Idle Chatter and Cheap Identification

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So at the end of yesterday’s post, I was going to explain why I think that a lot of new media tools—Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and, of course, Tumblr—are the latest, weirdest, and in some ways most seductive form of what Kierkegaard called idle chatter.

While the problem is by no means limited to the New York City new media scene, I’m going to focus there for the purposes of this post because I’d wager it’s pretty resonant to a lot of my readers. And even for those who aren’t embedded in that ecosphere, it’s pretty instructive.

The problem is that all these social media tools offer something I like to call cheap identification as a convincing substitute for the sort of deep soul-searching that Kierkegaard considered our mind’s real nourishment. Think of it this way: Cheap identification is to introspection as cotton candy is to real food. It’s sweet and delicious, but it won’t assuage your hunger. If you try to use it for those ends, you’ll end up just feeling kind of ill.

Cheap identification works like this: Subject A feels sad. Subject A posts something about feeling sad on the social media venue of his choice. Subject B, who is also sad, reads Subject A’s post about how Subject A feels sad and thinks, “Wow! Subject A’s problems are just like my problems!”

Superficially, it feels like a meaningful exchange of some kind has taken place. Subject B feels a little less lonely, and might even reciprocate by leaving a supportive comment that will, in turn, make Subject A feel less lonely as well. More to the point, if Subject A is in New York and even loosely plugged into the various new media goings-on there, then this is a savvy career movie. After all, exposing your personal pain to the world is how Emily Gould snagged herself a book deal. People—especially relatively well-off, also plugged-in, educated cool kids like yourself—eat this stuff up.

And so there’s pressure not just to produce autobiographical navel-gazing, but to produce it consistently. And pretty soon there’s a big surplus of all these sad young literary people talking about their problems with each other and identifying over it.

The problem—and this is why I hasten to call it cheap identification—is that at some point you have to ask yourself: To what end? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writers using themselves as subjects. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with “oversharing.” But self-expression or identification without insight is hollow, even when the direct, personal level on which it is performed disguises that fact. It’s not a way of confronting  and surmounting despair, but of anesthetizing it through these self-indulgent rituals.

Everyone needs a little sugar to some extent. But when identification becomes its own end, it’s just a form of mutual, narcissistic self-confirmation. Subject A writes about Subject A’s problems because that’s what Subject A is monomaniacally obsessed with, to the point where there’s no broader, universal point. Subject B continues to eagerly identify with Subject A because it validates Subject B’s own deeply ingrained self-interest.

That’s my objection to Emily Gould, to the vast proliferation of more or less redundant memoirs in American publishing, and to stuff like the Awl’s Diary of an Unemployed Class of ‘10 Philosophy Major. With regards to the latter, this is a guy who spent four years studying philosophy, and he seems to think the most interesting thing he has to offer us are glum, shallow bon mots about what it feels like to not do a whole lot. It’s a horrible waste of a soapbox.

If I’ve mostly shied away from revealing any details about my past or personal life, that’s why. I’m talking about a really easy trap for anyone to fall into, and nobody can be blamed for it. Hell, I’m not even exempting myself from this sort of behavior, not by a long shot.

But it’s choking the life out of us as a group. It’s numbing us, and it’s hobbling our ability to confront what are very real problems in a responsible, meaningful way. We’re too distracted, and we’re too busy staring in the mirror.

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