So this week I woke up with a particularly annoying earworm wriggling round my hormonally weathered brain. Have you heard It’s my Belly Button by Rhett and Link, a couple of Internet celebrities the boys enjoy who also sing I’m a Textpert (Epic Rap Battle) and Nerd vs. Geek (Epic Rap Battle), both of which I was surprised to find in my iTunes collection one day? If not, the chorus goes “It’s my belly button, my belly, belly button, I won’t pretend like it’s nothing because my belly, belly button’s really, really something, something I want to show to you”.
It’s one of Son No 3’s favourite songs although he also seems to enjoy Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon as well and I have to say listening to a two-year-old sing Bobby Hebb’s Sunny is ineffably cute. The least edifying of the boys’ favourite songs has to be Yoghurt which Son No 2 thinks is marvellous, although it’s certainly rather dubious and thank goodness he is actually too young to pick up on any of the truly revolting connotations. It’s pretty far from my idea of a song worth listening to I have to say.
Despite the fact that It’s My Belly Button was festooned inside my soggy head for longer than I would ideally want, I think Rhett and Link are OK as far as Internet celebrities go – they’re certainly amusing and seemingly don’t use bad language which is more than I can say for me. But of course, what the boys are absorbing online is always a worry. And apparently what I’m absorbing too because I without a doubt wouldn’t have consciously chosen It’s My Belly Button to be my head’s lift-Muzak of the day.
“Don’t let them go near YouTube!” was the alarming warning we received when attending a talk at school last term about secondary school transfer. What? No YouTube at all? Really? No – apparently according to the teacher YouTube is just too dangerous by far. Oh! Oh dear – “I don’t really use the Internet, Mummy,” said Son no 2, “I just go on YouTube”. Well, I’ve got that one catastrophically wrong then, haven’t I?
Regular readers of my tiny little corner of the blogosphere may have picked up that I have some ambivalent feelings about the Internet. On the one hand I appreciate so much about it; I’ve been able to share my photography and therefore spread the news which means people get in touch with me when they want portraits done. This week I was asked to supply something for a magazine for the first time and I was also asked if one of the images I created for some college work can be reproduced, both of which are things that came about because of the Internet. Goodness, I doubt I’d even have been able to study at all right now if it weren’t for the Internet. Added to that I have had some really useful conversations online with photographers whose work I like and respect which again would not have happened at all if it weren’t for the World Wide Web. And I am here right now banging on about my concerns about the Internet thanks totally to the Internet without which these thoughts would just go round and round incessantly inside my head alongside songs about belly buttons –whether this is a good thing or not is debatable, of course.
There is so much that is positive and good about the Internet. But it doesn’t come without its costs. Nothing ever does.
A while before Christmas an article about the Internet NOT being a harbinger of narcissism was doing the rounds on Facebook. In it all the Internet’s fabulous points were raised and many of the negative things that people have suggested may be worth thinking about were dismissed.
(“Mum” said Son No 1 “You should be a YouTuber, because all they’re doing is ranting too and if you’re going to rant you may as well be like the YouTubers! And make some money. And get rich!!!”
“Really, Son No 1? Really? You actually want your mother spouting off on YouTube – I don’t think you do, my darling – In fact, I think that would be absolutely the opposite of what you want!”)
Anyway, so I was saying…
…But and this is most important, the article was looking at things in quite a limited way – i.e. A has an effect on B and therefore A is the cause of B’s potential problems or wellbeing. This is kinda crazy thinking. The world just doesn’t work like that. The Internet and the World Wide Web did not suddenly appear out of a vacuum. The Internet isn’t some entity that was just dropped on planet earth to wreak havoc or induce some kind of miraculous change in society, democratising information and power. The Internet and all the information we share on it started to develop when it did because it is an expression of our collective consciousness and its seeds are routed in various places – how it impacts on us and us on it is a continual back and forth, inside and out, up and down dialogue between us and our expressiveness, which in this case manifests itself as the Internet. And our collective consciousness according to some academics was becoming more narcissistic towards the end of the 70s just as a tiny number of counter-culture members in San Francisco, presumably reacting against the seeds that generated any narcissistic epidemic that may exist today, were creating a small, pioneering online community which was the precursor to all social networking sites and which are such a huge part of our lives today.
