Morgan Quaintance on the phenomenon of virtual lives

In July 2010 a 19-year-old girl from Malvern in Worcestershire became an overnight YouTube sensation. Her name was Jemma Pixie Hixon and the Lady Gaga cover version she uploaded to the website attracted thousands of views. The video, titled Alejandro, was a standard lo-fi webcam affair, a basic mime to camera filmed in a featurless domestic interior. But something in its hyperreal mix of cloying sexual suggestion and the cosmetically preternatural had truly global appeal. When Hixon uploaded the footage to the Chinese video hosting website YouKu, lightning struck twice. Over a million surfers clicked to view and Alejandro became the most watched video in a country with the largest population in the world.

Stories like these are legion when it comes to the internet, but what makes Hixon different from other camgirls – netspeak for women who use webcams to broadcast themselves online – is that she suffers from agoraphobia, the fear of public and open spaces. According to various online biographies of her life and current status as a net superstar, she hasn’t left home for three years and is unlikely to venture out anytime soon. This means that, for a significant proportion of Hixon’s lifetime and the foreseeable future, her social existence – that is the opportunity to be an individual necessarily among others – resides almost exclusively online.

This instance of a person living through the web, existing as a kind of virtual Rapunzel, provides a striking example of a mode of being unlocked for the general public by the internet’s evolution – a process begun in the late 1990s and consolidated in the 2000s. It was a shift that is referred to as the development from web 1.0, a niche-interest, low-bandwidth technology comprising static web pages, to web 2.0, a high-speed network of interactive sites and collaborative online facilities used by almost everyone in the developed world all the time. The most significant alteration within this dynamic was that the web turned into a social space. It became a place to exchange personal thoughts, feelings and emotions using the full range of audiovisual media tools, which in turn gave birth to behaviours and existential modes as essential to the construction of the modern self as those offered in the material world. As a result existence (that is the daily navigation of socio-cultural and institutional frameworks that make up the world), for net-natives and converted luddites alike, was no longer a question of being-in-the-world; it was also a question of being-online. In other words there were two domains, the virtual and the material, in which we became able to define, actualise and be ourselves by doing something with, alongside or against others, by being social. ‘Existence precedes essence,’ said Jean-Paul Sartre, and millions began to consider it their inalienable right to define their ‘essences’ online.

Following the emergence of early social-media enterprises, it took a few short years for online lifesharing to move from an Orwellian rarity to the inescapable and ubiquitous banality it has now become. The utopian expectation of this transformation was that a mass movement of creative empowerment and collaboration would emerge. Everybody would be free to be themselves and a radical, decentred and democratic collectivity would support this inevitable liberation. The reality is something quite different. Just as social systems and institutions – families, social clubs, art galleries, the law, education and so on – constrict the self by pushing it into predefined frameworks in the real world, so do modes of exchange and the facilities that create and host them on the web.

This is all happening because the internet is not a chaotic, self-perpetuating system. It is a man-made network with only a small cadre of commercial companies defining the shape of what we can do on it and express through it. For example, out of an estimated population of 56m, around 45m Britons were using the internet mid-way through 2012 (the Office for National Statistics clocks it at 41.9m, while Internet World Stats has it as 52,731,209). The top five social networking sites and their corresponding market shares were, according to Experian Hitwise, Facebook at 47.37%; YouTube at 20.62%; Twitter at 3.39%; YouTube Mobile at 2.09%; and Yahoo! Answers at 1.54%; while the top three overall websites used in the UK were Google, Facebook and YouTube. That is an alarmingly narrow channel through which the vast majority of internet traffic passes. Moreover these sites, by their very nature as designed commercial entities, come with very specific parameters that users must adapt themselves to fit into. There is a simple reason why this is so: user profiles and behavioural data are valuable commodities, but for this data to be worth something it has to be relatively uncomplex, easily understood and easily utilised. The best way to ensure that this is the case is to design online services in such a way that only certain activities and outcomes are possible, resulting in a predictably narrow range of data best suited to analysis. As such, systems of constraint on the web are right there in graphical user interfaces (the visual representations of software and operating systems), empty boxes and fields that require content – Twitter’s 140 character writing limit has even made expressive restriction a unique selling point.

