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Jia Tolentino’s “Feverish, Electric, Unlivable Hell:” The New Yorker Writer’s First Book Reckons with Self-Delusion and the Internet

On June 1, 2016, the internet lost its “I.” That was the day The New York Times, following the lead of The Associated Press, began decapitalizing the word “Internet” when it appeared among its pages. Philip B. Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor for standards, urged everyone not to read too much into the style shift. In his article, he stressed three bulleted points. The change in capitalization did not “reflect a fundamental shift in society’s view of technology,” nor did it “signal some milestone in the history of online communication.” Lastly, readers should not construe the new rule as evidence of “a ‘legacy’ news organization finally acknowledging the ubiquity of digital information.” Basically, Corbett seemed to be saying, no tea leaves here.

As usual, the editor was right. The decapitalization of “Internet” in the Times could not be interpreted as a milestone of any sort—because the Times was late. The fundamental, historical shift Corbett alluded to had already occurred. Per Jia Tolentino’s estimate in “The I in Internet” (the first of nine essays in her new collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion), it happened in 2012, or thereabouts. 

Born in 1988, the New Yorker writer (formerly of Jezebel and, before that, the now-defunct Hairpin) has witnessed and participated in nearly the full arc of the internet. It has saturated her childhood, her adolescence, and her writing career. And that saturation wasn’t always bad. “In the beginning the internet seemed good,” Tolentino opens her book biblically and fatally. Yet as she grew older, more complex, possibly more compromised, so too did the web. Recounting the story of her life and the story of the internet are eerily similar undertakings; the two are “inextricable.” She writes:

“At ten, I was clicking around a web ring to check out other Angelfire sites full of animal GIFs and Smash Mouth trivia. At twelve, I was writing five hundred words a day on a public LiveJournal. At fifteen, I was uploading photos of myself in a miniskirt on Myspace. By twenty-five, my job was to write things that would attract, ideally, a hundred thousand strangers per post. Now I’m thirty, and most of my life is inextricable from the internet, and its mazes of incessant forced connection—this feverish, electric, unlivable hell.”

The hyperconnection that the internet now demands of us, its exhausted and rightless citizens, as well as the monetization of that connection, have prodded us to cultivate perfect online selves. Tolentino differentiates the methods of that cultivation by platform—Instagram appeals to our vanity, Facebook to our pride, Twitter to our indignation—but the effective result is the same: a fractal performance of our ideal personas that saps us of money, data, attention, and time. 

While the “I” in internet’s spelling shrank with the web’s ubiquity, the “I” we invested into it only swelled. The respite we usually obtained while performing identity in the real world (by switching, for example, from the role of employee to spouse, spouse to parent, parent to friend as we went about our days) became optional and increasingly rare on the internet. “Online,” Tolentino writes, “your audience can hypothetically keep expanding forever, and the performance never has to end.” We have deluded ourselves into believing our online identities are more real than our lived ones. In cyberspace, we are all seasoned method actors.

***

Tolentino’s early life—like the lives of most writers, probably—hinted at a proclivity for self-delusion. The most obvious sign (and the one we encounter earliest in the book, on the first page of the first essay) is her prolific journaling. This habit takes many forms over the course of her collection. An Angelfire subpage was her chronicle of choice when she was ten. On it, she wrote about her germinal experience with the big-I Internet: browsing Beanie Baby websites on her family’s home computer in the third grade. From then on, her digital world rapidly expanded to include dexterity with HTML and JavaScript, a personal Expage site whose storage space she quickly outgrew, and, eventually, her Angelfire page. It contained a journal section that she filled out dutifully for exactly one month in the fall of ’99. “There was an FAQ page,” her deadpan adult self interjects. 

Tolentino periodically collides with her younger self through these and other early writings, in quite the same manner you might bump into your own reflection in a funhouse mirror maze. Each encounter seems to leave her a bit bewildered, sometimes embarrassed, but always boldly willing to stumble forward to the next conk. After all, the point of a journal, Joan Didion once wrote, is “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not.” 

Tolentino’s journals aren’t her only point of contact with her younger self. In her essay “Reality TV Me,” she relates a more striking (and painful) reunion of past and present: watching a taped recording of a 2005 reality TV show on which she competed as a teenager. She submitted an audition tape for the show, Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico, at a mall kiosk after her mother encouraged her to do so (and after her father bribed her with 20 bucks). By chance, the producers selected her, four boys, and three other girls to appear on the show. Throughout the season, the eight competitors raced, sparred, argued with, annoyed, and kissed each other, relishing being young and sunkissed and surveilled. And to think that they were brought together by some unlikely alignment of paternal bribery and a producer’s whim.

