The Existential Void of the Pop-Up

Over at the New York Times, Amanda Hess writes about The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’. (This came out in September and has been sitting my tabs waiting to be blogged about since then. Oops.) It’s an interesting look at the panoply of “pop-up experiences” that have been popping up [sic] lately, where it’s all about the curated, Instagrammable experience. It kind of gets at something I noted when I lived in the Bay area: people doing things less for the participatory doing, and more for the being seen doing. You hear folks talking about their “platform” and “personal brand” and the optics of things. Even things we do to appear authentic end up being to some degree performative. (As an aside, Lindsay Ellis has a recent and excellent video talking about this from the perspective of video blogging, called Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!).)

The central disappointment of these spaces is not that they are so narcissistic, but rather that they seem to have such a low view of the people who visit them. Observing a work of art or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished. Stalking through the colorful hallways of New York’s “experiences,” I felt like a shell of a person. It was as if I was witnessing the total erosion of meaning itself. And when I posted a selfie from the Rosé Mansion saying as much, all of my friends liked it.

Amanda Hess

I don’t know, maybe I’m just not the target demographic, and I’m just an old curmudgeon who doesn’t “get” it. But there’s something that feels kind of funky about these manufactured, curated experiences. Hmm, that’s not fair: We’ve always curated experiences, chosen how we present things at both small and grand scales. I think there’s a distinction: there’s participatory interaction, and then there’s performative interaction, and these pop-ups seem to fall into the category of the latter more than the former, and that leaves us feeling… empty.

Insta Repeat

Found via Demilked, there’s an interesting Instagram account that is finding repeated imagery in Instagram photos, called Insta Repeat. For instance:


I think it’s an interesting project in a few different ways. On one side it shows how much we all end up copying each other, and how quickly an image concept can end up feeling trite and overplayed. But it also calls out the patterns we associate with photographic composition — often the images look similar simply because that’s the best approach for shooting a particular subject, so of course there are going to be similar photos. (The same goes for some location shots: why are there 5 million+ nearly identical shots of Half Dome in Yosemite? Because the park was designed to bring you to that reveal, where you’ll say “wow” and take the shot.)

While it’s easy to take a cynical view of this sort of project, it can be viewed in other ways, too. It’s telling to see what imagery strikes people, what patterns keep coming up, and to think about why those shots in particular seem to recur. Also, there’s a certain beauty in the collections themselves, the grids of similar photos all in a row, where the repetition is a part of the piece.

Twitter Departures

There seems to be a trend currently of announcing departures from Twitter. As a sampling (not the only ones, mind you), here are posts from Derek Powazek, Sean Bonner, and Wil Wheaton all announcing that they’re leaving Twitter and why. You’ll see a recurring trend: the indifferent (or even inimical) handling by Twitter of rampant toxicity, harassment, and abuse has effectively killed the community for a large number of people.

I’m hardly surprised by any of this — if anything, I’m surprised it took this long for people to leave. I’ve commented before that Twitter has become largely a rage machine, and I unfortunately don’t see a course-correction this happening any time soon (if it’s even possible). I’m mostly off it myself at this point — I still auto-post links to my blog posts, and respond to DMs and replies, but otherwise spend very little time there. I don’t personally feel a need to fully depart (and if I ever do, I’ll likely just ghost), but I also don’t foresee going back to it, either.

Like a lot of other people, I’ve joined a Mastodon instance, which will likely scratch that occasional Twitter itch for now (feel free to follow me). That said, I don’t really anticipate using it a lot — I’m feeling pretty done with the format, to be perfectly honest. In terms of online discourse, it feels like it fills the same sort of niche small-talk does in real life — sometimes it’ll lead to deeper conversations and connections with others, but mostly it’s just filling time.

Link: New Coalition for Humane Technology

Over at the New York Times, Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built. The article is mostly a press release for some of the efforts the new Center for Humane Technology is doing, but I wanted to call it out because (as may be clear from some of my recent posts in the past few months) it’s a topic I care about.

