Thoughts on the Internet’s Teen Angst
The following is a reprint from Unwinnable Weekly Issue Fifty Seven. If you enjoy what you read, please consider purchasing the issue or subscribing.
Our hardware hasn’t been upgraded in tens of thousands of years. Our brains, our eyes, our central nervous systems – everything we have inside us to process external stimuli – haven’t changed much or really at all since we were hunting and gathering and just grateful to survive to 25 and not be struck down by predators or disease.
They’re built-in design constraints on our beings that are there for a purpose. The Internet as it exists today, well, it’s something our ancestors hadn’t anticipated or necessarily been equipped to deal with. And just because, in the year 2015, we’re able to take in so much more doesn’t mean we’re equipped to be able to absorb it all. Just because we pretend it’s normal doesn’t mean it is.
It’s not that the march of progress is good or bad – it shouldn’t be charted on a binary at all, probably. There’s just more to it as we try to adapt.
We used to joke about being exposed to too much information, like when someone you work with or someone you don’t really know all that well reveals something about their sex life or political beliefs. That’s a certain strata of information some people decided, okay, let’s keep that at the door.
But what about the sheer volume that Twitter or social media offer? We’re talking about potentially hundreds of people on a 24-hour news ticker simultaneously giving you their most internal thoughts, jokes, insecurities, projections, self-corrections, frustrations, rants, grandstandings, helpful links, tiny little ASCII drawings, pictures, brags and whatever else they see fit in that particular moment. How is that not too much information as it silently yet shriekingly unspools in your face without any context whatsoever?
And sure, we’d say, well, moderation is the key. But even one person on social media or one website on the Internet is loud enough – we used to browse the Internet not through multiple tabs but in a single solitary window. Multiply that exponentially per every additional thing in your orbit online, whether you elected to have it there or not.
I think we as a species are choosing to grow a little blind to how our inputs haven’t gotten better at absorbing the sheer amount of stuff we’re exposed to on a daily – fuck that, hourly basis online. We think we know more when we’ve never known less and never assumed more.
The Internet has become just another arena to enact teenage bullshit.
* * *
I remember 10 years ago when my career was just starting as a writer for the Internet. Social media wasn’t quite a thing yet, but I remember being a twenty-something kid at The Onion, as an editor, just trying to understand the nature of those driven to have their voice heard, too, below the fold, in the comments. Specifically, the people who nitpicked over misplaced commas or would be aghast at our Inventory lists and scoff that we neglected to include one or two things they immediately thought of.
Well, there’s a good reason for that: We aren’t you and you aren’t us.
I contrast this with a few weeks ago, when someone on Twitter was upset I wrote the wrong story, even though it was the one my editor greenlit. I’m not sure what I should do with the information you gave me in five or six tweets, three months too late, sir.
It’s difficult to parse tone online, so I think some might be more inclined to be defensive at first than others. Which is to say, some people take things online personally too quickly when no such intent was, well, intended.
But as time went on, and social media took a firmer grasp in people’s ongoing quest to persuade themselves that they truly do matter, yes they do, I noticed an uptick of comments on the Internet being Statements. I remember when I started writing about videogames at The Onion as a way to inject some more fun to offset the fact that I was doing three people’s jobs – people had gone from griping about our grammar to literally posting 1,000-word reviews to the same things we had reviewed.
I always got the sense some of the commenters just wanted to land a job there, too, or they were hoping to be noticed by the powers that be and given freelance assignments. There are stories about aspiring actors in the early days of Hollywood casting perfecting the art of getting hired, stories of actors pretending to be mailmen just to get in the door and strike up a conversation. It’s ballsy but it gets you remembered.
I never thought about it too much because I didn’t know those people. And frankly, as much as I would want to, I didn’t have the time to even try.
