An Internet With No Walls

Exchanging privacy for intimacy in the new desolation

Internet With
No WallsI narrowly avoided a massive and clownish spill onto my face -- a journalistic pitfall, one of failing to distinguish between that which I have yet to understand and that which is irredeemably evil. I was off and away, thousands of words into it -- lamenting the post-Chatroulette, filthy and depraved ... Internet culture. You know the place I mean -- where there are no boundaries left. Just as there were "no rhythms" in jazz, and "no melody" in rock 'n' roll.

Journalists, in what we might now rightly term "old media," traditionally upheld the mask of the observer. Always above, faintly superior, baffled -- yet never entirely identifying with the actual condition of being people -- needing elemental things like human intimacy.

It was in this fundamental (unconscious) posture that I set out to write this piece, about other people. I believed that everybody else understood the new groove, and I alone did not.

The new wilderness -- no boundaries, sex everywhere, random connections, always obliterated the moment they are formed. It was merely a very seedy neighborhood I didn't want to visit.

Have you heard what goes on there, Martha?

Off I went, with my butterfly net and Anglican morals, into the jungle. My mandate, my question mark, was to explore the post-Chatroulette universe, where there are no walls left. What happens to privacy, decorum, identity, ethics, when voyeurism and exhibitionism take over? There seems to be nothing, however private or bizarre, that people won't do on TV or online. That part we know, and I don't need to bore you with it as if you come from outer space. But why, in an evolutionary sense, is all this happening?

Locked inside my apartment for days on end, I surfed, took notes, and descended into the brave new worlds of unbridled strangeness. I clickety-clacked around the Web and found all kinds of horrors of exhibitionism -- an entire Web site devoted to webcams filming naked college girls peeing into glass jars ("2girls1jar") and all that kind of thing. I was perfectly and adroitly horrified. But was pornography the story? That's an old story, certainly not a new one.

I thought hard about how best to address the sense of slime and squalor in an authoritative manner while obeying the Internet godhead which tells us we must always invoke what freedom it has accorded us, before we say anything overly paranoid, dystopic, or despairing. Such tones suggest we might be one of the people who, God forbid, don't get the Internet. And I was one of those people.

At the end of thousands of increasingly paranoid words, reams of McLuhan quotes (I even quoted Rudolf Steiner's dark warnings about the Ahrimanic onslaught, via electromagnetism) -- I threw it all out. I started over.

Wish You Were Here
The enfant terrible, and subject of endless speculation about the new vanguard of the Internet, is the explosively popular, hyped and denounced Chatroulette -- not your grandmother's Internet. Chatroulette has taken on its own mythology. The minimalist, no hassle, three-button interface (famously coded in three straight nights by then 17-year-old Russian Andrey Ternovskiy), which randomizes webcam encounters between millions of people around the world.

Though the seemingly guileless, lonely, and attention-challenged Ternovskiy started it with purer intentions, Chatroulette has become a media poster child for rampant masturbation and exhibitionism. After denunciations from everybody from Ashton Kutcher, whose stepdaughters encountered unspeakable things at the site, to Jon Stewart, who mocked and pilloried it on his show -- Ternovskiy and his new investors built in protections. From now on, the site warned, you would be banned forever if you did anything sexually explicit uninvited or unwanted.

But the damage had been done. Chatroulette found defenders in some unlikely places, and a piece ran in The New York Times with the dead-on headline "Strangers in the Net," which quoted expert social media scholars telling us all why the site has redeeming value and is not just about masturbation (literal or otherwise).

"What we found was that the media hype about Chatroulette mischaracterized it, and made all the masturbation the focal point," says Tim Hwang, director of the Web Ecology project, and coauthor of a 2010 study on Chatroulette. Hwang's work explores technology and its social impact, and how the design of online spaces can lead to changes in behavior. The data collected in the short study belied the notion that masturbation was more important than old-fashioned talking. "We found that a majority of people really just were there to talk to one another, with no exhibitionism involved."

"Chatroulette is a really novel form of communication, what we call a probabilistic community, unlike say, Facebook," Hwang says. "It revolves around randomness, a totally random experience online. It can be very creative. But it's not about building identity, or lasting relationships, at all. It's about breaking out of boundaries."

The March 2010 Web Ecology report defined a "proababilistic community" as "a community shaped by a platform which mediates the encounters between its users by eliminating lasting connections between them."