Loneliness and Technology

There’s been several recent articles about loneliness lately, spurred at least in part by the UK’s recent creation of a Minister of Loneliness to help cope with what’s been called an “epidemic of loneliness.” There are a lot of reasons why the surge in both quantity and severity of loneliness is a bad thing (aside from the mental and emotional impacts, it ends up having physical ramifications as well), and while I’d say it’s too broad a topic to point specific fingers at the causes, I do think modern society certainly isn’t helping. It’s sort of telling that (pulled from the above Medium article):

Research on young people’s loneliness isn’t abundant. But what does exist suggests loneliness might not go away anytime soon as a health crisis: A UCLA Berkeley study published last year found that even though adults between 21 and 30 had larger social networks, they reported twice as many days spent feeling lonely or socially isolated than adults between 50 and 70.

In other words, the generation portrayed as savvy, socially connected people are actually feeling the most alone.

A good book to read on the subject of the role technology has in all these (and I do definitely think it has a role) is Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. When it first came out a few years ago, I didn’t want to agree with her, but as time goes on, I fall more in alignment with her observations. (Here’s her related Ted Talk, which gives a good summary of the problems we’re talking about.) A quote from the Ted Talk that seems particularly relevant (emphasis mine):

We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, “Why have things come to this?”

And I believe it’s because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we’re not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m advocating becoming a Luddite or something. We live in an age of technology, and it’s unrealistic (and ill-advised) to imagine that’s going to change. But I do think we need to change our relationship with that technology. I think we need to foster and teach empathy and emotional intelligence, and help people work through the anxieties of trying to communicate with others and meeting new people.

I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about this subject (both loneliness in general, and our current social climate). I need to ponder some more about how best to express it.

Happy February

My month-long hiatus from Facebook and Twitter are officially up at this point. Overall, I think it was a worthwhile exile: I wrote and shared a lot more here, and felt less stressed in general. It’s not some magic cure-all for stress or unhappiness, and I definitely still got into funks, but I do think it moved the needle on my general wellbeing.

I do think I’m not going to bother reinstalling either app on my phone, and frankly I’m not feeling particularly compelled to log in otherwise — though I wouldn’t say I’m officially “done” with either service, nor do I plan to delete my accounts any time soon.

So, yeah. If you’re on the fence about getting off social media (or at least drastically reducing your footprint there), I’d recommend it.

Link: Immortal Myths About Online Abuse

Anil Dash breaks down some of the most common myths about online abuse. The solutions aren’t always easy, but there are solutions to a lot of it.

We are accountable for the communities we create, and if we want to take credit for the magical moments that happen when people connect with each other online, then we have to take responsibility for the negative experiences that we enable.

Link: How to Fix Facebook

Over at Washington Monthly, Roger McNamee discusses How to Fix Facebook – Before It Fixes Us. It’s a good read, and while I may not agree with all of his suggestions, there’s some very astute observations in there:

This is important, because the internet has lost something very valuable. The early internet was designed to be decentralized. It treated all content and all content owners equally. That equality had value in society, as it kept the playing field level and encouraged new entrants. But decentralization had a cost: no one had an incentive to make internet tools easy to use. Frustrated by those tools, users embraced easy-to-use alternatives from Facebook and Google. This allowed the platforms to centralize the internet, inserting themselves between users and content, effectively imposing a tax on both sides. This is a great business model for Facebook and Google—and convenient in the short term for customers—but we are drowning in evidence that there are costs that society may not be able to afford.

I’m going to try and not keep harping on this — there’s plenty of other things to think about and talk about. I’ve been an advocate for the “indieweb” for a long time, and the current realizations over how algorithmic content curation (with no one driving, no less) through single sources might not have been such a great idea certainly help vindicate the desire for a “smaller,” more independent web. That said, I’m painfully aware of some of the gaps in the indieweb space: many tools have an incredibly high bar for getting started, and several parts of the stack frankly just aren’t getting a lot of attention (the state of web galleries is the source of a semi-annual lament). If we’re going to make a serious stab at “making the internet smaller again,” there’s still a lot for us to do.

Link: The year we wanted the internet to be smaller

Over at The Verge, The year we wanted the internet to be smaller is an article discussing the state of the internet, and how we’re becoming increasingly disillusioned with broad social media (the Facebooks and Twitters and similar), reverting back to blogs, niche communities, and mailing lists. Found via