Thursday, February 18, 2010

Digital Graffiti

In the old days disgruntled souls would tag everything with spray paint. Everywhere you looked you would see anonymous initials and slogans –“Gilroy was here.” If he was here he must exist. He must be a cool guy cause he can hit and run with his iridescent art before anyone can catch him. Graffiti hasn’t disappeared; it’s on the internet. Today’s equivalents of brick walls, delivery vans and subway trains are Facebook, Twitter and any place where users can leave comments. Like graffiti artists, these users often represent themselves through assumed identities with cunning screen names – the Artful Dodgers of cyberspace.
Pundits of digital graffiti see a brave new world of social networking, as if sitting alone and anonymously in front of the bluish glow of an electronic display can somehow be considered social. Look, it’s not that I don’t get it. There is no denying the huge potential of instantaneous, worldwide communications free of any gatekeepers. Using Facebook, YouTube and the like, protesters in Iran were able to bypass government censorship and the world could see what was really happening.

But somehow I don’t think it rises to the same level when you broadcast to the world that you’ve just made a particularly brilliant pairing of a Chilean Merlot with your grilled marinated Kobe steak drizzled with a light raspberry reduction. Trillions of dollars of technology infrastructure for this kind of essential information? Some would say yes. They will go on and on about how it enables people to form far flung friendships and enhance their social well being. But then again some people argued that graffiti was an art form that allowed the disenfranchised an outlet for creative expression.
Unlike spray paint, digital graffiti does not deface anybody’s property. So what’s the harm? Other than possibly clogging up bandwidth that might otherwise be put to better purpose, it seems innocuous. But consider this: if everyone has a microphone, who is listening? The social network engineers provide tools to assemble our own audiences. Twitter and blogs have followers (very few for this particular blog),  in Facebook and chat rooms you have friends lists, and Google’s new Buzz even gives you a list of followers automatically. If someone has 489 “friends” on Facebook, what exactly is a friend? I’m reminded of the Pez collection one of my real friends has displayed all over his house. You just line them up for the sake of collecting as many as you can. Chances are your online friends are listening no more intently than the Pez characters.
Yet we have the illusion that there is an audience out there and that what we say, anything we say, has value. So if you’re bored at the office, inquiring minds want to know about it. If you’re headed out to the gym, your family and friends need to be informed. If you’ve just thought of something witty, you mustn’t deprive your admiring fans. The problem is that the buzz is so loud I can’t hear anything I might really care about. It’s like the graffiti that used to obscure the subway map.

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