Common realities

Online postings are the 'Dear of the 21st century, but makes them worth seeing?

November 26, 2006|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,[SUN REPORTER]

Anyone with Internet access can inspect the gewgaws adorning Jeanne Griffen's refrigerator on the photo-sharing site Flickr.com.

There are images of Griffen as a child and at her wedding, a discount coupon, a Nightmare Before Christmas marble magnet and three postcards by illustrator Mister Reusch. Also affixed to the fridge are a note to her husband -- "Shut Door Tight" -- and the couple's work schedules: typical kitchen bricolage.

A self-described "average woman," Griffen sends photos often to Flickr and posts stories about cat Lola and husband Phillip on her popular Honey Bunny blog. It's not the most inspired demonstration of the Internet's capabilities -- but therein lies the fascination, says Griffen by e-mail from her Minneapolis home.

She is captivated by the prosaic, and in posting mundane musings on the Web, assumes the same of her audience. "I think it's because there may be other people out there who are doing the same thing or similar," says Griffen, who also writes a cooking blog. "It's like a little anonymous bond with other people around the world. I take pictures of the stuff on my fridge but, hey, so does a guy in Austria and a woman in Norway!"

On Flickr, Youtube, blogs and vlogs (video logs), chroniclers of the quotidian share their daily travails with far-flung counterparts.

A collective sense that life's particulars are as nourishing as its more exceptional moments propels nonstop cyber chatter about housekeeping, child rearing, meal choices and wardrobe selections. It can also be reassuring to know that no matter who you are, certain nonnegotiable necessities like waking up and cleaning the cat box dictate existence.

Blogs "in particular really fill a tremendous void in terms of offering a glimpse of real life as it's lived: the often trivial and unglamorous reality of how people get by in life as parents, workers, spouses, friends and children," says Baltimorean Tracey Gaughran-Perez.

Sweetney.com, her chronicle of "my everyday existence, my desultory thoughts and compulsive obsessions," receives 30,000 unique visits a month.

"The realities of daily life are mostly swept aside in the media - on television, in movies, in popular print - and so here, in the world of blogs, there is a wonderful sense of unmanufactured, authentic humanity laid bare without pretense, and I think people really connect with that emotionally," she notes by e-mail.

`Insanely valuable'

Besides the multitudes exchanging life bytes on the Web, others are sifting through the online din for exploitable intelligence.

Market researchers, art and culture critics and sundry academics comb the digital clutter for insights into human behavior. Designers scour fashion blogs for au courant news from the streets. Computer companies snoop in open purses and scan desktops posted on Flickr for a visual inventory of gadgets and the way they're used.

To decipher consumers' needs, corporate ethnographers review countless Youtube clips of acrobatic pancake flipping and read scads of blogs, some as scintillating as watching paint dry.

And when they uncover a new use for a standard product, researchers leap to attention. By now, they know well the lesson of mixing Coke with Mentos for a cheap, but explosive thrill. Eepybird.com's first videotaped "experiment" mixing carbonated soda with the candy mint to create a series of spectacular fountains took the Coke and Mentos phenomenon to a new high in pop art. The "Bellagio Fountains" video, downloaded by millions, is now a legendary benchmark within the user-generated advertising trend.

Heeding the way of the Web, Frito-Lay and Chevrolet will spend astronomical amounts of money to air amateur commercials during the Super Bowl in February.

Trendspotting.com, a firm that relies on 8,000 spotters around the world to stay abreast of cultural currents, maintains in a Web discussion of "virtual anthropology" that the Internet is a source of "insanely valuable content and context."

Flickr, for example, with its diagrammed and tagged photos, is considered by Trendspotting to be a gold mine of insight into consumer lifestyles.

Studying the masses

Robbie Blinkoff, a managing partner of Context-Based Research Group, a Baltimore ethnographic research and consulting firm with anthropologists based around the world, is fascinated by the impulse to upload clips to Youtube that depict people playing with plebeian kitchen utensils, sampling spices or piling on T-shirts.

Just as participants are reinventing familiar objects, they are also reinventing themselves in a fractured, high-tech universe, Blinkoff says. On Youtube, "every single action you take is sending out some piece of information about who you are," he says.

In such a light, viewing a film about the Yanomamo tribe in the Amazon rain forest in Anthropology 101 "is like seeing a Youtube clip where a little kid in Peoria is sticking marshmallows in his face," Blinkoff says.

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