The Last Days of Carles: A ‘Postscript’ to Hipster Runoff’s ‘Era’ of ‘Cynicism’

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Who’d have guessed it? Carles, the shadowy creator of Hipster Runoff, the most ‘relevant’ alt of 2007 and the Internet’s foremost exponent of scare quotes, was an idealist all along. Our antihero has been in the news of late because he’s selling Hipster Runoff and its associated revenue streams — exactly the sort of cynical prank that you’d expect from him — and now he’s surfaced to publish a blog post entitled “Why I H8 Online Media.” (It’s the prelude to, god help us, an entire ebook, which is called Nothing Matters.) The site on which it’s published, carles.buzz, is supposedly the last we’ll ever hear from him, what he calls a “terminal pop-up art website blog where I will document my final days on the internet.” Of course, Carles being Carles, it’s hard to know how much of this is sincere and how much is ‘sincere’ — which has always been one of the most obnoxious things about reading him. But taken at face value, it’s an interesting, if profoundly depressing, insight into the bleak cynicism of HRO and its creator.

As I’ve written before, there was always something nihilistic about HRO and its associated culture, a sort of contempt for its subject matter lurking beneath the veneer of irony. In this post, Carles gives us an insight into where that nihilism stems from or, at least, where he’d like you to think it stems from. Or where he’d ‘like’ you to think it stems from. The answer: a deep disenchantment with the Internet, arising from a disproved belief in its ability to alter the very nature of media, and a similar disaffection for the way the web has evolved into just another vehicle for capitalist consumerism:

I am lost. Help me. I keep clicking on pages hoping 2 find something ‘more.’ It has all been engineered 2 trick me in2 thinking I will find ‘something.’ Truth, enrichment, empathy, ‘the next big thing’, self-awareness, or even more. The internet branded itself as a place 4 ‘independent voices’ 2 be heard, 2 reach ‘real ppl’, and then empower those ‘real ppl’ 2 experience ‘freedom’ [via ‘content creation & curation.’ It is all meaningless.

It gets better, too: “Do you ever step back and ask urself,” asks Carles, “‘Who am I and what do I believe in?'” Sure. Don’t we all?

It’s a bit rich for Carles to be asking this question, though, considering that his schtick has always been one that denies (or at least snidely undermines) any concept of meaning. It’s the sort of writing wherein any statement always exists simultaneously with the concept of that statement being reversed or nullified by a “lol i was just trolling u/being IRONIC/etc.” It gets to the point where the sides of the irony/sincerity binary become indistinguishable, and thus any sort of opinion becomes worthless. Instead, HRO just sort of pointed to the existence of online trends and memes, occasionally defining them, mostly just sort of ‘noting’ their ‘existence.’

People will no doubt argue that this was the whole point of Hipster Runoff — it existed to satirize exactly the sort of culture that Carles is writing about here, wherein everything exists to drive clicks and the actual content of #content is entirely irrelevant. But you can’t satirize if you, the satirist, have nothing to say. You end up like MAD magazine after about 1975, mindlessly lampooning whatever the issue of the day is without any thought or purpose beyond “this exists, let’s parody it.”

So it went with Carles — whoever on the Brooklyn scene was popular at any given moment ended up in a blue box on Hipster Runoff, along with a bunch of rhetorical questions that might elicit a mild giggle if you were familiar with the artist in question. The extent of the satire, such as it was, was something like, “Haha, look at these people who everyone is saying is popular even though they exist in a bubble, and look at this machine that exists to monetize their popularity!”

Of course, HRO was doing both of those things: contributing to the hype machine that created buzzbands, and making money off of it too. I’m sure Carles would argue that was the whole point… which, fine. It’s deeply cynical, sure, but there’s perhaps something to the argument that it was a performative sort of cynicism, an overt cynicism that exposed more covert versions of the same. Either way, I’m not sure it mattered — the point is that HRO was a cynical and nihilistic exercise, and ultimately not a particularly interesting one, and pretty much everyone knew it.

