Building Your Own Face

I lose. I caved, gave in like the buzz-influenced sucker that I am. Next time I see you I’ll probably try to feed you some line about it being good exposure for my design business or that I might use it to keep in touch with friends from college or some such thing. You won’t believe me, and that’ll be ok because you’ll be right. I made myself a MySpace.

The thing about it is… I didn’t know what the big deal was at the time. I believed my own lines, and they may have even been true until the instant I began making the site. Then everything changed. Once I started pushing code around and filling in profile boxes I felt the hooks in me, and couldn’t figure out why. Like an enlightened moth still flying to flame, I revolted at the pointlessness and self-congratulatory-ness of it all, yet I couldn’t help but waste hours making everything absolutely perfect.

MySpace has a sort of power in it… not an earth-changing or revolutionary power, but a compelling allure for people to participate. And for those of you thinking “power” might be a bit strong, let me throw a couple numbers at you that beg to differ: Total registered usership: approximately 70 million. New users EACH DAY: 220,000. 220,000?!? Are you kidding me?

So what is it about MySpace that has caused 70 million ostensibly intelligent, social people to learn the ins and outs of a relatively limited, sit-at-home, somewhat counter-intuitive system and spawned countless other communities dedicated to nothing other than making your MySpace look good?

Is it that MySpace is simply a superior product, a well-designed, effective system that fits a need people didn’t know they had? That could explain some of this. Oddly, however, this is not the case, with quite the opposite probably closer to true. For all it’s towering popularity, it’s actually a maddening system to use, and extremely inefficient. A recent New York Times article focused on the overwhelming volume of page views on MySpace as an indicator of efficiency. It found that a reasonably designed alternative would easily reduce the number of pages an average user views on MySpace by at least three-quarters. It is a limited indicator to be sure, but it gets the point across. Add to that the fact that while MySpace encourages customization, all of the best and most intuitive tools for customizing aren’t even part of the application at all and must be sought out independently by the user. It seems to fly in the face of all conventional wisdom saying that ease of use and efficiency are directly linked to popularity. And yet people flock to it by the hundreds of thousands.


A couple days ago I was browsing the web, naturally, when I happened across an article that aptly described Google as our modern culture’s “collective memory.” That’s a topic for another time completely, but it certainly got the wheels spinning. “If the internet has made the transition from an impersonal collective news source or collective travel agent or concierge to the more personal (and oddly disturbing) ‘collective memory,’” my thought process went, “could it become something even more personal down the road?”

And at that moment I was first able to attach words to the allure that I felt while putting together my MySpace. The internet, and MySpace in particular, is indeed offering to become something more personal, and we are accepting with open arms: It is giving us the chance to create our own face.

A quick look around the current landscape reveals our fascination with reinventing ourselves… or perhaps more accurately, reinventing our image. At any hour of any day, on some channel there’s somebody getting a makeover; for themselves, their house, their car… whatever. The most popular video game of all time isn’t some thrilling shooter, or epic adventure… but instead the Sims, a simulation of daily life for characters you create. Plastic surgery has become a fact of life for celebrities. (Side note: Have you noticed that we don’t even call it “surgery” anymore? It’s a “facelift,” a “tummy tuck,” a “boob job.”) At the same time, the internet has given rise to the possibility of alternate personalities, complete with different modes of speech and social habits. Anyone can become a sarcastic digital king-of-the-hill or insatiable flirt (or worse) in their chosen forum until they log off.

“I think therefore I am” has become “I think I am, therefore I am.”

The tantalizing appeal of MySpace comes directly from the inherent limitations of the internet. Tone of voice and body language have formed the bedrock of communication since the dawn of time, outdating even language, and yet they are necessarily stripped out of all online interaction. Often we’re reduced to still images and written words (coincidentally the two most easily misinterpreted or consciously manipulated modes of communication) as our only means of information gathering about the people we interact with online. Meanwhile, with the standardization of the internet as a regular tool of communication, we’ve grown to accept the notion that from solely images and words we can get a good idea of someone’s personality and intentions (witness the proliferation of dating sites as an example of this). This means that MySpace gives us the ability to control, to the minutest detail, all the possible facets of our persona in a particular social space. When we are logged on, we can effectively be whoever we want to be; a power that may never before have been possible. I believe it is this power that draws people to MySpace in never before seen numbers.

The odd part being that it is probably not anything specific to MySpace… MySpace is simply the first portal offering this kind of experience that became popular. Sometime in the not too distant future, MySpace may have faded in the popular landscape, replaced by new online venues offering increased complexity and saturation. But the draw of this power will always have a hold on people, and I find it unlikely this phenomenon will do anything but grow in our lifetimes.

For anyone who believes people are made who they are for a reason, this might be uncomfortable territory. I would go so far as to say if you are someone who values being real as a crucial part of human interaction, this SHOULD be uncomfortable territory. Unfortunately, it gets worse. There are two other major ingredients in the mix that make this cocktail not just uncomfortable, but nothing less than a threat to the health of our soul.