Two areas relating to this state of affairs will be explored here: how the parametrical narrowing that is a fundamental design feature of online services constricts the behaviours of those engaged in the practice of being-online (living socially on and through the web), and how artists are highlighting and responding to this phenomenon.

Using‘being’as a hyphenated prefix will, for those familiar with existential phenomenology, invoke the convoluted spirit of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. This is intentional. His overall notion of being as an existential activity that is essentially social – and the phenomena he identified that arise from being-with others – informs the usage of the term being-online and offers a way of examining what the characteristics of that condition are. In chapter four of Being and Time Heidegger states that the human subject – the self – can only become what it is through contact with others, hence the impossibility of being alone in the world and the fundamental communality of existence. He states ‘Being-with is an existential characteristic of Dasein [the term he uses to denote human beings]’ that ‘even Dasein’s Being-alone is Being-with in the world’, and that ‘everyone is the other, and no one is himself’. What Heidegger is trying to get us to see is that consciousness and the formation of the self are necessarily wedded to the social; that things, emotions and language (however you define them) are ultimately possible only through engagement with others. This is basically to state that no man is an island, but from that ground he begins to draw out what the existential ramifications of this everyday communality are, and in so doing he introduces the concept of ‘levelling down’. This is the term he gives to the social process by which complexity, difficulty and depth are planed down to produce a flattened field of averageness in which the populous interacts. It is a symptom of subordinating oneself to the concerns of others in order to avoid anxiety, death and personal responsibility, and, for Heidegger, the reductive phenomenon of levelling ‘constitutes what we know as publicness’.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was the first to both articulate the concept of levelling and define the nature of ‘the public’, stating in the remarkably prescient 1846 tract The Present Age: ‘In order that everything should be reduced to the same level, it is first necessary to produce a phantom, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage – and that phantom is the public.’ The emergence of dominant web 2.0 sites, through which the lion’s share of online activity passes, organised formerly disparate web users into an interrelated global group bringing this publicness, this ‘monstrous abstraction’, to life with a vengeance online. As a result the web is positively saturated with averageness. It is a space where everything, all information, is flattened to the same level of insignificance; where death, kittens, porn and footage of celebrities falling over become digital flotsam to be sifted by surfers with equal disinterest or cursory indignation. At the heart of this assertion are three ideas: that community enforces homogeneity on the web, that subjectivity and personal judgement are subordinated to that community, and that a community’s existence is what attracts people to join it in the first place. These are elementary phenomena of group participation identified by, among others, Sigmund Freud in ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ and US research psychologist Irving Janus in the book Victims of Group Think. In Twitter parlance this is called trending; for Heidegger it is called ‘the dictatorship of the they’. He writes: ‘We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the “great mass” as they shrink back; we find “shocking” what they find shocking. The “they”, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness.’

The relentless pursuit of normalcy and averageness in the levelled field that is web 2.0 leaves complexity and distinction as casualties in its wake. An example of this has been the unbridled objectification of women and the reduction of thirdwave feminism to a celebration of self-objectification according to the male gaze – an attitude that informs Hixon’s aesthetic. It has produced a climate in which amateur female stripping and erotic dancing thrive online, a culture that Berlin-based net artist Dennis Knopf has dealt with in a 2007 project titled Bootyclipse, in which he pulled clips of amateur strippers from YouTube to create a channel on the site where fans of the culture could watch. When visitors clicked on one of the video clips expecting to see someone gyrating in their underwear, they saw only the domestic spaces in which the DIY directors had recorded themselves. As a kind of net-based intervention or digital détournement, Knopf had edited out the strippers so that only a set of interiors, and the scene’s chosen pop soundtrack, remained. What is revealed to the viewer through that process is that all the rooms are arranged in uncannily similar ways, as if the adoption of group-determined behavioural norms even extends to a form of environmental mirroring. It is, to paraphrase Heidegger, as if every person has become the other and no one is herself.