Hwang calls this "the edge" experience of the Internet, as opposed to a forum like Facebook, which is, by comparison, as safe, ordered, and predictable as a family Easter gathering. "At Facebook, at LinkedIn, at most of the major stations online, you know exactly what to expect, what will happen," Hwang explains. "It's reliable and ordered. Chatroulette subverts and defeats much of what we take for granted on the Internet. It's about an experience in the moment. A non- social social network. You can do things there that are totally unacceptable in the rest of society, like click next without saying goodbye and without giving or receiving offense."

Hwang's study found that only about 8 percent of participants in Chatroulette tend toward exhibitionism or masturbation, and reassures us that "as users become more acquainted with the system, we predict a decrease in explicit content, an increase in the consolidation of content genres, and an increase in the formation of celebrity figures."

When I first got on the phone with Hwang, I heard myself saying things that sounded distinctly like the things older generations tended to say when jazz came along, or rock 'n' roll. Surely, this is terrible. Surely this does not bode well for ... x, y and z values we all cherish.

He was patient, but I detected -- could hear -- the lag, the lack of snap, the un-dropped penny -- in what I was saying.

The Kids Are Alright
"I think we're in a transition phase, like the early stages of feminism, and nobody knows what's going on," says Dean Esmay, host of a general interest blog, Dean's World. (I am a guest contributor there.) "Nobody can figure out where the boundaries are supposed to be, and so you have these crazy experimenters pushing the boundaries, and then other people saying 'I want nothing to do with any of this, not even email.'"

What remains of "the media" as we knew it, (a priesthood designated to worry about the souls of the masses) always asks big questions it can never answer, in the age of the almighty question mark.

Are these technologies changing us? we ask, since Marshall McLuhan told us decades ago that the medium is the message, and that the tools we shape later shape us.

What did it mean, then, that "we" just made a tool -- Chatroulette -- that allows all peoples of the world to chat, but one in eight "spins" (according to Wikipedia) yields "a penis or other possibly objectionable object."

It means we're lonely. Spiritually and emotionally desperate. It means we have been locked in, locked up, kept out, kept apart. And a kid in Moscow in 2009 figured out how to tear down the fence. It means -- I think -- that even in an age of economic catastrophe, there is one commodity left that constitutes the new gold. Connecting people back to one another, one tiny sliver at a time. It makes perfect sense that investors are chasing young Andrey Ternovskiy, and he is not overly keen or interested. As he keeps telling the media, he just thought it up and started coding it in his bedroom one night, because he was interested in meeting people from other cultures. He coded a medium that more or less goes against every conventional definition of media as we know it. Media has walls. Media keeps people out, or at least sorts them very carefully. You have to see the deep mystical humor in all this - the kids-are-alright element. The joke.

The concept of "privacy" started to break up on me, the more I tinkered with it. I looked at McLuhan's tetrad diagrams for any new medium, and thought about the entirety of online social media as one: What do they enhance, render obsolete, retrieve, and reverse?

Media do not simply take away, naturally, that is what McLuhan was on about. They enhance and rob in equal measure. That's the good news. I caught myself denouncing Chatroulette without having tried it out for myself. I 'knew' it would be gross, alienating, depressing, etc., and also, I have always dreaded webcams. But then came the paradox, some kind of McLuhan-ish head-scratcher. All of that possibly being true -- my sense of boundaries and sanity might be obsolesced -- but at the same time, maybe something, in equal proportion, would be enhanced.

I removed the piece of paper I normally block my webcam with, and went to the site and clicked "enable."

I heard a nice little futuristic sounding series of connecting bells that went plink, plink, and there I was, tossed in. Or out, rather. It was strange and altogether extraordinary. It moved so fast, lifted me out of linear, binary time and space. More like a form of travel, or astral projection. This medium is not "about" communicating. It's "about" the complete collapse of the space between people. Everybody has a stunned look on their face. It's quiet. It's like a secret you're all in on together.

And yes there were many penises and crotches and obscene signs about ejaculations into apple pie, and whatnot. But because of the medium itself -- the proximity and the next button -- it somehow does not matter.

