An internet cafe in jerusalem, March 2013. Photo by the author.


There is not a single, more effective initiator of neurotic over-analysis than the immediate realization that you may have a problem. My own? Singlehandedly serving as the poster child for email abuse rehab.

One of my good friends sent me a screenshot of her inbox recently. Glancing at the screenshot, I noticed that, row after row in Gmail, “Q” inundated the entire first page.

“Are all of those links that I’ve sent you?!”

“Well. Except for the ones in my spam folder.”

With another close friend whom I’ve known since our sophomore year of college, I exchange at least three links per day with her, via email or via iMessage. Each morning, I wake up to the jaunty tweet of my iPhone clock, and like clockwork, I turn off the alarm and see a link in a text from Kristy, a message likely composed on the copy-and-paste fly and immediately following consumption of said link. It’s a Verge article about Ancient Romans tweeting, or something else relevant to the tech community (Kristy clearly knows her audience at this point in our relationship). Or it’s an article on Jezebel that reminded her of the Women and Gender Studies class we took together in college about science and technology’s historical influence on feminism. And on most Fridays, when we’re both too mentally fatigued from the work week to consume anything of semi-intelligible substance, it’s usually an imgur link to a mischievous cat taking a cardboard box much too seriously.

On most days, I flood her inbox.

I am, if you will, digitally gesticulative—if not needy.

Recently, I decided to perform a quick self-ethnography on my own inbox to further assess the severity of my self-diagnosis. From my archive, I queried all of the emails that I had sent to Kristy. One recent email I had sent had the subject, “I’m 72% left-brained,” with a link to a pseudo-scientific online quiz with questions involving flashing diagrams and Freudian color games. Another email included an article from The New York Times on public education in America, which I thought would interest her as she was applying to graduate school programs in public policy. Too many emails contained too many GIFs to not be embarrassing.

What? I didn’t know you were left-brained.”

The quantitative conclusion was alarming. Out of those first 20 results, 15 of our email conversations’ first message contained only one link. Three other emails contained screenshots from websites run on flash and had no discernible URLs. I had become her personal, and ever-reliable, spambot.

Or had I?

Online mediation of our offline relationships is absolutely nothing new. Academics, infamous techies, and Quora gurus all have expounded on this and pounded the Online/In-Real-Life dichotomy down to its deconstructed pulp. As we wait for the Internet of Things to rise higher than its current dawning, we already know and accept this: the Internet can be more real than its face value.

Self-expression and conversation via URLs and URL exchange, however, gesture toward something much more nuanced and obscured in this general acknowledgment of online mediation. The social media platforms we use consistently encourage, even push, us to circulate, recirculate, and reinterpret the content that fire-hoses us daily on Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al. (Citation needed?)

Amidst all the sharing, we slowly became each others’ information feeders and cultural curators. As this dynamic unfolded, we may not have even realized it.

The idiosyncrasy worth teasing out in this rise of socially driven and expressive re-sharing—what I like to call hypertextual relationships—is the underlying social and personal nature of information exchange. URLs of online content only mediate and maintain the communicative aspect of relationship formation and mutually beneficial dialogue. The reality lies in our pre-existing and pre-formed bonds with each other before digital, URL mediation even entered the picture.

With the sharing of digital information and, thus, culture on the Internet, Kristy and I, along with all people with whom I’ve developed hypertextual relationships, motivate each other to remain engaged in the intellectual commonalities that have fostered our deeply personal, online relationship with each other, thus extending and growing our initial, offline counterpart. In this self-produced bedrock of URLs, we motivate each other to remain engaged with each others’ sentiences and realities.

“Ordinary” Hypertext in Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974).

“Ordinary” Hypertext in Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974).

What is unique in a hypertextual relationship is the blatantly nude minimalism of our communication and, ironically enough, the almost lack of verbal exchange. In extending part of myself via a URL, I am simply pasting a link. I am barely writing anything at all. Before I press “Send” in an email with that music review on Vice, or with that long-form fiction piece on The New Yorker, I don’t add an extensive amount of additional content, opinions, or other commentary to accompany said articles. Maybe, for the email subject, I insert a snarky, eye-catching snippet as a makeshift pre-lead to the linked article’s actual lead. Or maybe I write, “OMG you have to read this now,” if I want to grab attention more obnoxiously and ostentatiously. Either way, this lack of written length and depth may suggest a brevity and a superficiality typically associated with social online communication, about which many are wont to complain.

The idiosyncrasy worth teasing out in hypertextual relationships is the underlying social and personal nature of information exchange via links.

But the sparseness of our communication doesn’t accurately signify the significance—the realness—of what we are doing when we send these URLs back and forth. What is signified is exactly the opposite of superficiality. What is signified, rather, is a real offering of a digital token of friendship bolstered by mutual intellectual exchange. The recipient of this link will know, “You and what you think—this is important to me at this moment.” In this moment, when Kristy opens the email, we are the only individuals of significance in this two-person cultural bubble. We are the only ones in this makeshift digital literati, a temporary literati that will disappear as soon as the email is archived and the URL is forgotten.

So few words have been exchanged. Nonetheless, it happened. In this moment, the Internet reminds me that Kristy’s, or anyone else’s, intellectual contribution to my reality is wholly hinged on the Internet itself. This isn’t just ironic.

This is very real.

As I was writing this post, I flipped back and forth between this Medium text editor and several open tabs on my browser. I couldn’t help but become distracted by an article a friend had, a few moments ago, shared on Facebook.

I just had to re-share the URL—IRL.

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I ❤ Internet. Tweet @qichenzhang or read more @

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