I left social media three years ago, and when I say I left social media, what I mean is that I abandoned the preposterous idea that keeping up with Internet Culture at large was within my reach, nor desire.
I had a baby and turned 40 and there was a pandemic, so that certainly played a role in my Irish Exit. But also, the Internet became untrustworthy, as a whole. We knew this all along. We knew of filter bubbles and echo chambers and confirmation bias, but we liked to think we could outsmart the algorithm. We liked to think our sources of choice, no matter how independent, would remain true rather than loyal. But what we found is what we’d feared: black and white is unattainable. Ink, when pressed, will always smudge a little.
And in the overwhelming absence of truth, of goodness, of wisdom, I just… stopped logging on. I deleted apps, and in doing so, deleted any shred of influence that was unearned. Instead, I spent my time reciting nursery rhymes and mashing bananas, and when the postpartum fog lifted, I realized the air felt fresher than it had in years. I wrote a book for a friend, and it became a New York Times bestseller, and the truth was made evident: leaving social media permanently – experiencing strings of days unaware of comment sections, viral memes, and whatever rise of jeans we should be wearing this fall – would not hinder my work (nor life). But it just might help it.
And so, I left.
And then I wrote another book – this one for myself – and a fairly significant amount of Internet Culture research was required. And so, with trepidation, after three years of blissful innocence, I opened Chrome.
Here’s what I saw…
1. Everyone is on Substack now.
Everyone I know, everyone I don’t, everyone I used to know but don’t anymore. Yesterday, I discovered a former member of my high school swim team writing listicles for his marketing firm, rating which Taylor Swift cover pairs best with his client’s keto popcorn brand.
(No, this isn’t a veiled announcement explaining that I’m shifting platforms. In truth, when I see Substack constantly promoting success stories on how to move your audience to their platform with ease, how to grow a following – publish consistently, i.e. all the time! invite everyone you know to join you! turn on paid subscriptions and watch the money flow! – with disproportionate zeal to the disclosure that they receive 10% of your paid subscription revenue? Well, weary is a poor descriptor, skeptical is a better one.)
What I will say is this: I get it. Substack feels like the early Internet again, like we’ve been whooshed back into 2006 with our blogrolls and our sidebar ads and our link round-ups, except we miss Grace’s cats and Heather’s stories and seeing each other at least three times annually in New Orleans or Salt Lake City or Orlando, wherever the next conference happens to be and does it really matter as long as we come home with a Mailchimp hat?
But it’s not the early Internet again. We’re older and wiser (more jaded?) and we’d be remiss to overlook the fact that a platform promoting what modern writers seek – freedom of speech! a built-in audience! no technology hurdles! – is simply another Silicon Valley idea fueled by over $86 million of private funding, perfectly poised to build a foundation on ideals that appeal to the masses but cannot sustain them. (Ahem.)
2. And… everything is monetized.
Do we tire of this? Must we all make a living from living our lives?
A few years ago, I attended a funeral for a school janitor. There were many touching memories shared, stories swapped, tears spilled. I knew Mike was one of the greats, loved and admired and respected by all who were blessed enough to land in his orbit. But what I didn’t know is what his daughter shared from the pulpit, that every single day, her father would arrive home from work and change from his coveralls to his smock to spend his evenings painting acrylic landscapes in the family garage. He never sold a thing, she said. Never even wanted to. He just did it because it did something to him. Kept his heart beating, I think.
I know what she meant. After creating “content” for twenty years – a decade paid, a decade not – I can safely say that the water is less murky when money is void of the transaction. My best writing – the kind that has kept my heart beating – is the kind that will never be published online, and if it is, couldn’t possibly be priced. This is not to say that it is wrong to pursue a job that brings you joy, nor is it wrong to be paid for your passions. And yet, being right and being free is not the same thing.
(Whenever possible, choose the latter.)
You can share sourdough knowledge without creating a masterclass. You can move off-grid without launching a YouTube channel. You can tell your stories without a paywall.
You can keep your own heart beating (and perhaps someone else’s?), free of charge.
