(Dis)connection on the Internet

“Are there invisible entities adrift in the ether, entire other electronic realms coursing through the wired networks of the world?”

Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media

From the dawn of its existence, segments of the population have regarded electronic media as a supernatural, otherworldly substance. Mediums channeled the dead through telephones, children were frightened by the ghostly disembodied voices on the radio, housewives were haunted by images burned into the TV screen long after it’d been shut off. The internet is no different; it is a virtually haunted place — a sort of digital ruin. There was an almost gnostic quality of the Net in its early days. It’s an institution whose mythology of universal connection and communication prioritizes the transcendence of the flesh. It is seemingly centerless; it crosses borders both national and personal. But in reality it shares the same structures of global capital.

The myth of a cyber utopia revolves around the idea that electric mediums can allow one to transcend the dominant and oppressive social order, environmental catastrophes, political conflicts, personal alienation, and the limits of the human body. Through its seemingly decentralized and democratic structure, it will unite the world in Harmony. These notions are a far cry from the reality of the internet of 2022, where the internet is characterized by commercialization, imperialism, spatial and social control, and exploitation. The internet is rapidly devolving into a mass of ads, spam, and bots — a network of garbage. It’s become increasingly uninhabitable. This isn’t a new or unique revelation — check out the Dead Internet Theory (a conspiracy theory that posits the internet has been entirely taken over by A.I. Although it’s pretty much not true, spend three minutes scrolling through instagram meme accounts or navigating a google search page and you’ll see why people believe it). And although the qualities of the internet and the way we interact with it has changed drastically in the past couple of decades, the myth of cyber utopia has always been just that — a myth.

I find it difficult to write about this because I feel at risk of describing a projection, beamed across space time from a far-away and long dead star (like the year 2002), but I’ve become obsessed with the early days of the internet. In the process of digging through archives and live blogging websites I’ve come across treasure troves of journal posts, digital shrines to anime and tv shows, venting forums, and a cryptic cult website last updated in 1997 just before its members committed mass suicide to shed their human forms and be reincarnated as extraterrestrials (the site is Heaven’s Gate, it very much captures the cyber-aesthetics of the era it’s like taxidermy. Check it out: https://www.heavensgate.com). I am particularly in love with old GeoCities pages and spent hours scrolling through a Tumblr blog that automatically uploads screenshots from One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, the Geocities research project pioneered by Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied.

It’s less-so that I am in love with the pages and more so that I am in love with all of these people who spent their time designing and curating and documenting their lives and interests. I feel charmed and curious. I am ten years old at a sleepover, enamored by the gossip being flung around. And after sitting on the floor, hunched over my laptop for several hours last night, I was inspired to look into my own lost blog, which I was actively updating on Tumblr from roughly 2013–2016. The only somewhat personal aspect of the whole thing is my about me page, which reads like an introduction you would give to a college admissions board. Squeaky clean, showing off my Intellectual Interests — “French music” and “classical literature” were listed as some of my favorite genres of each respective medium. Deep disappointment. I went in prepared for embarrassment but not the cool detachment I felt scrolling through my sterile, lifeless blog. It could have been curated by bots. If I’d seen this blog as an outsider it would have convinced me the Dead Internet Theory was true. It’s all perfectly manicured: pink pictures of sunsets, European architecture, cutesy pastel things. I’m grieving my younger self and the lack of connection we have with each other in the present moment. I know she was suffering as I am now; I know she felt lonely and trapped and deeply unhappy but would die before admitting it. I wanted to look back in a way that was not so self-mythologizing as it is when I look back on my adolescence through my memories. But I guess we are connected in a way — we both are cooly distant. We are averse to being vulnerable and feel like outsiders looking in. We isolate ourselves to a degree that could be considered borderline agoraphobic. We are 15 and we are 22 and we are brunette and we are blonde and we are future diplomats and we are living in a shoebox 2000 miles away from home and horribly lost. I feel this sense of loss because I desperately want to pick her brain and now this will not happen. I have photographs but that says little about the interior. I have a sentence or two written in the notes app on my phone. I have text messages saved back from 2013 from an upperclassman I was obsessed with and my best friend who I can now admit nearly 10 years down the line I was in love with and horribly repressed. It’s not enough! I want to document every part of my life, every thought and feeling and occurrence of the day and I also want to examine this impulse I have to document, to analyze, to archive, to observe and report. To be able to look back on all of these different lives I’ve lived or thought I would live.

I still have this aversion to being vulnerable (or present) on the internet and I recognize that that is a healthy and self-protective instinct, a revulsion against my online persona being inextricably tied into my identity and used to sell me things. I started a new Tumblr blog at the beginning of the pandemic and I still have yet to post anything; I just reblog from others and have developed lite parasocial relationships with several people who post personal meditations on their lives and experiences and friendships in lowercase run-on sentences. It’s obsessive and weird and low stakes because I have invested nothing.

