How the Internet makes memoirists of us all.
I can’t recall the last time I didn’t know a writer’s face. See me pasting bylines into Facebook to find an essayist’s profile picture. Watch as I dive through tagged photographs to find out which school a reporter attended, what his partner looks like. Is his Twitter account verified? Is he famous enough to justify being verified? Usually I’m less interested in the plain fact of, say, a writer’s ethnicity or what kind of pet she owns than I am in her presentation of those facts. Of course sometimes I’m just nosy, but more often, I’m looking for reasons to trust or distrust a writer’s work. I don’t really believe in objective narrators anymore, but I still care to look for reliable ones.
Never before has it been so easy to try to judge that reliability. Writers once had the luxury of contemplating how much distance they wanted between their identities and their work. (For a while, William Gaddis refused to give interviews, in part to avoid answering that question.) These days, though, the space between a writer’s work and who she appears to be has all but collapsed. Bylines aren’t just bylines anymore; they’re gateways to an author’s Twitter timeline or Instagram account. Sometimes it seems that everything a person publishes on the Internet—blog posts, images, errant thoughts—is just another argument offered in proof of her identity. And that identity, in turn, becomes an index from which we draw conclusions about how much we’re able to rely on a writer’s published opinions and observations. But what is it, exactly, in this web of status updates that evokes trustworthiness?
Recently, the poet Mark Doty got dragged mercilessly on Facebook for poking fun at the broken English on a Chinese restaurant menu. (“Chicken Bones in Iron Plate sounds medieval and punitive,” he wrote.) Instead of apologizing or addressing concerns about insensitivity, Doty blocked his critics and deleted the post. That series of actions was interpreted as cold disregard, and the entire fiasco was labeled by some as an act of ‘unconscious racism.’ It’s possible that Doty failed to sufficiently appreciate the global human condition, but the moment he really lost was when he declined to appear vulnerable in public. We badly want our writers to be moral, human creatures, and if you don’t perform your feelings online, you look like a robot. What his critics really wanted was for Doty to act like he was sorry.
But acting sorry, of course, doesn’t mean you are sorry. It barely means anything at all, except that you’ve calculated precisely how to behave relative to the expectations that others have for you. In real-life situations, we tend to judge the people who relentlessly make these sorts of calculations—PR flacks and social climbers, for example—to be self-serving and plastic, which makes it baffling that those are the exact terms we use to gauge a person’s humanity online. In one sense, after all, Doty’s reaction to the Internet echo chamber was the most human gesture he could muster, an instinctive response to fear, shame, and anxiety: he badly wanted his faux pas to go away.
It’s a trap, to be sure, but the need to negotiate the relationship between our private and public selves is not a new one. Now, however, everyone is expected to cultivate a public face that can serve as background for the rest of their work, whether that’s helming a presidential campaign or serving slices at a pizzeria. The dilemma is trickier for writers only because their work and their online personas deal in the same materials: anecdotes, dialogue, words. (Think of the looming opportunity of the blog-to-book deal, or the writer who asks her followers whether she should turn a tweet into an essay on Medium.) The transference of judgment from the person to the work, or vice versa, seems, in this respect, inevitable. I’m still moved when I read Doty’s “Broadway,” but now I’m more wary of the speaker as he takes Carlotta’s hand.
Memoirists have long known that confession is an effective way to solicit a reader’s trust, but I’d wager that our current tendency to associate the performance of feeling with reliability has much to do with the pervasiveness of online record keeping. Many of us have spun off a strange sort of second life that exists in parallel to our flesh and blood, accompanying us every minute of the day. Helped by our laptops and phones, our digital selves tally the number of times we listen to that one Justin Bieber song, track our steps as we meander around the office, and alert us when our ex posts a photograph on Instagram.
Seen from this perspective, it would be strange if our emotional lives were completely out of the picture. And sure enough: as if to prove that we aren’t yet cyborgs who regulate every decision by algorithm, we perform our sadness at national tragedies, our shame at one-night stands, and our deep regret at making slightly racist remarks. At root, I’d like to think that there’s something optimistic in this. We’re holding ourselves—and each other—to a standard that still places value on the human heart.
And yet the Internet’s capacity for instant publication and gratification has caused the performance of emotion to become something of a monster. Posted accounts of unrelenting public heartbreak, the live tweeting of a panic attack or crying session: at best, these overtures are devoid of self-awareness. At worst, they are disingenuous—emotional outpourings calculated to gain attention. Jezebel posted a brilliant send-up of this emphatic vulnerability last week: “I am as narcissistic as I am passionate,” the essay said. “I must recognize my own importance, and let it devastate me. What can I do but go on?”
Overblown emotional posturing will go on, despite the occasional backlash, so long as clicks and voyeurism are the currency of the web. But perhaps with time, and with currently unimaginable technology, the rubrics by which we measure a person’s reliability will shift away from how well she’s able to perform her feelings online. Until then, you can assume I’ll be here, appreciating your Instagram, one image at a time.
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and a columnist for the Daily.