I am a deeply embarrassing person. To a certain extent I’m sure everybody believes this about themselves.
In high school and early uni, I received regular messages from friends and acquaintances asking me to like their Instagram posts, to weigh in on the relative pros and cons of possible new display pictures.
if you're wanting like happy and flirty go #1 (and don't crop) if you're wanting artsy and deep 4 sure #2 and #3 is like 'look how cute fun and happy i am~'
I’ve sent these requests too of course, but I would rather seem distant from them.
We always needed at least eleven likes on our Instagram posts, because that was when they would display as a number instead of a list of usernames. You hoped for more, but you deleted the post if there were less.
A few months ago, Instagram introduced a trial feature preventing users from seeing the number of likes on other user’s posts. Even bypassing my inability to believe that tech companies would act out of anything other than self-interest, the experience of using Instagram has seemed no different to me. I never noticed how many likes anybody else’s posts had, I only cared about my own.
It is a truism to say that, growing up in a world where the internet has always existed, my generation, on the cusp of Millennial and Gen Z, have a crushing and constant awareness of themselves as some form of public figure, of each act as something that might be transmitted.
Sometimes I console myself by considering the embarrassing acts I have managed to avoid:
· Public relationship status on Facebook
· Self-congratulatory ATAR post
o re: high score
o re: tremendous career I have had despite low score
· Instagram account from perspective of a soft toy
· Endorsement of KONY 2012
o in particular, a dp of myself with handmade bunting that said ‘KONY 2012’
o (a girl I knew did this)
This list is an obsessive act of judgement. The energy I put into seeming tasteful and funny on social media is more embarrassing than any of the things I have actually done on social media.
Another embarrassment: I should have written my review of Trick Mirror earlier – straight after I finished the book three months ago. I was lazy and convinced myself I just wanted to spend more time thinking about it, reading other responses to it – but the time and the other responses have overwhelmed me. I don’t know how to find an original angle, how to top a profile of Tolentino’s dog, or the Grub Street profile where she describes baking a cake immediately upon waking, regularly eating two lunches, and wanting to fuck spicy rigatoni in the ass.
I paw softly through my copy of the book again and again. I make notes that seem suitably discerning: “Perhaps I miss the digital medium, the sensation that her writing is appearing in the medium that it examines.” I begin to organise an interview between her and another writer. I go into bookshops and am secretly pleased that Trick Mirror has not arrived: I’m not late yet!
I think the first piece of Jia Tolentino’s writing I ever read was ‘The Overwhelming Emotion of Hearing Toto’s “Africa” Remixed to Sound Like It’s Playing in an Empty Mall’, or at least that was the first one where I properly paid attention to Jia Tolentino as a writer. ‘The Overwhelming Emotion of Hearing Toto’s “Africa” Remixed to Sound Like It’s Playing in an Empty Mall’ is a thoughtful piece about semi-connected internet communities replicating the sounds of semi-connected spatial communities. Tolentino’s headline is knowingly ridiculous and an example of why I love her. The piece touches on themes present in Trick Mirror, Tolentino’s writing for The New Yorker, and most people’s lives in the twenty-first century – the paradoxical isolation of instant global connectivity, how we situate ourselves and our selfhood through the ether of the internet, the sometimes-sweet sometimes-dangerous idiosyncratic communities that emerge from it.
A lot of writing about the internet is written by people that don’t really seem to understand the internet—who see it as some wholly bad or wholly good thing. “In the beginning”, for Tolentino and for me, “the internet seemed good” – or less complicatedly good than it seems now. I defended it against older family members, went to irl events to meet minor internet celebrities, gave a simultaneously hack and wanky oral presentation to my English class on how it fostered ‘communities of practice’.
I had moved cities mid-high school and was still finding new friends, or rather, still believed I could only be myself with my old friends. I imagined social media as my only link to myself.
My identification with the internet deepened. My primary form of entertainment became YouTube. I wore DFTBA tshirts and learned charlieissocoollike songs on ukulele. Even though I never made my own videos, hardly even commented, I somehow imagined myself to be a part of some ‘community’.
The whole thing fell apart when I was seventeen and 50% of the vloggers I had followed were outed as abusers. The allegations came through like a torrent. I don’t have anything insightful to say about this event except that it changed my understanding of the internet as somewhere safe, or at least somewhere that could be safe if that’s what you were into. It was, in retrospect, a turning point.
A turning point irl was a friend’s highly publicised murder – an encounter with what Tolentino describes as “the call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house nausea that sets in when the news cycle focuses on something that feels private to you”.
After this, (and a few months where I mostly dissociated), some part of me shut down – perhaps the part that protected me from fully apprehending my own discomfort. I was rawer, less willing to compromise. I was un-fuck-with-able, in that if you fucked with me I would stare at you with tears of rage and then write a ten-page proposal for how to improve the racism within your organisation (I have done this four times).
These displays surprise even me each time they occur, and have changed things, sometimes, a small amount. But they also exhaust me. I have spent a year apologising for “not being as on top of my emails as I usually aim to be”, thanking strangers for their “infinite patience with me”, justifying my own incompetence with the important work I am doing.
Tolentino writes “I have felt so many times that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional – to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck”, and I have to put down her book for a while. “I still believe, at some inalterable level, that I can make it out of here.”
There are moments, instantaneous, where I am overwhelmed by the realisation that I can’t make it out of here, and where the emotion and trauma and time all seem to be so pointless it’s almost funny, like absolute helplessness cancels itself out and I am suddenly powerful with nihilism. More than anyone else, Tolentino seems able to access these moments and analyse them; recognise them in their simultaneous humour and horror. I don’t know how to express what reading this does to me. I don’t know if I have anything more insightful to say than this. ◆
Adalya Nash Hussein is a Punjabi-Australian writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Voiceworks, Liminal, Ibis House and Going Down Swinging (among others). She has been a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow, shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize, and an Emerging Writers’ Festival Melbourne Recital Centre Writer in Residence. She is Online Co-Editor at The Lifted Brow and a Nonfiction Editor at Voiceworks.