Digitally Cocooning Ourselves

digital cocoon

I spend a lot of time on the Net. If my mother were still alive she might be a little concerned. “Go outside and get some fresh air” she would probably say. I still remember hearing those exact words as she made numerous futile attempts to pry my brother and I from our beloved Intellivision console.
I read dozens of blogs on a regular basis each week and I’m a fairly avid commenter—I think I’ve even got a Disqus profile, although I don’t recall ever creating it. I try, depending on my workload, to publish 3 to 5 posts each month myself. I’m also on the usual revolving list of social networks like most other people.

If there’s one thing I genuinely love about the Net it would have to be that it’s really, really eclectic.

You don’t have to go looking very far to find a broad range of ideas and opinions on every conceivable subject. Of course it goes without saying, there’s something for everyone—every taste, niche interest, political viewpoint, ideological perspective, cultural or spiritual belief—from mainstream to the über obscure.

But some of us don’t necessarily gravitate towards the open expansiveness offered by the Net. In fact it’s become quite fashionable (and easy), through a range of tools and technologies, to filter basically everything we consume, create, or interact with online and focus our attention into a narrow stream of influence.

When did this tendency to ruthlessly filter all the things on our computer screens start? Back with email spam?
We can now effectively silence the Net’s rich diversity of information and ideas by focusing solely on the content we “like”. It could start by visiting the same 2 or 3 news sites every day or reading only the columnists who share our political sensibilities; associating only with our Facebook friends; following only the sports or listening to the bands we already know.
Personally, I haven’t the slightest clue why someone would want to set up an iGoogle start page and arbitrarily restrict the Net down to a few select information feeds when so many interesting Web sites await discovery.

Comfortably Numb
Doesn’t it feel like you’re sometimes in a rut online? Maybe Google works too well. The mobile apps we use have possibly become a little too precise. What ever happened to serendipity? Has cultural engagement been assimilated by algorithmic culture? If you’re not always looking for the most obvious result then go ahead and try another search engine. Visit sites you’ve never been to before. If you’re into digital technology try reading independent blogs instead of Mashable, TechCrunch, or Gizmodo; Pop culture, read something other than Huffington Post, Gawker, or BuzzFeed. Bet you can’t avoid at least a few sites on Technorati’s Top 100 though.

You could say some of us have begun digitally cocooning ourselves. If this were a dystopian science-fiction thriller our main characters would only be exposed to a limited set of information sources; interact only with people, ideas, and streams of content deemed appropriate by their peers and the draconian network administrators pulling the strings.
Thankfully the Net is adequately decentralized enough at the moment to prevent such a scenario from ever occurring.

Last week I came across another one of those 5-people-or-things-to-avoid-online-esque blog posts. By the way, these listicle style posts are just nauseatingly written and carry the assumption we’re all too pressed for time to actually do any real reading on our devices. (Funny thing, I was once lauded by a colleague for writing a “long-form” blog, as though it were some sort of nostalgic ode to the pre-digital age of publishing when everything was analog, but I digress). Instead, the popular notion is that brevity reigns supreme on the Net. People like Nicholas Carr suggest we’re skimming articles and only absorbing select fragments of information, sorry, but I again digress.

There are countless so-called experts in social media land preaching to us who and what to avoid on the Net so our experience is “optimized”. No thanks. I love the raw unfiltered discussions and sometimes bizarre random left-field stuff people do and say online.

It’s almost too easy to avoid things we find disagreeable on the Net. Delete, block, unfriend, unfollow, unsubscribe, blacklist.
I have this tool on my site’s control panel called Spam Assassin and it’s just scary how much stuff this app will block. If you’re not careful, messages from real, live people not trying to sell you something will get sent to the trash bin never to be read by human eyes.

While tools like Akismet are rather indispensable, taken to extremes, overzealous “preference” filters can lead to an unnecessarily insular digital existence where we consume and interact ONLY with the things we find fit our specific tastes, social profiles, and criteria for sharing. But go ahead, filter and block away if you feel so compelled. Just realize what you could be missing.