First Twitter Gave Me Power. Then I Felt Hopeless.
What I learned from growing up online.
Illustration by Kitron Neuschatz & Lia Kantrowitz
From October 2015 to the present day, I have lived approximately 168 different lives on the internet. I was Eve the Nobody before I was Eve the Sex Writer before I was Eve the Comedian before I was Eve the Depressed Girl before I was Eve the Drunk before I was Eve the Feminist before I was Eve the Tech Blogger before I was Eve the Democratic Socialist before I was Eve the Hater before I was Eve the Teetotaler before I was Eve the Professional Politics Writer before I was Eve the Sword Girl before I became whichever iteration of myself I am today.
Translating the essence of who you are into a digestible product is a strange way to live, especially when you’re a young adult and your sense of self is in flux. It was never my main intention to peddle my personality for a living, but in the era of social media, the personal brand reigns supreme; self-commodification was an inevitable outcome for a young writer like myself—extremely online, comfortable with confessing her most deranged impulses to a large audience, and looking for affirmation and love. Translating the ups and downs of my existence into my personal brand was a way of life for me. The more I viewed my life as something to be consumed by other people, capitalizing on all the pain and pleasure and resentment and fear that come along with being alive, the more compulsively I posted. My way of being online was always unsustainable, and each time I couldn’t sustain it any longer, I shed my skin, and evolved into a slightly more adept version of myself.
Let’s go back to October 2015: My life was about to change forever because I was about to post my first viral tweet. I had graduated college a year before, and even though I knew that I wanted to write for a living, I was unsure exactly how to realize that ambition. After a year of aimless drifting, I ran into a friend at a bar who was working as an editor at a small web publication, and I started freelancing personal essays and silly blog posts while working part-time at a coffee shop. Every now and then, I’d tweet a mundane observation or a link to an article, but I didn’t have enough followers to get in deep.
It’s a couple days after my 22nd birthday when I tweet screenshots of a Tinder conversation with Martin Shkreli, the budding poster boy for pharmaceutical greed who has just made headlines because his company increased the price per tablet of a drug AIDS patients use to treat life-threatening parasites from $13.50 to $750. I never meet Shkreli, nor am I particularly interested in doing so—at least not in the context of a date; but I use the fact that he swiped right on me to my advantage, and ask him questions about how it feels to turn into a national villain overnight, and how he justifies his cruel capitalism.
"Translating the essence of who you are into a digestible product is a strange way to live, especially when you’re a young adult and your sense of self is in flux. It was never my main intention to peddle my personality for a living, but in the era of social media, the personal brand reigns supreme."
The notifications begin flooding in, and I lie in my bed, my laptop resting atop my belly, half-paralyzed, manically refreshing my Twitter feed, doe-eyed and hypnotized by the seemingly infinite stream of likes and retweets and replies and new followers. I am high off the fact that everyone is looking at me, and I feel powerful. I have the attention of the crowd, and as it turns out, that’s all I’ve ever wanted.
Fast-forward to 2016: I am on Twitter for hours and hours and hours every day, so it’s not entirely surprising that I am also lonely and depressed. I am tweeting through it all and I am handsomely rewarded for my social media impulses: My follower count balloons to 10,000 and it just keeps getting bigger. To me, that means I am special and I am doing something right. I’ve successfully capitalized on the internet notoriety I received from my first viral tweet to realize my career ambitions—I am freelance writing for whoever will have me and my Twitter brand is key to my hustle. I date guys who don’t like me back and then get paid by publications like Cosmopolitan and New York Magazine to spill the details of my disastrous love life, among other things. I feel like a legitimate writer, and I am reveling in it, and yet I still feel empty. Even though I panic about the toll my social media compulsion is taking on me, I tweet and I tweet and I tweet some more. I do it because I tell myself I wouldn’t be where I am—eking out a living off writing—if it wasn’t for all my tweeting. It’s not like I get the majority of my work through any connection or secret “in.” Instead, it’s because people see me on Twitter. I feel indebted to the social platform, and unlike the thrill of my first viral tweet, it feels like a burden. I don’t want to admit it, but I am scared.
Now it’s March 2017: I have just started a new job covering politics for VICE. I don’t think I would’ve have gotten this job without my Twitter; after all, I now have 40,000 followers, and those are the people who click on my articles, and that’s good for business. It’s what makes me a valuable asset. As I pivot from oversharing my personal plight to thoughtlessly spewing out half-formed ideas about our current political hell, my following surges. I’ll write an aggressive political take, and it will make some people mad and that will lead to more followers, and so it goes.
As 2018 swings into full gear, my life neatens up and I can no longer ignore the cracks in my personal brand. I have a full-time job and I am in a serious long-term relationship with an amazing man whose love and companionship nourishes me in ways the affirmation of thousands of strangers never could. I hate Twitter. I have 79,000 followers and I still fucking hate it. I also still use it constantly. My timeline is a stream of infinite negativity, of horrific news, and everybody yelling at one another, and maybe I’m just getting older, but suddenly I am exhausted by all the cyber-rage. Every day online feels like Gamergate. The internet is angrier and more savage than it’s ever been, and it’s not safe to use Twitter as loosely as I once did. For the first time in years, my impulse to inform the world of all my inane passing thoughts and feelings has fizzled out. Moreover, I am gripped with fear that an amorphous Twitter beast will punish me for all the crazy things I’ve publicly shared over the years, that all my meanest and most callous moments will come back to bite me in the ass.
I don’t know who I am and I feel shame over the infinite ways I’ve misrepresented myself to an audience of cruel strangers. I oscillate between wanting to disappear and lapping up the dregs of pleasure I can’t help but take from having a viral tweet.
I am consumed with self-hatred and try to push my past online folly into the back of my mind. My personal brand once made me feel big, so it’s only natural that as I mature, growing into a person who no longer lives her life as if everyone’s watching and judging, I eventually feel like a victim of my past selves. Everything I’ve ever written—on social media and for other publications—haunts me. I fear that it’s too late, that I’ve resigned myself to being a bombastic persona and that’s the end of the story. I want out.
"I hate Twitter. I have 79,000 followers and I still fucking hate it. I also still use it constantly. My timeline is a stream of infinite negativity, of horrific news, and everybody yelling at one another, and maybe I’m just getting older, but suddenly I am exhausted by all the cyber-rage. Every day online feels like Gamergate."
As summer fades into fall, I remain unsure about who I am and who I even want to be, but somehow, I am climbing out of the hole I dug myself into. I go through my old tweets one at a time, deleting hundreds of messages that make me wince with shame and regret upon a second read. At the beginning of this arduous process, I am drenched in self-loathing, but eventually I grow numb to the folly of all the people I’ve been, and even start to feel a little smug about the evolution I’ve undergone over the past three years: I have gone from a suicidally depressed attention junkie to a less suicidal and less depressed person who only likes attention sometimes. Baby steps!
I haven’t quit Twitter entirely—and tweeting still feels like an implicit job requirement. But that hasn’t prevented me from changing my relationship to the social media platform. While I tweeted 1,033 times in January 2018, I posted only 188 tweets in August 2018, and this raw data affirms my inkling that I really am changing for the better. I feel proud of myself, and then feel dumb about feeling proud of myself, because really, how hard is it to resist tweeting more than 1,000 times a month?
I keep thinking about the title of a Flannery O’Connor short story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which was cribbed from a quote by the French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The quote goes:
Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.
That’s life, I guess. All the different versions of me are ascending upward, and I can’t wait to see who makes it to the top, how I converge.
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