Against being a "real" person online

On the gradual death of online anonymity and the delightful weirdness of affirmative memes.

Welcome to GEN YEET, a cultural dispatch on Gen Z-adjacent things from Terry Nguyen. In case you haven’t already, subscribe for more. We're all besties here.

My brain has been burnt to a crisp for the past month, so I took advice from Raymond Carver to not fight the "terrific urge to lie in bed all day and read." By the New York Times' definition, I'm "languishing." I consider it being lazy with purpose. Some personal updates since I've last published: I'm fully vaccinated after Ms. Moderna roundhouse-kicked my immune system's ass, the boyfriend has moved to New York (media couple status unlocked), and I've started wearing less and going out more, in an attempt to be "slutty in vibe," but not "slutty in actions." Busy, to say the least! This week's newsletter is on the gradual death of online anonymity and the delightful weirdness of affirmative memes.

I've tried writing this dispatch three times. My first attempt was in early April, after I came across a Times' opinion piece declaring that we could be different people after the pandemic, that our personalities are ever-changing like sand dunes. Since then, I've started associating sand dunes with personalities, imagining how my post-pandemic self could resemble the monstrous sandworms in the still-to-be-released movie Dune: feral, yonic creatures that, according to one Reddit user, attack all rhythmic vibrations on pure instinct. No thoughts, just (deadly) vibes.

I'm attracted to this vicious formlessness; I envision it as a blissful reprieve from thinking, existing, and performing for the internet, which has become a part-time job of sorts. I find myself wishing to opt out of this Great Online Game, as tech writer Packy McCormick described it, when the vibrancy of the physical world demands my whole attention. But logging off for a day or a week does little to change the Game’s optics: Billions of people continue to play whether they realize it or not — with purpose, hope, optimism, delusion, or dread. The gamification of the online world, according to McCormick’s telling, is a net benefit for society. Fortunes can be made through rogue investments, hard work, luck, or a combination of the three. People can find success. They just need to start playing the Game. 

I've previously written about how skeptical I am of the commodification of the digital landscape, a feature that has bled into its most pure and obscure corners. Yes, the internet is amazing! It has allowed millions to pursue unconventional, independent careers. But that doesn't change the capitalist rulebook it abides by, which has increasingly demanded more opportunities for profit from users, who aren’t always fairly compensated. In a Real Life Mag feature aptly titled, "Play to Lose," writer Emilie Reed argues that tools and technologies aimed at "financial inclusion" (NFTs, meme stocks, retail trading apps) are not as liberating as they claim to be.

Reed's argument is relevant to this discussion: Now that Big Tech is leaning into the creator economy, more people increasingly have the digital means to earn income and take charge of their financial destiny. "Choices in life become 'gambles,'" Reed writes, "as one scrambles to find bits of work or the big payout that would allow one to escape the condition of alienated work altogether, and our knowledge and skills become like assets that we must plan to increase the value of and deploy food high returns as performance in this arena is individualized."

It boils down to an implicit suggestion of personal responsibility. If the tools are there, why have you not taken action to commodify yourself? 

Everything is content is commodity. Platforms are setting aside "creator funds" to incentivize users to post with the promise of monetization. Soon, there will be little point in posting for free when you can profit from platforms, other users, or brands — if not all of the above. To be a person on the internet (anonymous, semi-anonymous, or fully known) is to succumb to the workings of the attention economy, originally dictated through the social currency of likes, follows, shares, and comments. Now, money has been thrown explicitly into the equation. StudyHall recently published a paywalled essay that explores the impossibility of being a simple user on a platform, now that the push is for everyone to become “creators”:

“Virtually every social platform is now designed to encourage users to be creators, and creators to become vendors: having reached near-saturation of ad revenue, these platforms now require more than mere engagement and attention, they require production.”

With Instagram Youth, an in-development platform geared towards children under 13, a generation of young digital users will grow accustomed to posting for attention, which is inextricably linked with future profit margins. I’ve been active on Instagram for about a decade now, starting since I was 12, so maybe I shouldn’t be one to talk. Still, it seemed like a different time. In-feed ads and influencer culture were largely nonexistent until the mid-2010s. Not to be all, "Kids these days won't understand," but sort of!