The masturbation did not seem to fit Mr. Hwang's 8 percent statistic. It was pretty rampant, but it was not menacing, or even personal. "Play with me," begged one young man, whose face I couldn't see, only his hand rubbing his unbuttoned jeans. And I thought about the word "play," and paused a little, before clicking "next." I wanted to explain myself and say something like, "I can't. I'm really sorry."

One very good-looking, shirtless, chain-smoking man from Greece appeared, and I stayed with him a while. When asked, he said he was 42, which was a relief, and he explained that his shirt was off because of the extremely hot weather in Greece. We chatted a little -- he mostly in Greek, me in English. After a few minutes, I told him I had to go to work. We waved at each other, and smiled. He typed "Goodbye beautiful." It was left to me to hit "next." I felt slightly sad when he vanished. We had a little fleeting moment. After that I logged off. I felt I had come to understand Chatroulette and it had come to help me understand myself. And there's the message of the medium. The relief. The thing that is enhanced rather than simply taken away.

You are part of it, shaping and making it as you go. It will allow you to push through it like water - it is no more imprinted, dictated, or inherently menacing than water. It is a medium that becomes whatever you bring to it -- it actually responds and adapts to you. Kind of like the extreme opposite of, say, The New York Times. Or, you might say, kind of like "real life."

Far from depravity alone, I discovered that innocence and yearning dwell there -- innocence and yearning at a greater density than we allow ourselves to see, or show, in the "real world" (a term, which, according to contemporary form, I have begun to place inside quotation marks). We can't speak of a "real world," anymore, without incorporating the things that are actually in that world -- including all its technologies, and how we feel about them.

You Shout, and Everyone Seems To Hear This is the age of isolation and information. But as surely as we will continue to be isolated, we will continue to answer that isolation with increasingly desperate and inventive measures. People don't change -- media do.

The one thing you might say we all (or almost all) have in common, pretty much, is despair, stemming from disconnectedness. We are seeking warmth, in any form, comfort, however it is offered. Distraction, at any cost. And it's easy to get dismissive about all the ways that other people choose to cope. It's easy to mock, and much harder to understand, because we don't really want to see ourselves in the quiet desperation of others.

I vaguely recalled what Russian artist Lucien Dulfan said to me in the 1990s, during an interview, and miraculously found his quotes still in my filing cabinet.

"A lot of Hollywood movie is beauty without smell, very puritan. But public access channels, amateur movies, this is a cry. Human story. Absolutely vulgar. Very tragic. Very interesting."

Here's what the money guys will try to do, and eventually succeed: Sell back intimacy to the isolated modern masses with a new, all-enveloping, everlasting, electronic condom. Try to control creativity and freedom. Try to keep people feeling that they are in a tank, and it has walls, and they're inside those walls, and they will always be fed.

They will induce people to forget that intimacy, or sex, or "meeting people," was ever something one did without electronic mediation. It's an ancient formula: Take something crucial away from people and then sell it back to them. What's valuable now is not privacy, like the cognoscenti believe, but rather, any and all means of being seen, heard, touched, and re-connected to others. He may not have known it, but that is what Ternovskiy understood, intuitively. He coded his way out of his own isolation, for his generation, who were being offered essentially nothing in the baby boomer media world. They were invisible and casteless. "I always believed that the computer might be that thing that I only need, that I only need that thing to survive," he told The New Yorker. "It might replace everything."

"I'm not worried about content," says editor and publisher Bob Guccione Jr. "People should be able to make choices for themselves, and nobody should decide their morality. But what does stun me about the present moment is the voluntary abdication of privacy. We used to treasure our privacy and place a high premium on it. Today people blog about who they're sleeping with. At the end of the day we do need social boundaries. We can't measure things without boundaries." "I would counter he should be less surprised," says Esmay.

"There are millions of people out there who want less privacy, and who never wanted privacy to begin with. What they want is attention. That's the currency. They hated celebrities, because they got all the attention, and they wanted that themselves, to build identity. Internet exhibitionism, if that's what we insist on calling it, has been a kind of answer for all the people who used to feel completely isolated and starving for attention."

After quoting a Roger Waters lyric from Dark Side of The Moon, ("You shout, but no one seems to hear,") Esmay says, "It's a class thing, like rock 'n' roll was, too. Roger Waters came out of a working-class environment. The old media was run by the upper classes. Now we have this period of total upheaval, and nobody knows where it's really heading."

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