Individualism for the Masses
From poking your friends on facebook to a subreddit taking on a WallStreet - how the digital world went post-modern
Picture this: it’s the mid-2000s.
You’re listening to some R&B on your iPod nano as you walk home from the mall— you’ve just hit up Abercrombie & Fitch and copped a sweet polo that’ll help you flaunt your freshly-healed tribal tattoo.
Suddenly, there’s a buzz in your pocket — you pull out your first ever touch screen phone (it accidentally unlocked already because the technology isn’t quite there yet) and see that you’ve been sent an SMS notification from the hottest social media platform in the valley, facebook.
Your friend Dave just poked you. Classic Dave.
All is right in the world.
This might not have been your exact mid-2000s experience. It wasn’t even mine — I was 11ish, not yet old enough to regret a tribal tattoo. I didn’t have any friends called Dave. I’m also British, so I definitely wasn’t going to the mall.
You see my point though — it was a simpler time.
‘Fitting in’ amounted to chasing a cookie-cutter surfer aesthetic and believing with all your heart that those silhouetted dancers in the iPod commercials were the pinnacle of Marketing.
Sure, there was counter culture. You had your GenX nihilist remnant — all proudly hanging the same HMV-bought poster of pink bar-soap, etched with the words Fight Club. They frequented Newgrounds and read Vice articles (Vice dabbled in journalism back then) about the latest fashion drugs, penned by models wearing Supreme t-shirts who were on said-drugs.
There were, of course, standout taste-makers and trend-setters. These individuals were traditionally at odds with pop-culture though — right up until they reached the apex of their relevance. Increasingly, they sprouted to life in niche communities online; carved out of the recesses of an ever-expanding internet. It was becoming the de-facto spot for individualism to thrive, umbrellaed away from the blinding light of capitalist culture. It was a magical time.
Then Twitter launched.
Social Media was old hat at this point; facebook & YouTube had been around for years, the go-to platforms for sharing yourself with the world.
facebook, though, was just for friends and family - and YouTube? What a load of effort. Getting a camera that shot video? Booting up iMovie? Please. We were all too busy shitting on Justin Bieber to have any time for that.
But here was Twitter, with it’s 120 character limit that let you spew your inner-most thoughts to anyone who would listen. You could use your thumbs to build an echo chamber — and the more snarky and contrarian you were, the bigger the audience.
Shortly thereafter, Instagram hit the scene.
Individual thoughts? They need not apply. Instead, why don’t you share a pic of yourself in Starbucks — Macbook gleaming in the foreground — and give us all an update on that novel you’re working on.
What a game-changer.
It was all just so low effort. You could rattle off every half-baked thought, share a photo of your lunch and then find a million people who thought and ate the exact same thing. You could form a community right there and then, all publicly sub-tweeting each other and hash-tagging your pics #Like4Like #Follow4Follow.
As trash as it sounds now, it too was magical in its own way.
Unfortunately, whenever you place a large group of existentially anxious creatures in an unregulated space, there’s always a risk that they don’t taste the cyanide in the koolaid until it’s too late.
Look, we all crave interaction. We all want to be part of something. It’s one of the defining traits of being human — ingrained in our genetic code ever since Monkey A and Monkey B realised clubbing Monkey C to death meant they got his share of the bananas.
Up until this point, if you held niche interests or off-kilter views, you were limited to the audience in your own small corner of the internet. People realised though, that they could hop onto these consumer platforms and turn one of their compartmentalized interests into a lifestyle that paid.
They left the sweaty, warehouse raves of their private online forums and indulged in the cocaine & caviar Big Tech had to offer.
A propensity to over share wasn’t just encouraged, it was financially rewarded — and thus, the influencer was born. It took off, and for good reason; these individuals were kings in their own kingdom and, as uncomfortable as it was, at least there was a degree of authenticity to it. We all kinda ‘vibed’ with it. Live your own truth, etc. etc.
More and more people wanted in though. It wasn’t enough to just do your own thing anymore. There were thousands of other schmucks doing exactly your thing too. You needed to stand out.
And the rest, as they say, is history. This is where we find ourselves.
We’re in the post-modern age of digitalism.
The paradigm has reversed and the pursuit of highly diversified, individual taste defines pop-culture. Everyone’s virtue signalling with performative activism, social media hive-minds are ‘cancelling’ people, self-proclaimed reddit autists are savaging Wall Street hedge funds — and the memes. The memes have gotten so esoteric it makes you really wonder if ‘the culture’ has any space left to grow.
Polarization is at an all time high and extremism in all forms is the most popular thing on the menu. I’m not just talking extremist politics; the cultural expectation is to be a woke, no-days off entrepreneur who is mindful to the point of being completely at one with themselves, whilst simultaneously being edgy enough to make light of depression — but still comfortable in their own skin, preferably with the athleticism to choreography a TikTok dance.
It’s all just bloody exhausting.
Profiteering off of this expectation has been a thing for decades — in the realm of Marketing, ‘be a better you’ is the conceptual equivalent to the discovery of fire.
But having it live-streamed 24/7 direct to your brain via a black mirror of your choosing is causing society to come off the rails in a very real, very dangerous way.
Being constantly fed the message that you’re simply not rich, good looking, educated or athletic enough to be a valid member of society is destroying our individual sense of worth. This isn’t a hot take, but I think it’s worth drawing attention to how late-stage everything feels.
They say there’s hope, that GenZ gets it.
“facebook? It’s for my grandparents — and who even uses Instagram anymore?”
I don’t know if it’s just my old-man millennial algorithm, but when I go on TikTok I see the same kinds of problematic content which are only exacerbating the issue.
The GenZ’ers are certainly shaking things up; the climate crisis and income gap have never been more publicized. But no generation is exempt from an unfortunate mass of individuals who will pick the easy route of blaming big business, the government, immigrants and poor people — in no particular order.
What’s the answer you may ask? I don’t know; that’s the whole point. I’m not one of the thousands of online self-help gurus purporting to have the spiritual key to awakening.
What I will say is this.
True authenticity is the endgame for individualism. Performative belief and token activism just don’t cut it anymore. I used to scoff at the term woke until I realised that, yeah, maybe the world would be a better place if we all just took a moment to examine how unfair everything really is. I’m not perfect, not even close — and I don’t do nearly enough to rectify the misgivings of our capitalistic, white-supremacist society which has benefitted me so much.
But the first step is educating yourself. Not motivated by some self-serving, ego-driven notion of being more well read, the most woke or just plain ‘better’ than anyone — but to the end of building as broad a range as possible of authentic, deeply human empathy for your fellow man.
“If you question your assumptions, you may find better reasons for holding them.
Or you might find that you’re wrong.”