The Kuala Lumpur International Airport free wifi still remembers my phone from the last time I had a stopover here like three years ago. It doesn’t matter where I’ve come from. It doesn’t matter where I’m going. We’re all just tired commuters in this place and the duty-free stores and the names of cities, glittering on screens above our heads, are a mask of glamour that almost hide that fact, but don’t quite. There are, like always, people sleeping on the floor, their backpacks tied to their ankles with scarves.
I just got off a plane and I have to pee like, so fucking bad. Do these people in the queue even understand how bad? The wifi connection kicks in and I receive notifications from Instagram and Twitter. The little bars pop up, likes and follows. They fold out and fan down my screen clack clack clack.
I get into a cubicle and pee for about eight seconds before my bladder is empty. I know outside my cubicle people fidget in a queue, they’ve maybe held their bladders for hours too. Still I check each notification, luxuriating in it. Some people have liked a video I posted a couple days ago. I don’t recognise their usernames. Maybe they’re bots. Maybe they’re people I don’t know. I wonder what my life looks like to them, this thing I have cultivated so carefully. I wonder who I appear to be.
“I tried to picture myself in the eyes of others all the time,” narrates Colleen, the central character in Natasha Stagg’s Surveys. On the internet, David Winer writes, “almost no one is purely a source or purely a reader.” Winer wrote that in 2012; four years later, I’d go further. Nobody’s neither, nobody’s either, we’re all both. Geert Lovink writes, “the online experience is … deeply human: the aim is to find the Other, not information. Ideally, the Other is online, right now.” I read my own source. I read my own source as this Other, obsessively. I pore over my feed the same way I pore over the feed of someone whose approval I’m seeking: desperately. Probably, so do you. And so does Colleen.
I want to know: what’s Colleen seeking on the internet? What are any of us seeking there? No. What is there, out there, on there, to be sought?
I look at my Instagram account, sitting on the airport toilet. I scroll meticulously all the way back to like three months ago. Every time I lean too far forward the toilet flushes automatically and wets my ass. I stay seated and keep scrolling, enthralled. How gorgeous does my life look, how enchanting? No wonder these strangers wanted in. There is a pleasure in knowing my careful choices have value, even the most fleeting. There is a pleasure in seeing an image I made, an image of me, of my life, and seeing it through the eyes of Lovink’s imagined, online Other.
You can tell a lot about a person just by knowing what they want to be. You see a lot about a person just by seeing what they want you to see, because you can guess what you’re not seeing, and you can guess why.
I DM my friend, “omg I am totally obsessed with Joanne the Scammer rn.” I link her to Joanne the Scammer’s Instagram. I am very self-aware because I know my friend will really like Joanne the Scammer, and I know she hasn’t heard of her yet. So I know this recommendation will make me appear to be into things that are cool. It will make me appear to be ahead of the curve.
This is total bullshit though, because it’s not like I got into liking Joanne the Scammer during her rise to notoriety. I got into liking her after she was tagged on Chelsea Peretti’s Instagram, just before, or probably after, she went viral.
Colleen and her famous boyfriend Jim entertain themselves in L.A. by deliberately performing celebrity clichés just to have something to post about. They become “juice bar freaks, Vegas day-gamblers, Burning Man tradesmen, business planners in meetings, art stars interviewed on every relevant site, junkies strung out at every relevant party”. Colleen checks her phone constantly, but all the notifications just make her feel more lonely.
I think Chris Crocker was like, my first contact with the idea of ~internet famous~. I am sure you agree with me that ‘Leave Britney Alone’ is a masterpiece. Branden Miller, the man behind the character of Joanne the Scammer, watched Crocker’s video on his dial-up connection in 2007 and thought he could do one better. He said to The Fader recently, “I thought I was going to blow up on YouTube, like him, because I thought I was funnier.”
Miller did blow up, and Joanne the Scammer is fucking huge. Also definitely funnier, IMHO, than ‘Leave Britney Alone’, but that might just be the times.
When The Fader interviewed Miller about Joanne the Scammer, they spoke to Crocker too. “When they’re living for you, they’re really living for you,” Crocker said. I felt sad. “It’s like you’re walking on air. The thing is, there will be a point when people turn on you. It’s just the way the internet is.”
Stagg does this thing where she’s constantly emphasising the difference—and it’s a real difference, to Colleen a tangible, liveable difference—between Colleen’s rise to fame and her status as ‘famous’. I feel like I have never witnessed this change in anyone. I am always a beat behind, always discovering the Next Big Thing when they’re already the Current Big Thing, and the Next Big Thing is creeping up behind them.
