Sandra Hajda on what it means to write – and be read – in the internet age.
I remember doing research for school assignments when I was younger and relying on my family’s set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias. It seems so absurd now. There I was, bent over the desk, leafing through the index and praying there was a good, long entry for Vasco da Gama. I had one evening left to print images and text blocks and stick them on my purple poster board. The Year Four practice was to write the title (‘Vasco da Gama’) in bubble letters, which would have looked quite nice without the fingerprint smudges and lemonade flecks.
Sometimes I used the local library too. Everything was arranged according to the Dewey Decimal System: a history section, a biology section, an ancient languages section. You could also do a title search on a computer. And you know what? That was it.
It’s hard to fathom now. You could only search for words that were in a title. There was no way to search in the body of a text.
We are in a new world. What has it done to the mind, the way the nature of learning has changed? I love that we have escaped from Funk & Wagnalls and entered a network. There are doors you can move through. You can go to unexpected places.
It reminds me a little bit of talking to someone who is drunk. If you listen with the ear of a psychologist, you will learn so much. Why does he use this word? Why did this idea follow that one? Listen to the terms people repeat: “eking it out…”, “eking it out…”, “eking it out”. Why does he repeat that? Why is that his favourite phrase? He uses it at every opportunity, just like he always wears black and listens to Drake.
All these things are telling. “Eking it out … eking it out”. I think he likes that phrase because he feels strung out, just squeaking through life, perhaps a little like he is a fake. Eking out a living. Hanging by a thread. He feels like he must hold back; he is inhibited in expressing himself. The way he repeats his girlfriend’s harsh words tells me that they bother him, or perhaps he is justifying to himself why he is staying with her: she is firm and gets things done.
Have you ever done some research on the internet? The words ‘Vasco da Gama’ leads to an article about slavery, then a link about Heart of Darkness, then something about evolutionary biology, the British East India Company and an article about the modern Tea Party. The thing ‘Vasco da Gama’ no longer appears so solid as it did when I did my teenage research, using that Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia. It does not begin and end exactly here and there (“circa 1460s-1524, sailed to the Indian spice routes, had a dispute with a king”) because one editor at Funk & Wagnalls said so.
Slavery will be wiped out. But people will incarcerate blacks by the millions instead (so not really). Richard Dawkins will write books about evolutionary biology. People will criticise the (modern) Tea Party. And a young girl will do an assignment about Vasco da Gama. The winds of history have been blowing for so long, scattering sands about, including all the grains that will fly in my eyes and crunch under my feet. I am held up by shifting sands, just as da Gama was.
My reality changed when social media arrived. I was starting to write, I had just moved to Melbourne and I was living alone. All at once, I had a source of amusement, the possibility to network and a chance to get my half-baked thoughts out there online.
There’s a lot of anxiety in developing a style; a way to present yourself in writing. Though words are less immediate than images they speak on more levels, in a way. You chose them and arranged them that way: it was conscious. You don’t choose the way you look in a photograph. It is not a product of deep mental focus and a series of aesthetic choices (except perhaps the Balmain jacket and hairstyle).
Word choice is vanity. It exposes your vanities even more clearly than a flattering Facebook picture choice, because it is revealing on so many levels. I judge people on this all the time, looking for halting, awkward rhythms in their thoughts. For parts that try too hard: those overwritten parts, so desperate to achieve that they are burnt black, like an overcooked steak. For leaden parts that hint at some block in expressing yourself.
I speculate about it, this lack of fluidity: it looks like mental orgasm was hard to reach. Maybe this is how the person feels in life: stunted from expressing themselves. Weighed down by too many forces that are not-me, oppressing you psychically, and perhaps physically, forcing you into vats where you don’t quite fit. It is coming out in the writing. When you try to speak from that vat it doesn’t sound right.
I know that I judge this, so I assume I will be judged. Sometimes when I write I try to impress one person in particular. Is this what it means to have a muse? All my muses are male, then (all two of them – I keep going back to the same two faces). Though I could get excited about the gender-flip on this age-old concept, and fancy myself some groundbreaker, I don’t, because there are differences too. It’s not sexual longing that makes me think of these men when I write. That is what a muse means, isn’t it? A woman’s beauty so fired the man’s imagination that great writing exploded from him.
I’ve already spoken of mental orgasm; I guess that theme has arrived again. Or you could put it more simply: her beauty made him so happy that he was inspired to write great work. (There are many definitions of beauty, but my favourite is “beauty is the promise of happiness”.) The muse has unlocked those vats that were holding him in place, and this man is soaring – you can see it in his work. How beautiful! We are seeing the transforming power of love, its potential to free the soul. Or maybe it was the transforming power of lust. I bet his eyes were dark with passion as he wrote. He was probably trying to impress her, to make sure he could bed her, or keep bedding her.
They say writers are great egoists – it makes sense! What better way to get something great out of someone than to give him a pretty face to impress (or the prospect of glory and a big publishing contract)? I’ve also heard it said: “The best ideas: they come from the body!”