As I know from my own experiences on social media and with my own email inbox over the years, though, some people take a lack of response personally. They believe opt-in platforms or media spaces where people can choose to craft their own echo chamber to maintain their current or degrading levels of sanity entitle them to someone’s time who they have likely never met or think they can glean an identity from via transmissions sometimes days or weeks apart. The truth is, other people’s worlds aren’t on your timetable. I struggle with, but ultimately bow to this, same as you.
I don’t know you and you don’t know me.
Then again, another shift in the last 10 years, too, is that everyone is a writer. We are all critics, philosophers and moral judges. We all know how to solve the world’s problems. While these changes might sound seismic, it’s actually just a grand flattening. We’ve pressed another record, turned it over and put the needle down to hear it all again. But who’s the audience?
And so I flash onto Kurt Cobain, who was a popular content provider in the 1990’s.
* * *
Last week, I finally saw Montage of Heck, a long-gestating documentary about the band Nirvana and specifically frontman Cobain’s struggles with trying to find a family and dealing with fame after a lifetime of marginalization and abandonment.
The main thing that struck me about the movie is how little has changed with the media and its willful tone deafness to remembering or caring that human beings who attain fame are still human beings. Sorry, that’s a typo. Fame is not something you attain – it is something that is afflicted upon you.
My circle of friends is weird. I don’t know how you define it, but by my own standards, I am the least successful person I know. But I am close with people far more famous than me – in that they are famous – and people who have gone viral and people who make the entertainment products others delight in ripping to shreds. We are all critics, I get it. Trust me when I say, the higher you climb, the more isolating it becomes. Perceived success can be just as bad as actual success because from the outside it still looks the same. Fame is joining a secret club that gets to see strangers turn into unknowing vultures and brats and occasionally magically generous and amazing individuals.
My love of the band Nirvana is intrinsically linked to my love of videogames. It was in the same room growing up that I played Super Castlevania 4 that I practiced guitar and ran my Nirvana fan website – ironically, an interviews archive.
This is not my attempt to work in a link to what I’m spending my time on now, but as indicated in the letter from the editor of this issue I wrote at Stu’s request, this year I launched a web project called don’t die. I am building an oral history, conversations that explore and try to label and contextualize how and where the videogame industry’s many, many disconnects and tensions have arisen – how they’ve been allowed to make a garden that has bloomed the rotten fruits of death and rape and bomb threats over consumer entertainment products.
Videogames are weird for many reasons, but chief among them is this insecurity that permeates the medium. The same holds true of its stars, who probably wouldn’t agree with my assertion at the end of this sentence but likely see some truth in it: In the world of celebrity, videogames are still just in some Burger King bathroom. The many schisms and subcultures and even the biggest titles may feel like household names to people who really really really love videogames, but go call your mom and ask if she’s heard of half of them. Ask if she’s ever even heard of E3.
It’s not that videogames are in competition with other forms of fame, because the uniting factor here is that fame sucks, full stop.
I’m not sure when I’ll be posting this to my site, but earlier this week I talked to Peter Molyneux for about three hours over the course of two days. We spoke for an hour the first day and he insisted we continue for more the next. For those who are not familiar, he is a longtime game developer who started in the ‘80s and who was accused of being a “pathological liar” earlier this year by a videogame website due to Peter’s consistently falling short of his promises of how some of his titles might turn out. Peter withdrew from the press and made it clear he wouldn’t be doing any more interviews.
I asked Peter about the nature of fame and about gamer entitlement, and he said the problem is when you are just trying to be nice to your fans, inevitably you will miss someone. You can’t sign every autograph or respond to every tweet or email or comment or phone call or letter or smoke signal. And inevitably, someone whose call went unanswered will take it personally.
They’ll think you’re an asshole.
In Montage of Heck, there’s a clip of the band being interviewed just after Nevermind was released. They’re asked, “You just sold 600,000 in America. Does that mean you’re platinum?”
Dave Grohl, the band’s drummer, does some mental math and says, “No, it means we’re gold.”
Kurt intones, “It means a free gift to my mother for Christmas.”
The interviewer asks, “Does that mean you guys are rich now?
