Belonging Online

Ian Laffey

I wrote an Essay entitled "This is Where I Belong" about a place I could never visit again.
I guess that's the thing about belonging. You can't understand you were "in" until you are "out".
The whole time you exist in a place, you see yourself as outside that place. Only when you have left can you properly position yourself within the space.

On the internet, everyone belongs. If you don't you will be quickly made to. Don't get added to group chats? Join a subreddit.
The borders are fixed online. No waiting on pesky experience to know your place, it's a boolean switch. "Joined"
Sites are crafted from discrete blocks. In the header? Out of the div?

So while the internet creates division, it does so by distributing belonging. Tribalism is as old as humanity, and now it's apparent where we do and do not belong.

Sports. I know I am a Cardinals fan. I'm from St. Louis. I hate the Cubs. I belong at a Cardinals game.
Basketball? Where do I belong?
Luckily this has been solved for in a profitable way: Pick a team. Bet. Now you are "in" for the next 4 hours.
Discrete. Solvable.

Have humans always been this easy?
Dangle two boxes and watch them pay you to join one?
Dr. Seuss wrote about this in "The Sneetches"

I think there used to be more assuredness in our birth.
I know I am a Cardinals fan, a McGill Alumnus, and an American.
I'd be hard pressed to double that list, and one of those I had to earn my place in!
I was not born into a family farm, a town church, or with an undying duty to King and Country.
I didn't even go to public school!

Race, class, religion.
Belonging once offered through social structure, broken down in pursuit of progress.

Slavery is the greatest evil committed in the history of The United States.
Then why did it last? Profit?
A relatively small number of Southerners owned slaves, and most who did didn't make any money off of them.
So no, not money. Not for most people.

"If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pockets"
-Lyndon B Johnson.

A genius system then for those who do the pocket picking.
Give belonging, take rights.
Give belonging, make money.

As we set about tearing down these oppressive structures of control, what did we replace them with?
Nothing. Nothing but suburbs.
And so we atomized the American life. Spread out, settled down, content that we were no longer hurting others.
But in this void we left nothing. If I'm not white then what am I?

Like all efficient systems, capitalism has a way of filling in gaps in output.
For this system there is a single goal: More profit for those with capital.
And so it set about creating belonging to sell once more: Bowling leagues sprung up, PTA, anything to make us feel a part of something.
But this belonging of choice proved laughable compared to the belonging of birth provided by our old oppressive systems.
See "Fight Club", my singular reference for the world before my birth, as a display of society in search of meaning.
(I was born the day after it released, so it has got me covered on what was going on up until my existence)

In 1999 our economic system was still searching for the new Racism. the new Religion, the new fundamental delineator of humanity.

Enter internet.
Its creators dreamed of a world without borders, free exchange of ideas. Nerds.

Our money machine pounced. First step: get everyone online.
Once we plopped down the cables, discounted the screens, and lured them into place we could begin to divide them up like early settlers.
"Go West!"
50 years later: "You're in Utah!"

The trap was set. We came pouring in.
At first in search of utility:
Web Games, Photo Filters.
Then in search of meaning:
Why don't I understand a single fucking thing?
Why do I feel so lonely but hate people?
Perfect timing.

Belonging was bestowed upon us once more.
Not that crappy sort of, "I can move and this all goes" away bowling league Belonging of Choice.
This is the "Cardinals Baseball" Belonging of Birth.
Belonging of Algorithm.
No free will required.
What is belonging if not a lack of choices? A puzzle piece cannot choose where it fits.
The very definition of belonging.

It is in the careful crafting of our tribes that the money is to be made.
"I don't care where you go, just get in your box and suck on a straw"
This is what Mark Zuckerberg is thinking. But he tells you:
"I found your people! You won't find a place you fit in more in the world"
And he's right.

It is in the hijacking of our fundamental human desire to belong that these systems fuck us the most.
But who are we to fight back? With what army? Where else do we turn?
Our institutions have been ripped apart and replaced by money machines.

Remote worker commune? Government legislation? Federally assigned meaning to life at birth?
I don't know the solution.
I think the real answer is it comes from within.

A good friend of mine loves to describe technology as "Insidious" and no more frequently is that apparent than in the creation of ideas.
Bombarded by thoughts that are not our own, in our little black box of belonging, we can sit all day without thinking.
We may feel a great amount, but all the thoughts in our head are external.
We cannot know what we truly want unless we think for ourselves. It's in the name.

While the boxes we are assigned may present a close approximation of our thoughts and beliefs, there is still divergence (Give 'em 5 years).
It is in that gap that we exist as humans.
It is in the intersection with others that we live.
It is our position in the spaces we inhabit that we exist.
To know oneself is to know ones place, and that is where we belong.