November 29, 2014

Long Conversation: Life Online

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. This month we were asked how our relation to the internet has changed. Here's what I wrote.

Before moving to Edmonton four years ago I didn’t use the internet for much beyond downloading music, reading articles and sending emails. This city gave me may first opportunity to live alone, without the comforting distractions of roommates. As I started my program, I realized most of my academic work and most of my leisure activities depended on the glowing screen sitting on my desk. As some friends of mine pointed out, my presence on Facebook had dramatically increased during my first semester of grad school. I was averaging five Facebook posts a day when I finally joined Twitter, a better home for all the stuff I felt I needed to share.

Work and Facebook consumed most of my days, while my lonelier evenings were filled by Megavideo. I streamed the entire series of The Wire in a few short months and got through most of Friday Night Lights just as quickly. Back then, Megavideo had a viewing time limit (around 58 minutes); once you hit that limit you were forced to wait for an hour or so. Eventually this limit began structuring my study routine. I would go through an entire day, watching 6 episodes of the Wire and reading Derrida for the remaining hours that I could muster the concentration. Each time Megavideo forced me back to work, I knew that after an hour of study, I’d earn the reward of another episode.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t very good at living alone. I needed something (or, better, someone) to give my days structure and with only three seminars a week, the internet was the best option I had. I could watch shows when I was bored and when I was feeling isolated in my basement suite, I could relocate to social media. At it’s best, the internet gave me immediate access to all kinds of data, allowing me to share content and communicate with friends; I could adopt a grammar of sharing. At its worst, it was (and still is) a form of social control that it’s become hard to do without, a place where popularity and visibility are synonymous, not unlike the logic of high school.

Fortunately, I no longer live on my own, but I'm not sure how much my online activity has changed. That being said, my ambitions definitely have. It’s been two years since I humbly entered the world of graphic design, a world built on freelancing, a world that once looked entirely different without the web. I suppose I’m now much more aware of my identity on the internet, in part because I’ve been forced to see it as a place for self-promotion, a place where I can present my work and connect with clients. Over the next 6 months, I’ll be preparing for this to become more of a reality, as I set up a personal website (with my own domain name!) and assemble an online portfolio. The thought of this near future fills me with dread and a degree of excitement. At the same time, it means that I’ve also entered an increasingly precarious work environment. For every illustrator or designer who sees mild success there are twenty more equally talented people who have to pursue their work as a labour of love, or, more realistically, not at all. At least I have some sense of how to navigate the web. In fact, I’ve been thinking about my online identity much longer than I’ve been in Edmonton.

Back in 2008, I started a blog to share bits of writing I was working on and catalogue lists of my favourite things (mostly related to indie music and literary theory). I’ve averaged about 60 posts each year since, and the blog currently figures as an archive of my interests as they’ve emerged over the past six years. Even though writing has become less of a priority, I still make the occasional blog post for no other reason than to extend my archive into the future (and I’m slightly alarmed at how patriarchal that sounds). In many ways, my blogging has prepared me for the kind of online identity I’m now slowly building. It’s allowed me to track hits and views from across the world and see what kinds of posts attract visitors. Every once in a while I’ll find a comment on an old post and sometimes it’s not even spam! 

Last summer I decided the time was right to start two new blogs. One is used strictly as hosting site for mp3s from a radio show I’m part of. The other one is on Tumblr, which I’m finding to be one of the most interesting and surprising places on the internet right now. Part of its charm is the way it accommodates visual media. It also connects with what I do because of how many illustrators, photographers and designers use it to show off their work and process. The structure is more or less like that of Twitter or Instagram, where you have a stream of posts compiled for you on your home page (or “Dashboard”) that’s based on the users that you follow. As a fellow user, you have the option to “heart” or reblog any post you come across. There don’t seem to be many limitations on what you can post, and artists have been known to experience theft of their work or, at the very least, posting without proper attribution. When you visit someone else’s page you see the images they’ve posted or reblogged, arranged according to their page’s structure or theme.

This is what it looks like when you appear on the "Radar," which randomly happened to me just after I wrote this.

Tumblr works for a variety of media, but for me it’s a hub for illustration, photography, and design, both amateur and professional. Some use it for documenting process, others for web comics, and still others (like me) use it as a less discretionary portfolio of current work. Like Instagram, it’s a way of sharing the stuff I’m doing with whoever cares to see it. Unlike Instagram, your work can become incredibly popular if the right people reblog it. I have several images from a year ago that are still getting reblogged, and when I think about the network that exists between my computer and the many Tumblr pages where my image currently appears, my work feels infinitely far away. I don’t expect that anyone currently viewing it will try to trace it back to its proper origin, but at the same time I’m flattered that something of mine has resonated with so many strangers.

