Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Virtual Salinas

The Social Media Disease #1

What follows is just the beginning and I’m under no illusion that the overwhelming majority of you still possess anything close to the attention span required to read all of it. Check back when you see "The Dennis Doctrine" for my thoughts on that matter. Unicorns, rainbows and shit. Promise!

Anyhow, this took an incredibly long time to even start and runs in a lane parallel to The Dopamine Drip. As I sit here this afternoon, I still don’t know exactly where to take it, even after two and a half months of psychologically sorting out what’s happened to me, and us, over the last decade. But, I’m on a deadline now. So, as Mickey Knox so eloquently put it, “Let’s roll the fuckin’ dice, Wayne.”

What I decided to do was begin with my own story as both a cautionary example and, maybe, a mirror. I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: I made mistakes. Big ones. Blind ones. Some of the damage will never be repaired. Some people I considered significant have been lost to the virtual Kraken forever. But, you need to understand…and understand that I know…I wasn’t alone. I had a lot of help. Much of the last ten years was something like being part of a drunken juvenile mob rampaging thru the neighborhood. But, to be fair, like kids, most of us didn’t know any better. I’ll get to that, most likely in the next post. Today, let’s go back to 2008.

The Virtual Salinas

In Travels With Charley, Steinbeck wrote about retuning to his hometown of Salinas, California as an old man. He’d been gone for decades becoming a famous writer and wanted to see old places and faces; reconcile his long lost youth with the aging present. In the end, he realizes the old cliche is true: you can’t go home again. Life went on without him. The people embodying his memories were dead and had been replaced by something, someone, different. Time goes on whether we’re there or not.

When he realized the old connections were hopelessly altered, if not completely gone, at first Steinbeck wanted to label his old friends as ghosts. He also experienced something I (and millions of others) have come to see over the last 10-years: that trying too hard to fit that new person into our memory’s 30-year old jacket seldom works. Trying too hard only ruins the ‘comforting polaroids of the mind.” What was once a fond memory; a friendly ghost; is suddenly destroyed or at best irreparably changed. In the end he came to see that since he’d left, they weren’t the ghosts. He was.

Like Steinbeck, I effectively died when I chose to permanently leave my hometown 20-years ago. To those who never left and the legions of friends and acquaintances remaining whom I’d lost touch with, I became a static memory. To them (and them to me) I was still the same age as when they last saw me. I was still fun loving, irresponsible, drunk much of the time, and had a depth similar to the beer can I was still chugging in their mind’s eye!

I managed to keep in sporadic touch with a few people over the decades but, as is usually the case, the overwhelming majority just faded away naturally out of simple mutual neglect. We’d steadily become irrelevant to one another as life happened and others filled the void. That’s life and there’s nothing wrong with it! We all understood the unspoken game and on the rare occasions we’d cross paths we’d catch up, laugh, then promise to “stay in touch this time”. And sometimes we did! At least for a month or two! Remember? Then the whole process repeated itself. Humans have been experiencing variations of this scene for thousands of years. Sometimes on scale of 2000 miles. Sometimes 10-20. Sometimes even within that same small tight knit community they were born in. People change. They move on. Literally and/or figuratively. We understood that, even if we weren’t overjoyed with it, and were never expected to drag old friendship baggage into each phase of our lives until we died.

Then came the Internet. Email and early websites like Classmates made staying in touch a bit easier, but it was one-to-one and still required legitimate effort, even if it was only remembering then managing to write a message. Then came MySpace which was, thankfully, just ridiculous enough not to “really” suck the entire world in!

Then came Facebook.

My Facebook story began in early September, 2008. Just a couple of weeks after my first summer of hitchhiking ended. My early experience with what’s become the Blue and White Menace is probably familiar to almost everyone. People just started appearing! Names I’d not thought of in 10-years suddenly popped up via “friend” requests! “Holy shit! She’s still hot!” was heard by my nearby cats as I clicked thru the growing stockpiles of posted pictures.

**SCOLDING TANGENT: Don’t you judge me. You know you did it, too. Many of you still are. You’re fooling no one. Least of which your friendly virtual Toddzilla.   

While there were certainly slight symptoms of the incubating disease, in the early days they were overshadows by all these admittedly neat reconnections. Those fresh new pioneering days also coincided with our approaching 20-year class reunion in 2009. As the winter wore on and I began plotting what would be 2009’s landmark hitchhiking adventures, it seemed to me that we didn’t need to even bother having a “real” reunion. We’d already had it on Facebook.

In January or February 2009, thru Facebook, I connected with “long lost” family. I’d found the younger half-sisters I’d met in the mid ’90’s and thru them made contact with another older sister, Michelle. By the time Chris and I boarded the veggie bus in Santa Fe bound for the east coast in April, Michelle and I had begun plotting when and where we’d meet in person for the first time. Facebook was the catalyst; how we’d first “met”. In addition to email, it was how we communicated. In seven short months, social media had burrowed into my life and felt almost essential.

By June, I’d met Michelle and was back in Michigan having my own 12-year reunion with and meeting more “new” family. I met a younger brother, three nephews and a niece and through it all managed to set up the second meeting, ever, with my father. Beyond that, I now had the means to stay in touch with the characters I’d met on the road! “Eureka! This is great!”

