I wake up and check my phone. It’s instinctual and second nature now. I’m almost unaware of it at this point, like I’m no longer in control. My thumb brings the phone to life in front of me — a modern-day Frankenstein. Peering through my still-crusted eyes I attempt to make sense of the glowing pixels. Fifty new followers. I roll over and stare at the ceiling. There was a time when I found this exciting. I might lose that many in a day now. It’s cyclical. I almost forget about my girlfriend still asleep next to me. We’ve been dating for two years now. It seems like the only reason I remember this is from the time stamps on our Instagram photos. My fingers brush a strand of hair behind her ear and work their way back to my phone. I delete three lackluster tweets from yesterday. That will cost me. I begin writing out a joke I thought of from the night before. There are more people awake at this hour; better chance of an audience. I press send.
Even as I start my shower, I think about how the joke is doing. I wonder if anyone understood it? I wonder if anyone laughed? Before I can wonder anymore I realize I’m already dressed and downstairs. I crack two eggs into the frying pan. I already have my phone out ready to take a picture as the yolks begin to whisper on the skillet. I try deciding on a filter. I actually struggle to pick one as if picking the wrong one might ruin the food. I settle on Valencia. It’s always Valencia. I check on the tweet from earlier. It’s not starting off so great. I’m pulled out of this digital vortex by the smell of burning. Fuck. I toss the charred remains out. I didn’t need breakfast anyways. I check the photo of the eggs like an obituary. The virtual food is almost as satisfying as the real thing as I start to count the likes. I grab my coat and leave as I attempt to ignore about my hunger.
It’s autumn. I sidestep and push through the people on the sidewalk taking pictures of the leaves that have fallen to the ground. The lines between person and pylon begin to blur as I weave my way through the human traffic. Two people hold up their phones to one another to show the same, almost identical leaf photo they took. A lady is aggressively asking if her friend saw what she posted last night. Music drowns out the conversations around me as I slide my headphones into my ears. I check on my tweet. It’s doing better, but still hasn’t taken off.
I don’t see what happens next but I hear it. It’s flesh vs. steel. Up ahead an elderly man lays twisted on the asphalt. A black SUV is perched over him like an automotive vulture. Steel won. As the man shallowly wades in the pool of his own blood my attention is drawn to what’s happening around him. Flashes. Not from ambulance lights but cameras. The mob first taking pictures of the leaves have switched targets. I watch as they begin to upload almost in unison. How did it come to this? Why hasn’t anyone called an ambule — I catch myself. I look to my phone still in my right hand. Why haven’t I called for help? My reflection appears against the glass of the screen almost judging me. It is replaced by a notification that my tweet was just retweeted by a b-list celebrity with a pretty sizeable following. I can feel my heart racing.
I’m interrupted by the sounds of sirens. I look around in confusion at what they could be for. Oh right. An ambulance and a police car pull up to the scene. Two EMTs run to the elderly man while a cop begins talking to the driver of the SUV. The driver shows his phone to the officer and he nods accordingly. The SUV casually takes off. The EMTs are checking the victim’s phone as well. They almost immediately stop what they are doing and make their way back towards the ambulance. They drive away as the man continues to bleed out. I don’t need to have heard them speak to know what happened. No followers. Probably only follows his grandchildren and they don’t even bother to follow him back.
It wasn’t always like this. It started off slow. Maybe your reservation at a restaurant just happened to disappear or you see a guy with a girl that was way out of his league. Then you saw people walk into stores holding up their phones. They show off their Instagram followers, maybe follow someone less fortunate working there and walk out without having paid for anything at all. No one bothered to ask why we let this happen. Everyone was too distracted trying to get as many followers as they could. The people that did complain were the ones that didn’t know how to tweet. Like the man now lying motionless on the street, they didn’t last long. The streets are infested with those with not enough influence to live. Cardboard signs advertise “Follow 4 follow” or “Will RT for Work.” Some were wealthy in a past life but never bothered to learn the difference between a pin and a vine. Forbes list was replaced with Kardashians. YouTube celebrities became gods. Clout was the currency now.
