The parallel reality of cyberspace
I never thought much about what the internet and its communities might look like until turning an eye on fandom. Now I think about it a lot, but the reality of the all encompassing nature of the virtual landscape and the rapid shifts makes it difficult to settle confidently on a single representation.
The term “information superhighway,” which predates the existence of the internet, comes close. I can certainly see data points whizzing by at incomprehensible speed, leaving us to drop in with all the grace of a claw machine to pick up what you’re looking for. Replenishing the open tabs being kept on deck because if you miss the chance to grab it, it’s too late. It’ll have moved on to someone else.
But just because something slips through my fingers, whether it’s a Wayback link to a Freddie Mercury article archive or a recipe for homemade Ferrero Rocher truffles, that doesn’t mean the content is gone. It’s just out of my reach, but I might discover it anew through someone else’s archival efforts, or through someone else’s recommendation.
The superhighway can represent part of the experience of online life, but only part of it. Otherwise, the entire online world would resemble a round of Frogger where solitary participants are at the mercy of this free-floating information, loading up their shopping carts with digital goods for later. That obsfuscates how crowded our cyber reality is, and how active.
The worldwide web, cyberspace, virtual reality, or whatever your preferred term may be, is always on, always available. Even if all the people were disconnected, at this point there are enough active bots to keep things moving, programmed interactions mimicking the behaviour of independent users in perpetuity.
There is a contradiction present; logging on, being “online” is a solitary act, even if we aren’t physically alone, because of the way it hijacks our focus and creates an invisible barrier between ourselves and others. But logging on also turns individual users into a “we” — or at least that’s been my experience.
A joke I’ve often heard from my fellow terminally online peers is that wherever we may be, we have “friends in our pockets” anytime we might be lonely. It was usually somewhat of a counter to the idea that we were all loners with a lackluster social life. No, we were winning, because we had constant access to our communities and each other. We were a united front, capable of backing each other up even with the distances between us.
A memorable instance of how this worked in practice in my case dates back to my college years. It was still early in the fall semester when my roommate invited a group of guys from her hometown to crash in our room. The night in question they all attended a party, while I was busy refreshing Livejournal ran long into the night. I was half asleep by the time the group of guys let themselves in and crashed on my roommate’s bed. Without her there, of course, it would be too weird otherwise, right?
Rather than staying in bed, I got up, powered up my monster Dell laptop, logged on, and checked in on my online chat. It’s one of the few times I remember being grateful for timezones, probably the only reason someone would always be present. Having them over my shoulder, rolling their eyes, and ridiculing the entire situation, turned the terrible experience into nothing but a nuisance.
For the longest time, I considered my online world to be a supplement, a complement to the real world. Something to check in and catch up on, because it felt like that was possible. A digitized digest of the world at large. Somewhere along the way, the online world shifted to being a requirement rather than a supplement. The tipping point has come and gone, allowing for industry to take root in a nebulous place, creating anchor points.
Because it has to be a place, right? It’s reported on as a place, a new land rife with opportunities. Your presence is required, or you might as well not exist. Depending on your social sphere, the requirements will vary, but your obligation to the group will encompass online participation and presence, lest you regress to lurker status.
It’s this that makes me look at what we’re doing online, is part of a parallel reality. We just have endless touchpoints where we can tap in, the barrier between the two almost non-existent. We have personas online—multiple, just like we do in real life, depending on who we’re with—and they are uniquely online, practically coming with an instruction (interaction) manual.
Tumblr users, in fandom and otherwise, have popularized overlong Tumblr bios, sometimes spilling over into a separate “About” page entirely. On Twitter, the use of Carrds to create one page summaries of themselves. These are exhaustive bullet point biographies, sometimes including sub-headers such as potential content warnings, diagnoses, stan objects, Hogwarts House, Myers-Briggs type, star sign, and so on. And on occasion exhaustive “Do Not Interact” lists. The use of such warnings has been explored by Miss Guided’s in “The Bizarre World of DNIs,” what matters to me in this context is that this self-labeling happens at all, that it’s a norm within certain circles.
It’s easy for me to scoff at this behaviour, but I was no better back in the day. My generation was warned over and over not to share personal information with strangers, yet the chat room icebreaker “Age/Sex/Location” was popularized and elicited more responses than not.
