The Internet is making us better.
I don’t mean morally better—I mean more talented, more capable.
Here’s my proof: I just spent 5 minutes watching a guy beatbox. I am not kidding. BEATBOX.
And let me also be clear about this: beatboxing is not something I generally follow. In fact, more often than not, if someone near me started to beatbox, I would immediately roll my eyes and leave the room.
But here I am, watching “Alem with the Metronome” beatbox on YouTube, for the love of Doug E. Fresh. I am watching it because it’s amazing. Watching this guy beatbox is like watching some other guy break the world-record in the long jump. Who knew we could do that?
Part of the enjoyment of such a spectacle is a respect for the level of dedication and work—not to mention talent—that goes into such an moment. It makes me think of how times past must have been, before TV, when elegant people in Victorian salons with coal fireplaces (fine, the leisure classes, but still) would do things to entertain each other and themselves. Playing the fiddle. Needlepoint. Singing. Telling stories. Beatboxing.
Everyone in that drawing room would have something they could do, whether it was paint a picture, sew a dress, recite a poem, or discuss moral philosophy. Before television, pastimes weren’t so passive. People cultivated skills.
All this is not to denigrate skilled TV watching. I know I’m cultivating some critical TV skills, like predicting who’s going to break out with their own spin off reality show next... but I freely admit, I’ve got nothing on the beatboxer. How much work and breath and practice (and glasses of water) must have gone into this guy learning to beatbox at 160 bpm? And more interestingly—would he ever have put in all that work and time into developing his human instrument, if he hadn’t had a place to show it off?
Self-improvement, for all the individual work it takes, is in actuality social to a large degree. We play instruments, we sing and dance and paint pictures and play games with and for other people. To a great extent, that’s the payoff.
YouTube is, unsurprisingly, pretty much the mecca for people who want to show off—in good and bad ways. If you doubt me, take a gander at these three stiff English guys playing “Insane in the Brain” in high deadpan style, or this elaborate preview for a fictional Super Nintendo game based on “Downton Abbey” (yes, it is completely awesome). Yes, the Internet encourages us to sharpen our skills in myriad ways.
Another thing they do in those Victorian novels is write letters—long, articulate letters with, like, full punctuation and complete sentences and stuff. Well, writing is definitely back as a hobby and a pastime. Look at the rich world of fanfic. Thousands of people online are taking the classics (such as Pride and Prejudice), or the insanely popular (such as Twilight) or just about anything else that takes their fancy and basing enormously creative new works on them.
Before you poo poo these derivative works, bear in mind that 34 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays were just that.
Of course, let’s be blunt: there is plenty of fanfic that’s total crap you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But there’s a lot that’s great—inventive, surprising, well-written, and fun. Not sure where to start? Look for Aja Romano’s fic recommendations every Wednesday.
Or how about the age old pastime of photography? That’s unquestionably one of the biggest boons (and booms) of the Internet. What’s really fascinating is to see how people are taking different kinds of photography and really making it their own—even the kind that is perhaps most esoteric, most elite: high fashion photography.
Women all over Tumblr have decided that employees of Condé Nast shouldn’t be the only one having fun running fashion magazines, so they’re collectively starting their own. Any number of Tumblr blogs are now devoted to dressing, styling, and taking glamorous photos of yourself and your friends—shots that frequently would not be out of place in the September issue.
And as so often happens, hobbies lead to politics. The women of Tumblr are doing more than imitating glossy fashion mags. Many of these women are tired of the fact that the average dress size in the popular press seems to be 2, and they’re showing that style can have curves. They are subverting the objectification in those glossies and the culture that created them. What began as a pastime has become a mission.
It’s lonely developing a skill when the only person who’s ever going to enjoy it is you. When we have the ability to share our skills and talents with others, no matter how bizarre, they instantly become vastly more valuable. And once we begin to improve ourselves—to treat our very own beings as our canvas—it’s not long before we begin to ask how we can improve the world around us, too.
That is truly social. Political movements are not solitary affairs.
So here’s what I think. If you want to change the world for the better, why not learn to beatbox? Just be sure to put your video up on YouTube.
Screengrab via YouTube/AleM Style Up