Insider’s Kat Tenbarge touches upon this tension in her newly-launched Substack, which addresses how “oppressively average” the most famous TikTok stars are. “Teenagers should be allowed to be boring and normal,” Tenbarge argues, “without having major corporate interests tied to their entire sense of being before their 16th birthday.” There's something so distressing about this soon-to-be-fulfilled future where the youngest digital users can't recall a content-free world with minimal, explicit advertisements, when you didn’t have to be a “real” person to have fun online. Social networks have convinced our FOMO-induced brains that there’s little satisfaction in existing as a shapeless form online, without an identity tied to a landing page or profile. And even if a person remains technically “off” social media, programmatic advertising and algorithms have long stripped away the supposed anonymity of an act like mindless web browsing (incognito mode is useless, unfortunately).

Zoomers, who are born between 1997 and 2010-ish, are often touted as true “digital natives,” but there’s a telling distinction between coming of age on a commodified internet commanded by a rotating cast of Main Characters (advanced Web 2.0), compared to one with fewer identifying factors, save for a chaotic username. Sure, the internet was never benign, even in the liminal stages between Web 1.0 and 2.0. But part of my nostalgia for the mid-aughts was the cradle of anonymity it afforded me as a child. I have been online, unmonitored since the age of six. Logging on was a weekend ritual that turned into an after school activity into an obsession. I aimlessly floated for a few years from site to site, chatting up strangers, feeding my Neopets, ripping MP3 files off Youtube, and personalizing my Blingee-filled Myspace page. My most formative experiences were spent befriending strangers, fighting monsters, and embarking on quests in the multiplayer role-playing universe of Maplestory. I spent hours glued to the family PC, training and socializing through the tiny pixelated characters. I never went by my real name, but my avatars were personalized to resemble aspirational versions of myself. It was a pleasant escape from my boring suburban preteen reality.

The true gamers will disagree with me here, but the introduction of Facebook and Tumblr in the early 2010s soon made gaming feel quaint. I felt like I had to be elsewhere online and always available to chat, so to not miss out on whatever my friends were saying or tagging me in. In other words, I had to be an actual person. This is why I found the surge in mainstream interest towards gaming last spring so unsurprising. People had no real place to be in lockdown, so they sought refuge in virtual worlds with sensible pre-written rules while our reality descended into frightening uncertainty. Yet, the cultural interest in games like Animal Crossing was primarily driven by social media. Animal Crossing was hyped up as the "new social media" of the coronavirus era, as yet another destination to be seen. That doesn’t necessarily diminish the joy these games brought people during this time, but it does reveal the vice-grip social platforms have over our choices.

The disintegration of online anonymity coincides with a growing desire to commodify digital personhood. Every username, every account has to represent a real person, yet people (mostly young women) are shamed, ostracized, or mocked for inaccurately portraying themselves online, through filters or photo-editing. And there’s a reason why even teenage girls are digitally beautifying their face: People’s digital avatars and perceived online identities affect how they act offline and, to an extent, how others treat them. This is called the Proteus effect, which I read about in a Washington Post profile of a 50-year-old Japanese male biker, who used FaceApp to alter his face into that of a young woman. In the aftermath of his viral face reveal, the biker received generally positive attention — something most women aren’t always afforded. In some ways, the profile reads like a parable on the pervasiveness of who’s being seen online. As augmented reality and camera filters grow more common, what are the sociological ramifications of playing dress-up for the world to see, when we’re all expected to be “real” people?

