being on the internet

Note: above is a screenshot from Dolly Alderton’s excellent book, Everything I Know About Love. Below is half a chapter of a novel I’ve been writing, which is why it’s in past tense and the names are different.

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Being on the Internet made me feel raw and nervy. I refreshed and got newness. I refreshed again: more newness. I couldn’t tell if I liked the feeling of constant low-grade exposure. I knew that I kept seeking it out.

Jamie and I called it the scrollhole. As in getting lost in the scrollhole. The scrollhole was what you tumbled into when you were trying order a quick dinner on UberEats and ended up aimlessly browsing menus for 30 minutes. The scrollhole was when you went blank while checking your Instagram Explore page and ended up watching a 16-year-old Russian girl do backflips. The scrollhole was mukbang videos on Youtube, feta linguine clips on TikTok, staring at your Twitter feed until your eyes ached.

I found the concept of Internet addiction extremely funny. How could you think of it as a state of addiction when you were literally always on the Internet—had always been on the Internet? I had grown up with Neopets and Club Penguin and AIM away messages. All my email handles were cat-themed. I worked as a software engineer. The only time I wasn’t online when I was working out or asleep, and I was sure that I would soon discover a way to Tweet while I was biking.

I read a novel that described Twitter as a portal. That was exactly what it felt like to me: you followed the rabbit down the scrollhole and when you finally emerged again the real world somehow felt less real than it did this before. You could type one sentence into the portal and have people send you death threats. That never happened in real life! How magical.

Apparently social media was a form of collective brain damage. There were people who created platforms and rued what they done—they were sad that people were more interested in online engagement than real-life intimacy. There were also people who had created successful platforms and were very proud. They had, after all, connected the world. People were making friends online! People were falling in love half a world away. Your dating prospects were no longer limited to the town you lived in, your office, or your college friend circle. You could feel, for one sparkling moment, that anything in the world was yours to possess. As long as you had the requisite money and/or looks and/or relatability, of course. Otherwise you were well and thoroughly fucked (metaphorically, not literally. No one was having sex anymore).

Everett asked me whether he should get off Twitter. He said felt overwhelmed but in a good way. I said he should quit for 10 days. I didn’t think he could last any longer than that. There was a viral app a few months ago that simulated what it felt like to be social media famous, your phone constantly exploding with a barrage of notifications. Kids grew up wanting to be influencers. I can see why that was tempting—to receive money, validation, esteem for being yourself. Or some version of yourself.

I had made up an online persona that consistently achieved a mild amount of virality. It wasn’t fake so much as it was a distilled, compacted version of me. I had modeled it after an anime show I liked about girls attending a witch academy. The main character was cheerful and indefatigable. That was the part of myself that I liked the most, the part I wanted to emphasize.

“You portray yourself as this little flower fairy,” Jamie commented. He had alerts on for my Tweets: whenever I posted anything it instantly showed up on his screen. “But you’re actually quite mean.”

“Oh, come on.” He shrugged.

How much attention did I need before I felt sated? If you could feel sated at all you would feel it already. Melissa Febos: “She thought of something her therapist had once said to her: You can’t get enough of a thing you don’t need.” I didn’t need the Internet so I was doomed to want it forever.

I did enjoy writing about the Internet for the Internet. I liked the way posting was instant, the smooth and continuous feedback loop. I thought that too much writing about the Internet was created by people who didn’t properly inhabit it. Terms like “filter bubbles” and “reality distortion” were thrown around a lot. Baudrillard was referenced.

I liked it when people said nice things to me online. I didn’t like it when when people said mean things, but nobody could be meaner to me than I was to myself. As a teenager I read the writing of a 23-year-old who had become a Internet sensation for her affectless stories about sex. In her book, a collection of her sex stories, there was a section that was a collage of sexts, Facebook statuses pasted over pictures of her with cum on her face, and mean things people had commented online about her writing. Like, There’s absolutely nothing interesting about this girl. She’s half-conceited, half-insecure, moderately slutty in a dull sort of way, fancies herself to be a writer, yet lacks the talent to produce a even a decent grocery list… she’s utterly boring in every way. Like, She’s stuck between “cute” and “funny-looking”, in that zone where a woman might appear exotically beautiful in one photo, yet a slightly change in angle or lighting makes her look like a deranged crackwhore in the next. I liked the girl’s descriptions of the spaced-out sex she was having and thought the collages were very good. They taught me something important about being a woman on the Internet: it would probably lead to a significant increase in cortisol levels and cause me to gain weight from stress and die early.

It felt good when a post went viral. I liked the sense of accumulation, the likes stacking up. The scrollhole was seductive. I had read Nick Srnicek and knew that building the platforms was where the real power was, not making the content. But I continued to make content. I had this theory that what you produced was always one or more tiers below what you consumed. So someone could spend years reading Dostoyevsky and the result of that might be that they were really good at writing Instagram captions. Was that depressing?

We had been trained to believe any type of engagement was good engagement. We thought of ourselves as individualist and free-thinking, but we were cattle herded by the attention economy. Psychopolitics: Every neoliberal subject was the entrepreneur of its own self. The best minds of my generation converted their genius into B2B SaaS startups with impressive user retention, the ability to lend money to consumers in 25% chunks, new forms of digital gold. What else were you supposed to do if you wanted to reshape society? You could be a philosopher, or work in middle-management at a nonprofit, or distribute memetic units of thought online. Or you could make a lot of money.

Being online reminded me of the time an ex-boyfriend said to me, When Davey first told me about you, he said you were the most perceptive person he knew. But when I got to know you better I realized you were oblivious about so many things. This remark seemed applicable, somehow, to the environment of the scrollhole: if you lived offline you could at least pretend at self-knowledge. Online, people were always pointing out to everything you missed. Have you seen this post? Have you read this book? Do you know that you’re actually very ugly?

Sometimes being online felt like the early days of falling in love with Ryan: the narcotic high of his attention. I read an essay by a woman who was trying to stop using people as drugs. She wrote, “If I could be eternally and omnipotently texted, I might not have had to quit the drug-person. But no one can text you infinitely. So every day became a cycle of getting high and getting well.” I had quit Ryan only to replace him with the Internet. I was snorting atomized attention off bathroom counters. I wanted my drug to be sustainable: I wanted to keep using forever. If only it could be uncontaminated bliss, if only there were never lulls or lapses. I considered whether I could maintain a state of constant positive stimulation, morphine coursing through my veins while I sat limply in front of my Macbook screen. Maybe it could last for six months, a year, before I got cancelled or overwhelmed or merely bored. Why not?

It was funny to me that understanding virality was now a desirable personality trait. I pictured a girl saying, “Yeah, I like my boyfriend because he knows how to make Youtube videos that get millions of views. He just gets it, you know?” I didn’t think of that as dystopian, since we were way too many layers of simulacra in for terms like utopian and dystopian to mean anything. This wasn’t Orwell’s world anymore: it was Belle Delphine’s. I was fine with that.

I was beginning to realized that my life was infinitely consumable as long as I could make it seem appealing. Men said things to me like I’ve been looking for a girl who’s interested in the quantified self. Men told me that I should make Youtube videos. Sure, I thought. Why not more? Why not descend deeper into the scrollhole? Why not commit to accretion? There was, after all, so much to accrue.

Was this what Henry James meant by try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost? Did he mean, don’t miss a single TikTok meme, don’t miss a single Matt Levine email, don’t miss a single chance to take a picture, post it, preserve it for posterity? Don’t lose the chance to farm out your life for Internet points? Well, okay. I would try to not miss any of it.