Suffice it to say that on Tumblr, you can see something of yours quickly spiral out of your control. You can see your work become part of someone else’s visual language. You can, for instance, see how your image fits into the mosaic of erotically charged pictures on the Tumblr page of a high school student who’s used Tumblr to build the visual ideal of her identity. This might, and often does, turn her followers into your followers. But much more effective for gaining loyal viewers is Tumblr’s built-in system of curation. Certain popular tags (“Artists on Tumblr” for example) that accompany your work can be highlighted and used to prioritize a post in relevant searches. Your page might also appear on the Tumblr “Radar” if you’re deemed worthy. It’s almost enough to convince you that all the labour of making your art is actually valued, but the only return is visibility in a system over-saturated with images. Every now and then I remember that, by all appearances, it’s followers like the high school student with a taste for the macabre that I’m really working for. The only real difference between her and I is that I did this kind of collaging before I had a life on the internet.

In junior high, I had a bulletin board in my room that I covered with photos and clippings from magazines. As I got older, I realized that the bulletin board was a sham and covered my walls with postcards and handbills from concerts. A Tumblr page projects that same kind of archive outward, where the gaze of others is more immediate. But both instances of self-fashioning are fundamentally discursive. They each assemble signs and symbols in a way that suggests an audience, even if that audience is, in the end, a reflexive self. Social media now facilitates this, but despite the possibility of updates, the options for individual users still remains frustratingly limited. Our online “selves” remain fixed in order to be recognizable, often skewed in favour of the privileged and popular. For all the possibilities of our projections, some of us can’t help but be consistent.

November 7, 2014

Long Conversation: Alcohol

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. This month we were asked to explore our relationship to intoxication. Here's what I wrote.

I enjoy the occasional solitary drink, but most of my experiences with alcohol point to an overwhelmingly social drug. For many of us, alcohol is more than just a substance. It names a way to imagine and practice an idealized set of social relations. Alcohol is effective and attractive. It can elevate and degrade. It can help groups cohere just as easily as it can fracture longstanding relationships. As with most drugs, those of us who use it are always in danger of turning it into a crutch, relying on the substance just a little too much. In certain situations, it goes without saying. I find it far easier to be at a club when I’m a bit tipsy, and having a few drinks makes it easier to be at a party where I only know a few of the guests. The conversation flows. Big deals can become small deals, and vice versa. Unlikely friendships are made quickly and forgotten.

Another thing common to a culture of drinking is the idea of initiation. Since the early days of high school, parties and drinking have been bound together but I’m sure many of us can remember our first time drinking in excess.

Even in that first, supposedly free encounter, my attitude towards alcohol has always reflected a certain understanding of my immediate social context. My track record, in other words, has a lot to do with where and when I grew up: in a sporadically dry town—the tightly fastened buckle of Manitoba’s Bible belt—a decade or so before the opening of its first liquor store. Along with all the extra effort involved in acquiring alcohol, its somewhat forbidden nature should have made it more enticing. But unlike the teetotallers in my town, I never really saw alcohol consumption as a moral issue, and by extension I never dreamt about an end to its repression. To me, the alcohol issue seemed symptomatic of the community’s contradictory relationship with the outside world: strictly Mennonite in the petty ways but more than happy to support an unjust government hellbent on going to war and whose policies actively promoted the destruction of the environment.

My parents counteracted the puritanical nature of our town by having a well-stocked liquor cabinet and bringing me up to appreciate a good wine and cheese pairing. Early on, I appreciated the taste of wine and beer but by the middle of high school I was slightly paranoid about what might happen if I over-indulged: an uncontrollable change in personality or, worse, irreparable brain damage. Judging by all the parties I’d been to, people did really act out when they were drunk and, on a few occasions, I was no exception.

Before my first experience of real “drinking,” alcohol was a pretty neutral part of adulthood. However, it quickly assumed a social importance in my grade, and as someone who played on several sports teams, I had plenty of opportunities to become part of the elite group of kids who drank at parties. I had my first night of drunkenness at the end of grade 10. As I recall, it was plotted one evening after a baseball game. My friend’s parents were out of town. We had an older acquaintance who we knew would be willing to buy us a 24 of Coors. It was a weird night, not least because our buyer wouldn’t leave. We weren’t expecting him to actually hang out with us. It definitely put a damper on things. Not long after that, I decided not get drunk again.

