What’s Happening To Us?
I’ve refrained from talking about Pinterest and all the remarks around Pinterest “clones” out there because I don’t want to deal with those who will race to call me biased given my role at BO.LT. But — I can’t sleep so I might as well get these thoughts down.
Let me say right now, this piece isn’t really about Pinterest or BO.LT or copyright or companies that look like Pinterest. It’s about the way we react to things, and how eager we are to be the one to speak first instead of being the first to speak thoughtfully. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I see the backlash against Jonathan Franzen for his remarks about Twitter, and it’s easy to jump on the #JonathanFranzenHates bandwagon because there’s momentum. I may not agree with how he says things (because I find it alienating and polarizing, but really that’s more his problem than anyone else’s, and if he doesn’t see it as a problem, why do we care? But I digress…) — still, I have to admit I can empathize with the essence of what he says. Or rather, I fear it.
I fear we have made it so easy to fall into action that we have lost the ability to choose not to act. I wonder if we even ask ourselves why we feel or act in a particular way before jotting off a snappy 140-character retort. Like, why does it bother me that Jonathan Franzen says “[Twitter's] the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.” Well, it’s probably because I feel defensive about my own perception. Will you think I’m not a serious reader or writer because I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Foursquare and Highlight and Path and and and…? I don’t think I want to be one of Franzen’s people…but shit, maybe I secretly do? And suddenly it’s about me, not about him, and I’m glad I can recognize that before tweeting something full of witty brilliance about what #JonathanFranzenHates.
In the startup world, we’ve gone giddy for concepts like lean startup and minimum viable product. Yes, you need to get shit out the door. I get that as much as the next person. But, in execution, it looks more like I don’t know what we’re supposed to do but holy fuck let’s go do something now and we’ll figure out the next step in 2 days, rather than, I’ve thought about the problem and while we don’t have all the data, this is the plan I want to follow for the next 2 months.
I digress and digress and digress. Okay, let’s talk about Pinterest. They have a beautiful UI. I’m sure they were influenced by other objects and concepts in the physical and digital worlds, but that doesn’t matter. They created it for themselves and they shared it with the rest of us. Other sites are now using that UI as a way to shape and display their content. The UI is not the product. The product is the product.
I’m going to talk about poetry because I think about nearly all things in terms of language as a way to make sense of it. There are many poetic forms out there, and it’s probably impossible to pinpoint who invented any of them. And I would bet that whoever invented the sonnet or the ghazal or the pantoum didn’t think they owned it, nor would they have wanted to. Language is for the people. And when I say language, I also mean paint, and fabric, and food and clay and whatever building block pleases you and fills you with joy. Even CSS, as it may be.
If anyone thinks Elizabeth Bishop ripped off whoever first “invented” the villanelle when she wrote One Art, I will punch them in the face. Anything that can do for people what that poem does is free from human pettiness, or should be. And that’s the thing, isn’t it already more than we can hope for to create something brilliant that is inspired by something else brilliant, and share it with the world? And in return, could the world not be full of haters who are more interested in snark than praise?
Okay, let’s get meta. I read recently that over 80% of the content on Pinterest was repins. EIGHTY PERCENT. Staggering, and yet it makes sense. We have distilled the internet to be one click. One click to buy, to like, to copy. We do this knowingly, happily, intentionally. As a product person, I think all the time about instant gratification. Greasing every single action so it’s easier to stick with us than to leave. But what the hell are we doing to humanity in the process?
Are we supposed to try to create products that make you think before acting? I’m seriously asking the question. I suspect that is the wrong solution, simply because nobody would use or buy it so what’s the point, but I raise the question because I think it’s our collective problem. By our, I mean you and me and the rest of the human race. I worry we’re losing (or running away from) the ability to think critically and tenderly about a problem. Underscore tenderly, as in gently, with empathy, with a lot of fucking heart. For better or worse, this is the shit that keeps me up at night. How will it get better? Are we magically going to turn away from Farmville and Facebook and Twitter and sit somewhere quiet to think about a complex problem that doesn’t have an immediate solution? I confess I started reading Marilynne Robinson’s essay in Guernica a few days ago and found it so taxing on my brain that I had to save it for later. I don’t know if I’ll return to it. I don’t particularly want to, it wasn’t satisfying to not just get it in the way that I totally get this tweet: “How about book ppl stop talking abt #JonathanFranzenhates & discuss something important, like the top 12 author beards.” And yet I think it’s important (no, vital!) that we return to the things we don’t understand until we can understand them just a tiny bit more.
Back to Pinterest and repins. Can anyone appreciate the meta-ness of the site that is getting copied being essentially a big bucket of copies? I mean, this is what humans do. We advance because we build on top of work that other people did. There is an undeniable beauty to feeling as if you’ve created something by retweeting, retumbling, repinning, and yes, even rebolting. Curation is a valid form of expression. But, not to state the obvious, we all know it wasn’t invented for or by the internet, right? (I wonder how art curators feel about how the word curation has been snatched from their delicate, discriminating fingers.) To take this argument one step further, 99.9999% of us have not and will never create anything from scratch. It’s simply impossible, and that’s a beautiful thing. We have so much that’s been created to assist and inspire us already, so why are we still so attracted to own things and believe that we were the first and only person to ever think of such a masterpiece? It’s absurd and narcissistic. Great artists are falling all over themselves to name the people who helped them unlock another realm of creativity and possibility in their work. Why can’t those of us who are building something to sell act in kind?
Alright — what’s the point of writing this? I’m not sure, I just know I’m sick of all this noise that doesn’t matter, and I wonder why we all contribute to it. I have to believe I’m not the only person who’s had their fill of this vapor. It’s utterly valueless and I feel hollow thinking about it. Let’s just go create good things. Let’s be kind to each other. Or rather, step 1 — let’s not be unkind to each other. No, step 0 — ask yourself if what you’re about to do or say makes your life or anybody else’s better. If not, what’s the point? If not, go do something else. Or think about it for awhile, maybe even a long while. And then say and do and create meaningful things. Onward and upward.