By: Ben Johnson
At this point there should be a word that means “a link to something came to my attention via social media today, and I am about to talk about that now.” It should be German, probably, or maybe Japanese. Those languages have the best words for concepts that definitely exist but that English-speaking people would rather explain to you than just say. Today, thanks to my friend Mark Colomb, I saw this piece. It appeared on a website. It’s about one particular website, The Awl, and about websites in general.
“What the hell,” I thought, “might as well read this thing about websites.” I have a website. You’re looking at it right now. It’s… you know, it’s a website. It’s not doing much, just sitting there being a website, kind of, but it is at least a website. So that’s something I have in common with the website guys the article is about. Maybe I can learn a thing or two I hadn’t thought of yet on the subject of websites and website-having.
What happened next left me speechless. Specifically, what happened next, was that my tenderloins, or whatever those muscles are that run up your back on the sides of your spine, constricted and my breath got all sparse and starry. In other words, what happened next was the same thing that happens whenever I find myself stuck in a long grocery store line with a cart full of microwavable garbage, waiting for more well-appointed shoppers to buy their organic produce, wondering what kind of space alien has the confidence to purchase an actual jicama without apparent foreknowledge of its inevitable crisper-drawer rot stink. This article, about some website guys who have a website, is dread, and not that theoretical existential-style creeping dread of alienation, but rather that I am going to die right now, “oh my god oh my god I am dying” dread that possesses your actual body and explodes in your brain and turns your vision gray.
What part, though?
It for sure wasn’t the part that talks about the future of online content, how much of the internet is being strained through these social media platforms, whose minor algorithmic adjustments create entire content-providing ecosystems that spring up, thrive, and die, like whatever weird, indistinct individual creatures feast on geothermal vents and whale carcasses on the ocean floor. That part was interesting. So was the part about the stratification of the human experience into ever more finely tuned revenue management guidelines, about how human life and labor is slowly and inexorably being converted into data, how data processing stratagem will eventually become the shape of our society, how the individual is dying in that way too, and will continue to commensurate with increasingly sophisticated modeling and a few flops of Moore’s Law. Spooky, but interesting. Fun to think about, even. Humanity’s satisfying denouement, even better in the book than in the movie.
The part of the article that puckered my sternum was the description of who these people are. Of course they are white people. Of course they are based in Brooklyn. Of course their professional backstories are a byzantine recap of internet publications large and small, and of course they have names that sound like herbal tea variants, and of fucking course they’re listening to Destroyer in their cramped but stylish office. It didn’t make me roll my eyes, because my eyes were too busy being coated in socksless boat shoes, and my vertebrae were too busy fusing into a fetal position, and I was too busy locked inside my mind screaming “get a job” to nobody in particular like the ghost of an apoplectic 1950’s Brooklynite concierge.
Like I said, I have a website. I’m white. I’m not based in Brooklyn or, worse, San Francisco, but I live in an urban center, in a Chicago apartment that’s walking distance to two dildo stores and a gourmet hot dog place that puts Foie gras on duck sausage, which I eat the shit out of (the duck sausage) just about every chance I get. I can’t play the “I’m different” card while talking about the Awl guys with any outward credibility, except in that I am less prolific and less popular and don’t make a dime from my website, and, aside from whatever back-end justification you want to attach to amateurism in art, all that means is that I’m less ambitious and likely also less talented than they are. Maybe the landscape of my “trauma” and resultant neuroses is a little different too, but we humans are not in the business of giving a shit about that. The basic demography is roughly equivalent between me and the Destroyer-listening Brooklyn fuckwads depicted in this article.
The eyelid palpitations I get from the section that lists off respective CV’s harbor plenty of jealousy vibes. I’ll concede that. I’d like to write or work for one of these places, probably. It seems nice. In theory. I’d also like to have nicer clothes, and seem generally fuckable to attractive and intelligent potential mates, and have my well-articulated opinion on matters of the day valued and financed by the world at large, and embody a sense of writerly craftsmanship, and be applauded by peers I respect, and otherwise have all of my pleasure centers tickled by whatever manifestation of purpose-affirming capital suits me best.
Most importantly, I’d like to like myself as much as these people seem to, and have an interviewer note how self-effacing I am at the interview and photo shoot I am currently participating in. I’d like to be able to say “did you read that piece in The Verge about The Awl?” and more or less leave it at that without my psyche crumbling into some panic-stricken wormhole through which my fears are transmuted into the unintelligible torrent of words you are now reading. But hey, that’s just not me, I guess.
I think The Awl is a pretty good website. For all I know. I don’t read it. I think the New Yorker and The Atlantic are probably pretty good magazines too, and I don’t read them either. I’m not a great reader. I think there are probably a lot of amazing things in this world that I have not been able to latch onto or participate in because my teeth vibrate like a tuning fork every time I hear them described, and I’m trying to be alive, and all this, being a website, talking about websites, reading about websites on websites, living within the race of humans, specifically young urban white people who are striving to document and amuse themselves out of a self-perpetuating stupor of late capitalist and postmodern alienation with “content,” just that one word “content,” now meaning “non-nourishing informational slurry,” feels very unlike living. It feels, in a few bare moments of experience such as the one I just had reading this thing about the thing, like a goddamn boa constrictor around your neck. It feels like possibilities dying. I hate it.
It’s good to remind ourselves, and this is a good time to do it with the New York Stock Exchange seizing up yesterday in what was except for probably a few not very good anyway rich people a total non-thing, that these social media platforms, like the “content”-generating providers that feed into them, are still optional. We can still get our information from wherever we want. And we can also choose to get no information. Or a slow drip of it. We can decide against any information, and might benefit from doing so if the only people giving us “content” that’s “worthy of our attention” happen to be walking postgraduate barracudas in bespoke trunk club trousers, experimental haircuts, and vintage blazers, people who unselfconsciously use the word “optimization” like they are somehow exempt from this doomed species of ours and therefore do not need to cut the shit and/or get real. Maybe instead of hearing everything processed through the filter of these people, we can stick to basic human truths as a more enlightened news source.
Today’s hot content: Pam seems upbeat today. Eugene told a funny joke on the elevator. You are at your desk in an office, or on your phone on the train, or in bed on a tablet, and people are everywhere, all around you, just through the walls, breathing in much the same way you do. Talking to them and living with and among them (even if they totally suck, and most of them do) rather than merely harvesting their diluted essence through manufactured screen-bourne consumables is not just life affirming for you, but maybe more beneficial, it’s also an opportunity cost for some hapless caffeine addict currently sitting in an ergonomic chair in an office with exposed brick, listening to New Pornographer side projects all day long, on an infinite deadline. Instead, Pam wants her husband to build a trellis to screen her patio, and you can tell her that seems nice, because it does.