We approach the twentieth anniversary of my humble domain, rjgeib.com.
It has been my creative home on the Internet. I have worked on it, then let it languish; its progress has mirrored that of my own life. My online life waxes and wanes, largely dependent on what is happening in my offline life. Extreme exertion in my professional life, for example, has often meant my webpage gets short shrift.
But it is still here. Even as HTML has changed so much that many of my pages look distinctly antiquated on the mobile devices many nowadays use to browse the web. Many of my friends from the mid- or late 1990s who embarked on similar adventures with “personal webpages” have let their efforts die off. Their domains are no more. They often have changed over the decades so much as that their pages, undertaken in youth, are no longer “appropriate” to their careers or stations in midlife. Or the novelty wore off, and they tired of paying for the webpage hosting and bandwidth. Or they eventually lost interest.
Mine still survives.
But nobody much reads it anymore. As the Web has grown, the rise of “social media” has changed online life. Back in 1996 very few persons would write online. Now most people do. But with the rise of Facebook, with over a billion registered users, social media has almost taken over the Web. Untold millions congregate on Facebook to exchange life updates, humorous videos, partisan political jibes, etc. It has been thus for years.
But I noticed with interest how one experienced computer programmer acquaintance of mine decided to leave his Facebook account. This is a trend which will grow. For some years now I have noticed most of my high school students avoid Facebook. “That is where my aunt and grandma hangout online – not to mention my mom!” they complain to me. They go elsewhere online. For many adolescents it is all about being where the adults are not.
I wonder about Facebook myself, and almost never post anything there anymore. It has gotten to the point where a large percentage of everyone I know is my “friend” on Facebook. Co-workers, current and former students, bosses, friends and family, neighbors, former girlfriends – and a good chunk of people I am not sure I even know. And the Facebook posts are so often short, jejune, inane, and unworthy of my time and attention. I wonder why I even bother. But then, amidst the pointless banter and two sentence witticisms, I see an important update from a high school or college friend or news of a former student getting married or finishing medical school. I stay on Facebook, which is mostly a black hole of time and energy.
But here is my point: Everyone is on Facebook. Anything I post on Facebook will be scrutinized by almost my entire acquaintance. I hesitate to say anything. But nobody much reads my webpage. I can say what I think.
The irony: On Facebook, a closed system where I have to “friend” someone and effort is made to protect my privacy, I have no privacy. My webpage, which anyone can view, I have much privacy. I am hesitant to post anything at all on Facebook. I will be as candid as I want on my webpage. Irony, no?
I think about this often and laugh to myself.
I do not shy away about expressing myself online, even on controversial issues. But I don’t wish to shove it in people’s faces with a social media post. And if readers cannot be bothered to go to my domain, then so be it. They need never encounter my mind. But if I post on a sensitive or complicated issue, I will explain the context of my thinking, as well as the nuances and ambivalence I feel. I will explain myself at length in a way impossible to accomplish on social media. I will not post anything I would not say out loud in a crowded elevator. I will give serious thought to how others might view my opinions, and then probably post it anyway.
And I wish everyone would do that.
What finally drove my acquaintance off Facebook, I suspect, was political persiflage with regards to the 2016 presidential election. Hyper-partisan postings in favor of/or against candidates Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. The nasty and dismissive exchanges poison the Facebook feed. Such negative political arguments can poison any environment, but the online ones are worse because so many more persons are witness to them in a “social” media environment. A Facebook post of two ill-conceived sentences on an inflammatory topic and then dozens of comments and back and forth; people say things when typing into a computer they would not say face-to-face: anger, and more anger. Everyone else wants to avert their gaze. It is Gresham’s economic law writ large online: The bad opinions drive out the people who might offer up good opinions, to the point where childish and inane Facebook posts drives out people who might have better to contribute. As one former student posted, “’Wow. Thank you. Your Facebook post really changed my political opinion’ – said no one ever.” I totally agree.
Maybe my whole problem is with the design of social media. One or two sentences are what most Facebook posts are, and more than that seems awkward on that platform. Twitter is even worse: 146 characters. What can one say of substance in 146 characters? And Instagram? The social media network seeming so popular with my students now? Instagram seems to me like online communication through photos for those in a pre-literate era.
What is missing?
The written word. That is what is missing.
It would appear that the World Wide Web, which in 1996 seemed to offer so much promise for personal expression, has not delivered. Technology in 2016 seems almost to be making us less literate, less reflective, less empathic. I read the following today in Phil Caputo’s review of “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Jungerman: “Social media, which was supposed to bring us closer together, has driven us further apart by providing echo chambers wherein conservatives and progressives, evangelicals and secularists, rich and poor, can reinforce their prejudices and hone their contempt for one another.” How sad.
But what about online writing other than on social media?
I have had a few former students who went off to start their own blogs. There they can write at length and express themselves in more depth, as I try to do on my webpage. And the various elements of society that make a living on opinions – columnists, reporters, activists, other intellectuals – have found vibrant homes online.
But not that many individuals have personal pages anymore, it would seem.
Or they have personal webpages that consist mainly of links to their articles written in other publications. Articles they write for money.
I have not seen that many passionate amateurs like myself.
Where are they?
(At least Justin Hall is still with us.)