We have reached the negotiation table and now we argue: what does the internet mean? The technology has worked well enough for long enough that now the conversation has shifted away from wondering about technological capabilities, and on to the realm of the social. This cultural moment is messy and uncomfortable, and the emerging discourse does not skew in favor of sitting with the feeling. Instead, we sort, prematurely. Instead of wondering what the net is for, or even what the net could someday be for, we demand to know now if it means everything, or if it means nothing at all. Is online real, is it fake, and most importantly, what should we do about it? We are unchill in the early stage of the relationship, and not cool with just "seeing where things go."
This discomfort is most perceptible at the seams where IRL meets URL. It is difficult enough to cope with making sense of the net when it is not overflowing the boundaries of our devices, but increasingly, we are forced to reconcile the net's relation to the warm guts of the real world: to people, to manners, to feelings.
These are the things I feel online:
A paranoid lust for the gaze of strangers. Hope. Excitement. Fear. The opaque, agnostic wondering of an unrequited DM and the guilt of an unread tab. Mania in the dopamine fave loop. The letting-go spiral of going viral, scattering your narrative to the cyberwinds (BuzzFeed take the wheel). Warmth from the candles of a table-for-two email. Circuitous integration with a zeitgeist. The sleepover-party-sleeping-bag whisper of night Twitter, a nauseous momentum from scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and a million kinds of unfocused love for a network that somehow manages to be boundaryless yet intimate.
The IRL/URL boundary, as it stands, is characterized by shame. We encounter internet friends in "real life" and exchange uncomfortable introductions. "We can tell our parents we met at church," the Tinder man justifies, without prompt. There is writer and then there is blogger. There is art and there is net art. To cheapen an idea, one may simply append the suffix, "on the internet."
To feel things online is to hang a degrading "Kik me" sign on your back
Appropriate online behavior is characterized by Victorian gestures of withholding. Good girl Tweets are moderate, both in number and in subject matter. Speak only of your sex life and your politics in the abstract. Do not cry openly in the feed. Remain aloof and distant from any project of online self-making, preface your links with the affectless, "I wrote a thing." One may feel "real emotions" over books, over sex, over the Mad Men finale or even video games, but today's net is willfully dumb and cheap and base. We untangle our inability to concretely makes sense of the net by over-policing our investments. Jokes about someday deleting Twitter construct the fantasy of a receding horizon, granting us permission to engage with the affective experience of going online by undermining it.
Spiraling openly on the internet is a privilege reserved for those on the far ends of the cultural capital spectrum. Kanye and Joyce Carol Oates are given a pass to screed freely in discursive reply chains because they have already justified themselves offline. Teens are "dumb" and "silly" and thus they may curate masturbatory self-harm blogs and punctuate their comments euphorically!!!!!
The stable, midlevel urban creative type produces himself online as an egoless cloud, holier than the oafish net, feeling nothing as he tosses links into the ether. He studies the moment with unfeeling anthropological distance, but is not himself a part of the madness. To feel things online is to hang a degrading "Kik me" sign on your back. In the moments of weakness when we do succomb to digital release, we slam our screens shut in post-climax shame, clinging to the supposedly more real space of the IRL.
The man with the IRL fetish rubs himself up against the exposed brick wall of a loft in order to feel something. At 5 PM he makes a show of "logging off," heads out into into the world where he aims to cop a feel of the authentic. At the coffee shop, he looks over the spine of a print edition, cruising for communal table frotteurism. But there's no sex in the cold brew room, just a pay-per-view affair with a barista who asks his name only to label his cup. He empties his wallet, chasing a form of intimacy only incidentally concerned with people or communication, rock hard for the trappings of the scene instead: the cozy light of an Edison bulb, a gonzo view of flatware arranged neatly on a farm table, the money shot of a poached egg blowing its load into a tanned mound of potatoes. At night, he strokes himself to a Kinfolk centerfold while his girlfriend whispers in his ear, "N E V E R T W E E T."
The validity of an institution is decided by a critical mass of people deeming it valid. No institution is inherently more real or unshakeable than another. There was a time before libraries, before armies, before "gay male sexuality" or TheNew Yorker or irony or clinical depression. Things become real because we believe in them, and so Dril becomes Jesus, a notification becomes a wedding, and a tweet becomes War and Peace. This is not an endorsement, just a statement of possibility. In this present moment of negotiatory online messiness, we must realize that online institutions will eventually become as concrete as anything we can touch or feel today, but that it may take some time for things to shake out.
I like to imagine social media as a prosthetic technology. We have language already to describe our relationship to the objects we allow to become parts of our physical selves. The artificialness of a prosthetic arm doesn't undermine its usefulness or its validity. We need not fully become our online personas in the future, but surely we can make space for them as something real and integral to the project of building a tangible life and an authentic self. The best IRL/URL future is a porous fluid membrane in which real life informs online and so becomes it in an infinite blurry loop. Take an Uber to your homepage, convert crying into pageviews, and pageviews into friends. Climb into an unmade bed and get comfy until the future comes.
Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.
Image: Liz Barr