During this period extended families continued to become less economically viable and the cost benefit ratio of smaller nuclear families had over time driven a sea change in how we Westerners chose to live. Out of that inevitable fragmentation of community a need for connectivity arose and the Internet provided it in the shape of social networking. Social networking does indeed provide people with a way of staying connected to other human beings and thank goodness for that – our individualism and subsequent isolation is deeply intertwined with the wellbeing or not so well-being of our society; neurosis, anxiety and depression are all growing problems for us and have been for some time. But the Internet, and all its benefits comes at a cost, some argue adding to the erosion of society’s well-being. Societies are constantly addressing, judging, adjusting and readjusting their relationships in accordance to the cost benefit ratios within their cultural structures.
The costs of the Internet for now are deemed acceptable by our society but risks included amongst many are: the feedback loop of narcissism that is according to some fuelled by people constantly self-publishing (oh, the irony!), and expressing thoughts that were once ours alone; the need to live up to the online persona that we all create every time we use social networking; apparent difficulty in shutting out and keeping the world at bay – I totally get how teenagers are driven to suicide though online bullying – how it can be pernicious, devastatingly demoralising and seemingly impossible to ignore; existing in a paradigm were voyeurism is simply accepted as the norm – this article explores that in a very amusing way; and by the way the Internet allows very destructive ideas to be spread quickly and efficiently seeking out people ripe for attaching themselves to those ideas.
Added to that every time we use a search engine we allow ourselves to become a commodity; we the users become the product as our data is traded and we just accept that as perfectly fine.
But the greatest cost as far as I understand it is the Internet’s power to inform and form who we are. By handing this power over so freely we risk losing not only the ability to be authentic, but even the awareness that it might be possible.
Douglas Rushkoff is a fantastic theorist whom I first came across when I watched a documentary about the Internet on BBC 2 a few years ago where much of what I’m summarising here was explored quite brilliantly and of course in far greater detail, called The Virtual Revolution, which was incredibly well researched and presented by Aleks Krotoski. Search it up on the Internet if you’re interested, it really is fascinating (and if it weren’t for the Internet I would have had to say in this post that I heard some guy say something rather clever on some documentary I watched some years ago, but who knows what any of that was called or about).
So, in The Virtual Revolution Rushkoff talks about how online companies capture our clicking habits and then feed back behaviourally targeted advertising, which in turn eats away at our authenticity by telling us who we are and thereby disallowing us from actually finding out who we are organically. I have retained this message and kept it with me and even so it is still fabulously difficult to maintain a clear sense of self that delineates from the person the advertisers want me to think I am, or from stopping myself from being influenced by other Internet users from all over the world in a way that is so incredibly instant. Visit Rushkoff’s site if any of this is something that interests you – it’s definitely worth a view.
So why am I banging on about all of this – because I have three kids who I am pretty much solely responsible for bringing up. They are learning a language that I don’t really get and will never speak as well they do – the language of the Internet and social media. And sometimes some really distressing and upsetting things happen in the world which our culture now reacts to with such immediacy that it can be very difficult indeed to maintain a sense of self within the cacophonous reactions all played out online. I suspect in the past we have witnessed, discussed and debated events with a great deal more time for reflection and thought whereas today – it’s all NOW, NOW, NOW. And I think this is going to make it hard for the next generation to exist peacefully. I wonder when or if society might evaluate the cost benefit ratio differently to how it does now. For the moment it looks like the benefits will be valued far more than any costs might worry us, whether you buy into the narcissism argument or not.
I have to say, as much as I could have done without It’s My Belly Button wandering around my brain, I wonder if Rhett and Link have something to say on the matter of never being able to turn the world off, of everything happening in the present, of there being so little space where you can curl up and switch off in today’s world, because they’re pretty astute on a lot of things which have made the kids think. For example the middle class problem of not being able to get any Wi-Fi in the kitchen – a satirical poke at our ridiculousness which Son No 1 in particular finds very amusing.
However, next time I have an earworm I do hope it’s Muse, Miles Davis or perhaps a bit of Mozart instead.
Information in this post gleaned from BBC 2s The Virtual Revolution, Our Babies Ourselves by Meredith F. Small (published 1998 by Random House) and of course once again, The Narcissism Epidemic By Jean M. Twenge, PH D and W. Keith Campbell PH D (published by Atria 2009)
Image (c)Sarah-Jane Field 2015