Who are the ‘Mythica’?

I often wonder if those I interact with on the Internet really exist.

Sam Blake

EditorâÄôs note: This is the first in a two-part look into how people interact in online communities. By now, those of you who pay attention to these kinds of things (or, at the very least, read The Minnesota DailyâÄôs Opinion section on a regular basis) are probably familiar with Chatroulette, the recent Web site fad that lets you have video conversations with random people. Chatroulette is the culmination of an important progression in the way that people interact on the Internet, as it is one of the few Web sites that allow you to interact with real people. Let me extrapolate somewhat on this notion of âÄúreal people.âÄù The Internet is a massive collaboration of the individual efforts of many people, blah, blah, blah, youâÄôve heard this all before. But in our usual human tendency to simplify complicated systems into nice, unitary objects, we often forget that the Internet, as we know it (that is, as a social construct rather than a technical one), is made entirely out of the output of human endeavor. These people âÄî precious, unique snowflakes though they may be âÄî get lost in the cacophony of constant information the Internet provides. So, let us ask ourselves: Do real people exist on the Internet? This seems like a stupid question for the very convenient reason that it is one. Of course real people exist on the Internet; after all, nothing on the Internet would exist were that not the case. So letâÄôs be a little more precise. When interacting with people, however indirectly, by using the Internet, are we actually interacting with people? Or are we just consuming some information that some person at one time created? If the latter is the case, then we are not, in fact, interacting with âÄúpeopleâÄù in the traditional social sense of the word, but we are instead just manipulating the same data stream. There is a classic problem in the field of semantics of concepts that have no word associated with them. Incidentally, the notion of a concept without a word, insofar as I can tell, does not have a word to denote it. This means that that notion is âÄúautologicalâÄù âÄî describes itself âÄî or at least it would be if it had a name, which it doesnâÄôt, and if it had a name it would no longer be autological, which makes it an instance of the Grelling-Nelson paradox. IsnâÄôt semantics fun? The solution, of course, is making up new words as they are needed. For our purposes, we will refer to our data-generating pseudo-people as the Mythica. As with classical myth, we use the concept of the Mythica as a sort of origin story explaining the people who we infer to exist from the artifacts we see. The Mythica are people in the same way that the Sumerians were people: We have convincing records of their existence, but given that we have never interacted with them, itâÄôs impossible for us to have any sort of social relationship with them. Practically speaking, then, who are the Mythica? This isnâÄôt terribly obvious. Which people online are actually âÄúpeopleâÄù (perceptually speaking), and which of them are just the remnants of data? If you wanted to be especially technical, all online interactions are strictly data, but letâÄôs try to come up with a reasonable definition. To do this, letâÄôs look at how the Internet has evolved over time. In the good old days, the Internet was predominantly an interaction-based medium, populated by bulletin boards, newsgroups and chat rooms. These kinds of environments often fostered communities where people were acquainted with one another; people had reputations and interacted more or less as equals. But as the Internet grew in popularity, there was a shift, which is still evident today, towards content-based media. Blogs replaced bulletin boards, Wikipedia and news aggregators replaced newsgroups, and YouTube replaced chat rooms. These new media still have âÄúcommunitiesâÄù in a sense, but instead of being defined by established relationships between members, they are usually defined by pervasive cultural norms, or memes. Some people may have status, but generally, the community is too large to have a coherent basis of relationships, and so communication by meme becomes a necessity. However, as social media become the norm, some new systems are beginning to return to the interaction model. Chatroulette is an excellent example; there are no kings on Chatroulette. There are no memes that define that culture (unless you count masturbation). Chatroulette is a technology that harkens back to the old Internet, where people talked to people instead of just digesting content. The people you see on Chatroulette are âÄúreal people;âÄù you may not have a pre-existing social relationship with them, but you do interact on a personal, rather than cultural, level. So let us once again address the question: Who are the Mythica? They are everyone who has contributed in some way towards your personal experience using the Internet but that you donâÄôt actually know in any meaningful way. The Mythica is not an actual entity; rather, it is a psychological defense mechanism. Our brains are simply not capable of processing the complexity of the social structure that the Internet actually represents, so we simplify, simplify until we reach a model that we can handle. The Mythica as we understand it is that intellectual reduction: millions and millions of people, all reduced into a nice, thick syrup, perfect for serving on ice cream or over poires belle Hélène. But if you donâÄôt like pears (though I canâÄôt understand why that would be the case), you might consider adopting habits of Internet use that involve real people and not the ones that donâÄôt actually exist. Sam Blake welcomes comments at [email protected]