A few weeks ago, I became furious while at brunch due to my brother ranting about how “the internet is bad” and “genuine human interaction is good.” My brother is a 6’4” straight man with big green eyes and an athletic figure. People love to hear him speak and everyone is obsessed with how nice he is. I’m sure if I were him, I’d love human interaction too.
I knew that if I tried to rebut, my emotions would take over and I would quickly morph into the angry lesbian berating the golden boy. So, I pulled out my phone and started texting my best friend about unrelated and less enraging subject matter.
Later, in a calmer state, I started thinking about why my brother’s commentary got me so riled. It was hackneyed and reductive, sure, but it was more than that. It also felt personal, like he was attacking my lover.
I’ve read the articles. The internet causes depression and fosters isolation. It’s a breeding ground for harassment and encourages detachment from reality. It got Trump elected. But political corruption, depression, bullying, and escapism all existed before the internet. Let’s not project the full blame for human failures onto the technology we created.
Saying you don’t like the internet is like saying you don’t like electricity, or air. Sure, some people get electrocuted, air gets polluted. But have you tasted mountain air, or seen a James Turrell exhibit? Also, we rely on both to survive.
The internet is situation and context-based — defined and impacted by things like gender, race, sexual orientation, time. While I’ve experienced my fair share of mental spirals due to over-scrolling, I also love the internet. And I learned from the guided meditation app on my iPhone that gratitude is a good thing, so I’d like to practice it right now.
As a child, I was shy to the point that many people thought I was mute. My elementary school teacher expressed concern that all I ever did at recess was sing The Little Mermaid soundtrack under a tree by myself. When I’d go to parties with my family, I’d say nothing, then in the car on the way back I’d ask my sister and mom lots of details about people they’d talked to.
“Why didn’t you just ask?” my mom posed.
No thanks. All my life I’ve wanted to know about things and people without having to interact with anyone. I like control and efficiency. Talking to people IRL requires sacrificing these things to a degree that makes me viscerally uncomfortable. For me, the internet changed everything.
I was 12 when my family got AOL. We had one desktop computer and one screen name (my granny’s address, because we weren’t paranoid yet). Through my precocious neighborhood friend Sarah, I discovered chat rooms, where I quickly, and without much thought, manifested my first dream via my A/S/L: 17/f/Cali. Again, I was 12 years old, living in Washington, D.C., where there was nary a skateboard in sight and chinos were the only pants. I dreamed of living in California, which I viewed as glamorous and unconcerned with blazers. In chat rooms, I began to perform a life in which I surfed weekly and all my friends were movie stars. As of today, I’ve lived in California for nine years.
In a chat room, I got a boyfriend. Many boyfriends. Both Sarah and I did. In retrospect, they were probably creepy old men in basements — no one had warned us about this possibility — but frankly, it didn’t seem to matter. Nothing bad happened. We would send each other digital roses, and occasionally Sarah would kick me out of her family computer room to “cyber.”
In chat rooms, I learned for the first time that you don’t need to be looked at to perform. As a shy attention addict, this was an exciting discovery, one that eventually compelled me to become a writer. It was also a major boon to my social life.
I was the first person in my seventh grade class to get Napster, which made me popular. I would have friends over and we would choreograph dances to pirated songs by Vengaboys and Christina Aguilera. Soon came the iPod, which meant I could toss my janky neon Discman that skipped when I ran. The iPod was so chic and minimalist and pretty. I fell in love with the clicking sound it made when you dragged your finger around that smooth white circle.
The first time a girl told me she loved me, it was over AIM. Then she signed off immediately and never mentioned it again. I was 17 at the time, but I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 27. This wasn’t because I was afraid or repressed; it was because I didn’t know any lesbians and I wasn’t about to join a softball league. Then Tinder became mainstream, and suddenly the option dangled right in front of me, requiring just an internet connection and a few swipes. Without Tinder, I’ve often thought: I might be married to a man right now.