Dave says, “Hell no. We’re so far from having any money – I mean, we get per diem?”
They’re asked about all the glowing press they’ve been getting over the album and bassist Krist Novoselic says, “It’s better than getting slammed.” But Dave cuts in, “But you know, if I was reading the same thing about another band, I wouldn’t read it. I’m not gonna believe some journalist who’s just spewing about some band that he thinks has changed his life. You can’t believe everything you read.”
Kurt just yawns and slumps his head down on the table.
Fame is exhausting. It’s also boring.
And there’s a prevailing lack of sympathy for people who “can’t deal” with fame or who say it sucks. It’s in the same phylum of behavior I see on a routine basis online against both big-name stars and Internet celebrities. It feels good to razz someone you don’t know or to blast off a couple of witty quips or digs. To shit post.
A lot of you think, “Well, they’re never gonna hear or see this anyway so what’s the harm?” Or maybe you just end your thought at “anyway” or you don’t care or you are jealous or intimidated or you think they’re big phonies or you think they’re going about it all wrong or you hope you’ll get noticed and become friends with them or – I don’t know. It’s gauche to ask someone if they’re suddenly rich. It’s tacky and impersonal. So is just needing to feel superior.
It’s an act of entitlement that people likely don’t realize they’re even embarking upon. There seems to be a necessary void in the universe that, even if some people choose to act kinder or with more empathy and sympathy, others will go the other way. Our hardware hasn’t changed much in all this time, so why should much else change?
I understand it is human nature to wonder about others and how they see the world, but there are respectful ways of doing that and sometimes making the judgment call to leave someone else alone is an act of kindness. You may think it’s not a big deal to ask someone else, “Hey, how are you?” but that isn’t your call to make. That’s their call to make.
People in the crosshairs or the spotlight hear everything you say about them. Every dig, every diss, every jizzing burst of praise. It’s just that part of the job, and they didn’t realize it when it was happening to them, is ignoring it or trying to harness the negative energy like a Zen master to propel them further forward and away from it and back to the work they wanted to do in the first place.
* * *
The media in Kurt Cobain’s heyday reminds me eerily of social media today – 20 years later. It’s just that today anyone can be a target for it and usually is. We don’t harvest crops anymore, so we’re in seasons of this instead.
There are two skillful sequences in Montage of Heck that do a great job of demonstrating this. The first is set to “Drain You,” showing the band performing the song, perforated by footage spliced in of fans saying more and more outlandish things, praising them while reporters are asking progressively dumber questions and yet also wondering why the band is tiring of doing press.
When you put another human being on a pedestal, you widen the divide between them and their right to interact and behave like a “normal” human being, whatever you think that is. Again, that’s not your call, that’s theirs.
I tweeted something about that earlier this summer, and it was met with disaffected jokes. Maybe it made people uncomfortable to think about or they didn’t understand why I was saying it.
Some people who call themselves artists – or even don’t – prefer to speak through their work. Kurt Cobain wasn’t seeking to be labeled a “spokesman for a disaffected generation” when “songwriter” probably would have done just fine.
Criticisms of articles today barely talk about grammar, I guess because people now understand the media is hurting and fact-checkers get cut and mistakes will of course be made because content is king. No, most criticisms of media today – and I’m a hypocrite, sure – seem to be indictments not just of the topic at hand but also of the author. “You shouldn’t even exist” is the new “you misplaced a comma.”
* * *
It’s no different than the guy on the radio in Montage of Heck saying Nirvana needs to go away because Kurt “needs to see a therapist or a minister and it doesn’t need to be on millions of CDs for people to listen to and identify with to have their hopelessness and despair emphasized by this man’s life.”
In other words, how dare you make people who feel isolated have someone to identify with.
The press in Kurt’s day was a nightmare. There was an infamous Vanity Fair article that – well, I’ll just quote directly from the doc. Here’s the article’s subhed:
“Are Courtney Love, lead diva of the postpunk band Hole, and her husband, Nirvana heartthrob Kurt Cobain, the grunge John and Yoko? Or the next Sid and Nancy? Lynn Hirschberg reports for Vanity Fair.”
