reveal it immediately in daylight. Your imagination is a powerful tool in the storyteller’s box. And because of this, the things I leave out speak as loudly as the ones I include. Each medium of storytelling from spoken and written word to photography, film, and live performance has to play to its strengths of retaining mystery and building a story arc. The audience’s imagination and ability to fill in the blanks is how the secret sauce of great stories is made. So if anything, my omission of certain experiences actually just furthers the filter on the experiences I do share with the world.

Now some might argue, then, that the solution is to fully disconnect. The eldest generation does this well as the magnitude of technological progress in the past 80 or 90 years is just too much for many a single lifetime. I also know a few friends who are entirely off the grid and the Internet, but to disconnect fully is also to miss out on a moment in history and an awakening of a new global connectedness. Yes, it is messy and complicated and dysfunctional, but the truth is, like-it-or-not, Instagramed-or-not, our experiences are globalizing and we should all start getting better both at telling our own stories and at empathizing with the stories of others. For what is a story without an audience?

And when it comes to story telling, I’m in full appreciation of the satirist, because I think it is one of the few ways to stay sane in the #globalizationofexperience. If you can’t laugh at your own self produced irony, then you can’t see yourself from an outsider’s perspective either. Like a mirror, satire can encourage both vanity and reflection. It can focus selfishness or build empathy. Like all powerful tools it can both damage and repair. For this reason I think we have to embrace story telling and especially satire as a tool in the globalization of experience. We all must become playwrights and focus our mirrors in a way that lets people see themselves from another perspective or see someone else with new eyes. As far as Portlandia goes, if you listen carefully, I think this particular sketch is one that nicks and forces reflection. Fred’s line is delivered so well. An exasperated sigh, as if he’s just now understood the joke. The self-reflective irony cuts in just the right place and before you can feel sad about it you remember that you are the story teller and you can just crop this part out.

Tim's Avatar Hi, I'm Timothy Clem.
I'm a product engineer, programmer, and hacker at GitHub in San Francisco.