The rules of the web seemed to be made up as we went along, and new realities presented themselves. But the rules of fandom seemed to be ensconced and perpetuated by the already existing community. It was easy to fall into lockstep since it all worked so well at the time. This is the internal socializing that takes place, the way order is maintained inside the group. But Mark Duffett has pointed out there is an outward facing aspect as well, “externally, [fandom communities] organize to act as a collective bodies that represent both the fans and their heroes.”
And we did feel like representatives, ambassadors of our fandoms, a cache of covert intelligence gatherers ready to deploy when needed. It sounds like hubris, but it was more about purpose and definition than self-aggrandizement. For example, there was a time when fansites were the best sources of information on many media properties and celebrities. The photo galleries were stacked with HQ photos, thorough listings of upcoming projects, and sometimes, they even had forums, where micro-communities could form.
Fandom was never averse to new technology and services, but that might’ve been to our detriment, ultimately. Livejournal infamously purged journals and communities twice, the final death knell being the sale of the site to a Russian company. Suddenly our information was too precious to share. The bookmarking app Delicious had not found a big userbase among its target demographics, but fandoms adopted it wholeheartedly. It became a hub, an archive, organized so meticulously the breadth and diversity of fandom became more tangible. In the past, you’d only know if someone appreciated your contribution, whatever it may be if they told you. But thanks to Delicious, you could track the rate at which your content was saved. It’s a small thing, but it’s the kind of thing that made you realize maybe your efforts were enough, at least for the moment.
Of course, fandom users weren’t big spenders, and one day the site was sold to Yahoo and had been completely revamped, resetting the blank slate. To put our trust in the machine was naive, to begin with, but the corporate overreach hadn’t crested yet and seemed to be lagging so far behind.
If anyone was prescient and sounding alarms, I didn’t see it. How could I, when I was too busy installing scrobbling apps so my Last.fm account would accurately capture my listening habits. I was obsessive about it, but I doubted any of it was of interest to anyone else. It was like creating your own personal radio station and exploring the landscape of artists out there.
I tended to my many websites with great dedication, I was eager to provide resources I could provide as meager as they were. Screencaps were a hot commodity but were work-intensive and expensive to create. These were used to make GIFs and lots of graphics. Then there were the people who offered webspace, free and clear, just because that was their contribution to the fannosphere.
There were cliques, often with an elite overtone that would judge whether your website and graphics were good enough to be included in the roster. You would only be allowed to link back and be added to the group if you were approved.
This home grown infrastructure wasn’t perfect, but it was significantly different because there was no monetization, no commercial exploitation. Bad actors still existed, catfishing and other online frauds are not unheard of.
But being part of that scene, the constantly shifting ground, it’s impossible to see ourselves in context. It’s hard for me, to see how easily we offered up our goods, our trust, in things that were part of the escalation into the full-blown attention market we see today.
Worse yet, fandom itself was likely one of the tipped dominos toward our current fixation with micro-identities.
Fanlistings, the mini-sites whose entire purpose was to host a list of fans, had a massive boom. If you submitted your information you could save an icon or banner to display on your website, forum signature, or Livejournal profile… We shared and participated eagerly, all for the privilege of announcing our fan status to the void. For all to see, including those doing the selling.
Much of what we did online was like roleplay, I didn’t think of it like that, and I still don’t like thinking of it as such, but it’s the only way I can think of how to describe it. It’s not that we were putting on an act, but rather that we observed self-imposed rules. This was fine as long as all everyone was on the same page, that the lines in the sand would be respected.
It might’ve worked out had we not garnered attention from those who saw fandom rituals, skill, and passion as a fantastic business resource, something to tap into. This idea of being unwittingly watched and toyed with often evokes the visual of The Truman Show, and it’s a good visual, just not entirely accurate. He’s the only one being deceived in the film, the other inhabitants performing for him, specifically.
But we’re all being observed, and we’re all performing due to the public nature of our platforms. Because of that, my vote for the best cinematic representation of the current destabilizing interactive feedback loop that we find ourselves in? Has to be the set design of Lars von Trier’s Dogville.
The setup reminds me of no-budget school plays, always having to make belief with the bare necessities, practically becoming expert mime artists. But is there any other way to look at our constructed and enforced rules and boundaries?
Borders and walls in Dogville are demarcated with chalk, but might as well be real should the inhabitants be believed. It’s how they make sense of their world, the transparency benefiting watchers-on more than anything else.
Is that a cynicism overload on my part? Or does it not seem like some of us have inadvertently provided the perfect test subject and environments. Inadvertent docility on tap. Because people are watching, and they never cared for limits.