Over the last few years, it’s become something of a cliché to argue that the modern web (a.k.a. web 2.0) is transforming the way we interact. This happens to be one of those clichés which is, to a large extent, true. It would nigh on impossible to deny that things like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are having the sort of radical impact which extends far beyond the internet and into society at large. This is reflected in their usage statistics: facebook has more than 350 million active users, Twitter has 25 million users and the two most popular YouTube videos of all time have been viewed an astonishing 150 million times.
However behind these superstars of web 2.0, with their millions of users and immense share prices, are a new breed of collaborative websites. They have neither vast corporate resources or established hoards of obsessive users. They serve no significant ‘purpose’ and it would be easy for an overly cynical critic to write them off as the sort of vacuous time wasting which a technology like the internet too easily facilities… let’s ignore that critic though because these sites are, well: fun. Furthermore the speed with which they are growing points to a new and, in my opinion at least, rather pleasing direction for the web.
The forerunner of these sites was undoubtedly Post Secret which since 2005 has featured 2,500 original pieces of art by users all over the world. Each of these revealed a secret which the creator had never before admitted and these encompass a range which is scary, hilarious and genuinely quite moving. A couple of years later came Passive Aggressive Notes which hosts a seemingly endless sequence of passively aggressive tirades (which are sometimes far more explicit than they are passive) sent in by office workers and internet users the world over. A year later in 2008 cameFail Blog which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much responsible for bringing the term ‘fail’ into its current meaningful-on-its-own form of use. It chronicles ‘fails’ from all walks of life and is now tied up with LolCatz the famous home of “icanhascheezburger.?”. Around the same time as Fail blog, on a rather similar theme, came F My Life which, as you can probably guess from the name, provides a space for noting those moments when life isn’t going so well… and for those less pissed off with their day there is My Life is Average. Finally, to bring this in no way exhaustive list to a close, there isTexts From Last Night which, rather unsurprisingly, collects those embarrassing, confusing and funny texts which you sometimes wake up to the morning after the night before.
At this point the vexing critic mentioned earlier might be moved to ask quite what the point of all this is. While on one level there isn’t one, at least not beyond entertainment, on another level I would suggest that the ‘point’ of these sites is, in a way, rather significant. The anthropologist Kate Fox argues that humans have a need for ‘grooming talk’ (the sort of idle chatter which facilitates contact and connection with other people, without serving any great communicative purpose) and that the possibility of such talk has declined radically in the modern world. Fewer and fewer of us know our neighbours, particularly in cities, while the hours we spend commuting (either alone in cars or among strangers on public transport) only entrench our isolation. The small stable communities in which such grooming talk was a regular and easy occurrences are largely a thing of the past and, with this, something is lost. However when you look at some of the above sites on a regular basis, particularly those such as F My life and My Life is Average, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of connection. The internet is allowing us to once more share the minutia of daily life with others and, furthermore, it’s doing so in a way which liberates us from the staid conversations which characterised the sort of ‘garden fence’ and ‘village green’ conversations which Kate Fox cites as examples of the lost grooming talk. Sites like this may not change the world but they are, in a small and subtle way, making modern life a little more enjoyable and a little less isolating.