Carnival of Triviality

2011 was an odd year for me. I changed jobs, twice and may do so again soon. My wife was unemployed for a long stretch, and even though she is working again, money is tighter than it was. Six weeks into 2012, and things are still so up in the air, but overall I'm getting by and things aren't too bad.

About 5 months ago I decided to have another go at improving my attitude and trying to live my life a little more in the moment. I can't claim that I've been a huge success at this, but I think I'm heading in the right direction. One of the first things I did was to delete my Facebook, Google+ and Twitter accounts. Probably a reason I haven't really blogged as well. The whole social media thing was just getting me down. It really is something of an addiction. Visiting Facebook or Google+ several times a day, but in general coming away feeling irritated when I did so. Truth be told, I don't need to know what is going in the lives of everyone I've ever known on a constant ongoing basis. While there was occasionally something I wanted to know or some good content, most posts fell into one of three different categories.

  1. Pointless post to let everyone know what someone was doing, even if it wasn't that newsworthy.

  1. A post to let me know how much cooler and more interesting somebody's life was than mine.

  1. Religious/Political/Dogmatic statement that someone felt the need to shout to the world.

Add to that all the pointless requests to repost something for some cause or another or to change your icon as if any of that made a difference or actually had an impact on the world, or the barrage of updates from games, spotify, foursquare, or whatever other "Look at Me" app that someone was using, it just seemed the noise to signal ratio was way to high.

I came to regard social media as a Carnival of Triviality, the seedy state fair of the Internet.

It's invasive. You can't escape from it. Everywhere you go on the net now you are encouraged to Like, or Share, or +, or in some way engage in social media. They make it sound like a cool thing to do, share what you are doing with all your friends. But the reality is, none of it is done for our benefit. The point of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ is not to create wonderful communities where intelligent discourse takes place and people are brought closer together. The purpose of each of these offerings is simply to collect information about us and market at us. People ask what the harm is in that. They ask that aren't getting ads targeted to our tastes better than getting ads which are completely unrelated to our wants and needs. There are two answers I have for that.

First of all, why do we accept the need for adds in the first place. Isn't our private information and channels of communication worth paying for? I would be much happier to see Facebook charge me $5 a month for using their service, than to get it for free and have to be constantly marketed at and have my personal information auctioned off to the highest bidder. Of course I realize this to be a pipe dream and know that very few other people will bother to pay for a service on the web. I've started paying for my primary email accounts so I don't have to deal with adds. I also feel that paying for a service makes me the customer instead of the product, and that is the way I want it.

So, that brings me to my next point. Marketing is damaging to us. It hurts us culturally and economically, and the more specifically targeted those ads are, the greater the danger. Originally advertisement was a fairly innocent thing. A way to let people know about the existence of a product or service. Getting the word out to help businesses attract customers. Of course, the motives have probably always been a bit suspect, but the methods available to deliver the message were weak. Over time though things have changed. Now the methods to deliver a message are strong and constant. We are continuously bombarded by ads every waking moment. Commercials on TV and Radio, billboards and signs along the roads, ads in magazines that have more pages dedicated to advertisements than to content; and now the mother lode of marketing power, The Internet. The purpose of all this is to create desires in people to consume. Every message is telling us to buy more, do more, get more. You can only be fulfilled in life if you have a sexy new car, a sexy new phone, drink that cool new beer, and wear those cool new clothes. It creates desires and the perception of need where none existed before. We squander our wealth on things that serve no purpose, and ignore the things in life that have meaning to pursue trivial goals that leave us unfulfilled. When those messages were just passively presented to us on occasion they could be more easily ignored, but now that they can be streamed to us unceasingly and targeted to us as individuals, the impact is ever greater. These advertisements shape who we want to be and what we want out of life. Deny It if you like, but companies wouldn't spend millions on this stuff if it didn't provide results for them.

I also worry about the amount of information we share. That may sound strange from someone posting on a blog, after all, I'm putting this out for the world to see. However this is a deliberate and conscious decision. I am making a choice of just what I want to reveal. I also pay for the service which hosts this, so I don't have ads or marketers collecting data about those that might come here to read this. Social networking is altogether different. Its insidious nature is that we end up sharing more and more of our lives. Our political and religious views, where and what we eat, who are friends are, how much we drink, what we buy, etc. These things may seem innocent enough, but are they really? There have been many predictions of governments that spy on us, that monitor every aspect of our lives to ensure we behave. And while I still think that is the direction things are going, I'm amazed at the fact that we seem to be rushing to provide all the data ourselves. Is it really so far fetched now to believe that our political views can get us in trouble in a post 9/11 world. We've already seen numerous examples of people being arrested because of a Tweet that someone has decided may be a terrorist threat. And even if the government isn't watching, you can be sure that someone is. How many people have lost their jobs because they've posted something to Facebook that their employer has taken exception to. You never know who will hear what you say and decide they have a problem with it. Banks are starting to look at social media when they evaluate people for loans, insurance companies may decide that your risky/unhealthy lifestyle means you have to pay more. At what point do we decide that our right to have private lives matter?

None of this is to say that online communication and community is all bad. Quite the contrary I've always been fascinated with the concept and participate in a few. There a people that I miss having contact with, distant friends that use Facebook for their primary form of communication. But the ones that really matter I will still find ways to stay in touch with, just as those that are interested in my life will make the effort to seek me out. We will have discussions and share bits of our lives with each other and build relationships that have meaning, not engage in a popularity contest 140 characters at a time.

My friends and my privacy both mean a lot to me, and for that reason I will avoid the carnival.