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thought digest, 06.02.2023
It’s been a little while–you guys have been complaining about my absence–I’m here, I’m queer (it’s June, after all), and you’re getting your long-awaited update to this newsletter. Here’s what’s been on my mind, what’s coming, and some other places to find me around the web…
Our digital afterlife. I’m fascinated by how the digital impacts our understanding of death. Not so much the sentimental news stories about reaching across the veil help of GPT-3 or virtual reality (although, I say that and Marjorie Prime remains one of my favorite plays, nearly a decade on), but rather the ways our images escape us and evolve and become separate entities in and of themselves, sometimes while we’re still alive. Although, as I type this, I guess one is just a more pronounced expression of the other.
Help me pay for the Invisalign you all bullied me into getting!
Whenever I think about a digital afterlife, the first person I think of is the now-deceased bodybuilder Zyzz, whose legacy far outweighs anything he did while he was alive.
This isn’t a digital-exclusive phenomenon–arguably this is also true of Selena Quintanilla, or even Firefly, the one-season-long Joss Whedon show that enjoys cult success nearly 20 years after its cancellation. But Zyzz wasn’t a pop star, he wasn’t a television show, he was an ordinary person with a following online, who is, thanks to the Internet, in some sense, still a living, breathing thing. Not a person, of course, but alive.
You don’t have to die in the physical world for this to happen, either. There are myriad examples of real people who are rarely spoken about as real people, who, over time, have become memes. What they represent has escaped anything they’ve done. What does it feel like to die digitally, to have your ghost haunt cyberspace in the form of a meme, but to still be alive in meatspace?
Craigslist mash-up catalogs. In Jessica Lingel’s book an internet for the people: the politics and promise of craigslist, she describes something she calls a “Craigslist mash-up catalog.” When she writes about mash-up catalogs, what she’s really talking about are blogs, Facebook pages, et al. where people “remix” Craigslist ads with pop culture or memes, or use them to create a new object entirely, either through re-contextualization or re-worked. She describes these catalogs as “cabinets of curiosity [...] [that] present a collection of craigslist curios,” which, when they’re successful, create new communities (fandoms, even!) around the repurposed ads.
I think we see this happen with people on Twitter. This might be one of those annoying “little sister who smokes weed” takes, so bear with me here. There are people who act as nodes and collect or curate “curios” (individuals), re-purposing and re-contextualizing them in new environments, and creating new communities around them. Because the labeling doesn’t change, though, we don’t clock that this is what’s happening. Maybe I’m reaching here.
Online gentrification. Speaking of Lingel’s book, another theme that runs through it is the concept of “online gentrification.” When she talks about gentrification, she talks about it in a big-picture sense, the Internet as a whole:
Drawing on the language of gentrification, we might think of craigslist as a long-standing internet resident watching itself become more obsolete and more othered as its incoming online neighbors establish a new aesthetic and political norm. A perverse cruelty of gentrification is a shifting otherness from newcomers to old-timers.
I also think this process happens on platforms, though. Newcomers move in, change the purpose of a space, and push out long-time residents. It’s also amplified by “the perpetual now of the Internet,” where we have evolving memes that become quasi-spiritual entities in and of themselves, but our sense of history is rapidly evolving, if it exists at all.
Online, where do the people who get pushed out go? Do they form new communities? Can you be “digitally homeless”? Do they log off? A website can die, or its population can change. But what about when this same process happens to individual communities?
Anonymity. I got this bug in my head that imageboard culture was (or maybe still is) one of the ‘truest’ forms of rebellion available today because it allows you to opt out of our culture of individuality.
Became obsessed with comparing 4chan to the anonymous artists of the Middle Ages–a group of people I should note that I know nothing about, only think I know something about–and that retvrn2imageboard is the only way to escape the hell of being either performer or audience member, or some sad chimera of both.
And then the idea that Twitter ruined all that, that courting large audiences and maintaining a persistent identity, even a pseudonymous one, means that you aren’t rebelling anymore. That being a thousand different re-spawns of a constantly banned account is almost as bad as being a striver e-celeb like I am: that real ones are truly interchangeable, that there’s a certain power in being truly discardable.
I can be “discarded” in some sense, but not in any way that matters. I can always be resurrected. The tragedy is that it’s really only my social capital that can be discarded. But then, that’s also true of years-old pseudonymous accounts. Only the small accounts that form a swarm, or better yet, that relinquish their meatspace identity completely and become a string of numbers, have real power in cyberspace right now.
What’s to come:
I have not one, not two, but three essays from some exciting contributors queued. Stay tuned.
Movie nights will return this month, but what do you all want to watch?
A very exciting episode of we met online. comes out Monday–it’s about one of my favorite movies.
The Computer Room is also back next week.
No LA trip, but you will see me in Texas and DC in July.
Me around the web:
Naama Kates and I discussed the Manosphere.
I talked about anti-natalism with Damir Marusic, Shadi Hamid, and Christine Emba over at Wisdom of Crowds.
Over at UnHerd, I wrote about Ted Lasso, the changing shape of the label “far right,” Daniel Penny, and why “media radicalization” narratives continue to obfuscate our real social problems.
I wrote about my time in Saudi Arabia for Tablet. I am available to be sent on more trips, should anyone reading feel so inclined…
Cover art from The Shepherd’s Knot.
Alternatively, help pay my rent.