3. We are supposed to be mewing?
4. Time reveals much.
This is perhaps a vastly unpopular opinion, but why stop now? There’s an undercurrent of doubt that I believe we all experience when ingesting content on the Internet, specifically curated content from popular social media personalities. We know the influencers we most love to follow are lying to us, but we’d like to know at what percentage they’re lying to us. Is their reel perhaps comprised of a 3% fib, a tiny parade of little white lies, the precise measure that most of us lie to our own selves anyway? Or is it something larger, more sinister, doling out mistruths and manipulations to line their pockets, their retirement funds, their feather beds they will sleep in and then awake in, laughing all the way to the bank?
Where I have landed is this: if you are unsure how much you can trust your Internet personality of choice, take a three year break from them, and I promise you, the fruit will be revealed. The self-proclaimed Evangelical Queen will be divorced and selling CBD sex gummies within the calendar year. The parenting expert will publicly vlog her adopted child’s PTSD symptoms (#spon!) in Fabletics leggings and Glossier blush. Sixteen months is all it will take for your childless-by-choice Auntie icon to launch a course on Brave Pregnancy, but not before penning a memoir on limiting beliefs, finding love, and manifesting the right life partner to save you from yourself.
Can people change their minds? Yes, yes, yes. Should they? Yes, 100%. Every day, we either grow or die. But online, many are dying while scattering their homes with peonies, snapping sunlit photos during magic hour while cropping out the dead soil. By all accounts, they look alive. Some are. Some are not.
What this means for us “followers” is – of course – that we follow. We follow the narrative that life is good or terrible or whatever someone wants to name it as, and how do we know it’s true? How do we know the wrinkles lost are from the magic serum (swipe up to buy!) or the fillers? And why does it matter?
It matters, deeply, because we are biting the fruit. We’ll have what she’s having, we say, and we add to cart or practice breathwork or buy the workshop, and who knows what we’re changing into. We’ll find out eventually, of course, and if you’re comfortable tethering any part of your journey of self to someone else’s you’ve never met, someone who you lack relationship or accountability with, someone who is “just sharing what’s working for me!” then by all means, +follow. Witness their changes in tiny degrees, applaud many of them, send strings of emojis for every pound lost or dollar gained or therapy session conquered. But if you wake in a few years and find you have followed someone you don’t know into a pit of despair and are left to crawl out of it alone, you needn’t be surprised.
Having been on both sides of the lane, I can attest that influencers cannot – and should not – share everything. Dynamics can be hard. Relationships are tricky. Life can turn on a dime. And yet: if you are an influencer making dollars from said dimes, it is fair to say you’ll be held to a higher standard. For many, the standard a paid influencer can sustain is anything but high, and in a few short years, you will know whether or not your favorite follow is perhaps a wolf or a Lonk.
5. Everything looks the same.
I noticed something at the zoo last fall, a young mother sipping from an oversized Stanley thermos perfectly molded to her stroller cupholder. I filed it away as an oddity, but then I spotted another instance by the orangutan exhibit, and unbelievably, one more in the parking lot. All young mothers. All with strollers. All slurping from a stainless gourd the size of my backpack.
TikTok, I surmised, so I asked my very GenZ friend and she confirmed: much of the world is toting lead-laced Stanley tumblers now. No one knows why, except that it keeps drinks cold and promotes adequate hydration in ways that the bkr from 2006 is no longer capable of providing. Perhaps it’s the oversized straw. The sturdy handle? The saffron color way?
I’m as flummoxed as the rest of us, she admits as she sips her own in Hammertone Green.
6. Convenient narratives abound.
Few things make a human being’s unexplored sanctimony more clear – and more muddied – than Internet Culture. Online, it is unwelcome to express our views on [insert any of our current global and political crises], and equally unwelcome to not express our views on them, and so, it appears that many of us have chosen to express our views on the only thing we can be sure we are absolutely and unfailingly experts in: ourselves.
Instead of forming narratives for whatever cause we’re taking up at the moment, it appears we have turned our lives and choices into one long string of meaningful causes. This is why, on the Internet, the gaining of weight seems to require an announcement. So, too, does the loss of weight. It requires a well-crafted exposé – with the assistance of a contracted PR representative, a speech writer, and AI grammar edits, no less – on why we’re not lazy (if the former) or vain (if the latter), but instead, how we’re intentionally returning to a primal focus on our ultimate inner health, abundant wellness and the embracing of our bodies as we care for our hearts.
