Something happened on the internet today. A Facebook toy, called what-would-i-say.com, tore through my Facebook feed like a digital tsunami, sending out ripples that would vanish out on the horizons of my domain, into places I couldn’t see, on the feeds of people I’m several degrees of separation from, there to combine with ripples from other tsunamis out there in the Facebookosphere.
“Profé, coffee is what I think of something heavy like heaven.” -AllisonBot
It is a toy that selects random phrases from your Facebook activity and jams them together to create new statuses. The new statuses, since they’re combined from the tatters of previous posts, sound like the poster. Some of them make sense, some of them don’t. They range from the hilarious to the downright philosophical. It was fascinating. People stopped posting them as statuses and started posting them in comment threads, because they were embarrassed about how much they were posting, and junking up their friends’ feeds. One friend said he had to log out and remove the app from his Facebook account because otherwise he couldn’t stop clicking.
“An open letter from Frida Kahlo at Dakota Arts.” -AllisonBot
And I have to say, I understand completely. I myself spent an hour and a half generating new statuses and clicking over to Facebook to read what everyone else had generated. A good portion of my relatively young life wasted, on something that created zero new content.
So what was so fascinating about it?
“Also, thought you hold your hand out flat and akissing on you.” -AllisonBot
Superficially I would chalk it up to my friends themselves being bright, interesting, insightful, and hilarious people. When you cut up and rearrange the thoughts of someone who’s already smart and funny, the result is bound to be either interesting or hilarious at least part of the time. I think there’s something more to it than that, though.
As I was clicking the “Generate” button, over and over, waiting for something good to come up, a thought came to me.
This thing could probably replace me on Facebook and nobody would notice.
“Yesterday I saw a strange madness. Concord grapes, ninetyeight cent pomegranates, persimmons, and some rain.” -AllisonBot
It was not a thought that was forlorn or weighted with loathing. It was accompanied by a sense of wonder and delight… the kind of delight that makes you giggle, unexpectedly, as if the laughter is bubbling out of you in response to some kind of inescapable internal pressure. The kind of laughter that surprises even the laugher. And that thought was not so far from the truth… with the exception of personal messages, and the ability to post links to interesting news articles, a human “editor” could probably use this to create a pretty realistic facsimile of Allison-on-Facebook.
I mean, eventually it would run out of feeder material and start folding in on itself, but still.
So here is the source, perhaps, of the fascination… that we could be replaced by a Facebook toy.
“He wanted to understand all of my eye today.” -AllisonBot
That statement is not intended to reduce the complexity of human existence. I just think that what-would-i-say is the most poignant and hilarious indicator of the ridiculousness of our online lives. When you distill yourself to just words on a screen, a lot of that complexity and depth is lost, and we become on-screen caricatures of ourselves.
And I think we all know this. And I think that having this portion of our lives presented as a part of the great cosmic joke feels good to us.
I also think that if you go deeper than that, understanding that so much of what we think and do is ridiculous and inconsequential is therapeutic. I think that maybe we all recognize on some level how absurd human existence is, and that having this confirmed feels good; it is freeing. It helps us shed the importance of the consequences that our actions have; it frees us, if only momentarily, from anxiety and dread.
“You’re going to start defueling the reactors, they managed to tilt my thoughts.” -AllisonBot
One of the common threads that I’ve noticed in some casual reading that I’ve done on things like space euphoria and near-death experiences (I don’t mean any out-of-body or astral projection stuff, I mean the impacts that impending death has on the brain) is a feeling of interconnectedness paired with a feeling of smallness or inconsequentiality… it’s something that I’ve noticed reported by users of hallucinogenic drugs as well. It is described as a positive feeling pretty consistently, not associated with fear or being overwhelmed.
So why would the brain retreat here in situations of stress, at points of extremity?
I’m not sure… I’m neither a psychologist nor a biologist. What I do know is that adults, we live in a world that it mostly made up. Our governments, boundaries between nations, our money, our bank accounts, our jobs, a large number of our activities… these things are contrived. They’re real, and they’re important, and they have consequences both negative and positive, but they exist only because man invented them. These invented things are things we spend most of our time, day to day, doing. The only things we do that aren’t invented are eating, shitting, walking, dying, and engaging in communion with god (I’m not religious; hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to talk about my feelings and thoughts on god and religion at a later time. For now it is enough to say that I believe that religion, that ecstatic experiences of the divine, are a common human experience and that they happen in our brains). And we are responsible for the creation and continued function of an unbelievably complex world that without us simply would not exist.
Mankind is an animal burdened by his own significance.
“Bill; I do not realize how wondrous life is.” -AllisonBot
This, I think, is why it feels good to us to be shown how small and strange and inconsequential we are; it lifts a burden. Buddhist teachers often talk about relinquishing permanence and individual significance. I prefer to think of it as the great cosmic joke; tiny mortal soft-fleshed animals made into tiny gods.
And what-would-i-say shows up and reveals the ridiculousness of what has become an entire portion of our lives, and we are fascinated… we are compelled. Not by what it produces, but by what it says.
The takeaway from this is as follows; embrace absurdity, whenever and wherever it presents itself. It is one of the ways in which we can lay down our burdens for a moment, and the only way that I’m aware of that we can lead truly happy lives.
“I would do it, to achieve selfsustaining fission.” -AllisonBot