Alienation is the most powerful online brandOctober 27, 2018
More and more I find myself trying new ways to get lost. Not to disappear, not quite, but to separate self from self — or to create a new, quiet space, the way a mirror does with reflections. There’s no sound in mirrorspace. Just mirrorselves who move silently through an inverted, recognizable world. It sometimes occurs to me to wonder about time there, in the land beyond the silvered glass, but only when I’ve ventured far enough from myself that it occurs to me to check my learned assumptions about the way the world works.
In 1917 a Russian guy, Viktor Shklovsky, came up with a word for this: defamiliarization. His argument, essentially, was that poetic language works as art because it’s more difficult to understand than everyday prose, and that this difficulty in parsing meaning could make the normal unfamiliar and therefore consciously artistic. It forces you into seeing the unfamiliar thing and the language or experience that got you there as art. (Although: if you ask any garden-variety depressive, they’ll tell you just how often their ailment makes normal life seem strange and monstrous.) What’s interesting about this is how it’s been reinvented for the internet, or perhaps been repurposed to fit life online; internet humor, these days, is all Shklovsky.
Consider the following, from Tumblr users:
- awesomephilia: “an octopus is just a wet spider”
- mysticmoonhigh: “So I was talking to a boy today and called him “dude” and he goes, “Hey, I’m not your dude. I want to go by bro.” And the very first thing that popped into my head was ‘wow, he has preferred bronouns’.
- tarntino: “all these fuckboys but who is the fuckfather”; in reply, swansingr writes: “zeus”
- cyrodiildo: “i’m like a romanceable npc if you compliment me once per day for a week straight you unlock the dialogue option to marry me”
I could keep this up for a while. This kind of defamiliarized humor works because, above all else, the internet is wonderful at stripping things of context. I couldn’t tell you where or when those posts were made, let alone by whom — I came across them as images in a Twitter thread, posted by a user whose handle I’ve already forgotten.
This happens all the time. It’s why years-old news recirculates periodically on Facebook and Twitter, passed off as current, because why not, it’s plausible. The internet is a mirrorworld of IRL that exists in a continuous present; it’s hard to tell anything’s when, outside of periodic app UI updates.
I’d say depression and anxiety play a role in this, too, as they alienate and defamiliarize as a matter of course. It’s no surprise that the lingua franca of online ranges from depressiongrams, to anxious vagueposts, to textposts, couched in the pinkish language of self-care. That started in online communities buried within Reddit, 4chan, and Tumblr, all powered by teens — which is crucial, because teenage angst feels like the realest, most pressing thing in the world. It’s a lens with which to see the world; it’s a boulder on your chest, making it difficult to breathe. It’s the reason you instantly pull up hundreds of posts and blogs if you search the phrase “euthanize me” on Tumblr.
If the language of depression and anxiety rules the internet, relatability is its cause; relatable accounts and posts — which I’m defining as ideas that mirror your lived experience — tend to earn the most attention. Attention begets followers, which in turn brings more lucrative forms of attention: ask any number of Twitter humorists who managed to parlay their observational skill into TV writing jobs and they’ll tell you the same thing. It’s an axiom of the web that happy people don’t make good posts.
I wonder what this kind of continuous alienation is doing to us — to me. Like most of my peers I’ve been online for what seems like eternity. An eon, at least. And the thing is, time passes faster online because things are happening constantly; all of my friends’ therapists tell them to log off because the human brain isn’t meant to process this much trauma at this much scale at once. They don’t. Either because they can’t (jobs) or they can’t (addiction).
I also wonder sometimes what it means that I feel so comfortable posting online about nearly everything, but that there are certain subjects that I can’t share there. The whole point of posting is to find other people like you, and the promise of the internet is that you’ll come to know the people who understand you better than anyone else. What’s funny about the whole relatability thing is that nobody mentions it’s a racket; nothing does worse online than naked need. The gulf between what you feel and what you can safely post is itself alienating.
To me, the situation seems a little like dating, at least in this age in urban centers: it’s easy to sleep with new people but impossible to ask them to just hold you, to join you in the quiet place where the whole wide world is another person’s touch. Because if you two look at your reflection in a mirror, what you’ll see is a commitment in progress — a bond forming like hoarfrost that is variously permanent. “Even a funky guy like Funky Kong can get lonely too,” you might post afterward, below a screenshot of Funky Kong saying “It’s OK, dude; sometimes I get lonely too!” in a speech bubble. It’s a way of bridging the gap between the world you curate and the one you have to experience in its random cruelty; it’s easier than saying please hold me, I need to be touched, and emotionally safer, too.
There isn’t a solution here. I’m only outlining a problem, trying to give a form to this nameless anxiety in my gut. The one that says I’m drowning, but at least there are people flailing here with me. I sometimes wonder what we look like in a mirror, or from above. Or whether we’d even recognize the water dragging us down.