Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Meretricious Mission Statement

A couple months ago, I resumed email correspondence with a few old friends from high school and college and was surprised to discover how much I looked forward to coming home and writing a new email, even if I hadn't received a reply to the last one yet. I found it much easier to write replies instead of wholly new emails, but I was happy to write anything, regardless. Those of you who've known me for long can probably guess that this was a good thing. For someone who liked to self-identify as a writer in college and even — depending on the audience — today, I wrote and write astonishingly little, very irregularly and rarely at my own initiative.

Naturally, I enjoyed the correspondences so much that I managed to find a way to sabotage one of them, writing a cringe-inducingly obnoxious email that I couldn't delete all traces of fast enough. (After I sent it, of course.) The whole debacle put me off writing specifically to individuals, which effectively ended my new burst of creativity. Apart from ongoing satirical identity theft of an Indian plagiarist — my riff on performance art, trying to create a three-dimensional quasi-illiterate bisexual racist failure who adores unchecked capitalism — I returned to reading and periodically making fun of things on the internet, which wasn't nearly as rewarding.

This sudden funk brought with it the realization that I've done an awful lot of making fun of things on the internet. If you combine about a dozen message boards, I've posted probably 18,000 times in the last seven years. That's sort of alarming until you realize that probably 12,000 of them are just one-liners, e.g.
POSTER: Okay, so there's this girl I'm REALLY into, and I know that one big romantic gesture is totally going to change her mind and get me out of the friend zone. I'm going to do the flowers and music thing. But I've put together this PERFECT mix-CD. It's an hour and 20 minutes of my absolute favorite modern country artists. Yeah, there are some upbeat tracks on there (I threw in "Redneck Yacht Club"), but they're mostly ballads about love, about how a man can feel about a woman. The thing is, I need a title for the mix, and I'll use that title as the title of the poem I'm going to write her about how I feel. Something perfect. Something that helps this music make her feel the way I want her to feel. So, please. Give me a title. Help me out.
ME: "Prelude to a Suicide."
ME AGAIN: "Love in the Time of Cholera"
ME AGAIN: "I Deported Romeo for You, Juliet"
ME AGAIN: "To the Face That Launched Those Guys from '300'"
ME AGAIN: "I Want Us to Form a More Perfect Union Even Though I Recognize Your Right to Secede from My Arms"
ME AGAIN: "Music by Crosslight"
On a comedy message board, you can make 50 posts in 20 minutes without even thinking about it. Twenty topics like that, and you've already posted a thousand times. So the numbers themselves represent opportunity more than pathology.

Nonetheless, the response element of message boards explains the regularity and volume of my writing in that format. Simply put: it's a lot easier to have something to say when browsing a menu of dozens or hundreds of topics than it is to produce entertaining and thoughtful fiction or essays or opinions by siting alone and asking yourself, "What opinion do I have right now that I consider worth sharing?" The first action is simple and natural. We do it all the time in real life. We approach a group of people or are thrust together with them for some reason; someone expresses an opinion; we share ours. The second action, on the other hand, seems unnatural, self-important, a pose affected to obscure the relative unimportance of what's coming out of the mouth.

Ultimately, that's the most frustrating thing about the blog phenomenon: almost anyone of reasonable intelligence accepts that his opinion is cosmically insignificant and probably not even worth all that much socially (even my best friend in the whole world probably doesn't give a damn either way how I feel about the 1991 Jeff Speakman vehicle, The Perfect Weapon, unless I'm crazily devoted to it and am constantly harping on how he and I should start kenpo sparring), which renders the whole process a meaningless absurdity. The practice's rewards are either infrequent or uncommon (reader comments) or fantastical (popularity, money from Adsense), and using any of them for motivation runs counter to the sense of humility that ought to be brought to it. If, after all, what you have to say can't really mean all that much, creatively refueling on the expectation of plaudits, fame and money requires either an awful lot of narcissism or delusion.

This doesn't suggest that all prolific bloggers are idiots without perspective. Quite a lot of them are professional writers who use blogs to vent the spleen or gossip or generate content that their respective publications could never publish. Others are gifted artists who find this the best way to share their work with others, either because of the ease of the Blogger software, google's regular crawling of the contents or the ease of sharing things via links. Still others are people who possess enormous focus and dedication to any task they set themselves. But while all that is true, it's also true that a staggering number of blogs swell daily with content because it never occurs to the people writing them to wonder whether they're actually fairly terrible. This is, after all, the same internet where people create webshrines dedicated to their miscarried fetuses, for whom they imagineer years-long timelines of imaginary existence.

After my brief flurry of correspondence, I realized that, while funny, making fun of people who care too much about Batman on message boards can't really be shared. Nor can you share your essays about government, book reviews or furious rants about the senseless public adulation for right-wing torture orgies like 24. Barring asking everyone you care about to register on a score of message boards and bookmark the View Recent Posts by This User function, any message board writing you do is a lonely exercise undertaken in front of strangers. You can't engage the people you know and like best; by volunteering so much to the unknown, you create more of it between you and friends. Except for the rare, extraordinary circumstances in which you make real-life friends of strangers, while it might be a good time, it's largely a waste of time.

I don't know if this will be a similar waste. While I refuse to entertain visions of people faithfully clicking back here every day, forwarding the link to everyone they know (especially the sort of people who robotically mash their mousebuttons on every single ad they see) and getting into debates in the comments section, I would be lying if I said I wouldn't enjoy that. For now, though, I'll do my best to update this often, to merit your return visits. I refuse to promise profundity, but I'll at least deliver on productivity. Whether that productivity turns out to be the fairly terrible writing of a perspective-free idiot should (I hope) still be up for debate. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to set up a few million Geocities shrines.

Mobutu Sese Seko
Gstaad, 2008