Oration in the Internet Age

My generation is faced with an odd burden. We came of age with Facebook and Twitter, the existence of blogging and online publishing being taken for granted. We grew up with the twenty-four hour news cycle, with content overload, with the internet being a simple fact of life. Anyone could reach anyone, anywhere, anytime. We have infinite voices. We have perfect access. I think it’s something about this possibility that burdens us with the the illusion of a voice. We all believe that we have something great to share with the world. We all have a message we want to spread and feel capable of carrying it to the ends of the earth. That is, if only we had something to say.

Take a look at Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Pinterest. Or any social media site. Really look, just for a minute. Take in the thoughts of your friends, ex’s, high school nemeses, or complete strangers. Think about the power they’re exercising, power only dreamed of by any ancient revolutionary. They are sending their thoughts out into to a medium available to billions of people. Odds are that those thoughts will be preserved forever in the deep, dark spaces of internet archives. They are speaking to posterity. And what is their message? Cat memes, thinly veiled attacks on friends, poorly constructed political invective, and brags about how much they drank last night.  Two or three word commemorations of an old friends birthday, the laziest of gestures. Somehow, the greatest of publishing power has led to the exposure of the dregs of our brains. Only our most thoughtless thoughts are preserved for posterity. Anything deep or sensitive or real, anything with feeling, is locked away in fear of ridicule.  And yet we feel, in our heart of hearts, that we have something to say, if only we could only come up with the right words.

Maybe it is this overwhelming flood of raw feelings published daily in digital form that intimidates us. One can imagine that, in the old days, the battle was with the publishers. A well-worded piece in the pages of the New York Times or read over one of the three television channels was an event, discussed in bars and ballrooms across the nation. One struggled with the gatekeepers, but once inside, influence was almost guaranteed. Now, even the most brilliant of pieces falls on deaf ears. A carefully researched expose of local government corruptions garners less views than a video of a pretty girl taking a pratfall.  A GIF-able, easily digested list of “12 Reasons the 90s Ruled!” will always be shared more often than a thoughtful reflection on facing an uncertain future in the twilight of youth.  We can shout and shout and shout into the oceans depths, pouring our heart out on the waves, and are lucky to see a ripple.

Writing about the internet on the internet is always a cause for pause. This is another variable by which I’ve found myself constantly confounded.  I complain about the facile “Happy birthday!” posted on a Facebook wall, but regularly send exactly this message. I bemoan my generation’s lack of meaning and it’s overshadowing entitlement to be heard, but in doing so I deconstruct. I do not build or create. I cry foul at the deluge of internet content and it’s basely democratic popularity, all while purporting to offer something superior.  I am the problem. I am the fear. I am the listlessness.  I am the meaninglessness. I am the internet.

But even as I ponder this problem, I am reminded of another story, of Demosthenes and his stunted speech. In order to strengthen his voice, he would wade out into the water and practice shouting above the waves, letting his voice echo across the shore. Perhaps this is what we need: not to take the great ocean as a threat and a hindrance, but an opportunity and a training ground.

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