long . lines and ripples

Hashtags and the Alternative

Reading my way through Jia Tolentino‘s Trick Mirror, published in 2019, has been a voyeuristic experience. Tolentino is a veteran writer of a few high-traffic cultural websites in the English-speaking world (Jezebel, now the New Yorker). And her participation during social media controversies over the last decade (Gamergate, #MeToo, etc.) gives her a few war stories about life as an (online) famous person. I’m someone with a tepid and half-hearted presence on social media. I have basically no following outside of friends–and maybe a few friends of friends. Tolentino’s book gives me some sense of what it is like to write under conditions of instant, ebullient, hostile reaction from hundreds of thousands of strangers. For me, it is voyeuristic.

Those who spend a lot of time on being visible on Twitter–especially journalists–have called the experience intoxicating. The feedback is too immediate, too affirming in its volume (even if negative) to step back and assess the real value of the activity. And most writing on the web, even if not on social media, is composed within an ecosystem that is “social media-adjacent.” It’s all just one link away from Twitter. But what I appreciate about this book is that it has maybe a bit more distance from itself than most writing for the web. If Tolentino only turned off wifi for a few hours to ask herself harder questions about what a platformed, social media-centric internet was doing to her mind and the rest of the culture, it shows. To read the thoughts of someone who is so of the moment, talking about the moment, without the mechanism for immediate performance for the moment’s audience–that is actually worth something. Most cultural figures of her stature are too distracted by the medium to register any real commentary on it.

You might not always know it from looking at her Twitter feed or her latest take on newyorker.com, but she strikes a weary posture toward the online culture complex where she makes her living. She keeps coming back to one thought–something like “we can’t possibly go on relating to one another like this”–without condemning the actors who have created this spectacle. The first part of the book draws on the work of Erving Goffman to understand social media as a performance that plays on the human weakness for solidarity. But identifying a human weakness is not the same as condemning it. Talking about #MeToo:

In these cases, multiple types of solidarity seemed to naturally meld together. It was women’s individual experiences of victimization that produced our widespread moral and political opposition to it. And at the same time, there was something about the hashtag itself–its design, and the ways of thinking that it affirms and solidifies–that both erased the variety of women’s experiences and made it seem as if the crucifix of feminism was the articulation of vulnerability itself. A hashtag is specifically designed to remove a statement from context and to position it as part of an enormous singular thought.

p. 27

According to Tolentino, real individual experiences, which are multiple, and impossible to recognize in all their differences, are distilled by the platform into a unitary expression: #MeToo. The sameness of that expression is its performative aspect. Even if the experience is articulated alongside the hashtag, that experience is less recognizable online than the performance. Whatever the differences between individuals, by applying the hashtag, she performs a generic identity more than she reveals her own. The hashtag is a distraction from the real disclosure, one that might be the beginning of a real (not performed) conversation.

I had the sense that Tolentino wanted to put a lot of blame on the medium itself: in social media’s prizing of self-absorption and self-promotion. This would be another one of those “structural” problems we keep hearing about. It is hard to stop seeing your reflection if you cannot leave the hall of mirrors. So I was interested to see Tolentino end the first chapter, “The I in Internet,” with a more ethical, exhortative claim. Noting that only a “social and economic collapse” will allow us to escape the internet as it is foreseeably designed, she writes

“Barring that…we’ve got nothing except our small attempts to retain our humanity, to act on a model of actual selfhood, one that embraces culpability, inconsistency and insignificance. We’d have to care less about our own identities, be deeply skeptical of our own unbearable opinions, to be careful when opposition serves us, to be properly ashamed when we can’t express solidarity without putting ourselves first.

p. 33

Could we get there, online, without destroying the medium? Printing presses and books were at one time blamed for inflaming the Protestant Reformation and destroying the foundations of social authority, but today print culture looks more like the deliberative, rational background of a fading democratic culture. Could Tolentino ever be the measured social media persona that that she is in this book, on Twitter?