Internet fame no substitute for real substance

Wang Yong
Instant online gratification is changing our priorities, our experience of the offline world, as well as how we consume information. In many cases, these changes are for the worse.
Wang Yong

Not all Internet-famous buildings can be called city landmarks, but some people seem to overlook this concept in their failure to distinguish the shallow from the deep.

A renowned landscape designer said over the weekend that it’s not uncommon to hear proposals of building a new city landmark that’s at once an online sensation. There was no shortage of similar suggestions, he recalled, when he was involved in the construction of urban development projects or in communication with some local governments on the subject.

“Such a wish seems only natural from the point of view of certain constructors,” explained Fang Xiaofeng, vice president of the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University, in a signed article published in the People’s Daily on July 19. “But it has unwittingly blurred the line between a city landmark and any building of instant Internet fame.”

City landmarks are meant to be instantly recognizable, but they merit deeper reading than what meets the eye at first glance. 

“A city landmark consolidates and encapsulates time-honored values shared by the local citizens,” Fang wrote. “This explains why a city landmark stands as a lofty symbol of local culture.

“An Internet-famous structure may be valuable in its own right, but it’s not to be casually equated with a city landmark,” he cautioned.

Not all sensational structures spread on the web are substantiated by social, historical or cultural significance required of a city landmark. In many cases, Fang explained, Internet fame is transient, as one may obtain it for a building simply with a nicely taken photo.

Certainly, a time-honored city landmark can be Internet-famous, and a structure shimmering with the sheen of online celebrity can be a historical landmark. What disturbed Fang, however, was the propensity of some people to pepper landscapes with structures falsely labelled as landmarks. He made it clear that, in designing a city landmark, one needs to calm down and see beyond the buzzing world of instant online fame.

Fang wrote his article in the aftermath of a recent government call to curb local practices of churning out strange architectural structures unfit for their surroundings. These weird works, rather than ascending to the status of a landmark that carries cultural and historical weight in proportion to a city’s character, often arise from a misguided faith in the value of fast fame.

This brings us to what author Nicholas Carr had in mind when he tried to reveal the reality of the World Wide Web in his book “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains” – a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago.

After convincing the reader of the neuroplasticity, or neural adaptability, of our brains with empirical and experimental evidence, the author concludes his argument by calling attention to the dual character of the human mind: It can both program and be programmed by the Internet, as it does with any other technology that has or will become part of our lives.

By programming the Internet into a whole medium capable of fast connection of people and efficient collection of data, humans may have, to a certain extent, programmed their own thoughts in line with the Internet. The more we surf in this virtual world, the more likely many of us will cultivate a “juggler’s mind” seeking to scan, skim and spread information as quickly and efficiently as possible. See how better you are now at multitasking with the help of the Internet? With a few clicks, you can skim text and get ready for work, while scanning news headlines, texting your colleagues, ordering food delivery to your office and, perhaps, sharing a happy moment with your friends who may or may not notice it on time.

While desirable in their own way, speed and efficiency are not the only or even major factors in social or personal progress.

“The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden,” says Carr. “The problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion.”

Not all people loose themselves in the online world, Carr concedes, but for society as a whole the Net has become the communication and information medium of choice.

Carr’s call for calmness has everything to do with what makes for deep thinking, which can easily be lost if one wallows in speedy web-surfing only.

“There’s nothing wrong with browsing and scanning,” he says. “The ability to skim text is every bit as important as the ability to read deeply. What is different, and troubling, is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading. Once a means to an end and a way to identify information for deeper study, scanning is becoming an end in itself.”

Not everyone scans for the sake of scanning only, for sure. Here his judgement is better taken as a warning to many of us, rather than a fact of life for every individual. But we may safely infer that the “ingenious” creators of those weird works Fang decried were treating instant Internet fame as an end in itself.

An obsession with acquiring fame as quickly as possible has infested human society long before the advance of the Internet. But as the latest tool of mass communication, the Internet has whetted the appetite of many for becoming famous far and wide overnight.

Carr commends the Internet for its advantage as what he calls an “all-purpose medium” unrivaled in interactivity, hyperlinking, searchability and multimedia.

“The boons are real,” he says. “But they come at a price.” He cites communications scholar Marshall McLuhan as saying that media aren’t just channels of information; they shape the process of thought as well.

This brings us to the arena of journalism in an era of Internet, where an average reader can be inundated with scattered snippets of information and hardly has time for deep reading or thinking.

The Paper, a leading news portal based in Shanghai, celebrated its sixth anniversary this week. Determined to dig deeper into quality journalism, The Paper on Wednesday released a recent report from a major consulting firm citing readers’ call for better news coverage.

According to the report, more than 70 percent of the readers surveyed have complained about mediocre media content wrapped under warped headlines. Most readers have also brooded over an oversupply of stories similar to each other in word and plot, often a result of copy-paste of the same sources.

The report points out that this has to do with the rise of certain commercial media moguls which calculate their value by how much, not how well, a reader is fed. This finding confirms the conclusion of some American scholars that there has been an apparent oversupply of repeated content. In this sense, Carr says, more can be less when it comes to the stuff of thought.

According to the same survey released on Wednesday, The Paper enjoys a high customer satisfaction score for its overall content. For example, its video channel garners a satisfaction rate of more than 95 percent. That's quite an achievement, attesting to The Paper's efforts to provide the public with quality stuff.

The Paper’s case provides a footnote to Carr’s point that we can do better in the Internet age if we learn to combine speed with calm, thus enjoying the benefit of deep thinking as well as quick connectivity, both of which make human progress possible. What Carr could not properly prove, however, is that one must regain a repose of mind outside the distracting world of the Internet. In fact, one can calm down anywhere. The Internet is at once a world for surfing and diving; only that we must not forget the pleasure of going deep.

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