Online Media and the New Boredom

We’re all bored, we’re all so tired of everything
We wait for trains that just aren’t coming
We show off our different scarlet letters –
Trust me, mine is better

Taylor Swift, “New Romantics”

We are all bored. Well, not exactly all of us – but boredom is everywhere; being bored, which, so our mothers told us, used to mean that we ourselves were boring, seems to be more ubiquitous, more pervasive, than ever.

A great deal of this perception stems, no doubt, from each new generation having an unearned sense of coming to the world with fresh eyes, of discovering entirely new perspectives and experiences. But it is hard to deny that, despite its attendant promises of interconnection and constant stimulation, the online age, and perhaps mass communications in general, have made real boredom if anything more accessible.

This seems initially counter-intuitive, but the truth is that the ephemeral nature of online communication has led almost to the opposite of what its advocates and pioneers claimed: an almost deliberate cultivation of tedium, and the new propagation of sheer inanity which aspects of online media engage in and help to create as a matter of course.

Being connected is great; it appears that on this almost everyone agrees. Being able to meet new people digitally – to see new sights (and sites) and to become exposed to novelty – is a blessing and a boon. And so many people, overcome by the superficial charms of such novelty, reacted with great excitement to advances in social media; now all this enthusiasm looks almost naïve.

Eventually  Facebook walls and Twitter feeds and the like cease being truly novel; in effect, they degenerate into monotony; they become little more than long and monotonous lists of unimportant and uninteresting information. It is interesting to examine this trend – how such things have become uninteresting – and how we become deaf to the nature of this sort of media simply due to the fact of overexposure; this is a disaster commercially and culturally.

A fairly large amount has been written about the human capacity for making and retaining friends. The upshot of this seems to be that most people have only room in their affections (and memories, if it comes to that) for a certain number. And this total comes to a significantly lower figure than the current cap on the number of Facebook friends a person can acquire.

In addition to this comes the problem of familiarity. It really does, even for the less than averagely cynical, breed a sort of contempt. After all, whether one has one hundred friends on social media or several thousand, there comes a point where expectation simply overwhelms the chance of surprise and entertainment; I suspect many readers will have a very good idea of the sort of comments they are likely to see if they log into Facebook right now, and the same is true – despite its unearned reputation for playing host to a global conversation – for Twitter.

As soon as our friends no longer surprise us – and if we know everything they think, often as it occurs to them, via the online transmission of their thoughts, they soon will cease to do so – what hope is there for the sort of real intellectual and social adventure, the real depth and variety of experience which can be found in ordinary face-to-face encounters?

If anything, the grammar, as it were, of online discourse is frequently more homogenous than that of the communication of proximate people; see for example the online response to tragedy – both personal and national, or international – and how this quickly becomes boiled down to standard displays of grief and loss, sadness and even anger; see how it can be reduced to an almost perpetually replicable series of templates. There is nothing morally wrong with this, and in the case of grief there can be a certain comfort of echoing the words of many thousands who have come before and who will succeed in this particular situation; but surely, when such formulae intrude on ordinary conversation, when they reduce down interactions into bland processes and personal contributions to little more than statements of the obvious, this has to be considered a tragic failure of communication.

Coupled with this, I think, is a sort of digital media archetype; online publications in this vein – possibly due to following convention, and possibly because it simply works financially – fall into the pattern of attempting to give character to their enterprises, to make them have ‘personality’. In many cases, this seems to necessitate brands and media companies trying to make their products appear ‘vibrant’, chatty, knowing, and generally a bit like a slightly overenthusiastic friend (but one whose main aim is to monetise our contact).

This ratcheting up of the individual ‘character’ of publications and outlets (notably BuzzFeed, Gawker, Upworthy) – and corporate brands, whose Twitter feeds are simultaneously risible and depressing – though once intended to add colour, has become boring and a little draining. All this, produced and maintained by vast teams of people (adding an odd dynamic of many individuals attempting to keep up the propagation of an organisation’s ‘personality’), always does. It’s like being constantly messaged by a particularly persistent and peppy group-chat, but one where every participant adopts the same gratingly winsome persona.

In a way, of course, this sort of thing is hardly new; any cultural artefact, unless it is a true original, divorced from context and all points of reference, must be identifiable as part of a trend, and therefore it must also become dated and eventually unfashionable. But in a way, because many aspects of modern culture, in media and advertising, film and music – and in our own lives through social media – emphasise being unique and acting with the illusion of real individuality, this can be both forgotten and insidiously emphasised.

I don’t know what the solution to all of this is; and I don’t know if there is any real way to defeat the shock of the mundane in our hyper-connected lives. I suppose I had better take the following slice of wisdom to heart: maybe I should return to first principles; maybe, as the song says, the best people in life are free.