Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My wonderful virtual life

The cost of fame is dropping everyday, along with the price of bandwidth and network storage. But when everyone is famous, is it worth anything to be so? If you have to ask this question, then you know that you're just too old to get it, because the Millennial generation has grown up with the attitute of putting it all out there for everyone to see:

Yeah, I am naked on the Internet,” says Kitty Ostapowicz, laughing. “But I’ve always said I wouldn’t ever put up anything I wouldn’t want my mother to see.”

She hands me a Bud Lite. Kitty, 26, is a bartender at Kabin in the East Village, and she is frankly adorable, with bright-red hair, a button nose, and pretty features. She knows it, too: Kitty tells me that she used to participate in “ratings communities,” like “nonuglies,” where people would post photos to be judged by strangers. She has a MySpace page and a Livejournal. And she tells me that the Internet brought her to New York, when a friend she met in a chat room introduced her to his Website, which linked to his friends, one of whom was a photographer. Kitty posed for that photographer in Buffalo, where she grew up, then followed him to New York. “Pretty much just wanted a change,” she says. “A drastic, drastic change.”

Her Livejournal has gotten less personal over time, she tells me. At first it was “just a lot of day-to-day bullshit, quizzes and stuff,” but now she tries to “keep it concise to important events.” When I ask her how she thinks she’ll feel at 35, when her postings are a Google search away, she’s okay with that. “I’ll be proud!” she says. “It’s a documentation of my youth, in a way. Even if it’s just me, going back and Googling myself in 25 or 30 years. It’s my self—what I used to be, what I used to do.”

We settle up and I go home to search for Kitty’s profile. I’m expecting tame stuff: updates to friends, plus those blurry nudes. But, as it turns out, the photos we talked about (artistic shots of Kitty in bed or, in one picture, in a snowdrift, wearing stilettos) are the least revelatory thing I find. In posts tracing back to college, her story scrolls down my screen in raw and affecting detail: the death of her parents, her breakups, her insecurities, her ambitions. There are photos, but they are candid and unstylized, like a close-up of a tattoo of a butterfly, adjacent (explains the caption) to a bruise she got by bumping into the cash register. A recent entry encourages posters to share stories of sexual assault anonymously.

Some posts read like diary entries: “My period is way late, and I haven’t been laid in months, so I don’t know what the fuck is up.” There are bar anecdotes: “I had a weird guy last night come into work and tell me all about how if I were in the South Bronx, I’d be raped if I were lucky. It was totally unprovoked, and he told me all about my stupid generation and how he fought in Vietnam, and how today’s Navy and Marines are a bunch of pussies.” But the roughest material comes in her early posts, where she struggles with losing her parents. “I lost her four years ago today. A few hours ago to be precise,” she writes. “What may well be the worst day of my life.”

Talking to her the night before, I had liked Kitty: She was warm and funny and humble, despite the “nonuglies” business. But reading her Livejournal, I feel thrown off. Some of it makes me wince. Much of it is witty and insightful. Mainly, I feel bizarrely protective of her, someone I’ve met once—she seems so exposed. And that feeling makes me feel very, very old.

Because the truth is, at 26, Kitty is herself an old lady, in Internet terms. She left her teens several years before the revolution began in earnest: the forest of arms waving cell-phone cameras at concerts, the MySpace pages blinking pink neon revelations, Xanga and Sconex and YouTube and and Flickr and Facebook and and Wikipedia and especially, the ordinary, endless stream of daily documentation that is built into the life of anyone growing up today. You can see the evidence everywhere, from the rural 15-year-old who records videos for thousands of subscribers to the NYU students texting come-ons from beneath the bar. Even 9-year-olds have their own site, Club Penguin, to play games and plan parties. The change has rippled through pretty much every act of growing up. Go through your first big breakup and you may need to change your status on Facebook from “In a relationship” to “Single.” Everyone will see it on your “feed,” including your ex, and that’s part of the point.

I'm not sure whether to be shocked and appalled or bored to tears. The conventional wisdom would counsel fear over the ever-shrinking privacy zone, but to be honest privacy was never much a luxury that the common man could afford. Rural town life offered none of it. Even with the relative autonomy that urban life offered to industrialized workers, an employer took it upon himself to know everything about his workers that he thought necessary to judge their character, from their marital situation, religion and worship habits, their politics and preferences in beverages.

I actually see this passion for putting it all on the internet as a sign that we now have too much privacy. We're more isolated than before, living in smaller, and fragmented family structures or alone. Our fellow employees may never see us in their neighborhood or church or even know if we belong to one. Houses are so far apart that the neighborhood snoop can't even tell if we are home half the time. People seem desperate just to get other people to witness the daily humdrum events of their lives. The internet isn't invading our privacy so much as we are invading it with our own need for recognigion.

I don't know if this is a good or a bad thing, or just a different thing. I grew up in a crowded household with 5 siblings and I craved solitude. I would stand in the backyard at night staring at the stars, even in winter, just to be alone for a short while. I can't imagine enjoying the forced familiarity of small-town life or some collectivized community. For people like me the modern, autonomous information age lifestyle offers the best of two worlds - the sense of space and privacy that I crave and the easy conviviality of the internet where I can pick and choose my acquaintances according to my own tastes.

Of course not everyone is as introverted as me, and the rise of autonomy does not sit as easily with the more communitarian minded. Internet communities won't replace the authenticity of small town life, but I think most of us will manage well enough.


Blogger Oroborous said...

Great post !

I think that you pretty much nailed it.

As to whether it's still worth anything to be famous, the answer is yes, of course.

It's a fallacy to assume that in the future everyone will be famous, just because it's easier now to be so, at least for the cliched "15 minutes". There are many, many, many people, probably most people, who aren't attractive/witty/weird enough to achieve even modest and fleeting fame, easy or not.

It's like being rich. It's pretty easy to become rich in America, (all it takes is discipline, time, and avoiding ill fortune), but only maybe 4% of U.S. households actually manage to reach a net worth of $ 1MM or more.

(Which assumes, of course, that one million U.S. dollars qualifies one to be "rich" in America, which some would dispute, but I am of the opinion that it's still a significant milestone. Further, estimates of exactly how many millionaire households there are in America vary WIDELY, from 2 - 10 million).

February 15, 2007 2:09 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


but to be honest privacy was never much a luxury that the common man could afford.


Our fellow employees may never see us in their neighborhood or church or even know if we belong to one. Houses are so far apart that the neighborhood snoop can't even tell if we are home half the time.


In my previous job, I had no idea what my co-workers lives were like, in virtually any respect, outside the office.

It would be interesting to see a gender breakdown of this virtual life sort of thing. Just as girls are far more likely to keep diaries, I would place a wager that girls are also overrepresented here, too.

February 16, 2007 6:30 AM  

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