I fill a significant portion of my spare time with dumb thoughts that strangers post online. I’ve been on the internet since the late-aughts, spending after-school screen time with Fred videos and Webkinz, floating from site to site on the family PC. The online world allowed me to be anonymous — even though I met “friends” on Club Penguin chats and GirlsGoGames comments, I was just a chaotic username, not Annie Rauwerda. My bubble of anonymity popped when my dad told me that the public comments I’d made on High School Musical videos (“Vanessa Hudgens is sooooo perfect for Zac,” etc.) were all associated with his name and that I should “please not do that.”
I spent my middle school years under my actual name on Google Buzz and Facebook, poking and posting. By high school, the tech giants had hooked me on algorithmically-curated content. The 10-year anniversary of my Instagram account approaches, and I’m not sure if I should celebrate or mourn.
The internet hosts mazes of feverish connection; it takes our social incentives (to be liked) and disguises them as performance incentives (to get likes.) After I meet someone in real life, I search their name on the internet to get a read on their vibe — a habit that, when I take a step back, seems deranged. Why can’t my perception of a person be complete without knowing their online presence? In a digitally-mediated world, it’s easy to make life inextricable from social media. Many of the good and beautiful parts of life— the jokes, the inspiration, our communities and our families— are inseparable from the internet, too.
People I’ll never meet are saying nothing and saying it all the time, and I’m frequently sucked into the abyss, viewing it all from my digital peephole. Opaque algorithms present me with curated content that updates every few seconds; apps send me FOMO-inducing push notifications when I haven’t logged on in a while. Occasionally, the trash vortex yields something useful, like this Chrome extension that hides pop-ups and long personal stories from food blogs. Other times, I’m absent-mindedly scrolling through acquaintances’ vacation pictures, wasting my time watching their carefully constructed lives.
A stranger made a Rube Goldberg machine. Another stranger had a gender reveal at a ski resort (she’s a girl). More strangers had a reunion at an airport, and I watched until the end. I’m happy for them. Hong Kong now has a meme museum.
I become invested in the day’s happenings and I move to the couch to continue my scroll.
Female octopuses throw things at males that are harassing them and a stranger thinks this is pretty hashtag girlboss. Now there’s shaved soap, a close-up of gloved hands popping blackheads and a picture of a frog that says “I live in Poland but the la is silent.” An ad for a bank for gay people. A mukbang. My brother’s ex-girlfriend did a Tough Mudder with her dad who has cancer and my high school nemesis is asking her followers to join her pyramid scheme. Vaccine disinformation. A cow got stuck in a tree. Someone changed their Tinder location to the Olympic Village and is matching with Olympians. Neat!
There’s a gif of a rapper above an Amber Alert above a deep-fried-meme above a notice of neighborhood raccoons above ASMR cooking tutorials above viral recipes for air-fryer tofu above a stranger’s açaí bowl above a 5-year-old opening a neon slime kit. Rapper Nicki Minaj spreads misinformation, claiming that the COVID-19 vaccine caused infertility in her cousin’s friend, and reputable sources rush to correct her. My high school assistant swim coach marks herself safe from a minor hurricane. The New York Times Magazine ran an article about how to catch a bat, making me wonder if this is a skill I’ll ever need to know. There’s an ad for a dating app for dogs.
Rudy Giuliani is on Cameo. An influencer posted a picture in Cabo but when she photoshopped her small waist, she inadvertently made her thumb really fat. Timothée Chalamet was spotted eating a sandwich. The Daily Mail puts out another bizarre headline: “EXCLUSIVE: Tech bro boasts about hanging with ‘notable celebrities and execs’ at UNOFFICIAL Burning Man as rich kids bring their own stages, Porta Potties and DJ equipment to Black Rock Desert ‘Playa.’” A Russian content farm on Facebook asks if you can name a song that mentions the weather, and your parents’ next-door neighbor comments “It’s Raining Men.” I suppose she’s right, and I take a screenshot to send to my brother but never get around to sending it. A girl I met at a slumber party in eighth grade moved to Texas with her boyfriend. A BuzzFeed video shows how street lights work. Polka-dot bralettes are on sale. Bugs Bunny is wearing a tux and wishing “all darty-ers a very calm down it’s 9 in the morning.” A church youth pastor says that the new rec room has everything a teen could want: Blu-rays, a foosball table, a board game shelf and several types of potato chips. Someone posted a video of their “obnoxiously strong toes” and it met my (admittedly low) expectations.
“Ali express is a beautiful name for a girl,” says a stranger. A multi-millionaire I’ve never heard of is quitting his job at a one-billion-dollar company to work at a different billion-dollar company, and a cat fell off the upper bowl of a stadium during a football game. Someone brings up the guy with two penises from Reddit. Someone thinks their chin looks like the city of Dallas. It does. Another meme arises based on a nostalgic form of children’s entertainment that people in their twenties enjoyed as elementary schoolers. A stretched, saturated stock image of Paris Hilton holding a massive Hello Kitty purse is overlaid by glowing yellow text that reads “I am so based.” It has 60,000 likes. Someone in a Twitter argument says “touch some grass,” an insult implying that one has lost touch with reality so entirely that they must interact with a plant and reflect on their actions.
Like a lab rat with a lever, I wade through endless content in search of a meme that induces a strong exhale. I don’t know if the mess of content adds up to anything, but I do know it feels thrilling on good days and overwhelming on bad days. There are plenty of voices saying social media is bad — just as critics warned about TV (called a “vast wasteland” in 1961), or the once-newfangled concept of the written word, which Plato said would “implant forgetfulness.”
As someone who loves the way the media landscape always provides something new to learn, I don’t mean to be a Luddite. Still, when I don’t set limits, I find myself exhausted by it all. I mourn the way it can fuel hate groups, decimate mental health and pressure its users into constant performance. Huge concerts may have a stage in the middle surrounded by seating in every direction, but on social media, it’s as if the performers are in the stands and there’s no stage — we’re performing for no one but each other.
I have my gripes with the internet, of course, but I keep coming back to it for several reasons: I frequently find things I really like (like this 101-year-old lobsterwoman) and it connects me to my friends. Gen Z has been dubbed “digital natives” because we grew up in close contact with the internet. The term implies the internet is my home country, and it sure feels like it: I speak our shared language of memes and phrases with a certain dialect, and I get a homesick longing for content if I go for too long without it.
The other day, I saw in an online article linked from social media that ducks can learn to say phrases, and one said “you bloody fool.”
“Maybe I am,” I thought, and then I scrolled to a tweet from user @afraidofwasps. It read: “You only live once — you should try to spend as much time on the computer as possible. After you die, you won’t have access to it anymore.”
Statement Correspondent Annie Rauwerda email@example.com.