This is probably because I’m a vain internet user. To me, the internet is mirror, not window; I am forever looking inward, paranoid and desperate for approval. Curiosity is secondary. Stagg theorises that in the age of social media, nobody can be interested in the internet for the internet’s sake. Interest in the internet can only be self-interest, even subconsciously. Colleen’s relationship with the internet, in this way, is transparent, and so is mine. Is this admirable, or just vapid? Are other people, ‘curious’ people, just pretentious? “Literally, everything is code and coded, but on top of that, coded into a context,” muses Colleen. There’s so much meaning. There’s so much meaning! But how much of it is for me?
I think the bit in Molly Soda’s zine Should I Send This where she is crying and picking chia seeds out of her teeth is for me. I mean I know she didn’t write it for me, but it feels like it’s for me, I punched the f-e-e-l-s keys really hard just then because it really feels like it’s for me. Because I’ve done that. I’ve cried into a smoothie like, I’ve gotta take care of myself but I wish somebody else wanted to, you know? She writes:
i sat on my front porch gulping down a smoothie and picking chia seeds out of my teeth and i cried and cried but no one heard me. because no one is in love with me. i thought, i could cry like this forever and no one would see me because i’m not in love with anyone.
Molly Soda’s not in love with anyone, or maybe she is but the online sad-girl she’s performing isn’t. Colleen is. She’s in love with Jim, but their love is totally 100 per cent public. It has to be. When they meet, they “merge” their “collective followings”, projecting themselves as a unit to a higher sphere of fame. From here, just like for Molly maybe, and just like for me, it’s about performing – performing an act, performing what’s expected of you. “It was interaction, and people love to see that,” Colleen remembers of the early days of her relationship. “We decorated the whole internet with our fondness for each other.”
Sitting at the airport Starbucks I’m sucking iced Americano through a straw, sucking up more free wifi cos the airport wifi doesn’t let me stream video but the Starbucks wifi does. I check Melbourne’s time zone. Everyone in Melbourne would be sleeping, except for the insomniacs. I feel very lonely and suspended. I remember a time when a lover scolded me for commodifying all of our private, intimate moments by tweeting them, or tweeting during them.
Colleen’s like, “Even in a moment of distilled pleasure … I thought about how I could distill it further, with a photo or a text, and felt guilty for that.” If it were me, I’d stop here. I’d turn to my lover and touch the tip of his nose, or the spot between his eyebrows, and I’d put my phone somewhere close by me, but face down so I couldn’t see the screen light up even if it did. That world can be switched off, delayed. But not for Colleen. She asks you, almost pleads you to answer – why would just living, enjoying reality, be any “better than creating some representation of it?” And I can’t answer. I stare at my own feed and remember the moments I shared online and think, would I have forgotten those otherwise? Or am I just happy because of all the numbers?
I feel small and very ashamed. I don’t feel like the confident, online poet sad-girl I wanted to be, thought I was being. I’m sure I came across like Colleen, desperate for approval. I feel sick, mostly with embarrassment. “The biggest motivation of internet communication is trying to find out what people think of you,” narrates Colleen, dismissing private soul-baring, considering a private moment—a moment with its participants its only audience—a complete anomaly. As though a moment not shared is a moment wasted. I force myself to examine this sentiment. I force myself to swallow another sip of iced Americano. To roll the phrase ‘iced Americano’ on my tongue. How nice, how jetsetterish of me, to sip an iced Americano at like 3.30am Melbourne time on a Wednesday. And I know I have to share this.
I know that I’m a piece of shit, or maybe a piece of art, or maybe both.
The airport’s like a big, giant mall, but I feel like I’m in space, too, because without checking in on any platforms I don’t feel like I’ve plotted my location. So I’m in a mall in space in between flying, in between destinations.
Which is weird cos in the first half of this book, Colleen works in a big, spacious mall, just like the big, spacious space mall I’m sitting in now. I feel like I’m Colleen, except instead of going to work at the mall, and sitting behind a glass screen that separates me from my customers, I’m walking around a big mall, and tall glass windows separate me from… well, somewhere. It looks like jungle, but I think it’s just fake jungle to remind me I’m near the equator. I’m sure there’s a city out there somewhere. If only the wifi wasn’t too shit to look at Google Maps.
Being in between is kind of a theme in Surveys. Colleen sits behind her glass barrier at her job and watches the lower-class junkies come in to take market research surveys for a quick buck. She feels “the shame of magnifying [their] differences”, knowing that she’s better than them, knowing that she’s kind of an asshole for thinking this, knowing that acknowledging her privilege doesn’t transfer it away. She misses her old friends in Florida where she grew up; she can’t stop namedropping and making them hate her. She straddles two worlds; she is “stuck being spoiled and unsatisfied forever.”
I know it’s an obvious metaphor, but I can’t help thinking that the glass of a phone screen, of a laptop screen is a divider too. It means that two people can communicate, but never really touch.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based poet and writer. Her short fiction, poems and essays have appeared in Seizure, The Lifted Brow, Scum, Meanjin, SPOOK, Chart and elsewhere. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Scribe Non-fiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets at @emmacones and grams at @acidmazzer.