Again, all of this was triggered by then maintained on Facebook. To claim everything was always a negative would be a lie.

The warning signals weren’t glaring, but by August '09 things had begun slowly changing.  I was subtly noticing that the writing I’d begun the summer before, pre-Facebook, was increasingly done to “post” it. On various levels, my traveling became more of a product to be delivered to viewers/readers. I noticed it. What I missed was how addictive and distracting it was; how it was dragging me off course into something that would become destructive. Not only to myself, but eventually to these “new” relationships.

By 2010, the descent into negativity was in full force; my online persona, the avatar, had hatched. I’d already been ranting about politics and religion; I consider Toddzilla’s birthday to be the day Sarah Palin arrived on the national scene; but it elevated several notches as the Tea Party gained prominence and became more vocal. The echo chambers were probably there before, to some degree, but I remember them coming to prominence sometime before the 2010 midterm elections, then growing exponentially thereafter. Of course there were always some types of political brawls but it seems that the Facebook Rubicon was crossed in the winter of 2009-10. Maybe I’m misremembering; it doesn’t really matter. I do know that my “game” elevated around then thanks in large part to riding with Doug that August.

There’s no need to rehash the next 3-4 years other than to say that whatever positives Facebook brought forth in 2008-2009 were suddenly gone. The newness of the technology and the “reunions” had long since faded away to be replaced by something sinister. Tribal divisiveness. Flaming. “Ordinary everyday viciousness”. Opinions were no longer opinions; they were a matter of right and wrong. Then they became a matter of good versus evil. How hard is it to demonize and abandon all sense of commonality with those who your “opinions”, ideology, and religion judge to be “evil”? Stay tuned for more on that…

Yes, dear reader, I was as guilty as anyone. More than many. I played that socially cannibalistic hunger game better than most. It was intoxicating. Combined with the aforementioned ideological riptide, my inner-ape’s tribal, self-supreme “lynch the auslanders!” ego loved it. Again, if you’d like more background, click back to the Dopamine Drip post. I’m not going to rehash everything here. Do some legwork of your own. **THEME ALERT!**

By 2014, I knew something was going terribly wrong. Again, it’s obliquely explained in the Dopamine post, but the embryonic Digital Detox/Social Media Disease ideas were beginning to rumble. In my own contemporary terms, I began seeing the disease and its effects while at the same time beginning the process of pruning synapses (purging my “friends” lists) and cutting noise. I didn’t have much of a concept of the bigger ideas at work in my mind back then, but I could clearly see that social media had gone from that neat little tool of 2008 to something vile. Especially after producing the Slithering Fascism podcast. It was obvious that it had gone from bringing people together to an amplifying and distorting voice for the worst part of the tribal human ego: divisiveness.

By the time the Digital Detox ideas took root last September and October, my past had become a Facebook killing field. Almost all of my old radio colleagues had been purged or had purged me. Of course they had! These poor people had no idea who Toddzilla was! I seldom even mentioned politics, let alone ranted about it, when they knew me. Religion? Ha! Fuck no! Not to say I was the perfect co-worker, but I certainly wasn’t…that!

It’s tempting to focus only on my own mistakes. And I will. But I’m also going to be fair to myself and reiterate, probably many times over the coming posts: I sure as fuck wasn’t alone! I can’t count how many people from my younger years had suddenly become derptastic “political pundits”, at least in their own minds and in those comprising their new echo chambers. I didn’t keep track, but I’d guess that 60% of the bodies lying in my Facebook Boneyard are these folks.

But these virtual tentacles reach far beyond Facebook, Twitter, and your little devices. While the avatars are virtual, the people are real. Whether we remember it or not. And so was the damage done to the friendships, especially if I hadn’t seen them in 20-years! It wasn’t just their Matrix Avatar, I was no longer interested in they themselves, in the real world. Right or wrong, from my perspective their avatars killed and consumed the human being. I consider myself reasonably smart, but sometimes I’m remedially slow in connecting the obvious. This is one of those cases: if they are affecting me this way…of course I’m affecting others the same. My avatar killed “me” and effectively destroyed whatever past we had in their eyes as well.

Ok, you caught me employing false humility. To say I was completely oblivious is misleading. Caught up in the Fog of Cyber War, it’s more accurate to say that most often I just didn’t care. Nor did I think I ever would. And let me be bluntly honest: in the vast majority of cases I was right. Functionally, most of these folks were just returned to their pre-Facebook relationship status: “none”. In most cases, without Facebook we never would have bothered to reconnect. So what was lost? The past. Good memories. Friendly ghosts. And the incessant, recycled, and—most importantly— unsolicited batshit “thoughts” along with it. Mostly in meme form yet mindlessly presented as wisdom and holy “opinion”. I’ve already alluded to it, but more on these “holy opinions” is coming. Much, much more. Not just yet.

Yep. For the most part I’m fine with exiled avatars not having a virtual all access key to my den. What I’m definitely not fine with is my part in the damage done; what our bloodthirsty avatars have done, and are doing, to us collectively and what the ultimate consequences will be. I'm also definitely not fine with having mindlessly thrown fine wine out with rotten milk. In most cases, I won't be able to correct it. But I can be accountable. And must be.