Vanity Fair continues – these are the excerpts from Montage:
“Sources maintain that the Cobains have been heavily into heroin.”
“Courtney was pregnant and she was shooting up. Kurt was throwing up on people in the cab.”
“It’s a sick scene in that apartment,” says a close friend.
“It’s appalling to think that she’d be taking drugs when she knew she was pregnant,” says one close friend. “We’re all worried about that baby.”
“Kurt seems fragile. He looks as if he might break.”
People love to debate whether one can separate the art from the artist as if it is some judgment or proof of their character, but that, like the life of an artist, is a subjective and personal thing. That is to say: It is nobody’s business. I doubt anyone would say doing heroin while pregnant is smart or responsible, but as Krist says in a modern-day interview for the documentary: “It really hurt him to be embarrassed.”
And that was just referring to Nirvana getting a bad review in a Michigan zine. A criticism of his work.
Again, from a document shown in Montage:
“An article in Vanity Fair implied that Ms. Love had taken heroin well into the pregnancy. Two weeks after the baby was born, using the article as evidence, the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services forced the couple to surrender the child to Ms. Love’s sister. Although the Cobains soon regained custody, county officials continued to monitor them.”
From Kurt’s journals, apparently in response:
“I feel violated”
“Vanity Fair was one vicious and horrible thing that nobody believes anyway”
“…how i am a notoriously fucked up heroin addict, self destructive, alcoholic, overtly subtle, frail, fragile, neurotic, little pissant who at any minute is going to O.D., jump off a roof, blow my head off, or all three at once”
These latter clips hail from the second sequence I was referring to earlier, set to the band’s song “Rape Me.” People who struggle to understand what Kurt and Nirvana were saying – well, were they listening?
Nirvana, Kurt, didn’t last very long. Both ended in 1994. After Nevermind and the 1992 Vanity Fair article, as the documentary shows, Kurt’s journals portray a humiliated, angry and confused man who feels the divide between him and normalcy widen to an insurmountable chasm.
“i feel like i’m being evaluated 24 hours a day, being a band is hard work and the acclaim isn’t worth it unless you still like playing god how I love playing live.
But Id be better off if i kept my mouth shut.”
Article after article came out that was less and less about his band and more about just picking up what another article said and running with it.
Do you know what an appositive is? It’s a useful part of writing that quickly conveys additional information to the reader. It’s a noun clause that sits next to another noun to rename it or describe it in another way.
One article still sticks in my head after watching the documentary, which started, “Kurt Cobain – whose daughter Frances was born last month addicted to heroin – has quit drugs.”
I don’t know the facts and wasn’t looking to the documentary for “the truth” about Kurt’s suicide. I inherited my Nirvana fandom from my older brother – we shared a bedroom – and we had a long conversation about the documentary earlier this week. He said that when there’s a suicide, people inevitably want answers. I’m not so sure we ever get any in this life, and that isn’t necessarily bad. I do think, at most, we just understand people’s tendencies and patterns. But answers? Those are for textbooks.
But as I scrolled around the Internet, having seen the documentary now, and curious what others had to say about it, I was surprised at a couple of the reviews I saw indicating the press is still just as tone deaf to a celebrity’s individuality and humanity. Some called Cobain’s unhappiness “unrelatable.”
This is the same tone deafness demonstrated in the media in the documentary that I see routinely online on Twitter, be it around videogames or anything else. And I think the subtext of much of what I see online, people trying to correct each other or mete out justice is this: If you can’t relate, that is your defect.
But what is justice online? Stephen Colbert mocked the notion of “truthiness,” but it’s seeped into our collective beliefs now, too. You can’t please someone without offending someone else. Just because that’s typical doesn’t mean it’s normal.
