June 12, 2014

The death of individuality online

Just a while ago, I finished reading the book “You are not a Gadget” by Jaron Lanier. One of the main themes in the book is the decline of personal individuality on the web.

According to Lanier there are a lot of factors that contribute to this decline. The main cause being social media platforms like Facebook, which exchange personal creativity for uniformity, instant gratification through “Like” buttons and an endless supply of irrelevant information. They promote consumption and curation for the sacrifice of giving up personal expression through creation.

People reduce themselves to the predefined contents of checkboxes and drop-down relationship statuses.

This part of the book resonated strongly with me and made me completely question my relationship and interaction with modern social media. Going through my Facebook profile, I started asking myself: “which of the almost 200 people listed on here can I really call Friends?”

We live in a time where we are connected like never before, but couldn’t be further apart from each other at the same time.

Do we really know these people that post pictures of beach vistas, kittens and shiny new guitars? Or are we just the fuel to a system that allows us to share insignificant information just as easily as it is to consume it and therefore continue the downward spiral of not knowing what exactly it is, that makes each of us an individual?

Do we really become more “social” by pushing a button with the word “Like” on it? Or is it yet again just another quick way for us to get a dopamine fix like so many other things?

Computers empower us to be creative in so many ways, is it really justified that most of them are being degraded to four-figure consumption machines? Or are we going to fight the replacement of a full sized keyboard in favour of one big physical “Like” button in the future?

What if we went back to the original idea of the World Wide Web instead? Could we revive the classic concept of a personal “Homepage”? An extension of ourselves into the digital world. One in which we’re able to freely express our thoughts by creating something with a personal touch?

A place where we have genuine connections with other people, not by curating an artificial network of “Friends”, but by really investing our time in reading and experiencing the expressions of other people.

Personally, an individually created website like this, will always tell me more about someone than any detailed Facebook profile ever will. Maybe not in the sense of raw and evaluable data, but as a glimpse into what differentiates this one individual from all the others.

The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect — to help people work together — and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world. We clump into families, associations, and companies. We develop trust across the miles and distrust around the corner.
-Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving The Web

The Web in itself is already a tool that allows us to freely express ourselves. We shouldn’t keep ourselves confined in a system just for the sake of convenience. Some things just cannot be expressed with a predefined drop-down menu or leaving a like.

I love the web. It’s one of the greatest technologies that I have been fortunate enough to encounter and work with. But it’s about time to bring it back and use it in the way it was intended for: Building crappy websites and enjoying them with your real Friends.