It is clear: if you are on the Internet right now, it is not enough to say something, you need to Say Something™.
And this concerns me. It concerns me because human nature is often bent toward two things: the sun, and justification. Whether we choose Ambleside or Botox or Christianity, we can pen a rhetorical essay of why and how and what, and we can ensure that these causes we have taken up will represent us well, and vice versa. When equipped with a keyboard and a Delete button, we can iron out any inconsistency or inconvenient narratives and we can hold our [ad] banners high.
And this is where we find ourselves then, collectively, little Harolds with our Purple Crayons, drawing invisible lines that divide with every caption. This is where we become PR representatives with well-spun narratives instead of flawed people with a few planks in their eyes. This is how a feminist woman can go gray in order to rage against the patriarchy while happily scheduling a butt lift, because after all, it’s her choice, who needs to know (unless it’s #paid, of course) and body image has nothing to do with men or ageism or establishmentarianism, does it?
This is the precise moment we, as humans, hide under the blanket umbrella of “Two things can be true at once!” instead of digging deep to ask ourselves if they are true, or if we merely want them to be true.
7. So much crying in cars.
8. Influencers are not OK.
As part of my research for this book, I spoke with many, many, many influencers and sifted through quotes, interviews and conversations with over 200 sources. The general consensus is this: influencers are not OK.
Each popular social media personality – from micro influencers to mega influencers with over 1 million followers – made reference to Imposter Syndrome, “crippling” anxiety, and mental health struggles. And for good reason. We are asking of them what ancient civilizations once asked of their gods – to lead, to guide, to create, to manifest, to speak. We are elevating mere peers to weigh in on all manner of subjects from paint colors to pant suits to parenting strategies, and for a while, all are too happy to give and to receive in this seemingly harmless exchange of information (inspiration?).
But something happens in the exchange. We become tethered to one another, oddly reliant. Our influencers bear the mantle of thought leader, and that mantle arrives with a long and winding digital thread in which an audience can grasp onto – to find, track, dox, love, or hate. On the Internet, you become embraced or ignored not for what you do, but for what you say. The emotional whiplash of living a public life in which feedback is freely and instantly given arrives with a cost: your world exists in two extremes, straining against both pride and despair. Pride, if the caption/photo/stance is loved. Despair if otherwise.
So influencers do as they’re told: they learn to develop a thick skin, ignore the comment sections, hire a team to moderate their socials. Their thick skin grows into a shell of protection, and soon, their mantle becomes a noose. They are no longer trudging ahead, a line of followers trailing behind their cloaks. Instead, they are being dragged by the audience’s desires, through threads of expectations, dizzied and directionless. They are weary and tired and worn, and they are crumbling under the pressure, and yet: they are still wearing the mantle. They are still holding on. What else is there to do? It’s a job, they tell themselves, flicking on the ring light. Just smile and do the job.
Is it any wonder why we are struggling with a nationwide mental health crisis? It has been said a community is only as healthy as it leaders, and an overwhelming number of our leaders are, by all accounts, caught in a tug of war with themselves, tripping over their cloaks, trampled by their own mantle.
And we, the followers, follow.
9. I didn’t miss anything at all.
The great controversies and crises that once gripped our bandwidth and attention – #FreeBritney! Big’s Peleton heart attack! Jeopardy’s new host canceled! – have drifted away from our collective memories, to be replaced with… well, whatever arrives today. Will it all matter in thirty years? Twenty? Tomorrow?
If these words sound harsh, perhaps it’s because they are. I’m typing them quickly, my thoughts racing far past thoughtfulness as I resist the temptation to edit my noticings into niceties. The truth is, I have never been more convinced that – in creating this world wide web, and creating on this world wide web – it is plausible that we, all of us, have become the bait.
And to that, I will say this: if we are not yet dead, we can still untangle ourselves.
It’s not too late to become free.