mass-observation and the internet

An excellent article in the New Yorker recounts that in the U.K., in the thirties, there was a mini-movement called the “Mass-Observation” experiment. Members gathered as much detail about the lives of everyday people as they could, and synthesized it into a series of books (sample details: when a train goes through a tunnel at least one person per car will make loud animal noises in the darkness, most people tap the filter end of a cigarette before lighting it, many women had fantasies of torturing Hitler to death, and in Blackpool on a given night there were an average of four outdoor copulations). The catalyst came from the concurrent Surrealist trope in art; Surrealism attempted to give access to the hidden and primitive sides of ourselves (normally hidden away by our need to adhere to socialized reality) through accident, automatic writing, and exploring the unconscious. Beneath the polite exterior of social niceties there is a chthonic underworld that contains our real fears, dreams, and needs. For the Mass-Observers, this world could be accessed by simply recording what people actually did in their lives and gathering the details together into a “people’s poetry.”

This historical quirk was a direct prequel to the phenomenon of authentic media (or participatory media, or [shudder] user generated content), the realization of what could only be hinted at back then. It’s goal and value, to know ourselves better through the aggregated stuff of our everyday needs and desires, is the best rationale for blogs and sites like MySpace, Flickr, Yahoo! Answers, etc. Despite the headlong rush to treat these applications exclusively as a business model, it’s worth remembering that as they become part of people’s lives they will be creating a more and more authentic picture of what people are really like, in all their neediness, beauty, nastiness, ingenuity, anxiety, stupidity, sweetness, laziness, and practicality. It’s not happening yet (and probably won’t happen in this mini-boom), but it will happen, and it is the best reason for the Internet.

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