It isn’t your place to say whether someone else is struggling. You may feel others overuse words like “tragedy” or “outrage” or “suffering,” but it isn’t your place to say whether others are in pain. You can try to understand it, and also recognize and honor when someone wants to just be left alone.
You might not feel that’s fair, but the world is not fair. Cultures aren’t opinions. Just because you think the world should be a certain way and because you say so doesn’t mean it will be or can be.
As I said up top, I know I’m being a hypocrite.
But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong because, well, again – I think of Vanity Fair.
* * *
Earlier this week, the magazine published yet another one of those “the hook-up culture is destroying our children”-type articles. This article, slated for the September issue and already posted online – well, the headline “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” indicates quite well what it’s about.
Except, it actually doesn’t. You can’t make snap judgments about things you don’t take the time to better understand and get more context for yourself. I mean, you can make snap judgments. I remember at The Onion, as the comments section started to gain traction, people delighted in getting “firsties,” or proving their alliance to a community by being the first person to leave their mark on the subsequent discussion below in the threads. Territorial pissings.
It doesn’t prove they understood or have anything substantive to add, just that they intentionally or otherwise were there first.
This Vanity Fair article is more about dating apps enabling misogyny to be much more instantaneous rather than a horrible slow burn when you’re getting to know someone. It’s also about how people on a screen aren’t being perceived as actual human beings.
If this sounds like sociopath behavior, well, I don’t want to sound alarmist, but last week I got some push pins and red twine out and started reading a lot of stuff about Mark David Chapman, the guy who killed John Lennon because he read a book and heard some albums. As Chapman put it to Larry King 12 years after Lennon’s murder, “I realize now that I really ended a man’s life. Then, he was an album cover to me.”
The thread here is you don’t know how someone will react when you intersect with a stranger’s life, so it’s best to have context yourself and forego that “firsties!” mentality.
But remember how hurt Kurt felt about Vanity Fair? Tinder felt similarly violated.
Rather than scrawl in its journals, though, Tinder cried foul over 30 tweets that the article – which interviewed academics, experts and twenty-somethings who use the app – didn’t seek comment from the company itself, feeling such “one-sided journalism” didn’t accurately portray “The Tinder Generation.”
This also speaks to how butt-hurt companies can get when journalists just do their job, which doesn’t always necessitate talking to companies for a chaperoned narrative. In this case, since the article is more about the culture of Tinder users and other dating apps, and not a corporate profile on Tinder, no, it didn’t really need a comment from Tinder. It would have been interesting sure, since this is a company that was sued for sexual harassment by a former top executive.
Tinder said a lot of things, but the best highlighting of the disconnect here is when Tinder tweeted, “Next time reach out to us first @nancyjosales… that’s what journalists typically do.” To which Nancy Jo Sales, the writer of the piece responded. “@Tinder not clear: are you suggesting journalists need your okay to write about you?”
Tinder issued a statement to The New York Times the next day, saying it had “overreacted.” (And for a somewhat in-between example of this sort of thing, I’m reminded of Rob Schneider – don’t scoff.)
Brands are people and people are brands, there’s no real difference now so let’s all act like this is normal because it seems to be. (Also, if you did not know: Sometimes editors write new headlines on pieces that differ from the ones writers include on their drafts when filing.)
But, amid all this hypocrisy here in this thing: Are companies really people? Whose outrage here is justified? There’s a big move for more beige on people’s gray, as I call it, which is that no one can say anything about anybody and we should just tolerate, basically, a lot of people being plain old wrong and having shitty opinions just because it hurt their feelings.
But Tinder tweeted, “It’s disappointing that @VanityFair thought the tiny number of people you found for your article represent our entire global userbase.” There’s a smug little emoji guy at the end of that sentence, but you pick up on that from the tone in the preceding sentence.
And so I guess the expectation is, like for that guy who criticized my article, well, unless you can give everybody who might give something you do a look the full context from every imaginable perspective you shouldn’t say anything at all. Are we not allowed to draw conclusions anymore after witnessing patterns of behavior? By that same token, I suppose anyone’s first reaction to anything – how you can anyone know what their context is?