Since the 1990s the duo Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead have been interested in how the internet operates. In the early days of web 1.0 their works sought to critique the emerging world of e-commerce, or to investigate what happens when information is mediated or distorted by the internet. In the 2000s, with the emergence of web 2.0, their work increasingly focused on foregrounding traces of life lived through and on the internet, on being-online as a burgeoning existential practice. Their Flat Earth Trilogy, a set of short films including Flat Earth, 2007, A Short Film About War, 2009, and Belief, 2012, has been developed through sourcing material from blogs, and online video and photo-sharing communities. Emergent categories of shared behaviour are shown again, as are the weirdly similar ways in which people emote declaratively online. Though less transgressive and distinct than the culture of amateur stripping, Thomson & Craighead unearth subtle traces of Kierkegaard and Heidegger’s publicness from sources sold on their ability to give voice to individual narratives – blogs, video and image-hosting sites. Listening to the stories read out from various blogs across the world in Flat Earth, and watching people running through theological commitments in the collected YouTube videos that make up Belief, conventions begin to emerge and a kind of singular voice pervades. What you are being shown are the participants of a monoculture who are convinced they are anything but. In contrast, Several Interruptions, 2009, a video triptych featuring YouTube footage of various people holding their breath underwater, shows the other side of group participation: the joyful and willing commitment to group behaviour, which in this case is simulated drowning.

By putting shared behaviours together that might, for the casual web viewer, seem like variegated instances of self-expression, both Knopf and Thomson & Craighead reveal the ways in which being-online standardises expression. How this affects the psychology of web users is often explained in terms of the results of internet use on cognitive capabilities. For US writer Nicholas Carr, the web is making as stupid; for Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You, it is making us smarter. The problem is they are only partial conceptions. Within smartness or dumbness there still exist moral, aesthetic and ethical judgements, emotions and desires that direct one’s behaviour. The question is, if being-online, as asserted above, pushes web users into homogenised groups that normalise thinking and behaviour, what is the psychology of individuals engaged in that dynamic process? Following Kierkegaard and Heidegger’s model of the levelling public, the individual psyche should feel itself continually wrenched into the trampling communality of a public determined to maintain the flattened field. The work of US video and installation artist Ryan Trecartin (Reviews AM349) captures this perfectly.

Since the early film A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004, Trecartin has created a nightmarish universe in which queered day-glo adults, sulky pre-teens and assorted freaks interact in situations that have the hysteric energy of an unsupervised slumber party and the weird illogic of a dream. It is a world that can be interpreted as a highly abstracted representation of the internet as infinite information resource. Regard Trecartin’s characters as abstracted versions of the mind states of actual web users and a compelling representation of the psychology of being-online emerges. Each character can be seen as a vessel through which the Heideggarian public speaks and, thus actualised, asserts its power. Their endless deliberations, tantrums and impetuous behaviours become exhibitions of internal psychodramas caused by trying to remain in step with the levelling public or, as declared by the character Pasta in Trecartin’s I-Be-Area, 2007, by trying to be ‘on top of shit [and] always in the moment. Always, always, always’. It is not a schizoid, fragmented or decentred subject that is represented, but the omni-consciousness of an individual whose psychic constitution is that of the group. Again, the individual who is everybody but herself. Just as it is with being-online, virtually everything said and done in a Trecartin work is exaggerated reflection as opposed to action. Nothing ever really happens.

In The Present Age Kierkegaard has much to say about this phenomenon. For him reflection is the chief agent through which the public carries out its levelling agenda and stifles what he calls revolutionary action. He writes, ‘with every means in its power reflection prevents people from realising that both the individual and the age are imprisoned’. We can see this operating in the real and virtual worlds today. Offline the illusion of liberty and agency is preserved through public-vote programming models in the media; online the fetishisation of free speech and comment culture preserves it. Nothing is guarded with more virulence and hysterical clamour than an individual’s right to say whatever he thinks, to reflect online, but the feeling of empowerment this gives may be an illusion. It is fitting, then, that the last example of an artist responding to the levelling nature of being-online comes from a blogger.