That’s the story Tolentino admits she prefers: a story of pure serendipity and, on her part, apathy. Rewatching the show as an adult, she cringed not only at her teenage antics, but also at a pattern of delusion she could no longer ignore: “It seemed likely that I’d been making this error more generally. For most of my life I’ve believed, without really articulating it, that strange things just drop into my lap—that, especially because I can’t really think unless I’m writing, I’m some sort of blank-brained innocent who has repeatedly stumbled into the absurd unknown.” The truth, revealed to her by a journal entry in which her younger self displayed “excitement, but no surprise whatsoever,” at being chosen for the show, was that Tolentino wanted to be cast. “It is now obvious to me…that a sixteen-year-old doesn’t end up running around in a bikini and pigtails on television unless she also desperately wants to be seen.”

Watching the taped recordings of the show evoked multiple such realizations from Tolentino. She noticed that an anecdote she often told about the show, one in which she is caught off-guard by a surprise eating challenge (her dish, when uncovered, revealed a plate of mayonnaise, a condiment she abhors), was actually false. The dish was never covered to begin with; she knew it was mayonnaise from the start, and she volunteered to eat it. She was always sincere in her telling of her story—it was simply untrue. 

Another delusion exposed: a fellow castmate of hers, a tender Southern boy named Cory, was caught up in a love plot with one of the girls on the opposing team. Now, years after the show first aired, he lives in Florida with his long-term boyfriend. In retrospect, Tolentino realizes, Cory, the “guy who loved Britney Spears and had never been kissed,” didn’t fit the stereotype of the heterosexual teenage boy. Multiple self-delusions were bound into one—Cory’s, Tolentino’s, and that of Cory’s conservative father, who remains distant from his son to this day. All saw what was right in front of them, and all failed or refused to see that it was real.

Perhaps Tolentino’s most unpleasant experience while watching the show was reliving the moments when she and six of the other competitors went after their castmate, Paris. They mocked her—Tolentino especially—by zeroing in on her need to feel pretty, admired, and attended to. Tolentino flogs herself for this in the essay, but in real life, she suffered no consequences for her brutal behavior. Granted, they were kids. Adolescence is barbarous by definition, and in her interviews with Tolentino, Paris seemed to have let bygones be bygones. But more interestingly, there was no real mechanism for Tolentino’s behavior to incur consequences in the first place. The program aired just before YouTube users began documenting every broadcast moment worth remembering (and many that weren’t) for an anonymous immortal audience, a drama-hungry horde starving for both the calorific social carnage we associate with reality television today and the chance to litigate that carnage in the comments below. 

Tolentino herself watched only the first episode of the series when it debuted and skipped the rest. In between the filming and air dates, she joined Facebook, the fatal bite that evicted humanity from our relatively edenic big-I Internet. “It was clear enough… where this was all going,” she writes. “Reality TV conditions were bleeding into everything; everyone was documenting their lives to be viewed.” Girls v. Boys was a unique opportunity for her to be watched without having to watch herself. “With this show, I could have done something that was intended for public consumption without actually consuming it. I could have created an image of myself that I would never have to see.”

But by the time the show premiered, as Tolentino remarks, the self-documenting instinct was bleeding through. We seemed helpless to stop it, to imagine the bandage or tourniquet necessary to staunch our personal lives’ seeping out into the digital universe. The helplessness, however, may have been a delusion in itself. Did we truly want it to stop? It felt so good, then, and so different, to be watched.

***

The internet’s insidious influence can be found in many of the other essays in Trick Mirror, often in the background, accelerating things. 

Though the internet did not invent the “ideal woman” figure described in “Always Be Optimizing” as constantly searching for and implementing new ways to self-improve, it has exacerbated her. Tolentino tracks the development of that figure, “an inorganic thing engineered to look natural,” from the Victorian era to modern times. The major shift along that timeline is that, nowadays, the possibilities for optimization are seemingly endless and self-replicating. 

