sharing space with you, and you, and you, and

sharing space with you, and you, and you, and
"Two Women Chatting by the Sea," Camile Pissarro (1856)

The sun is shining, finally. Weakly — New York, for all its winter rain, is still in the northeast — but it's there. This isn't a metaphor or anything. Lately I've just been stuck inside, playing Rayman 2 on the Dreamcast.

Anyway! I was reading my pal Molly Soda's excellent newsletter yesterday, where she writes insightfully about what "girl" means and has meant online — especially over the last year.

Perhaps 2023 was the year that the broader culture became aware of the girl: girl dinner; clean/that girl; rat girl; hot girl walks; girl clutter… Putting little bows on just about everything.

What followed, she said, was a series of posts and blogs that tried to draw a distinction between women and girls. Soda rejects the framing entirely:

Online, there is no woman/girl dichotomy. Online, we are all girls. Here, the term girl exists as a condition rather than a defined gender or age. “Girl” is a valuable marketing term in the same way that “authenticity” is. It is both hoisted upon us and impossible to actually embody.

Go read the whole thing; it's great. What I found most compelling, though, was this bit, which I'd like to take the liberty to quote in full.

I turn 35 in a few weeks. My desires, my feelings of lack, and my consumption habits implicate me—I’m wading through Girl Internet. You probably are too. It’s a space that is at once coveted and ridiculed. I sip from a hot pink Stanley cup that my boyfriend got me for Christmas, the same one that high schoolers carry to and from their classes. 13-year-olds and I shop side-by-side for the same skincare products at my nearest Sephora. I scroll TikTok and get dating advice meant for someone at least a decade younger than me. We’re all sharing the Internet. Platforms like TikTok, which have the power to make micro-celebrities out of old women going out to eat or tweens hauling thousands of dollars worth of luxury goods via the app’s For You page make this even more apparent. Our anxieties and aspirations bleed into one another, whether or not they actually apply to our individual lives.
When I first started being a girl online, 20 years ago, everyone else was my age, too. Of course, we were warned not to meet up with strangers (decidedly older men) from AOL chat rooms, but I was generally posting for and following other teenagers. Now, not only am I sharing the Internet with today’s youth, I’m sharing the Internet with the girl I was online 20 years ago and every subsequent age and iteration since then.

When I read that, I paused and thought: oh, this is it. This is why I've been feeling burned out on the internet lately: because it's a cacophony completely unbound by time.

The key innovation of social media, if you can call it that, was the idea to bring everyone together. Or, as Mark Zuckerberg told TIME in 2015: "...[W]e came to this realization that connecting a billion people is an awesome milestone, but there’s nothing magical about the number 1 billion. If your mission is to connect the world, then a billion might just be bigger than any other service that had been built. But that doesn’t mean that you’re anywhere near fulfilling the actual mission."

Facebook was founded 20 years ago this July. An impossible number of things happened in the third nonspace they sought — and still seek — to dominate; but two decades later, the value of that original insight seems to decline every day. Connecting the world isn't an unalloyed good, and we know that now. We knew it then, too, but you have to remember this was new and exciting at the time, and damn the content moderators who might have called the endeavor impossible.

Here's where I put that necessary caveat: obviously, there was a period of time in the late aughts and mid-2010s where a lot of good things happened because everyone online was piled into the same global chatrooms together. Activists coordinated social movements that changed the world, and, by and large, it seemed like conventional wisdom that collective online social pressure could get things done.

In America I think that ended in the waning days of the Trump administration. The early pandemic reminded us we were all together. But as it wore on it became clear that we weren't sharing space so much as we were trapped online together. Social algorithms were already fragmenting the internet back into smaller communities — though this time with the threat of sudden global virality hanging over them — when Elon Musk bought Twitter and killed the last site that could credibly point to hosting "the global conversation," or whatever.

It was also the last site that threw people with power and those without it together in a meaningful way — the last place you could organize and reasonably expect some kind of change in meatspace. Musk turning the site into a right-wing slop bucket has upended the old conventional wisdom that it was good to be on Twitter and to interact with people you didn't know, which is to say it freed the many, many people with a little power — who used Twitter as a conduit to hear what people were thinking — from having to care about the site at all.

I think that's a concrete loss, even though the platforms weren't really the organizers of movements or the enablers of artists — that was the individuals, not the oligarchs. Nevertheless the platforms did provide useful tools. And perhaps more importantly they prescribed a set of social conventions: after all, it was good for Twitter's business if everyone thought it was necessary to be on Twitter, participating in its ecosystem. And the company did its part, sort of; its teams cleaned up various moderation crises. Not well, and not always, but enough to keep the site's culture going. (Not to gloss over the spread of chan culture into pop culture and how those angry dudes used the same tools to sow a bunch of hateful ideas into the discourse, but, like, that's a whole longer essay in itself.)

Twitter's untimely death was the gravestone for the 2010s internet. Or more specifically it was the end of the era's animating idea: that connecting people was an end worthy of pursuing for its own sake.

We share space with everyone, now, living in the world that Facebook made. Awash in the changing trends of the changing times. Every day a new horror, every day a new discourse unrelated to it. I see traumatized Palestinian children next to memes about men in the pacific northwest and I feel physically ill because these two things operate in separate moral universes and yet here, on the platform, they're valued the same way — as content.

I know some people, like my pal Anil, are hopeful that the end of one era of the internet will usher in a better, more interesting one. In one way I think he's right — there will certainly be an explosion of creativity unshackled from the corporate internet, like there was in the early days. And I'm glad that niche-ness is making a comeback.

But I worry that we're losing some of the good things about big social, too. Its algorithms made things possible — like making a living from your art, or getting people to understand a fraction of the concerns of the black community. Or paid moderation teams, or the ability to surface unknown talents. Or anything else.

After Twitter turned into X, I started seeing a sentiment among some of the poster I follow: the idea that nobody would ever let this happen again, i.e., that no powerful person will ever deign to share online space with the rest of us again. Which makes it just a little bit harder to get things done IRL; a lever of real power has been taken out of service.

I can't say I'm sure where that leaves us. I just know that history bends the way the powerful want it to bend, and that the moral arc is a separate thing entirely.


things i've been enjoying:

Rayman 2 (Dreamcast)

The Finals (all platforms)

Blue, Derek Jarman

That's all for this week! But let me know if you've got any thoughts about sharing space with everyone else online.

Thanks to Mitch and Olivia for their help!