The internet exploded when people started widely perceiving it as a communication device, like a telephone. Paul Graham writes about it as the point everyone grasped the net's "social applications": "This was the most powerful force of all. This was what made everyone want computers. Nerds got computers because they liked them. Then gamers got them to play games on. But it was connecting to other people that got everyone else: that's what made even grandmas and 14 year old girls want computers." Hence your blogs, your Facebooks, your Twitters, your Orkuts, etc.
Still, the action on the net doesn't seem especially communicative to me. When I think of communication, I think of face to face conversation, a talk on the telephone, or even, yes, a back-and-forth over e-mail. When I think of blogging, tweeting or Facebooking — all of which I engage in, to various degrees — I don't think of communication. I think of talking at, not talking to. That stuff is, or has become, more about saying something really loud and hoping someone persuadable is in earshot. It's like wearing a colorful getup in a stadium and hoping to get on the Jumbotron, or floating high-powered messages in bottles. All this stuff is, quite literally, just "put out there."
Merlin Mann said something incisive, as is his wont, when I interviewed him: "In the very same way that a message CC'ed to 50 people will generally get a response from none of them, I think that when you speak to no one in particular, that's exactly who's going to listen." That seems to be true — most of the time. The problem is, a fraction of the time, a nontrivial amount of people do respond to these directionless pseudo-communiqués, especially if numbers lead their titles. A staggering amount of net.culture has come to base itself on these very same long odds.
Nightmarishly, I sometimes find myself thinking in this way: "Okay, if I just make a clever enough post in the right forum..." "Okay, if I just argue smartly enough in view of enough third parties..." "Okay, if I just make a hilarious enough tweet..." As if other people were simple organisms in a lab who exist to respond to whatever stimuli I send their way, or drops of mercury in a thermometer that measures the awesomeness of my self-presentation. If I lay it out intellectually this line of reasoning it sounds preposterous, but it appears to drive a substantial chunk of what people do on the net nonetheless.
This reminds me of the way I thought as a kid. I had the combined fortune and misfortune to grow up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when children's self-esteem was our most strategic natural resource. If you clocked in, for example, two or three ticks above the intellectual average, your environment turned on a firehose of praise for your smarts. Though I wasn't the brainiest-kid-in-the room type, I guess I showed enough promise to cultivate a reputation for intelligence. I proceeded to assiduously avoid any task difficult enough to challenge that reputation.
My experience wasn't that different from little Thomas', though he's smarter:
Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top one percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.Thomas said that about spelling. Spelling was one of the only things at which I was skilled, but I bowed out of a bunch of other stuff. Being in the presence of and talking to other people, for instance; I took one look at a task like that and said, "I'm not good at this." But "fortunately," because I grew up in as an only child in time and place with books, computers, television and video games aplenty, I could pretty much cut out the social stuff altogether without going sensory-deprived. And this was before the web as we know it, which must be like crack to kids with similar and worse tendencies.
But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ”
I think back to how I acted then, and it's no wonder that scattershot autistic declaration has become the internet's dominant form of speech. You could hardly design a better enabling device: allow people to lob as many messages as they can type into the void, and have that void sometimes reward them with just enough of a response to imply the alluring promise of much, much more. I now can't stop seeing hundreds of thousands of childhood-Colins — or, in my moments of reversion, adulthood-Colins — hanging around the net, yammering loudly to, effectively, themselves, hoping against hope to spark a sudden mass connection.
But here's the grimmer part: I'm far less — far less — affected by these issues than a lot of people.
Stay tuned for the thrilling Part II of The Plight of the Social Maladroit, tomorrow on The War on Mediocrity.