For example: leggings. We can obtain what writer Moira Weigel calls a “frictionless” life by purchasing luxury athleisure clothing (which Tolentino calls “late-capitalist fetishwear”). The stretchy fabric from which leggings are made functions as a symbol for the outward comfort, flexibility, and seamlessness they command the modern ideal woman to embody. Of course, the comfort of leggings comes at a cost. Here again, Tolentino quotes Weigel: “Because these pants only ‘work’ on a certain kind of body, wearing them reminds you to go out and get that body.” The frictionlessness of leggings produces a secondary friction—a desire to be slimmer and thicker in places that the leggings want us to be. We can solve that friction, we tell ourselves, with even more self-optimization (calorie-counting, weight-watching, Fitbit-fidgeting). It’s Lululemons all the way down. 

The internet figures even more prominently and perniciously in the generation-defining scams chronicled in the book’s sixth essay. It’s difficult to distinguish when the internet helped initiate these scams from when it allowed those who did not completely fall for them to laugh at those who did; in the end, the difference may not mean much. The already-classic example of April 2017’s failed Fyre Festival demonstrates the ways in which the internet feeds into scams and thrives on their aftermath. 

Organized—in the word’s loosest sense—by well-known scammer Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, Fyre Festival was marketed as a luxury music festival hosted on a private Caribbean island. It promised top-notch performances, gourmet food, and sumptuous lodging for party-weary influencers to rest within after a long day of spending money and being thin. McFarland purchased sponsored Instagram posts from Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner to promote the event, which began disintegrating almost immediately after it was announced, since McFarland attempted to orchestrate it with just four months’ notice. The location was switched from a private island to a public one, namely Great Exuma, where a Sandals resort is located. (The festival was not hosted at the resort, but rather at a desolate lot nearby.) As April neared, musical acts began to sense something suspicious going on with this new, untested Fyre Festival and started pulling out. When the weekend of the festival finally did arrive, hundreds of attendees became stranded on an island without the palatial accommodations they had been promised. They posted photos of what they received instead online, and the images became instantly indelible in the cultural consciousness. Those FEMA tents, those rain-soaked mattresses, those sad cheese sandwiches so similar to the ones public schools give to kids with overdue lunch debt: “the internet snorted each dispatch from Great Exuma like a line of medical-grade schadenfreude,” Tolentino observes. We were hooked.

The other scams that framed Millennial viewpoints on culture, democracy, and success range from the 2008 economic crash to student loan debt, from social media and the “really obvious” cons (think raw water and Theranos) to Amazon’s “octopus”-like economic reach and the 2016 election. But Tolentino reserves her most acicular criticism for the scam of market-friendly feminism, “the spurious, embarrassing, and limitlessly seductive sales pitch that feminism means, first and foremost, the public demonstration of getting yours.” She discusses this in the context of “girlbosses,” our society’s capitalist figures that, at first glance, seem to represent feminist triumph over a corporate culture accustomed to shutting out women. The role of the girlboss can be traced through Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso (grab your VIP ticket to her next “Girlboss Rally” for a mere $700!) to its technocratic mitochondrial Eve: Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook COO and Lean In fame. The doctrine such figures espouse is not entirely wrong, Tolentino says—but to accept without challenge the premise of that doctrine is to avoid reckoning with its myopic emphasis on personal advancement as feminism’s ultimate goal. 

That avoidance, she argues in another essay, is what often leads to progressive commentators defending (or even lauding) prominent conservatives like Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, women with high rank in the Trump administration, as feminist icons. Tolentino is extremely aware that sexism does not discriminate based on party affiliation, and that Conway and Huckabee Sanders have undoubtedly encountered such prejudice in obtaining the positions they now hold. But those encounters do not anoint them as revolutionaries. “A woman doesn’t have to be a feminist icon to resist [sexism]—she can just be self-interested, which is not always the same thing.”

***

In the end, Tolentino is just trying to navigate the maze of connections and delusions like the rest of us. She acknowledges in her introduction that her position as a writer makes her a particularly unreliable narrator: “Writing is either a way to shed my self-delusions or a way to develop them. A well-practiced, conclusive narrative is usually a dubious one.” She also implicates herself in her critique of the hellish internet, modern feminism, and the way the two feed on each other. (She partially credits that mutual consumption for her writing career.) It is easy to feel a kinship with her when she confesses: “I am complicit no matter what I do.”

Thankfully, Trick Mirror offers us anything but a tidy narrative. In her disorienting collisions with past selves and in her willingness to chase after and pin down the most circular questions surrounding identity, culture, and politics, Tolentino finds truth in the funhouse. Sometimes it is warped, reversed, and refracted in odd, unexpected ways. Its discovery requires her fearless pursuit of forward motion, even with the knowledge that she will crash into her own reflection time and time again. The revelations are worth the bruises. Let us all stumble after her, into the light.