Ingredient 1: We are an increasingly voyeuristic society.
Ingredient 2: We stubbornly continue to believe a great lie: Somebody cares.

MySpace panders to both of these things, giving us a venue that promises us affirmation and easy popularity with only a couple clicks. Could it be that our growing voyeurism comes as a direct result of our insatiable desire for affirmation? Witness the story of hotornot.com: People sign up by the thousands to anonymously post photos of themselves for total strangers to rate. The site grows so rapidly in popularity that some brainiac decides to make a tv show out of it. And then, in the inevitable flop of the tv show and popular backlash, it loses it’s coolness. When it loses it’s coolness, any validation from it loses it’s value. And the site trends downward (www.big-boards.com). People weren’t there for hotornot.com, they were there for the affirmation. And when it was no longer available, they began to migrate elsewhere. MySpace would be a great place to have a little fun, have a laugh at your own, or somebody else’s, expense. Yet a quick look through MySpace profiles reveals the damning truth: Most profiles are truthfully, embarassingly earnestly, about us. We are falling all over ourselves to offer up our online persona for consumption. I couldn’t bring myself to even have a picture of my girlfriend that I’m mad about on my profile because it didn’t FIT MY COLOR SCHEME, much less post a picture or write a blurb that shows me at anything less than maximum coolness. Look at me! Read what people say about me! Read what I say about myself! Look at all my friends! Again, affirmation. This is what MySpace is all about, and I bought in.

And then the second ingredient: We’re convinced that somebody cares. This is where the hint to our most true motives are revealed. What’s the point of all of this, of blogs and online profiles, if we don’t think anyone will pay attention? Yet despite overwhelming evidence that nobody is watching, we churn out pages and pages of personal info that will be seen by next to no one. Chew on this info from a recent study of blogs: Of the 4.12 million registered blogs, 2.72 million are abandoned, meaning they haven’t been updated in at least two months (Perseus). That’s 66%! Think about the story of hotornot.com… is it such a stretch to imagine that countless many of these blogs were abandoned once the writers realized that no one was reading? Again, when affirmation is no longer available, people migrate elsewhere.

I wonder if the distinctly human appetite for affirmation, however, is simply a possible symptom of a desire in all of us that goes beyond human. Why do we persist in our belief that anybody cares what we have to say? Why are we constantly looking for new ways to reshape ourselves in the image we desire? Could it be that we believe being made in God’s image just isn’t good enough anymore? Our actions belie our inner belief, our belief that God got it wrong with us, that we could do it better. We question God’s role on the throne as Good Creator of the universe, and offer no hesitation to try to fill the role ourselves.

This was man’s first and most diabolical misstep, and as such we will forever wrestle with this deepest of desires. Going from here forward into the future, it’s a good bet that humans will always be creating newer and easier ways to fulfill this tendency. Often, as in the singular case of MySpace, these ways will come included in a package that may look pretty good. It might even have some tangible tools… tools to grow your business or keep in touch with people. I have no beef with these tools, and I plan on embracing the ones that enrich my REAL life. Our job from here forward will be one of discernment, moving past our adolescent naivety about the innocence of the internet and fostering an attitude of constant alertness and intentionality as we continue to learn the best ways to affect our world for good.

And lastly, let me be the first to invite you all to have a laugh with/at me about that fact that this article is now about to be posted on my blog, to be read by a likely audience of my mom, girlfriend and one other random who accidentally mis-spelled “coleslaw” and ended up here. No matter what we may say about our world, this is where we live, and it’s a funny place. Enjoy it.




The Final Frontier

Have you ever gotten irritated because the person in line behind you at Target is standing too close? Yes? How about this one: Ever been thrown into a complete funk when your Friday night plans fall through at the last minute? Yes again? Congratulations. You and I, we’re part of the space problem.

Here in the United States we have a strange relationship with space. We don’t understand it. Physical space, personal space, we hoard… to an extent likely never seen before in the history of the world. Children divide backseats into “my half” and “your half.” People will put themselves in the harness of debt for an extra couple years to maximize “how much house” they can buy. Our cities expand exponentially like gigantic cul-de-sac tumors, not because of exponential population growth, but because of exponential space demands. We’re uncomfortable sharing an elevator with more than one other person. If the arm of the person behind us in line at the grocery store brushes against ours, we break out in a cold sweat.

Taken by itself, this could perhaps be considered odd, yes… but still easily explained. OK, so Americans like to have lots of space. Maybe it comes from our heritage as a country of unending opportunity… free land for anyone willing to travel far enough to claim it. But a second look complicates the story. We hoard our personal space, but at the same time, we seem to be deathly afraid of any unclaimed social space.

Our lives are ridiculously crowded. It often takes a couple weeks to actually make a hangout happen with somebody. PDAs come out at first mention of getting together, usually followed closely by something like ‘Uh… I’ve got a Tuesday at 2:15…?’. I have friends that regularly double book their weekend nights, cause one event is clearly not enough stimulation for a Friday. Hell, I’d double-book myself if I was cool enough. We complain that we work too much, that commuting is such a ferocious waste of time. But what happens when we get let go early on a weekday? We get home and… uh… mmm. I could get something done… like uh… or I could do something cool, like… er… crap, well let’s just see what’s on TV while I’m figuring out what I want to do. And six hours later you go to sleep.

