Online Familiarisation, Imagining the Other, and the Ideological Underpinnings of the Humble lolcat
By Michael Davidson
As we move past the dawn of the 21st century, the Internet has inherited a complex position in the Western cultural imagination. We credit it as the harbinger of democracy, the saviour of the repressed, a genuine information highway where truth and objectivity are spread each and every day. Online movements are fuelling revolutions as far away as 2011’s Arab Spring, and supporting Western liberation movements against SOPA, the NSA, and general governmental deceits. However, beneath the surface of Google’s white pages are the murky worlds of paedophilia, fraud, and terrorism. The Internet is the romantic world of the boundlessly free, yet at the same time cursed by its own openness: we must confront our own complicity in constructing the World Wide Web. In this idealised global community, we must consider what our extra-national responsibility is, going into the 2010s and beyond.
Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev himself admitted that online video provoked his actions in April 2013; I cannot stress enough the devastation of events like this, both in America and in the rest of the world. I choose this example simply because of the enormous amount of British media coverage it received; it is still one of countless. There should be vast amounts of time dedicated to discussing these more explicitly dangerous parts of the Internet, from Tsarnaev’s extremist inspirations and beyond. I cannot – nor would I ever want to – take away attention from these horrors. However, I would argue that alongside such tragedies are the more subtle ideological workings of the Internet, something which we at the same time need to examine.
Think of this: you search Google for a website, say, all about red shoes. You, thankfully, find one, and are embraced by a group of fellow red shoe-lovers eager to welcome you into their online community wherein everybody discusses their favourite red shoes and posts pictures, reviews, etc. By its very definition, the browser inescapably introduces you to a community to which you probably already belong, at least to some extent. The – admittedly oversimplified but nevertheless accurate – way a website works is that it brings together a community with common ideas, goals, or values. Presumably, everybody on the red shoes website likes red shoes, or at least has an interest in them. If not, they’d click away. Only the most eager fans are confident to post and update, too. In short, you search for websites based on values you’re likely to already hold. A lot of the time, you follow celebrities on Twitter you already know; you watch YouTube videos of your favourite things. You are, in effect, joining a community to whose political ideologies you have already acclimatised.
I’ve jumped a few steps though, haven’t I? Since when were red shoes political, and since when was the Internet as rigidly structured as I suggest?
Well, the red shoes are of course anecdotal, but we nevertheless need to think about how we normalise ideological systems: what has Amazon got anything to do with politics, you scream? Well you’re buying them, engaging in broader debates of industrial capitalism, private industry, and economic globalisation. Political discourse is often portrayed as being disconnected from real life; but connect the dots and you’ll soon see that the values which underpin pretty much every website are inextricably bound to the workings of greater ideologies, be it PornHub or I Can Has Cheezburger? We all are! You’re right, there are some fantastic websites out there in which you can share seemingly random conversations with an endless array of Internet users from across the planet; I’m thinking of the great worlds of 4chan, reddit, and Twitter, so vast and so engrossing in their immensity that I can do nothing but stand back in respectful awe. But it would be a bit naïve, I think, to suggest that sites like these don’t hold their own political biases, especially towards liberalism and the left.
Such biases are not necessarily damaging – I myself am influenced and believe in the anarchic shitstorm that is online democracy; but they are something with which we need to be extremely careful. The Internet is not one sole forum page in which you digest millions of new posts per second, and I’m glad that it isn’t. But to quote innumerable YouTube commenters in response to those criticising the subject of their beloved video playing above: “YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE!” Websites often create communities that aren’t just about purportedly harmless pop music or fandoms; communities inevitably construct value systems which you absorb without even realising. In other words, if you think Beliebers merely share a love of our lovable young celeb, think again: apparently drink driving is okay now, according to their Twitter trends this week. When surfing the Web, you can soon be surrounded by circles of beliefs you already have, or even worse made to have, being lulled into a sense of security as you scroll down Tumblr thinking: “Everybody thinks more or less the same as me! How fucking great! My God, we must be right!”
And you might be. But you also might not be. And most, importantly, there probably isn’t a right answer in such complicated issues to begin with. The process of ideological familiarisation is not limited to the Internet, but sometimes we get carried away with its democratic power and forget this. This is where red shoes become political: for online discourse to work, we need to make sure we are communicating not only with those who have similar values to us. We need to appreciate and utilise the Internet’s universality in a thoughtful, meaningful way. We need to give a voice to the Other, to the person with whom you already disagree. This is the only way true ideological change can be brought about. It’s important to attune yourself to what sort of values you are taking part in when you join online communities, even if it’s just taking your Facebook friends with a pinch of salt (or those in your G+ circles – well, actually probably not). It’s important to assess the messages with which you are complicit, and the ideological systems you are exposing yourself to. Think more critically about the ways in which you interact online; after all, are these not the foundations of free speech for which the appropriately titled World Wide Web is so wonderfully praised?
The Internet is a marvellous place. But it can also be a truly terrifying one if you do nothing but internalise or live up to ideologies similar to your own. You end up thinking things because you think you should, rather than engaging with the wider world of opposing beliefs. It’s nice to think that everybody in the world is like you; it’s nice to think that you’ve all got it all right. But you haven’t, and we have a responsibility to use the Internet – as we do any other platform of democratic dialogue – in the interest of imagining and engaging with others as well as yourself. Think for yourself, please, and share it online. Expose yourself to the beauty of the Internet, and immerse yourself in its true democratic power. But free speech was never meant to be easy, and the wonders of the Internet must be used thoughtfully if they are to make its proliferation that little bit easier.
Michael Davidson is an English and Related Literature student interested in Australian novels, Jesus, and anarchy.