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In the future, everyone will be seen exactly as they want to be for 15 minutes.
thought digest, 03.10.2023
Buongiorno…on some heavy-duty meds for my Mysterious Tropical Illness, so this may not be the most lucid newsletter. But here’s what’s been on my mind lately:
The never-ending year. The idea that my friend, writer and nuclear advocate Emmet Penney and I proposed that earned us our Emergent Ventures grant was a research project on why 2013 was the most influential year of the last fifty years. We called it “the never-ending year.” And indeed, I believe that until maybe 2022, we’d been living in a nonstop 2013.
Help me I’m poor…
2013 kicked off with the Haarlem Shake, a format we see daily on TikTok but then was novel, coasted into the success of WhatsApp and Instagram.
2013 was the year of GIPHY and Corporate Memphis. It was ISIS Twitter’s and Tumblr’s peak. It gave us the best of Vine and proto-#MeToo cancellations. It was the dawn of wokeness crossing the online-offline barrier via journalism and Tinder’s explosion, and OkCupid’s descent. Vice Media’s trademark “authenticity fishing” enjoyed countless copycats, and journalists became influencers. In 2013, there were many prominent identity-based spats, the foundations for BLM were laid, and the confessional essay economy was booming.
The list of 2013’s cultural milestones is genuinely enough to fill a book or at the very least an Atlantic article. And please, commission Emmet or myself to write that article. Please.
*stares in “you know what you did”*
The culture war needs some compassion. It feels trite to say at this point, but always worth the reminder: call-outs about how, e.g., long COVID is bullshit, have plenty of room for empathy.
Depression does some bananas things to our bodies, and a lot of people express their emotions somatically. I know it’s fun to assume the “other side” is a bunch of excessively coddled, whining babies, but I think a better explanation might be that people are trying to make sense of their environment with the tools they have available. There is definitely something to the progressive idea of “self-care.” There are so many things about our lifestyles that have been normalized, things we may not even be able to clock as a problem. And so, we fall back on the unfortunately now commodified idea of “self-care.” We fall back on vague diagnoses like “chronic fatigue.” People don’t understand why the things that are happening are happening.
Accusations of immaturity or self-centeredness (or whatever) alone don’t seem particularly helpful in the face of how complex our social and cultural problems are.
In the future, everyone will be seen exactly as they want to be for 15 minutes. I was talking to a friend last night who had experienced the full brunt of #MeToo in 2017. When he was describing some of the allegations he received, something stood out to me– again and again, the case against him was predicated on “weird vibes” and hypothetical situations.
I can’t say this enough, it seems: the dissonance between our internal worlds and reality does seem to be the biggest source of friction. We’re in a purgatory of self-narration, aren’t we?
What’s making teenage girls so sad? Lots of speculation about what made liberal teenage girls so sad in the 2010s.
One (ostensibly, at least from what I’ve read so far, and please correct me if I’m wrong) under-appreciated factor might be the commodification of mental health.
Being sick is an identity; identity is a collection of products.
When I was in middle school, everyone was self-diagnosing. In that classic middle school way, a psychiatric diagnosis helped distinguish you from everyone else. Of course, this isn’t news.
Concurrently, subcultures incorporating mental health problems were booming. The big one was emo kids. Remember that? Being emo didn’t just mean side-swept bangs and gauges, it also meant you cut yourself, were bipolar or clinically depressed, and maybe anorexic too, for good measure.
When I was 13, the done thing was for parents to say, “Suck it up; if you’re still this upset at 18, we’ll get you some Zoloft.” But horror stories of emo suicides boomed, and the line between “genuinely needs professional help” and “just going through puberty” blurred. As a parent, you want to do what’s best for your kid, so teen angst started getting taken more seriously and ultimately pathologized.
My sense is what made the teen angst of the mid-aughts different from earlier generations was that kids had a name for what they were going through.
Before, it was generalized pubescent malaise. Like, did Angela Chase go around saying she had BPD? IDK, maybe she did, but I don’t remember that episode.
The internet helped people give names to how they were feeling without, you know, the vital information that how they were feeling was fleeting because they’re 13. The easy aestheticization of angst, above and beyond what you might be able to get from TV, made it even more attractive. How many of us modeled our angst after mood boards? For the longest time, I was like, “Maybe I’m schizotypal” (I’m not) based on nothing but the energy of Xanga and LiveJournal communities.
Psychiatry was already a commercial enterprise in the U.S. – incentives were aligned. It was over before it began, as it were.
Listen to this banger, it was prophetic:
Invented cultural heritages. Another thing I can’t say enough, and have certainly written about several times before, but you can’t be surprised by Rachel Dolezal-style stories when American culture is predicated on totally invented cultural heritages. Do you know how many “Italian” people I’ve met who have basically no connection to Italy? Or Irish? How many great-great-great-great granddaughters of Cherokee princesses? “Latinx” people with one Mexican grandparent, if that, and learned Spanish in a college classroom or on DuoLingo?
It’s been completely normalized–encouraged, even–to lie about (or, more generously, mythologize) your identity in this country. It’s not just a product of “woke incentives.” It’s been baked in for as long as I can remember.
I wonder how many problems giving people the security of an experience-based cultural identity and community where they can find true belonging would solve.
As someone who’s been searching for an identity my whole life, this question has haunted me since I was young.
Would I be Default Friend if I was just Italian, without any caveats? Or if it really meant something for me to be American? No. At least for me, all I’ve ever wanted is to be part of something transcendent. Religion alone never cut it.
… And that last admission probably also answers the question I get asked most often.