In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy novels, there’s a device called the Total Perspective Vortex. The idea is that a criminal gets put into the vortex and is confronted with a sense of the scale of the entire universe and their own preposterously tiny place within it. This knowledge instantly annihilates their brain. One of the protagonists, Zaphod Beeblebrox, a man of no small ego, is put into the Vortex and emerges smiling: the machine had in fact confirmed his importance. It turns out, though, that he’s entered a second machine, a fake Vortex set up to flatter him.
It seems to me that having some kind of presence online, as hundreds of millions now do, currently subjects you to both of these machines. In fact it seems to me that the real Vortex and the fake Vortex are in conflict, of a sort. The first vortex— the real one— is Google. Last month I was writing a review of a record which features some pretty ropey prog rock elements. I decided to use a gag built around the phrase— hold your sides— “Shine on You Crazy Cubic Zirconia”. Excited by my own wit, I put this into Google, and thankfully discovered that around 50 other people had thought of it before me.
Search saved me from an awful joke, but in general it’s a grave for the creative ego. Every phrasing idea, every design concept, every hashtag contribution you make or decision you take— it’s a decent bet someone’s thought of it before you. And if it’s searchable, you can check. Any writer will have heard truisms about there being no originality, but before the mid-90s it was hardly so readily testable. Google might not explicitly confront you with your own irrelevance, but it leaves you in no doubt of your status as part of a giant worldwide aggregate— even a vanity search confronts you with a host of namesakes, more arriving every day.
Facebook— and other feed-based social media— is the second vortex, the one rigged to make you feel important, or at least consulted. You control the inputs, you create a universe around your interests and your image. Everybody knows your name. This difference is, I think, why Google has never managed to built a convincing social media tool: The ego-shredding implications of search are too integral to its thinking. The locus of attention online has been tipping away from the search Internet and toward the social, away from the Google vortex and toward the Facebook one.