When considering how the internet has altered the human experience, it may turn out that the dominance of personal narrative in public discourse is the internet’s greatest game-changer. On the face of it, this idea seems absurd, or even boring, especially as it is not obviously technological in nature. But think about it: every blog post, tweet, picture, comment, video (and so on) tells a story — billions of stories, one voice at a time. Each of these voices is amplified until the internet becomes a din, yet somehow each voice is not diminished. It is astounding, really, the way in which (if only for a moment) the entire internet can be distilled into a single tweet. Not because this tweet is representative of an aggregate, but for the opposite reason. A tweet can be powerful precisely because it correlates 1:1 to a person, a single voice. Multiply this effect by the millions of people online and it is clear: we are all truly somebody now.The insistence that every story matters, in the end becomes the same thing as saying only one story matters: mine.
Couple this phenomenon with a parallel one: the assumption that every single human has a story worth telling (and, it follows, hearing), an assumption that has nearly taken on the status of a human right. The message is persistent in all media, at every level, but it especially drives discourse on the internet, cutting across class, race, and age: tell your story, insist on your story, own your story, no one can take your story from you.
Of course, telling our stories has been around forever, or at least since people started talking. In recent history, the writer Studs Terkel (1912 – 2008) dedicated a big part of his life to telling people’s stories, or, more accurately, allowing them to tell their own stories through interviews compiled in his radio show archives and in books. Terkel specialized in regular people, the ones without access to a microphone so to speak: cab drivers, maids, dockworkers, immigrants, and so on. Terkel’s work was a precursor to the compulsively readable website Humans of New York, which takes Terkel’s exact approach to narrative, plus photos. Even though the site’s content, composed entirely of one-off human stories, is offered in a relentless feed, the power of each person’s narrative is only heightened by the immediacy of access, the totality of immersion in a stranger’s existence.
The standard explanation for the power of personal narrative is that out of a particular experience, the universal one can be understood, or at least felt, if only briefly. Just like the title of the best-selling book, one person is “the same kind of different as me”, a truth realized by everyone outside of a particular life after it is expressed through a strong narrative. The internet’s way of telling a story, however, has altered this dynamic.Personal narrative as mediated through the internet doesn’t bother to justify telling a story by insisting on universal application. In fact, the opposite experience persists: after our close-ups, the camera fails to pan out. Each individual fills the frame, which never widens to encompass anyone besides our own self. We like it this way, for the most part; it absolves us of what is an impossible task in this literalist age, that of materially understanding other lives (and the material sense is the only one in which we currently seem to be able think about other people). But even if we don’t like it, the internet doesn’t provide much of an alternative: life online does not reward anonymity, and even symbols — like the image of the Syrian dead, fleeing civil war only to wash up on European beaches — are flattened into a strange sort of powerlessness.
Instead, this is what the internet rewards: building a platform, one post at a time. This task is ultimately done in isolation no matter how many views are accrued, because a platform on the internet means that one person is performing while everyone else is watching (before performing in turn). Performance, by definition, takes place on stage, an artificial environment that is defined by the very fact that it remains apart from where life is actually lived. On the internet, however, the stage is the only thing; it is where all of life is lived. Attempts at authenticity, the hard work of the Eat, Pray, Love bloggers of the world (RIP Liz Gilbert’s self-actualization!) to be real doesn’t lessen the performative aspect of being real on the internet. So the insistence, based on an almost credal-level belief that we should all be telling our story, that every story matters, in the end becomes the same thing as saying only one story matters: mine.
As with most trends found in the broader culture, Christians, especially evangelicals, have a distinctive take on the current dominance of personal narrative. It has to do with meaning, and the Christian’s insistence on finding it. Of course, this insistence on finding meaning in story can be traced to the meta-narrative of the bible itself: with its ultimate expression of the tension between the personal story and the universal one, what theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls the primal story. But less apparent is the connection between insisting that stories have meaning and the low-church tradition of giving personal testimony. At the little Bible institute I attended at the tender age of 18, each student was trained to be able to give testimony in 3 minutes or less (Be ready always to give an answer to the hope that is in you with meekness and fear!) because opportunities abound to regale listeners with tales of God’s work in your life, and if you don’t see that opportunities abound, you have a bigger problem. Standing up in church to testify to God’s work in your life might range from a spine-tingling story of a prison conversion,when your cellmate left his bible behind for you to read, to God’s unexpected provision at the grocery store, when He provided two cans of corn for the price of one.
A Christian’s testimony is never pointless, and that is the point: every story Christians tell of the work of God in their lives may have a slightly different narrative arc, but the ending is always the same. God is good. But what do we do in the face of the internet and its barrage of stories, the individual narratives no longer mediated by Sunday School teachers, pastors, and parents? None of these stories share the same ending, and God’s goodness can be difficult to find. Christians are overwhelmed by conflicting values: the intense, almost missional desire for every story to arrive at the same ending competes with a larger cultural value in which all stories are inherently worthy, and all personal narrative is justified by the act of telling alone. Listeners, who are we to judge?
The truth of personal narrative is that being human can seem like an exercise in futility, sometimes right up to the last breath a person draws. The truth of personal narrative is that, no matter how compelling the story, no matter the suffering it entails, no matter the size of the audience gathered around the platform, watching, the story itself is not enough. Our own personal narrative fails to be illuminated when we remain trapped inside it. Yet here we are, all of us trapped on the internet, talking at once, telling our own story. It is not enough.
Photo Credit: paolobarzman