I circumvent the body on the crosswalk and head into Starbucks. I hold up my phone to the barista. She says nothing and smiles almost too affectionately. I walk away and wait for my order to be prepared and notice the barista already searching through her phone. I look down at my own and see she has just followed and messaged me asking what I’m doing later. She doesn’t even bother to look up at me. I’m just another follow. I take a picture of the misspelled name graffiti’d on the side of my cup and post it. I scroll through waves of photos of an old man surrounded by blood on my Instagram feed and stop at the picture of my eggs. The eggs have more likes than my last selfie. I avoid the deeper meaning. I digitally stumble through my apps ensuring none of my numbers have dropped. Five hundred thousand. Sixty thousand. Seven. I never bothered with Pintrest much.
I check back on the tweet from earlier. It’s taken a sharp turn for the better. As I attempt to reload my feed I notice something is off. Tweets usually fill my page every second of the day. It’s nonstop but now I’m looking at the same posts almost frozen in time. I’m not the only one who notices this. A woman near me in the coffee shop is audibly repeating, “no,” as she also tries to refresh her phone. You hear the sound of devices restarting all around you like an orchestra warming up. People begin to look at each other as if just realizing for the first time there were others around them. They almost can’t comprehend human faces anymore without them being a tiny pixelated profile picture. It’s not just Twitter. It’s Facebook. Pinterest. Vine. Instagram. Snapchat. Kettle. Ello. YouTube. Flickr. Foursquare. Fivesquare. LinkedIn. LinkedOut. DevIn. MySpace. OurSpace. Yelp. Woof. Reddit. Friendster. Tinder. Grindr. Tumblr. Even Google Plus. They all stopped. No one moved. It’s like they didn’t know how they used to behave before having a virtual audience. No one spoke. Who was going to listen? I looked around and wasn’t seeing in filters anymore. I wasn’t thinking in one hundred and forty characters. I remember Steph. Still sleeping at home. I think about her name. It almost seems foreign to me. It’s not a username. She isn’t an account. The color of her eyes isn’t hidden by Valencia. Her smile isn’t frozen in photos but vibrant and alive in my head. I have real memories of her, not just megabytes. I look outside. It’s autumn. People begin to look up at the trees and look using their eyes instead of lenses. People are sharing smiles instead of posts. As I slide my phone into my pocket and get up to leave I remember: I haven’t eaten anything today.
I walk out the door of Starbucks and start walking home. It feels like I’m remembering how to breathe. The revelation is cut short by a vibrating in my pocket. I was once numb to this feeling. This time though, I feel the vibrations work their way into my spine and fingertips. I reach in and pull out the device. It feels alien already. This is the lightest model and yet it feels like a brick in my hand. My reflection gazes back at me behind the glass. Like Narcissus, I maintain eye contact with myself as if my double is attempting to warn me about once again falling victim to the false safety my phone provides me. The digital shelter it creates for me. The scenery around me becomes more vibrant almost in an attempt to remind me of what I will miss. The flowers that surpass HD. Hearing the wind whistle a tune in my ears without any speakers. Nature is bribing me. And yet, all I can think of is how many followers I would get if I could take a picture of any of this. I press the home button and watch as my reflection is swallowed by the pixels. It’s a notification from Twitter. It’s working again. My tweet is almost viral. I swipe and watch the followers grow like microbes dividing — a virtual plague. I look around the streets as if I realize that the beauty of reality is only temporary. People’s heads begin to bow downward to their devices as if they are displaying their devotion. Eye contact once again, only exists in the brief seconds you scroll past someone’s selfie on Instagram. My girlfriend is still back at home. I struggle to think about her name without an “@” in front of it. Those memories of weeks together are replaced with second-long GIFs. The image of her when we first met is substituted by the selfie she last took. I continue walking and give my attention back to my phone. It’s lighter than ever. My fingers dance along the virtual keyboard still remembering the steps. The world comes back into focus and I’m in front of my door again. I don’t even remember the walk here. I press send.