That quote comes from this interview with Conan O’Brien that was just published in the New York Times this week. If you’re a Conan O’Brien fan, as I am, I invite you to go read it. It’s an interesting piece, providing a unique outlook on his ever-changing career and his thoughts about that. That quote was part of an answer to a question about whether it bothers him that the footprint of his show might get smaller and smaller as he gets older. His response was really that it ultimately doesn’t matter how big we think we are or how we go out, as eventually we’ll all be long forgotten. Even if you’re important enough to make history books, no one’s going to be thinking about you with emotional reverence after you’ve been gone a generation or two. Even then, you’ll just be factoid, a footnote. For most of us, we won’t even have that much.
This idea has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about our obsession with publishing personal content online ever since the introduction of the web 2.0. It started with simple blogs, like this one, then advanced to social media, etc. We’re obsessed with unloading our minds onto the Internet, whether it’s sharing visual art like photography, paintings, etc.; our thoughts via blog posts or spouting opinions on social media, etc.; or increasingly posting videos of ourselves on YouTube and the like. Why? Why are we relentlessly posting rants on Twitter or Facebook, pics on Instagram or Flickr, videos on YouTube or Vimeo (or FB/IG/Twitter), blog posts on a variety of platforms, etc.?
I think it’s because we all feel a need to be heard, to be relevant. Beyond that, I think we subconsciously are seeking longevity beyond our short lifespans. Facebook now has an option for memorializing your account after you die, ostensibly so loved ones can gather on your profile and reminisce about how great you were. Your online immortality will only last so long, though, as back to my point in the first paragraph, once your close friends and family members have gotten over their grief, how often are they really going to keep coming back to your page? And once they, too, die off, no one will; so your account might still be online, but no one will be viewing it. You’re gone.
Without going too far into focusing on specific venues, though - whether they be online or physical - why do we have such a need to be externally validated anyway? Using myself as an example, both my photography and my writing have both had fairly narrow niches of people who follow and appreciate them. The amount of interaction I get on any given post - whether it’s a blog post here, a posting on Twitter, or pics to Instagram - is pretty damn small, so why do still feel the need to post them, to chase down those few likes/comments I get? For instance, here I’ve already rambled on for over four paragraphs, yet looking at the stats on my website, I know that literally no one is likely to see this. That’s right: no one. I know because my website stats show me that: even after I post fresh content, I get no visitors. Now, if I share this article to Twitter or something, I might get a few hits, but that’s it. And I do have a couple dozen RSS subscribers, so I may or may not be getting eyeballs there that don’t register on my website stats. Still, it’s a very small number and not growing, so why do I feel compelled? Why do any of us feel compelled? Because honestly, the same question really applies to the person that has a million followers as much as it does to the person that has two…
So lately I’ve found myself then thinking: if I knew for a fact that one one was going to view my photography or read my words, etc., would I still do it? What if I didn’t even share my work anywhere in the first place, so the only person that ever saw it was me? Would I still do it? If not, why not? And if so, what am I doing it for?
This then leads to the age-old question: is it art if no one sees it? I’m sure most of you have heard of Vivian Maier by now; if you haven’t, Google her and prepare to be amazed (if you appreciate street photography). Vivian was a woman who worked as a nanny for most of her adult life, but in her spare time she took countless street photographs with her trusty twin-reflex camera. However, she never developed them! So she never even saw most of her own work! The only reason we know about her today is because some guy in Chicago bought boxes full of her undeveloped rolls of film from a storage auction shortly before her death. He had them developed, printed, and exhibited, and the rest is history. She’s now regarded as one of the best street photographers of the 20th century; I have a book of her work on my photography bookshelf. She never once sought recognition for her work herself, though. She was content in the capturing of the photo; never felt a need to produce it for others to see. So what if those rolls of undeveloped film had never been discovered and shared with the world? Would it still be art? If it hadn’t been discovered and shared, we’d have no idea who Vivian Maier is today. A lifelong single and reclusive woman with no children of her own, she would have faded from memory for all but her closest charges rather quickly. Without the art, the artist is quickly forgotten, and all the much sooner that grave goes unattended.