The container melted away, the vat was shattered, and you could speak as you. Let’s hope it was beautiful! Some of the most honest writing appears in YouTube comments, and stuns with both its honesty and the vivid pictures it conjures of those people’s lives. I can SEE them in their homes, with a big bag of chips, muttering something racist at the television.
Putting your work online is a source of anxiety, but at least no one else can tag you in something you’ve written. Though once an editor gave my article a stupid title and placed my name right under it. BAM! Tagged in the literary equivalent of a fat duck-face shot.
Worrying about Creating
The people I try to impress when I write are those two friends that gave me the best criticism. They told me when I tried too hard, when I was obviously mimicking the wrong aspects of something I admired, when I became too self-indulgent.
Worrying about creating is worrying about being exposed. The internet provides so many chances to make a spectacle of yourself. Does anyone else get the feeling that social media comments and writing have become more stylised in the last ten years, more careful and image-conscious, as people got used to the idea that others will be reading their thoughts? All these hot people, reading my work! All these former school friends! No wonder we are anxious. We have closed up, as a society. In the early days of MySpace, I remember reading earnest comments, comments that were too gushy, too happy and idealistic, and also more people exposing their vulnerabilities in blog posts. Those people probably regret it now: Google has it all on cache.
The internet is a culture that is evolving – it has its bad neighbourhoods, where porn windows pop out at you like knife-wielding thugs in Footscray back alleys. The subtler emotions behind emojis and terms of approval (your ‘lolz!’ or ‘that slays!’ or ‘this song gives me feels’) reveal themselves gradually as you watch the way your friends use them. Is there a dash of irony in ‘slays’? A touch more shadenfreude in ‘lol’ than ‘lolz’? I believe so. In fact, it is our pattern of use that makes it so, and as quickly as the rules are set, they will change, or a term will simply go out of fashion.
It has been alleged that the internet reinforces a new cultural and political tribalism, where people read only the publications they already agree with and trap themselves in a bubble of hyperlinked pages and videos that confirm their existing prejudices (this applies even to fringe cultures – the blogrolls on cosplay and steampunk sites beckon, as intriguing as any bar-dotted laneway in Melbourne’s CBD).
We saw our first mass-migration, composed largely of millennial youths in 2007, when MySpace was abandoned for Facebook – the former is sad to visit now, emptied of all but a few desperate musos asking you to listen to their songs, truly Ozymandias-like in the extent of its desolation. While there is some evidence of the former glory of MySpace (Tila Tequila’s account remains, like the head of the statue in Shelley’s poem), “the lone and level sands stretch far away” around the decay.
Methods of image management are becoming more refined. Just as late capitalism gave us sophisticated new financial instruments (credit default swaps and exotic derivatives), social media gave us new instruments of narcissism – the humble brag and the selfie. I wonder if they will change society. We are all used to it now: the idea that we must monitor our output. Not “what will the neighbours think” but “what will the world think”? This has probably changed the human brain. People say it has unleashed an epidemic of narcissism.
Douglas Coupland said that the very young are the ones we should look to: “the people born after 1989, who have nothing to unlearn, no baggage to shed… they will see far less difference between the real world and the internet”. They are the only ones who will not have to unlearn anything because they have grown up with this Big Brother feeling of being watched – but it’s not the government, it’s your peers. Especially the good-looking ones.
As I cycled through crushes in my twenties, my anxieties about my online output changed. The arty guy I was seeing last year would probably like my latest article, even the scuba-style descent into my own psyche, searching not for corals but for complexes – he’d probably love it, that’s why I wrote it – but my new crush? Not so much! He’s a bit of a meathead. I hope he doesn’t see it.
The fate of internet stars like Tila Tequila, the vacuity and attention-seeking that clogs the pixels of social media sites, and the acne of narcissism that covers the world as a result, show that online life has its share of pitfalls, sitting alongside the great possibilities – the chances for intellectual discovery that I described in my opening section.
And what are Douglas Coupland’s youths up to – those natives of the web who grew up in its arms and have never known anything else?Are they thriving in its networks, enjoying its creative possibilities, immune to its viruses (both technological and psychological)? We continually see allegations of shallowness and fickleness levelled at the very young (Generations Y and Z, as they’ve been dubbed) by writers for mainstream online media. The impression one gets is of a generation frozen in the narcissistic posture that social media encourages.
This verdict strikes me as very premature. People grow in intellectual curiosity after they leave the social pressure cooker of high school and begin meandering down their various paths. A telling question: was I all that interested in history at age nine, when I wrote Vasco da Gama’s name in those Sprite-flecked bubble letters?
The answer is ‘not particularly’. Internet culture is evolving, and so is the young generation the internet is purportedly raising (a surrogate for their divorce-prone, Lexus-loving parents). With so much still in the process of being formed, we can only wait, and hope.
Sandra Hajda is the winner of the 2014 Grace Marion Wilson Award. She has been published in Killings, Overland, Idiom 23, Lip Mag, the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter and a few other places.