I know I had thoughts and feelings at 15 and I can look back at my past self in an abstract and fragmented way, but I wish she had leaned into her tendency to be terminally online in a way that left some trace of her humanity and maybe made a few friends in the process. So much of my life is housed online but my presence is virtually absent. That’s the current reality of the internet. There’s just too many people and the only way to engage with them is by perceiving them as an amalgamation of fragmented traits — usually defined by interests or specific, fixed identities — in order to determine if you belong in their circle and vice versa. Creating a Bumble BFF profile was like writing a cover letter for me. I feel deeply and not without a sense of dread that I want something from life that doesn’t exist anymore.

Reading through the forums of the early 00’s makes me hunger for that cyber utopia, which has never existed except as a systematically constructed myth of connection that functions both as a marketing strategy and an agent of global capitalism. And also perhaps as a way for the terminally online to mythologize their own aversion to presence and engagement, but maybe that is an unfair assessment. I, too, have a disposition that tends towards escapism. But these systems housed online are not a free zone uninhibited by the structures of the physical world and the realities of late capitalism. Rather, they are and have always been extensions of these symptoms of power, replicating ad infinitum the same sort of exploitation that seeps into every facet of our daily lives.

Presence on social media platforms is said to be voluntary, but increasingly it is becoming a requirement to apply for jobs, secure housing, and reaffirm your existence. Presence is no longer a choice. It is a form of labor to forge an identity on the internet, which is now mostly public by default. Facebook and Instagram and the like incorporate a sort of ‘default publicness’ that is purposefully incorporated into its structure, privileging offline networks, state-validated identity, and communication and interests that can be neatly packaged and sold off and broadcasted potentially without your knowledge. It serves the purpose of surveilling and policing in the way that public expression and existence is not a risk-free state for many people — it is inherently tied into the legacy of state violence and the forced social performance of The Normative — default white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied etc. Public is never neutral. This forced connection between our ‘real world’ identities and our online personas really finished off any semblance of authentic and intimate online communities. The digital spaces I’ve been exploring are so special — the blogs and forums and pages they all hold important personal and collective memories and it is sad to see their ghosts haunting the internet, housed only in archives, left fragmented and nearly impossible to find amidst the spam and sludge and ads of the Google search. A profile on social media today, by contrast, feels so sterilized and void of personalization beyond its identification with a hyper-specific, highly curated, codified aesthetic.

Self is not a fixed entity but something that is fluid and that we actively build each day, constructed both from what we take in from the world around us and what we put out into it. In each moment we are, consciously or not, deciding who we are. There may be an inclination to think that the more self-aware we are, the more we can control who we are instead of letting outside forces decide for us, but this simply isn’t true. Curating a social media platform increasingly feels like a form of taxidermy. I have the impulse to commodify every aspect of myself, to fit myself and others into easily digestible categories in an attempt to make sense of the world around me because I am so isolated and alienated from any community, work, and sense of self that would otherwise take root organically. In this state it is easy to see how vulnerable we are to exploitation, to being sold these hyper-specific identities and lifestyles and related products and content to consume. We are made to feel that in order to feel secure in ourselves and social relations, commercial and state intervention is necessary.

I think we are all well aware by now that this cyber utopia I’m grieving is a myth. There’s no authentic, meaningful connection to be found here. Even the artfully arranged Instagram ‘dumps,’ which give an air of blasé authenticity. Even the confessional style all lowercase run-on posts disclosing intimate thoughts and experiences. Even the old GeoCities pages and abandoned LiveJournal blogs. The rhetoric of connection and freedom of expression is a tool to mask the reality that the internet, and in particular social media sites, are and always have been very efficient tools used to surveil and police thought, expression, identity, and social relations. Online communities don’t really exist except as a way to commodify relationships and turn them into a tool of categorization and identification with images, ‘lifestyles,’ and products to be sold to you.

As Mcluhan notes in his seminal work Understanding Media, any new technology or medium is an extension of ourselves — our eyes, our ears, our bodies, our nervous systems — and in effect product social and personal consequences. I think about the fact that my thoughts are made up of electrical impulses and I think about the haunting prospect of a life lived in cyberspace and I feel the border between two worlds crumbling. I do not feel transcendent.

References:

Cho, Alexander. “Default Publicness: Queer Youth of Color, Social Media, and Being Outed by the Machine.” New Media & Society, vol. 20, no. 9, Sept. 2018, pp. 3183–3200, doi:10.1177/1461444817744784.

Espenschied, Dragan Espenschied, and Olia Lialina Lialina. One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op, Tumblr, https://oneterabyteofkilobyteage.tumblr.com/. Accessed 2022.

McLuhan, Marshall, 1911–1980. Understanding Media; the Extensions of Man. New York :Signet Books, 1966.

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