Social media demands self-importance, but lack of ego is a problem here in Toronto. We’re so busy using new-world tools that are all about showing off, in a city where nobody is supposed to get caught trying.
We live in an internet town. In 2009, Toronto was listed as the city with the third-most Twitter users in the world, after New York and Los Angeles; in 2010, almost half of all Torontonians had a Facebook account, and Canada had the most Facebook users among “larger countries with at least 10 million citizens,” according to the Globe and Mail. That’s the kind of social networking that gets Toronto called a “capital,” and confirms the sense of both Twitter and Facebook as elemental parts of life—social, political, professional—in this city, especially downtown and especially among people under 40, according to me and the 95 per cent of my friends that are constantly using both.
That Toronto has such a prodigious social networking… network, is objectively great: there’s an active app development industry; a crowd-sourced weather service; real-time tracking of Rob Ford’s Walmart-shopping pajama pants and 7-Eleven snack runs; an ever-improving sense of self-worth. But there is a disconnect between our status as an internet capital and the essential, self-effacing character of the city, and also a still-trenchant, still-limiting set of Canadian values that have something to do with salt-of-the-Tim Hortons and passivity and hockey. (Yesterday, I was tweeted that my not knowing what “Sidney Crosby” meant demonstrated a failure of citizenship.) Enter the “humblebrag.”
Though Twitter didn’t invent false modesty, or the human impulse to both perform it and call it out, it did create a forum to do both really well. A humblebrag, generally, is a back-door brag; specifically, it’s a Twitter account with almost 132,000 followers that retweets particularly egregious “Who, me’s” created by a writer for the show Parks and Recreation named Harris Wittels, who will release a book of humblebrags in 2012. (My favourite example: “I seriously have no business being a nerd with this body type. Biceps should not noticeably increase in size this quickly.”)
Toronto tweeters happen to provide a lot of @humblebrag RT fodder, so much so that I used to be sure a local was behind it. But, aside from Shinan Govani’s glittery National Post column, there’s no real gossip in Toronto, where the stakes remain too low and the self-consciousness runs too deep: several attempts at catty, anonymous sites and accounts have disappeared, unread. Instead, and hilariously, fashiony guy about town and Dressed for Dinner blogger Kevin Naulls has taken to joke-tweeting “#blessed,” a hashtag addendum to his own faux-humblebrags. Naulls says, “I started #blessed one day out of impulse, and it suddenly became this meta-joke that took over… I was tired of reading things like #thisismylife and #blessed from social media try-hards.”
There is a genuine dichotomy in social networking in Toronto: we’re very busy using these new-world tools that are all about showing off, in a city where nobody is supposed to get caught trying. Social media of any variety, in any city, demands self-importance. Twitter asks “What’s happening?” after all, and the only way to answer is to assume that anyone else gives a shit about your opinion, your voice, your behaviour, your choices, your day. And, since the majority of anyone’s day will be largely banal and untweetable, the remainder will be the good stuff, which is so often spun by the necessities of self-preservation into a funnier, cuter, more interesting, more wry version of itself, and of the tweeter. Contend with all of that in a city and country that is uneasy with self-spin, and the “humblebrag” will become more appealing, more obvious and more annoying than it would be in New York, or Los Angeles, where demonstrating one’s own cool takes a lot less effort.
Says Naulls, “As far as I’m concerned, Twitter is great for starting conversations that can be moved IRL, or onto Gchat; breaking news; and making jokes.” If the vast swaths of Toronto tweeters, especially the try-hards, are really going to collectively become a cultural capital beyond social media, we’re going to have to get more comfortable being good at something.