The Hipster Runoff is the name of an alternative music and culture blog written by Carles – a person, who in true web 2.0 style, may or may not be real. Self-described as ‘cracked indieclick humour’ and ‘a blog worth blogging abt’ that is ‘tryin 2 stay relevant’, Carles’s arena for reflection is the accelerated world of internet popular culture or ‘buzzbands, alt_stuff, and memes’. Crucially this is all covered from a unique position of self-awareness and epistemological uncertainty. Carles knows his position as a critic and digester of what he routinely identifies as valueless dross is itself valueless. But he also knows that in the levelled field this position is worth something as long as a specifically circuitous brand of irony is used. In a landmark post titled ‘Lana & Me: Our Dark, Abusive, Co-Dependent Relationship on the Content Farm’, Carles wrote: ‘Every day, I prey upon different buzz topics, exploiting my voice, but more importantly, my position as a “recognized outlet 4 buzz” to try to trick people into thinking I am “relevant”, which basically just means that I am trying to make ppl talk abt my blog and get them addicted to my web brand even if they hate it because even when they are like “OMG THAT’S TOTAL BULLSHIT” it is just some sort of post-grassroots-h8-wave-marketing.’

This description of what it is he does could be transposed onto an explanation of how the web itself operates. What one gets a sense of in Carles’s highly original, compressed style of writing is that he too feels tricked into a meaningless existential pursuit by web 2.0’s promise of creative enfranchisement – the promise that everybody would become an artist. Instead of liberation through creativity and comment he – like all others engaged in being-online – is locked into the relentless activity of ‘content generation’. In a world where both the real and hyperreal have merged into a counterfeit mush, Carles is thrown into perpetual doubt, writing: ‘Sometimes I wonder’ ‘Does “Alt” even exist n e more?’ ‘What happened 2 “counterculture”?’ ‘Did it die bc we thought it was a global scene connected on the internet’ ‘and now the internet is mnstrem?’

What Carles illustrates in this passage is how things become parodies of themselves on the web. Susan Sontag attributed this power to camp by writing how it ‘sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp but a “lamp”; not a woman but a “woman”. To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.’ I would argue that it is actually the web that performs this feat with unprecedented comprehension and irresistible force. At a degree further than purely reconfiguring the status of objects, it pushes subculture into ‘subculture’, feminism into ‘feminism’, hyperreality into ‘hyperreality’. As such, Carles’s daily struggle to find out what happened to alternative culture, to find meaning in a meaningless world, gives us the most authentic depiction of the experience of being-online and the most effective rolling critique of the internet, precisely because he is ‘blogging’.

In sum, the world wide web is a technology that has birthed Kierkegaard and Heidegger’s levelling public: a formless entity that corrals users into narrow existential parameters, reinforces homogeneity and standardises expression. The artists cited above – and I would argue the Hipster Runoff is net art in the subversive tradition of Eva & Franco Mattes’s Darko Maver project, 1998-99, and Jonah and Chelsea Peretti’s Black People Love Us, 2002 – have either foregrounded aspects of this reality by making homogeneous communities visible (Knopf and Thomson & Craighead) or have used the ambivalent psychology being-online rouses in web users to inform the language of their work (Trecartin and Carles). Digital optimists or those who see the web as a tool for collective empowerment and individual enfranchisement may baulk at the idea that its liberatory promise is not ringing true. But regardless of whether you side with digital utopians, netsceptics or those who regard the internet as a banal utility, the fact that it is altering the behaviours of those who use it cannot be doubted. Winston Churchill said ‘we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’; today the same is true of our websites.

Morgan Quaintance is a writer, musician and curator.

First published in Art Monthly 363: February 2013.

Sponsored Links