Letter of recommendation: Ambiguous affirmations, among other things

My Instagram feed has undergone a dramatic aesthetic regression. Allow me to introduce you to a cryptic genre of post-ironic* meme pages, all created within the past year or so, with names like @afffirmations, @spriteismadebyfairies, @menstrualcramps666, and @v_e_n_e_r_e_a_l_d_i_s_n_e_y_s. The antithesis to the legibly bland infographics that you double-tap in solidarity, but rarely read. Corporate design conventions have finally met their algorithmic match. It might be 2021, but Microsoft Word Art is making its comeback. These memes are messy and ambiguous and absurdist, with layers of textual and visual irony that enrapture a viewer’s attention. The graphic design is so bad that it’s good. A tad off-putting, like the sweetly rancid scent of ripe durian. The curators of these pages have a knack for pairing together the random and the unremarkable to create a composite that transcends rational thought. Is it shitpost, satire, art, or all of the above? Whatever it is, I'm intrigued.

*I don’t want to wade too deeply into philosophy here; we as a culture have endured enough takes on the role of irony in pop culture. I will share, though, this timeline from the folks at Philosopher’s Meme that outlines the memetic history of the 2010s, which gets at why I think @afffirmations and its ilk should be considered post-ironic.

The pages might leave you wondering: What is the point? Do I really relate to a stretched, saturated stock image of Paris Hilton with glowing, magenta words that read “I AM Y2K”? Who has time to post this shit?

My answer: It’s not that deep! The internet shouldn’t ever be taken too seriously, especially when memes are involved. It’s all a game of interpretation. I, for one, don’t think memes need to be sincerely explained. As an employed writer on the internet, however, it’s been beaten into my soft-boiled brain that viral or mainstream content should be given coverage even semi-seriously, as there’s an expected audience curious about its origin and/or intent. This formula, when applied to certain aspects of digital culture, is no longer as effective because the internet isn’t static.

What’s especially interesting about the past two years-ish is how TikTok has emerged as a cultural tour de force, turning trends into something so participatory and transient that’ve rendered explainers almost extinct. I wrote about this in January, when sea shanties seemed exciting: “Is every new catchphrase or rediscovered bop worth micro-analyzing? Or is the accelerating vortex of online content — and its impact on our capital-C culture — reflective of something broader?”

Memes and curators of such pages don’t always warrant explainers, listicles, or profiles. Sometimes, learning about the intent of the poster diminishes the magic of its unintended humor. Such is the case of @afffirmations, a page with 364k+ followers, run by a 20-year-old Norwegian college student named Mats Anderson. The page was featured in Elle and Vice, which juxtaposed it against other affirmations-filled wellness and mindfulness accounts, with Anderson claiming that the page is wholly serious — not satire.

“I cannot tell you if it’s satirical because I am being quite serious about what I am doing,” he told Elle in May. “I am not joking around. I spend a lot of time on making these pictures and planning and thinking. For me, I struggle to categorize it as satire. I consider it art.”

In an interview with Vice in March, when @afffirmations had less than 100k followers, Anderson referenced Knausgaard as a means to interpret his work: “[Knausgaard] said that, concerning his work and the works of authors in general, that the writer, he has his understanding and analysis, and the reader has his own understanding and an analysis. It's like this mutual exchange.”

Call me conspiratorial, but his explanation comes across as too sincere for an Adidas-wearing man with shoulder-length hair! The deranged stock imagery, the font choices, the corny bio (#Inspiring #Quotes for the Heart), and the absurd one-liners seem deliberately post-ironic. (It has inspired smaller spinoff pages that explicitly lean into parody.) But hey, Anderson is big enough to sell merch, while I’m paid absolutely nothing to dwell on his intentions.

Some good stuff, according to me

  • I was on the Diversity Hire podcast, and talked about the whiteness of generational coverage, Asian American stuff, memes, crushes, and more!

  • Real Life Mag, like, the entire goddamn publication

  • Writer Brandon Taylor’s Substack, especially this edition on “the tiny white people in our heads”

  • I’m currently reading Debt: The First 1,000 Years by David Graeber, The Waste Makers by Vance Packard, and 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman. I’m watching The Nanny (S1) and Frasier (S2)

A housekeeping note: I’m changing my publishing schedule because it no longer brings me joy to write on the weekends.

Thank you for reading this edition of gen yeet. You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram. My inbox is always open for feedback and general comments. If you are feeling generous and wish to support my free work, please consider paying me via Paypal or Venmo @nguyenterry.