* * *
Anyway, you can imagine the fallout and reactions to this Tinder stuff. The Guardian has the best, most succinct summation: “Twitter users followed the exchange with glee.”
It’s human nature to rubberneck. We love to watch disasters. We love to watch the show, unless it’s about us. Our hardware hasn’t been updated in tens of thousands of years. Even though, really, we can help it if we want to.
A big thing that scares me about the Internet today is how some of what Kurt wrote in his journals echoes some of what I hear my twenty-something friends trying to find a footing in writing say. They worry about what their brand should be before they even find their voice. They are very aware if they stop writing tomorrow they’ll be forgotten. They worry – and trust me, nobody is asking content providers if they’re rich now. And content providers – another flattening – can be anyone. Writers. Musicians. Game-makers.
Like, in another stray conversation I had with friends a few weeks ago, I was talking about how what if Socrates was just the BuzzFeed of his day? What if the things he said weren’t necessarily the smartest or best or most insightful, just the “stickiest” and we have no clue what others – not even his detractors proving him “wrong” had to say?
Content isn’t king, it’s context that matters most.
In another interview I did for don’t die – that I’m also not sure when I’ll be posting – I talked to Merritt Kopas, who runs the game-curation site Forest Ambassador. It’s a conversation that deals with a lot of this stuff.
I asked her if she thought she was popular. It’s a strange thing for two adults to discuss. She told me:
I’m grateful that I have the kind of following that I do. It’s humbling and deeply strange some days. And it’s very strange, too, to be the kind of person who is sort of micro-famous and then out in the world no one knows who I am. And in a sense, that’s kinda cool, right? Because it’s like being a superhero: You can just take off your mask and go out into the world and you can just totally blend in. But I think it’s frustrating sometimes in that people tend to assume that if you have any kind of platform that you have enormous power.
And from the context – or from the position of someone who doesn’t really have any kind of backing or following on social media, it’s easy to look up at someone with a few thousand followers and think of them as, like, the establishment. And that’s been a very strange experience.
So, I guess sometimes I do.
Which is still weird to me.
We think we have too much information, but the truth is we barely have enough to even understand ourselves.
As I repeatedly point out: We’re all hypocrites.
Some of us have shitty opinions even if we think we’re saying something profound that’s been stumbled upon before. We don’t have all the context all the time. I do my best not to project my stuff on anyone else online, but the patterns of behavior you become privy to at even the dinkiest levels of awareness of this stuff are telling.
I’m not interested in responding to everyone who tweets at me about stuff because I think I’ve made it clear sometimes I just prefer to have one-on-one conversations. I guess that makes me old-fashioned or a fuddy duddy or an asshole, but I’m never upset at anyone for trying to engage or respond.
It’s just the fact that I know the reasons for what I am doing and I know the energy, capacity and available time to me to respond. Like Molyneux said: You try to be nice, but you will miss someone.
I wish I was better at that, I do. But I know my limits and what’s in my head.
It might be a leap for some of us to have that revelation, that we may be acting too entitled or our simple asks are dehumanizing people we don’t even know. I mean, do you even really know yourself?
We may act like there’s an objective way to judge whether someone else has struggled or what’s reasonable to ask of them. One person’s extreme isolation and pain – that feeling of the world drifting away from you and you can swear everything is going diagonal and the sink is full and everything’s a mess and … – may be another person’s unfathomable nightmare. It might be another person’s Tuesday.
Online, we can’t tell.
But we think we know.
Or as Kurt wrote in his journals:
“I don’t have anything to ask or say,
I just play along.”
David Wolinsky has opinions about videogames. He’s the creator of don’t die, a videogame-industry confessional forum and the co-producer of The Electric Cybercast II: Online, the world’s only podcast about videogames. Support his Patreon and follow him on Twitter @davidwolinsky.