Apparently not Carles, though. He writes in his blog post, “For a while I thought that ‘the internet’ was a ‘new medium’ that would ‘change media’ and materially alter ‘the universal message.’ Somehow a ‘cultural or existential experience’ could be heightened solely by the internet as a medium.” Later, he writes, “I do feel alone and disoriented because of my misguided perception of the internet as a ‘place of salvation’ for ppl who wanted to see the world differently than lamestreamers who watch the generic interpretation of ‘the news’ on television/lamestream websites.”

Really? This seems weirdly naive and idealistic for a man whose entire persona is built on being neither of those things. It’s almost… idealistic! And, indeed, that’s the picture of Carles that arises from this article — a sort of unholy amalgam of angry teenager and bewildered 40-something, shaking his fist about how UNFAIR it all is. Of course, this might just be ‘part’ of the ‘joke,’ but he sounds pretty sincere, which perhaps isn’t that surprising given that he’s being sincere about being cynical and disaffected.

So, OK, let’s take him seriously.

I guess I never truly bought into the idea of the Internet being some massive disruptive force on media. It always seemed pretty clear that it was a medium like any other, in that its unprecedented reach and possibilities would eventually be commercialized and monetized. This has happened with every single other medium that’s thrived in human history, after all — the printing press, radio, TV, etc. They’ve all emerged as disruptive technologies and all been reintegrated back into mainstream commerce. Sometimes the disruption brings the downfall of old conglomerates and the rise of new ones, but the technology never stays independent. Under the terms of capitalism, it can’t, and none of these technologies have been potent enough yet to transcend the rules of the game. (Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch is an excellent examination of this phenomenon.)

That’s not to say that the Internet isn’t fundamentally different from those other technologies. With TV, what you watched was largely decided by the networks. With newspapers, the news you read — and not just how that news was depicted but which news even merited reporting — was decided by the editor.

What Carles describes as scalable media is an attempt to recreate this, for big media companies to monetize the web and dictate the nature of content. He’s right in that the nature of the content doesn’t matter in this model, any more than it mattered whether it was The Brady Bunch or The Bill Cosby Show that screened around the ads on TV, except in the respect that one drove more viewers than the other. Media has always existed to attract consumers and thus been geared and constructed to do exactly that. But that’s not to say that there was never any good TV.

And the difference with the web is that you don’t need to buy into this model — certainly not as a consumer, anyway, which is the point of view from which Carles is writing here. The problem with his view is that it portrays the consumer as entirely passive. It’s the same sort of idea that characterized viewers as slumping mindlessly in front of their TVs during the ’80s, and people older than me can probably recall earlier examples. But if the Internet is one thing, it’s diverse. Hugely so. Unprecedentedly so. Sure, there will always be people whose interaction with the possibilities of the web will entail little more than clicking on Facebook’s “recommended articles,” and Google’s algorithms will always be pushing you in the direction of the content it wants you to read. But the only person making you click those BuzzFeed links is you.

“Meaningless” culture might be provided on a far larger scale these days, but so is actual information — and anyway, culture has the meaning that you find in it. Carles’ entire approach has always precluded any sort of meaning, because its meaning was always undermined by the context and tone of the writing. That’s not to say that the rest of the Internet is like that, though. The sum total of human knowledge is here. It’s a resource that people would still be looking at with wonder and astonishment were they not already so jaded about it. As per a 2010 Nielsen survey, the average user visits 89 domains a month. I’m sure that’s how the big players like it. The difference is that there is a virtually infinite number of places where people can go. If you’re sick of HuffPo, go and read some papers on particle physics.

A final point: toward the end of his post, Carles asks: “Do u evr have those days where u just want 2 be a ‘writer’ but then u realize all u can rlly do is pump meaningless noise into an overcrowded medium that is just trying 2 capture information/analytix to justify their ‘reach’ despite having no actual reach/influence with real ppl?” As a ‘writer’ who publishes largely online, I’d answer: yes. Absolutely. But what’s the alternative? Without the Internet, we’d be… what? More people will read this essay than they ever would have done had I published it in a limited-run print magazine or journal.

It’s fascinating to hear Carles talk about this stuff, given how much he himself has contributed to the existence of the blank, meaningless click culture he now claims to disavow. Or, who knows — perhaps I’ve just been ‘trolled’ into the cycle of ‘hype’ to promote his relevant new ebook. I hope not. That’d be really sad — and not primarily for me.