In those first few experiences, I treated intoxication the way most young people do: as a way to escape or rebel, an excuse to act belligerent. My identification of booze with rebellion quickly waned when I realized that if something as easy as drinking was the most secure route to a better high school social status, it wasn’t really a status worth having. And if drinking was simply a right of passage, I could move on. Besides, there always had to be at least one person willing to look after all the unfortunate souls who’d consumed more than they could handle. I have a distinct memory of my friend passed out on a couch in another friend’s basement. He was covered in sweat, snoring away while my other friends threw Cheetos at him, trying to get them to stick onto his face. Oh, the joys of high school drinking.

Chivalry aside, my decision to no longer get drunk during this period in high school also came from an embarrassingly narcissistic fear that I wasn’t a very bright kid and I had a vulnerable brain to protect. I was growing anxious about university; I knew I’d have to rely on scholarships and I had the wild ambition to transcend my rural upbringing. So yeah, along with a threat my assets, I associated drinking with a part of small-town culture that I wanted to escape. Occasionally, I managed to romanticize it and see our group participating in something that was rustic and removed; but more often it left me feeling cynical and out of place. Perhaps without that rural association, perhaps if I’d grown up in a more cosmopolitan space, I wouldn’t have adopted such a skewed, elitist perspective about drinking. At that point it was hard think differently.

When the scenery finally changed, I changed with it. But the transition was slow. I didn’t attend any parties during my first semester at university, and when I did I noticed a small group who went to parties but didn’t drink. They were fellow first years, but unlike me they were armed with more altruistic intentions than shyness. They tried to make the point that you didn’t need to drink in order to have fun and do stupid shit. It wasn’t lost on the rest of us, but no one was surprised when these same people started showing up with beer at parties months later.

In terms of intoxication, those years were probably the wildest I’ll ever have. They allowed me the space and safety to figure out my limits and establish a relatively comfortable relationship with my own intoxication. I now know generally what to expect when decide to drink. During my first year I remember being able to count the number of times I’d been drunk. As drinking became a more standard part of my routine, I recognized that this finite number would soon become a thing of the past. I found some small comfort in knowing that. Once I lost track of my drinking escapades, my fears about its consequences would also slide out of view.

Whether you condemned it or celebrated it, drinking played a pretty significant role in my undergraduate experience and was a frequent topic of discussion both on and off campus. There were forums and committees to deal with the issue, and occasionally students involved in leadership roles would draw fire for instances of drunken belligerence. Most of us understood and accepted that it was a contentious issue, but saw no need to change our lifestyles. My university placed a great amount of importance on promoting and fostering community, both publicly and internally. Although my friends and I were at times critical of the way this idea got thrown around, we recognized that our actions did occasionally make others uncomfortable and, at times, made efforts to hold alcohol-free events (one of which I remember being quite successful). I’m glad we did. In a few short years, it had become natural for most of us to assume that social life automatically included alcohol. It even related to what we were studying. We had biblical examples of drinking (the Wedding at Cana was a favourite) and a long tradition of Eucharistic celebration to back us up. At parties, we took it as our rite to celebrate the sacred connection between booze and community, but it was equal parts profound and stupid, like most ideologies are.

The days of excessive drinking are, I hope, long past. But it remains difficult to imagine a social gathering that doesn’t bring with it the expectation that most people will be drinking and the feeling that you are strange for not doing so. The pressure isn’t as overt as it once was: no one is forcing you to drink or mocking your decision to abstain. At this point many of us just drink out of habit, often without the expectation that we’ll get drunk. Sometimes it almost feels like if drinking isn’t going to be part of a social gathering, we expect it to be unmemorable or at the very least, unremarkable. Or, if drinking is involved, new possibilities are opened up (and paradoxically, a tradition is continued); the very idea of alcohol acts to dissolve the mental barriers that prevent us from doing things like climbing onto buildings, playing dumb games, or eating too much greasy food.

As these conditions persist in certain friend groups, I’m also getting to know more people who opt out of drinking at social events, for whatever reason. In the last couple years I’ve tried giving up alcohol over lent. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially since my birthday usually falls within that forty day period. It can be quite frustrating, both for me and for the people who want me to drink along with them. By this point, some friendships almost require it, while for others it simply serves as a nice addition, a slightly different way of relating. Still, I’ve found giving up alcohol for prolonged periods worthwhile, not just for the perspective it affords, but for all the money it saves me.