Nostalgic for Events That Haven't Happened Yet
Matrimonial content farms and our constant content creation problem.
I visited my hometown recently and I had the opportunity to grab lunch with a local high school teacher who has had a tremendous impact on generations of students—including many of my friends—and is generally one of the most thoughtful people I know. I asked him about what current high school students are like compared to students of the past, perhaps in comparison to people who were in high school when I was around 2005-2009.
Students’ relationships with their phones was at the center of his multi-faceted answer. Unfathomable anxiety. Unbelief in all areas of life. He said, “It’s like the furniture in this coffee shop could be floating, but you have to find a place to sit.” A generation of young people are going through one of the most volatile, vulnerable periods of their lives uncertain of what is real—it’s as if they’re in a coffee shop with floating furniture and they’re just trying to find a place to sit.
This induces anxiety. It affects relationships. Their phones and a constant connectivity to a performance-based global stage is at the center of this detachment from reality. Our relationships with our phones foster a certain kind of doubt in what is real, what isn’t real, and what is simply fodder for online content.
More Than Just the Content
At one point in my conversation with my wise teacher friend, he talked about how he sees students so grossly influenced by the content they consume on their screens, motioning with his finger the scrolling motion we’re all familiar with at this point in our lives.
It was at this point in our conversation I sort of stopped him and shared what I want to share with you now. I said, in some sort of way, “I, like you, am concerned with the content we are all consuming online—whether extremist, explicit, or just entertaining—but I’m as concerned with what the act of consuming content is doing to us as much as I am with the actual nature of the content we consume.”
At the beginning of his newest Netflix special Inside, which he wrote, shot, and edited himself, Bo Burnham begins with a song called “Content.” It’s one of the shortest songs in the entire special, but it sets an appropriate tone. The song is as follows (bolded part by me for emphasis):
If you'd've told me a year ago
That I'd be locked inside of my home (Ah, ah, ah)
I would have told you, a year ago:
"Interesting; now leave me alone"
Sorry that I look like a mess (Ah, ah, ah)
I booked a haircut, but it got rescheduled
Robert's been a little depressed, no
And so, today, I'm gonna try just
Getting up, sitting down, going back to work
Might not help, but still, it couldn't hurt
I'm sitting down, writing jokes, singing silly songs
I'm sorry I was gone
But look, I made you some content
Daddy made you your favorite, open wide
Here comes the content
It's a beautiful day to stay inside
Written during the coronavirus pandemic, the song ending with, “It’s a beautiful day to say inside,” hits especially hard. The most striking lines of the song though, for me, are the lines before that one in the chorus.
The way Burnham describes content in such a commoditized way, almost paternalistically as a father tries to feed his baby with airplane noises and entertaining swings of the spoon—”Open wide!”—Burnham knows that the special he has written to call out many of the problems with our insatiable obsession with content consumption will inevitably become commoditized and consumed itself. I mean one of the most popular songs from the special, “All Eyes on Me,” has become an incredibly popular sound to use for the background of TikTok content.
So, Burnham’s special about our sickening obsession with content has been, unfortunately, made into the content he bemoans. But this is the lifecycle of anything in popular culture today. Has your piece of culture really “made it” if it hasn’t been woven into a TikTok trend in some way?
We are, collectively, addicted to consuming and producing content.
Nostalgic for Events That Haven’t Happened Yet
In an interview a few years ago around the release of the movie Eighth Grade, which Burnham wrote and directed, he talks about some of the unique pressures that people who have grown up with the internet face that our parents and grandparents don’t. Here’s a bit of what he says:
What is the feeling of walking through your life and not just living your life, not just living your life—which is already hell and impossible—but also taking inventory of your life, being a viewer of your own life, living an experience and at the same time hovering behind yourself and watching yourself live that experience? Being nostalgic for moments that haven’t happened yet. Planning your future to look back on it.
Those are reall weird, dissassociative things that are, I think, new because of the specific structure of social media and how it disassociates ourselves from ourselves.
How can we even be nostalgic for moments that haven’t happened yet? What does that even mean? It means to imagine some idealistic sort of life experience that would make for good content—deciding to go to Hawaii for the endless pictures you could take rather than to drink amazing coffee or surf historic waves—and pursuing the experience with the primary motivation of being able to look back on it.
Have we lost the ability to simply experience the goodness of life because we have become so obsessed with documenting and sharing it?
This grim reality speaks to a broader theme that I believe we’ve touched on a bit here, but not at great length: the real world is becoming secondary to the digital world. To quote Burnham again, as he says in Inside: “The non-digital world is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space.”
We watch movies and get an idea of what we what our wedding to be like one day, and those movie weddings were modeled after some version of a real life wedding. Then we post pictures of our weddings under our branded wedding hashtags for the #content and then others want to emulate our matrimonial content farms because they make for such beautiful Instagram grids. The cycle continues over and over.
I’m not picking on weddings for any particular reason other than because they’re one pervasive example of our offline lives being constructed for the “much more real, much more vital digital space.”
The problem with this isn’t that it’s bad to post pictures of your wedding on Instagram. The problem is that viewing our lives through the lens of what is Instagrammable is a sad way to see the world.
This is, I would say, the primary reason I asked my wife that we not post any pictures of our daughter on the internet for an indefinite period of time after she was born. Now she’s over a year old and, by the grace of God, no internet scraping tools have had the opportunities to captures images of her face.
I joke about protecting her privacy, which is important to me, but more seriously I don’t ever want to see my child as a means of producing internet content, and I think one of the best ways to protect against viewing my daughter as a source of Instagram likes is to put off posting any pictures of her for as long as possible. I want to experience my daughter’s childhood, and I am afraid that documenting it for the world to see—a genuinely insane idea fewer than 20 years ago—would take away from me actually experiencing it.
It’s the same reason I just don’t usually care about taking tons of pictures on vacations or the like—a few here or there are well and good, but constantly viewing New York City through your iPhone screen as you saunter through Central Park is no different than looking at pictures of it on your phone as you sit on the couch at home.
I guess the takeaway on this rambling thought is this: let’s just be present. Let’s just experience life and not be so concerned about documenting it. We don’t need to be our own biographers. We don’t need to build our own brands.
So, to tie this up with the beginning: am I concerned with the content that we are constantly consuming on through our almighty feeds? Certainly. But I am as concerned, if not more, with our constant creation of content as I am with our consumption of it.
Let’s just be content we experiencing our lives and not documenting them.