Dataworld is a monthly column that reports on the state of things — in general and particular. Each month, Katya asks real people real questions to reveal what people are really thinking.
Posting is the opiate of the masses. Culture is in decay. And it’s all the internet’s fault. People love to say this kind of thing, and big media conglomerates love to reiterate it. But is there any truth to the allegations? Here at Dataworld, we don’t just sit and speculate. We ask, you answer.
This month, we’ve interviewed 60+ respondents across the U.S. about being online to see if these accusations against the web carry water.
Honest research starts broad. When we asked respondents, “What’s up?”, most replied “nm” or “nothing much.” Maybe that’s because the internet has trained us to volley that back in a pavlovian sort of way, this particular exchange being modernity’s baseline of primitive communication, akin to apes beating their chests. Or maybe respondents actually feel that nothing much is going on. The latter, if true, is bad. There is always so much going on. The sun is firing light down from outer space and your body is making new cells out of Shin ramen and Redbull, or whatever you’ve been having, while an ant somewhere is marching in good order, and another is maybe getting lost or willfully going rogue and maybe to never find its way back again. “Nothing much” tricks us into forgetting things like this.
The problem with “nothing much” is that it forces us into believing we’re in a state of disconnect, severing our conceptions of ourselves from the actuality of ourselves. Don’t be a victim of this. Remember: YOU are the shapes in the clouds, YOU are the electricity running through telephone lines down 46th Avenue. YOU are the veins in a maple leaf someone’s sticky fingers are holding up to the sun. YOU are litter in the street. “Nothing much” is a trap that enables the kind of passivity that makes you forget about this sort of thing and start letting Big Algorithm drive your media consumption for you. It’s a spiritual jail cell, and you don’t need to be in there.
The Opiate of the Masses
See Exhibit A
Posting is new in form but not in spirit. People have been writing treatises and whoring themselves out for centuries. But it used to take effort. You’d have to make your way down to the town square with enough copies of your tract or whatever in hand, and pray for a strong breeze or a bunch of fanatics to be there to help you spread them around. It cost money, took time, and was weather dependent.
Today, people post. Sometimes it’s thoughtless, sometimes it’s a choice. Either way, it’s less of an ordeal and everybody’s doing it. But that doesn’t mean everybody’s loving it. Nearly a quarter of respondents agree that posting feels “like shit.” A smaller but still significant percentage agree it feels either cathartic or invigorating. And one respondent lays it really bare for us:
“It's not the post, it's the returning to the post i post (that i've already seen; i posted it remember) to look at it again and see how many other people have looked at it.”
If “nothing much” makes us untethered, posting is something of the opposite. It makes us, at best, tethered to one another, and at worst, tethered only to artifacts of ourselves. The data says: there are pros and cons.
Culture in Decay?
See Exhibit B and C
If the universe is expanding, cyberspace is expanding faster. Consider the notion that the internet has put culture on steroids and, as a result, created a social landscape that is more confused than whatever it might have been otherwise. It’s the idea that there are too many takes, subcultures, and, like, niche aesthetics, and they’re all evolving too fast to ever become anything serious. Some respondents think that’s an issue. But, by a slim margin, a majority of respondents actually reject the idea that the internet’s turbocharge effect on culture is a bad thing.
Optimistic respondents pointed to the idea that a fractured cultural landscape sets us free from the shackles of a centralized authority telling us what we should and shouldn’t pay attention to. That, of course, is true, as long as you can escape the woes of Big Algorithm. And this month’s dataworld respondents seem to think the hyperfast evolution of internet culture actually helps them do just that. If something can form, shift, and even dissipate before an algorithm or board room can get a firm enough grasp to turn it into a commercializable formula, internet users prevail.
But the responses in Exhibit B and C lay out the inherent tension in all of this. It’s a tale as old as time: The Fear That Important Things Will Be Drowned Out By A Bunch Of Lesser Ones versus The Exhilaration Of Potentially Finding Even More Important Things. We should strive to align with the latter. Conservation matters, yes, but not at the cost of bringing all gears to a halt.
See Exhibit D
If anything, Dataworld’s respondents have shown that our near infinite access to information is not just good for the culture, but is helping us get closer than ever to answering unresolved truths. To prove this, we chose to ask internet users a complex question about a philosophically challenging scenario set in nature. This way, we could examine not only their critical thinking skills but also the notion that they might be “out of touch” with “reality.” See Exhibit D.
The responses speak for themselves. The internet is perhaps not so much melting our brains as electrifying them. It’s time to reject the meta-narratives churned out by media conglomerates and their talking heads. Posting is less a plague than it is the modern realization of age-old human impulses. And the kaleidoscopic state of a culture built up by endless takes and noise can actually be like protection against top-down, force-fed ways of doing, thinking, and feeling. As long as we can outrun algorithmic monotony and the malaise of “nothing much,” we are in the clear.
How will YOU continue to break the chains of Big Algorithm?
All quotes are real ones from real people! Dataworld preserves the full integrity of responses, no edits!
Though all responses inform the analysis, not all responses are shown.
If you want to be part of the data next time, find our next survey: ♡here♡.