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Along with that immensity comes a kind of futility. Nearly every good idea I’ve had in the past six months has already been a Kickstarter campaign. Rule 34 states that if you can imagine it, there is porn of it. Most jokes have already been made, by people with more Twitter followers than you, and for every subject from Cezanne to C-sections there’s somebody out there who knows more than you ever could, and who’s happy to lord it over you in a forum thread.
So what’s the point? In a 2008 interview with Gene McHugh, Internet spiritualist/net artist Kevin Bewersdorf got real: “Having your own website is like building an unnecessary shrine to yourself. We can try to deny this by convincing ourselves that what we are doing is somehow a selfless gift, but the web has not asked us for these gifts. The web would go on without us.” He’s not a hypocrite, either: in early 2009, he began a project to remove his work from the Internet entirely, replacing it with a single icon that slowly, over the course of three years, diminished into nothing at all. And the web has gone on without Kevin Bewerdorf, the net artist, just as life will someday go on without Kevin Bewersdorf, the person.
Other artists have noted the futility, but struggled against it; in art as in life, it’s the phrasing and motivation of the struggle that make it interesting. In an achingly poetic essay, artist Robert Lorayn has compared the Internet to a desert: still a sea, but a sand sea, with all the slow accumulation and erosion that entails. To share with the desert is to pour his water out onto it, endangering himself for no obvious reward. At times, it seems as though he might have the chance to build something real, to live in the Internet-as-city, with meaningful relationships and meaningful actions; soon, though, Lorayn finds that this is only a mirage, propped up by the castaway images of his friends and family. He gives to the desert so that the drying drops of his public persona can meet, for a second, the tiny arroyos left by the outpourings of his friends. It’s an essay to make you quit Facebook altogether.
There’s yet another edge to the internet’s futility, though: our own complicity. If we share without purpose, we also ignore each other’s sharing on a vast scale. Catfuckers.com came at the expense of some other, perhaps more worthy, webpage; Lorayn’s essay took time I might have spent reading something else. It’s not only sharing that takes from us without reward, but also reading, and the problem can’t be solved from either end.
Suddenly, we’re less like Internet Buddhists and more like Internet Catholics, in dire need of absolution. Like Catholics, we must start from admitting our sins, admitting the immensity not only of what we might do but of what we fail to do. If you don’t have an internet priest handy, I suggest Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano’s artwork Blind Mist. It displays images at random, from a list generated by users; each one is shown for three or four seconds, and then pushed down the page by the next image. At any point, you can click on an image to go to its source; if you don’t, it’s pushed out of view, and your chance is gone. There are no scrollbars.