Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ego Monsters of the Web

By Michael Kinsley
The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 28, 2006; Page A19

The first person I knew who had a Web site of his own was a fellow Washington journalist. This was when many journalists were still just getting into e-mail, but the URL for this Web site quickly circulated around town and around the world. Why? Well, we were all impressed by the technological savvy. But we were absolutely astounded by the solipsism. What on earth had gotten into Joe (not his real name)? This was a modest, soft-spoken and self-effacing fellow, yet his Web site portrayed him as an egotistical monster.

Or so it seemed at the time. All of the elements that struck us as obnoxious maybe eight years ago no longer seem that way. In fact, they are now virtually required for any writer's Web site. The Web address, of course, was his name: JoeJournalist.com. It's hard to recapture why even that seemed pretentious. But it did. Then there was his deadpan list of books he'd written and awards he'd won. And quotes from other journalists about how wonderful he is. It all seemed totally out of character and terribly immodest. Poor Joe! Had the World Wide Web driven him crazy?

If so, we are all crazy now. There is something about the Web that brings out the ego monster in everybody. It's not just the well-established tendency to be nasty. When you write for the Web, you open yourself up to breathtakingly vicious vitriol. People wish things on your mother, simply for bearing you, that you wouldn't wish on Hitler.

But even in their quieter modes, denizens of the Web seem to lug around huge egos and deeply questionable assumptions about how interesting they and their lives might be to others.
This is strange. Anonymity, for better or for worse, is supposed to be one of the signature qualities of the Web. As that dog in the New Yorker cartoon says, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." The Internet is a place where you can interact with other people and have complete control over how much they know about you. Or supposedly that is the case, and virtually everybody on the Internet is committed to achieving that goal.

But anonymity does not actually seem to interest many of the Web's most devoted users. They are the ones who start their own sites or sign up for MySpace or submit videos to YouTube.

Indeed, the most successful Web sites seem to be those where people can abandon anonymity and use the Internet to stake their claims as unique individuals. Here is a list of my friends. Here are all the CDs in my collection. Here is a picture of my dog. On the Internet, not only does everybody know that you're a dog, everybody knows what kind of dog, how old, your taste in collars, your favorite dog food recipe and so on.

Social networking sites such as MySpace (for which Rupert Murdoch paid $580 million last year) are vast celebrations of solipsism. "My interests are music, girls, sports, clothes, cars and oo did i forget to mention girls," writes Lex, a featured member of MySpace.com, whose page I wandered onto a couple of days ago. Charming, though slightly less so when it develops that Lex is 23 and includes a picture of his wife.

Or is this blond babe really his wife? Sure, you can live a fantasy life on the Web, reinventing yourself at will. But the vast majority of people on these social networking sites are revealing themselves as honestly as they can.

There's an element of amiable self-parody about a lot of this that makes it bearable. Or is there? It's hard to tell. Surfing aimlessly, I stumbled upon a Web page that describes itself as "The definitive site for finding out 'What is Doug Doing?' " Doug himself writes: "So I know what you all are thinking . . . Doug never updates this!" Doug seems genuinely apologetic about not keeping us up to date on the minutiae of his life. For myself, I'm worried sick that the grad course and two music history courses Doug is taking this semester, which he says are driving him "a little crazy," may not leave him enough time to keep the page totally current. Remember your priorities, Doug, and don't let school get in the way of maintaining your Web site.

For the ultimate in solipsism, check out Twitter.com, a site where -- once you register -- you can answer the question "What are you doing?" At 7:47 am on Monday, for example, Lynda was going to get a glass of cold water.

This raises more questions than it answers. Did she get it? Was it cold enough? Tragically, we'll never know until someone starts a site about what you were doing before what you're doing now. Or possibly an interactive site about what you are going to do next after you finish doing what you're doing now. There could be multiple options. People could vote. Hey, someone call Google. We're rich!