I got Twitter my senior year of college, when I was writing my thesis on the democratizing power of the internet in the music industry. I focused on the artist M.I.A., and how MySpace enabled her to bypass traditional channels and find fans on her own terms. I was obsessed with how she created her debut album, Arular, on a cheap drum machine in her bedroom. I would sometimes tweet her lyrics from my flip phone while hotboxing my friend’s Jetta.
A lot of people I follow complain that Twitter “isn’t good anymore,” but for me it never got bad. Once a place to quote friends and rap lyrics — others’ voices that I resonated with — Twitter gradually encouraged me to find my own voice. Today, it’s a place for me to connect with fellow writers and challenge myself to convey big ideas in few words, to appeal to an audience outside of my five friends. It’s a place to hear what the people think versus what the the man thinks. It’s a place where historically silenced voices are given a microphone and encouraged to shout.
I’ve often attributed my positive feelings towards Twitter to the fact that I don’t have many followers, and therefore don’t get a lot of dumb men @ing me to explain why I’m wrong or calling me a bitch. But as someone who writes about queerness and feminism frequently on the internet, I still receive my fair share of vitriol. Here’s a response I received from a man regarding a piece I wrote on Andy Cohen and the gay male gaze:
I think you need a bit of therapy to gain some perspective which to me you clearly lack in many ways , light a candle , play some relaxing music have a glass of wine ( or 3 ) and masturbate till you cant walk properly and your finger nail drops off , and give yourself something better to worry about and then write about ( for our sake or at least mine ) rather than this mundane , unsubstantiated and trying way to hard to be meaningful typed diarrhea bullshite.
Honestly, this made me smile. It’s funny and he’s right. I could probably stand to masturbate more. But more importantly, I made someone feel something strongly enough to respond with an unhinged rant. Someone was listening to me! A man, no less. I was no longer invisible.
Before the internet, the loudest and most forceful person in the room won the argument. I remember running to my computer after hangouts to prove an idiot bro wrong, at which point it was fruitless: I was right, but alone, and therefore not victorious. Then, boom: the smartphone. Google at our fingertips. Information able to be looked up in an instant. I didn’t have to yell. I just had to press a button, reveal the correct answer (mine), and watch my opponent shrink in shame.
And with the ready accessibility of information, unique perspectives have more value. Facts can be looked up with ease, but being inventive enough to weave together and find the connective tissue between ideas cannot be done by an algorithm. A computer cannot be as creative or empathetic as humans. Thus, the personal essay has more value. Art has more value. My “trying way to hard to be meaningful typed diarrhea bullshite” has more value.
As per my 17/f/Cali beginnings, my favorite thing about the internet remains how it allows me to slip into fantasy (paired best with sativa). On Tumblr, I curate photos of Kate Moss with Photoshopped pink hair and gifs of M.I.A. filing her nails on top of a tilted Beemer in the Moroccan desert. On Pinterest, I can make boards with titles like “blue fur” and “Mary Kate’s hair.” Sometimes I scroll through photos of lush bedrooms before drifting to sleep.
Would I be happier if I spent more time interacting face-to-face with humans as opposed to hiding behind the character I play online? Maybe. Would I be nicer and more empathetic? Probably. Escaping into the internet’s glow can feel good; like how smoking cigarettes or eating Dominos feels good, just as much as doing yoga or “unplugging” in nature. It provides a respite from the real world, which is pretty depressing. I’d rather get a $5 astrology reading from a stranger online than think about the fact that me and everyone I know is going to die.
Yes, I refused to be “present” at brunch with my family, but — trust — my “present” self at that moment was a fucking cunt. Hiding behind my screen to avoid a needless fight with my flesh and blood felt like a smart decision. Afterwards, I went on a hike with my family, and my brother and I got along well. I asked him about his new job and he asked me about my favorite lesbian celebrities. We didn’t bring our iPhones.