We seem to not only find ourselves with little social space in our lives, but we seem almost afraid of it. I’d go so far as to suggest that we actively avoid social space. On the heels of a recent breakup, I was surprised to find that the thing that stood out to me most in the new landscape of my life was that my days seemed so interminably long. It freaked me right out. For the first couple weeks I checked my phone a lot, hoping against hope for that voicemail that’d save me from drowning again in a whole night’s worth of time and space. Sometimes it came… and sometimes it didn’t. And when it didn’t, I either came up with something worthwhile to do, or I wasted time. I wasted a lot of time. Here’s the part that amazes me looking back: when I did step out and do something by myself, or sought out someone to spend time with… it exhausted me. I tried to figure out why, and it turned out the simplest explanation might be the truest: I was out of practice.

Unfortunately, this is not a benign phenomenon. In the last one hundred years, our world, and in particular western culture, has changed dramatically. One undeniable trend has been that our lifestyles have become increasingly sedentary. Left to our own devices, humans always slide towards the path of least resistance. Being an active person in this day and age most often means that you spend good money and a few hours a week running on a glorified hamster wheel, or lifting metal plates and putting them back down. Can you imagine if you dropped an ancient Roman into a 24 Hour Fitness? He’d probably be completely befuddled, first of all… followed closely by hysterical laughter and his wracking his brain for a strong enough version of ‘idiocy.’ I feel like we’re going this direction socially. With the growth in means and immediacy of communication, it’s become easier and easier to surround ourselves in padded social bubbles, habits that require the minimum of effort. We’re to the point now where not even public spaces require us to interact with the public. Our own friends are never more than a speed dial away, our own music pumped into our sound-proofed ears. This trend is more recent, to be sure, and the timeline compressed, but the phenomenon is the same, and I fear equally detrimental.

On the pyramid of basic human needs, you’ll find food, safety and shelter right at the foundation. After 26 years of movie watching, driving, microwaves and fast food, could I provide even one of those things for myself in the event of apocalyptic emergency? With a nod towards human beings amazing knack for producing when survival is at stake, I’d still have to say I’d probably be in trouble. In terms of physical capacity, savvy and knowledge, I’m completely lacking. I’m out of practice, and it probably would kill me if the chips are down.

You see where this is going don’t you? Clever readers you all are (and patient… with a high tolerance for sarcasm to have read this far). The chips are down. We are driving our DVD-playing SUV headlong into social apocalypse, and our lack of relational practice is killing our souls. We lack even the most basic of social human needs. So what do we do?

The first thing we need to do, in my opinion, is to get over our fear of social space. Our human knack for rising to the challenge when survival is at stake applies here as well. I’ve spent much of my conscious life battling a tendency towards debilitating timidity. Yet when put in an awkward or difficult situations, I’ve found that even I am capable of functioning well, often with fantastically rewarding results. The good news is that it makes the next time just a tiny bit easier. The inertia that keeps us couch bound, once set in motion, can keep us moving. The exhaustion gives way to a healthy fatigue, like after a full day of manual labor (remember what that felt like?). Blow up your schedule. Leave gaps between plans so big you can’t even imagine how to fill them, and then, when they arrive, fill them with something you’ll be glad you did the next day. That’s the test for me, will I be happy I did this in the morning.

You’ll find yourself confronted with the idea of social space. Breathe. It’s good for you. This time is unclaimed. It’s just you. You are responsible for how you spend the next 5 hours. Wait. That’s worth repeating. YOU are responsible for this time. Start with what you need: Are you in need of spending some time with people? Then call someone, and tell them you want to hang. It has blown my mind how hard something as simple as that can be when you’re out of practice. Do you need time alone? Choose to be alone. The important point is the choice. Do you enjoy photography? Take a class. Yes, by yourself. You might make a friend. It’s funny, you tend to find a lot of people into photography in a photography class… you and your new friend might even have something to talk about. How novel!

Now there’s a sticky spot in there that I want to address real quick. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the statement, ‘I just need to turn my brain off for a little while.’ I might be wrong on this one, and I’d love to have a conversation with you about it, but here’s my thought on that. Take it or leave it. It is precisely our consciousness that makes us human. We think, therefore we are. You never know when it will be of utmost importance to have your brain on and prepared to function at its highest level, and I can’t see how ‘turning your brain off’ could help you do that. My brain goes into power-save mode from disuse often enough already… I have no need to choose to do that.

I have a theory that I use on myself from time to time, it goes like this: In a moment of strength, make a decision you can’t go back on. I can’t tell you how many great experiences I’ve had due only to self-application of this theory… and none of those would’ve happened without a choice.

So make a choice. Do something you wouldn’t normally do. Maybe it’ll flop spectacularly… if so, you’ve got yourself a great story. Or it could be the best thing you’ve ever done. You might just find social muscles you didn’t know you had.

Get some exercise.