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.

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