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Dot Dot Dot: How the hurricane hit the Internet

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Have we banished loneliness?

One of my favorite writers on webby subjects, Monica Hesse, once wrote that on the Internet no one is alone. She was referring to the fact that no interest, no fandom is so niche that you can’t find other like-minded folks to commune with. But Hurricane Sandy put it all into a different perspective for me.

Is there anything more elemental, more simple and essentially human than waiting out a storm? Thousands of years ago, our ancestors huddled in caves, under trees and bushes, under whatever shelter they could find, waiting for a once-in-a-lifetime storm to pass, hoping they would not be swept away in the flood. They waited with their tribe, their families, or alone. For however long they huddled in that little cave, that tiny universe became their world. They were cut off from the rest of the human family.

I remember, as a kid, what it felt like when—even in Southern California—there was a big storm and the heavens opened, the thunder boomed, the lightning flashed. The world, the entire universe, shrank to my little, dry space, beneath my covers.

How different was our experience of Hurricane Sandy? From Texas and under blue skies, I was in constant contact via Facebook with friends in New York. Dry as a bone, I watched the Frankenstorm unfold on Instagram—looking at pictures of Avenue C under feet of water and thinking about the person snapping the photo: “OMG, moron, GO INSIDE!”

Later in the evening I started to see posts and tweets such as, “power’s out, batteries dying.” Even in these drastic conditions, it was relatively rare to see people completely go off the grid—only when they were subject to sustained power outage, drained batteries, or downed cell towers were they ever actually alone.

Loneliness, the hurricane showed ironically, by plunging some back into it, has been pushed dramatically further into the corners of our lives. It now exists only at the edges, something we can largely avoid, if we so choose. In fact modern day Thoreaus looking for solitude may find that they must go as far as Walden to find it at all.

***

For all our technology, our weather reports, and our strong edifices, the storm was still a terrifying thing. And for good reason. It has left a trail of real destruction. So much of those messages back and forth across social media were notes of concern, signals of hope that our loved ones were OK. In fact, it was the primary way most of us checked in with distant family friends.

And yet there was another reaction prevalent on the Internet: it was silly.

While one reporter stood on a windy street delivering news of the storm, a man wearing only jogging shorts and a horse mask ran along the sidewalk behind her. The man in this bizarre jogging attire was a member of r/HorseMask, a community of people on Reddit who enjoy sharing pictures of themselves doing things in horse masks.

Even better: The worldwide K-Pop sensation, Gangnam Style, also infiltrated the hurricane, with fake PSYs delivering newscasts. While one reporter stood on the stormy beach, several fans appeared behind her doing the horsey dance.

Of course, there were also Twitter parody accounts:

@AHurricaneSandy tweeted: OH SHIT JUST DESTROYED A STARBUCKS. NOW I'M A PUMPKIN SPICE HURRICANE

And the fake storm photos (my favorite portrays the storm surge bearing Godzilla toward the Jersey shore).

There is something so exuberant about these newsbombs, parodies, and fake accounts. Dangerous and wild as the storm was, it was an occasion for people to joke with friends and strangers, neighbors and followers alike. It was perhaps gallows humor.  But it was fun.

The shared jokes that the Internet facilitates add a joy to life, even in the darkest days. An element both of the unexpected and of something communal—even if they seem to come and go in the blink of an eye (Remember “binders full of women”? Those were the days...).

Much of it is off-color, and in bad taste. And yet, isn’t some of it also brave? Isn’t it laughter in the face of disaster? A joke to make the kid next to you smile instead of worry?

I wonder if this prankster exuberance will last. 40 years ago, streaking was all the rage. Every public event had to worry about streakers, including the Oscars (my favorite) and I believe, the 1980 Republican primary debates (but I can’t find the clip on YouTube).

Are parody accounts and photobombs going to disappear the way of streaking? Are they a part of a historical moment to be forgotten as quickly as pet rocks?

I think they will last. Not forever, of course, but for a good long time. They are a manifestation of a timeless human art, like vaudeville or Commedia dell’Arte, that allows us to embrace the uncomfortable, the ugly, the bad—to make it human and laugh about it. People will keep riffing, and keep playing.

***

Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist and cultural critic, observed that by the late twentieth century cameras had become a fixture of everyday life. In extreme cases, people seemed to have the devices glued to their faces, taking pictures and videos without pause. So much so that it raised the question, do people even have time to look at all the pictures they’re taking? And if not, then why do they take them?

They took them, Baudrillard suggested, because we had become obsessed by the screen. We were no longer able to fully invest in everyday life; instead, real life had to be mediated by the lens of a camera.

No one carries a camera any more. We carry smartphones. And if anything, we are even more glued to them than we were to our (stand alone) cameras. Even the hurricane—a primal Act of God, one of nature’s great, and most devastating shows—happened as mediated by social media, and by the Internet.

But what’s different about smart phones and social media—as opposed to cameras—is that they do more than just document and mediate our experience with a screen or an image. This new mediation connects us to each other. I’m not denying that there is value in solitude, in loneliness, dark, and quiet, as James Atlee wrote today. That there is value in being connected to the ancient, timeless rhythms of the Earth—a value that is getting harder and harder to come by.

In a sense, however, the history of human civilization can be written as the ongoing attempt to banish loneliness. We came together as tribes. We built castles, then cities, highways, and now the Internet, which links us on another level altogether, entirely beyond the physical. We are getting close.

And then the elements crash in on us, and nature reveals just how tenuous the connection we all have to each other still is (as the nearly 7 million people without electricity keenly felt, watching their phones slowly run out of juice). We so easily become once again just a bunch of humans huddled in a cave, hoping to survive.

It makes one realize how precious, meaningful, and comforting that connection is. Even if it is just a bunch of dumb Internet jokes.

Photo via George Takei/Facebook