[1 June 2008]
Recently, in a grotesque example of modern multitasking, I found myself tracking a UPS package on my laptop while simultaneously witnessing an argument between toddlers. Neither of these are especially enjoyable activities for me; both tend to involve an inordinate amount of frustration, a complete breakdown in anything remotely resembling logic, and an ultimately unsatisfactory resolution. And like toddlers, UPS tracking tends to lie shamelessly.
But after listening to the grievances aired between these tykes while entering my pi-length tracking number, another similarity jumped out at me, one that all of a sudden felt embarrassing. As they tirelessly volleyed “My Beanie Baby”, I noticed that I was clicking on a rather whiny icon in which I laid claim to “My UPS.” And, unlike my nearby friends who were bitterly contesting issues of ownership while soiling their pull-ups, I wasn’t even being challenged on the matter.
The cutesy, infantilized “my” of Internet customization is one of those phenomena which, for many people, is vaguely noticed without warranting much focused scrutiny. Sure, at some point I may have felt mildly silly clicking on “MyEbay” in order to track auctions in progress, or using “My Amazon” to assess the items in My Cart. I might have idly wondered why so many adult transactions were being made to sound like a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party gone wrong, but mostly, I just ignored it and went on with My Life.
In all fairness, the “My” feature is mostly based in practicality; it’s used as a means of managing account information, or as a virtual representation of a physical purchase. “This is in your imaginary cart now,” it assures us. In this way, we know that soon, it will physically be in our (my) possession.
But the “my” phenomenon isn’t entirely limited to the pragmatic realm of business transactions. On many websites, there seems to be a persistent need to offer visitors the option of personalization, of their own “special place” within the labyrinth of the larger structure, much like a creatively decorated cubicle. There are even entire websites dedicated to the “my” principle of customization.
Out of curiosity, I decided to do a search under the word “My”, just to see what came up. Here’s just a smattering of what I found: My T-Mobile, My New York Times, My Widgets, My Feeds, My Tupperware, My Anime, My Netscape, and My Monster. My, my, my! The blunt, bossy avarice of these digital requisitions was staggering. In particular, I thought “My Widgets” and “My Monster” lacked dignity. Of course, there’s also MySpace, the classic and definitive “my”, which doesn’t really need the redundancy of a “My MySpace” subcategory.
There were a couple of odd ones, too; like My Funeral Site, which was described as “an internet solution for everyone in the death-care industry,” My Fruit Rollups, in which individuals can personalize flattened slabs of high-fructose corn syrup, and My Viral Lottery, which I don’t think I feel like explaining. There was also a customizable My Starbucks Idea, in which visitors can presumably share whatever notions may be swirling around in their heads regarding Starbucks.
This one in particular amused me, since in my opinion, if “your idea” involves Starbucks, it is, by definition, not unique or specific to you in any way. In fact, I suspect that if you sit around and wait for bursts of inspiration about Starbucks, you might not even be entitled to claim full ownership of “your mind”.
This gave me an important clue, confirmed when I continued to navigate the precious and unique terrain of My UPS: nothing in this world felt less like “mine” than UPS. Just as a general rule, the people, things and entities with which I share a sense of belonging usually do not know me as 1Z1E91810324082459. (It’s also worth mentioning that even in My very own UPS, where I reign supreme, my stuff was still not going to show up for another four days, even though I’d paid expedited shipping).
This led me to wonder whether the need for customization is, perhaps, a reaction to the infinitely overpopulated, impersonal nature of the World Wide Web. The Internet, to a degree, facilitates uniformity and sameness; so many of us read the same articles, participate in the same discussions, and respond to each other’s BTWs with the same LOLs. Information is multiplied and distributed at the speed of light; thousands of us converge in chat rooms, “webinars” and online communities.
Maybe, within the vastness and anonymity of the World Wide Web, there is the need for individuals to stake out their own territory, to greedily snatch their piece of the pie, and to announce it like petulant toddlers. “That’s My Widget! That’s My Yahoo!”
But what is the purpose of the regressive, patronizing language of “my”? Why do our online personas need to be mollified in a saccharine, congratulatory tone usually reserved for praising a motor skill-challenged kid for eating with a “big boy fork”?
I decided that in order to decipher the odd juvenilia of the online “my”, I would consult the psychological theories of childhood development. Freud’s psychosexual stages ultimately yielded very little in my admittedly cursory research (although his “anal expulsive” personality could explain the existence of certain blogs).
I found the most interesting insights in the works of Erik Erikson. In Erikson’s stages of child development, there is a phase called Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt. In this phase, children are compelled to differentiate themselves from others, and to assert their independence and individuality. I suppose this struggle for differentiation must have been especially resonant to a person with a name like Erik Erikson.
At any rate, the need for differentiation is often manifested in verbal use of the words “my” and “mine”, and in the claiming of possessions. According to one description of this phase, “We grab and take what is forbidden and fiercely assert that “it is MINE.” We respond with animal rage when we are forbidden to touch or to take what is obviously ours. After we bite, hit, scream or yell and are still not given OUR possession back, we throw a temper tantrum to express our frustration.”
Although the online expression of ownership is somewhat more grown-up, I wonder if it the need to assert what is mine may stem from a similar rooted assertion of autonomy, an insistence that we are separate from others in the strange, confusing world of the Internet. We are not simply part of the nebulous, collective swamp of personalities and searches and numbers and letters. We are each a singular person, unique from other persons (or so we’d like to think), and certain things on the Internet are ours.
And yet, the ownership of My UPS and My EBay and My Widgets rings hollow. My New York Times essentially serves up the same news as everyone else’s New York Times. My Monster offers the same classified ads to all those within our profession and region (and does not necessarily lead to “My Job”). We still have plenty of reasons to feel insecure and unaccounted for.
The Internet, in actuality, is hardly a toddler, having celebrated its 15th birthday in April. So technically, it should be breaking out in zits and spying on the neighbor lady while she undresses (actually, I guess it does do the latter). Yet, the BBC recently quoted British inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited as one of the pioneers of the World Wide Web, as saying that the Web is “still in its infancy.” Nobody would know this better than a proud parent.
So if the Web is still a drooling, id-driven baby that wallows in its own feces, it makes sense that we continue to be mired in its arrested development. It also follows, then, that for all of our knowledge and intelligence, we are operating from a rudimentary mentality and phraseology. Think about it: the other means of asserting Internet autonomy – the use of avatars and emoticons – also seem a bit crude and embarrassing, like playing with puppets or dolls well after attaining adulthood.
I can only imagine that as the internet grows up, we will be spared the humiliation of temper tantrums and puppets, and will live to see more sophisticated means of asserting our otherness. According to Erikson, the next stage, “Initiative Versus Guilt”, consists of a child developing “locomotion, language skills, curiosity, imagination, and the ability to set goals.” Ah, these behaviorisms would be refreshing leaps in progress for the Internet.
Of course, the Web’s progress may take a Freudian Oedipal turn rather than an Eriksonian one. In this case, it will fall in love with its mother, kill its father, and poke out its own eyes out of shame. This, too, might indicate an unprecedented level of maturity, and a suitably dignified ending for the Internet. For that, I might even be willing to give up My Widgets.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/i-me-mine/