There’s increasing variety within a single online life as well. Most of us now use the Internet for work e-mail, personal e-mail, Gchats, Facebook interaction, Twitter postings, private Skype calls, and so on, often in the course of one day. Occasionally, there’s confusion changing registers, but mostly we have no problems triaging our styles of expression. “You can’t adopt the behaviors you would have in a loud bar when you go to see the Chicago Symphony,” says Zizi Papacharissi, a University of Illinois, Chicago, professor who researches online life. There is a word for this: socialization.
Another word to keep in mind: commodification. Like the sixteenth-century Renaissance, which was incited less by a sudden burst in creativity than by a boom in the European business sector, today’s flourishing web has profited from corporate self-interest. “A lot of the places where people might spout off, say nasty things, and the like are commercial sites with a business model built around people coming to them,” Parks explains. Several of his students now find their first jobs as gatekeepers and monitors for comment sections and other interactive forums.
Facebook was among the first sites to realize that these habits offered a large-scale commercial opportunity within the existing framework of online social life. According to a 2010 account by director of engineering Andrew Bosworth, the LIKE button took shape in the summer of 2007 as the “awesome button.” (“Like” seemed bland.) But by the time it finally went live, in early 2009, it was nearly ready for online commerce. Soon, users “liked” not just posts but ads and “sponsored stories.” These “endorsements” were implicated in class-action suits, in California and New York and later nationally, with the plaintiffs claiming that minors whose names and images were associated with “liked” products were being commercially exploited.
These days, that seems like a quaint thought. Today’s webby world is one unconflicted about commercialization and remarkably unsqueamish about blunt salesmanship—a place where authors blithely tweet their favorable reviews, and acerbic ironists and stand-up comics turn unflinchingly to self-promotion. The closest to “underground” that the new web gets may be Kickstarter, whose funding projects have raked in a collective $354 million since 2009 (all without the taint of crass commercialism). If you draw in thousands of dollars on Kickstarter, you’re an artist with supporters; if you had tried doing the same by contacting your friends directly, just a few years ago, you’d be a mooch and creep. This is the age of privatized sociality—a moment when social life is actually shaped by one’s own market interests.
For years, the arrival of market forces in a community announced a growing-up process, the start of the Real World: Hard choices were required; the possibility of failure loomed; only the best would survive. Yet on the web the opposite is rapidly becoming true. We are all children now, hanging our crayon drawings on the wall and cooing indistinguishably over the collective effort.
Shouldn’t we mind being addressed as 6-year-olds, though? Why have we taken this unctuous treatment in stride? The truth is that the sweetening of the online space scarcely stands out these days.
Imagine a world in which good manners and the beau ideal trump all, and you have basically imagined the mood of 21st-century American life. New Yorkers once carried mace; now we sit at home in cardigans and pickle cabbage. Angry young men while away quiet hours playing Angry Birds. The big song of this summer—“Call Me Maybe”—was light, reserved, and deeply polite. (“Here’s my number / So call me, maybe?”) How, exactly, did we get here from “You Shook Me All Night Long”?
One answer is that the tide has actually begun to turn: First, we put more and more of our real lives online, then we began to take our cues in real life from the web. A lot of recent media has followed a similar path. A moviegoer in the fifties might well have been enchanted by the genteel, chaste, well-ordered world of Technicolor cinema, but he was not fooled: You could buy clothes like the people in High Society, but you couldn’t expect their lives; you could enjoy Nat “King” Cole’s courtly manner and canned jokes on his TV show, but understand that this behavior was theatrical, adopted for the camera. At some point, though, these theatrical affectations, inhibitions, and conventions fell away, and we began losing our sense of remove from the cultural life that we saw onscreen. The great lie of reality TV is not that it’s spontaneous but that it’s turning the lens on a world that actually exists.