Recently I wrote a review of Jarett Kobek's fantastic new book, I HATE THE INTERNET for Vol. 1 Brooklyn. Initially, the book inspired me to write something that focused much more on internet outrage, the wrath of which a main character in the book experiences. I ended up scaling back on that focus for the published review, and wrote about the book's other plotlines and themes instead. I think what the book initially inspired me to write is still valid, so I've decided to post it here. (The line of red stars denotes where the personal-style commentary on online outrage starts.) If you haven't read this book yet, you need to. If it isn't obvious from the opening, I'm a huge, huge fan of the book, and Jarett's writing in general.
JARETT KOBEK'S I HATE THE INTERNET (THE REMIX)
No writer’s work in the last year has inspired in me in so much post-reading activity as California author Jarett Kobek. His fictionalized, “psychedelic biography,” ATTA, the first of its kind to attempt to humanize 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, led me to order the salacious biography, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince that Kobek puts in the terrorist’s hands as he attempts to learn more about U.S infidel culture; his If You Don’t Read, Why Should I Write? led me to sit down with a cute reference librarian in search of English-language translations of Saddam Hussein’s execution (Kobek’s book features an excerpt, along with dialogue from celebrity sex tapes, juxtaposed with the celebrity’s arrest record); and his excellent novel, BTW, inspired me to binge watch the 1994 BBC production of Middlemarch, then read the CliffsNotes to the classic George Eliot book. (I craved a deeper understanding of Middlemarch in the moment, in relation to a recurring tangent in BTW. I hope to read Eliot’s 700+ page opus soon.) The writings of Jarett Kobek, though broad in their scope, all have one thing in common—the masterful tangent, the tangent risen to art form. Often, it was the tangents in Kobek’s work that were inspiring so much of my activity.
Because Kobek makes so many references to art, culture, language, and philosophy, in some ways, his writing reminds me of a Re/Search anthology from the 90s, but one with an underlining storyline that is rooted in the present day, and covers matters much more pressing to the moment.
Kobek’s writing does something else that deserves to be lauded, and is on display in his eviscerating new novel, I HATE THE INTERNET (We Heard You Like Books): he breaks down the disconnect inherent to our outrage-impulsive age. The way he does this makes me think of the weekend after Sept. 11th, when Lorne Michaels famously asked Rudy Giuliani on Saturday Night Live if it was OK to be funny again. Thankfully, Kobek doesn’t ask anyone’s permission.
Kobek takes the saga of the internet—the people displaced from their homes to make room for it, the user on user crime that is so multi-faced and endemic, and the vengeance-loving masses waiting for the next e-wrong to right —and gently, considering the heady ground he’s covering, makes the sordid tale very funny.
It’s a brave thing to do, considering how emphatic some internet users can be in their belief that there is no grey area. I HATE THE INTERNET asks, “Why is activism in the 21st century nothing more than morality lectures typed into devices built by slaves?” Kobek also gives the time in which we live a new name: “terrofucked."
One of the primary plotlines of I HATE THE INTERNET involves a successful comic book illustrator, a woman in her 40s, named Adeline. Adeline finds herself in the middle of online controversy after giving a talk to the students of poet Kevin Killian (Kobek often weaves real people into his storylines, and real storylines onto his people). During the talk, Adeline is asked by a student if she thinks Facebook and Twitter can serve a role in the pursuit of social progress. It’s her response to the question that causes her so much trouble:
“Social progress might have had meaning twenty years ago when I was but a young thing, but these days it's become the product of corporations. But what do you people know anyway? You’re a lost generation. Even your drugs are corporate. You spend your lives pretending as if Beyoncé and Rihanna possess some inherent meaning and act as if their every professional success which only occur because of your money and your attention is a strike forward for women everywhere."
What she says is videotaped by a student, and uploaded to the internet. The internet in turn metes out its most finely tuned form of social progress.
As Kobek writes:
“A wide range of humanity believed that Beyoncé and Rihanna were inspirations rather than vultures. Adeline had spit on their gods.
This wide range of humanity responded by teaching Adeline about one of America’s favored pastimes, a tradition as time-honored as police brutality, baseball, race riots and genocide.
They were teaching Adeline about how powerless people demonstrated their supplication before their masters.
They were tweeting about Adeline.”
What Kobek highlights in I HATE THE INTERNET is what is so often lost, or conveniently overlooked, in our present day, need- for- high- speed internet rage:
The internet and it’s platforms are often the products of the baddest of bad guys. Twitter and Google, the platforms that Kobek focuses on most heavily because of their effects on the inhabitants of San Francisco, the novel’s setting— were built by displacing poor and middle income people from their homes in order to move tech execs in. They are platforms that profit from upset, and thrive on human suffering. They in turn market that human suffering, using it to sell products for corporations who enable other forms of human suffering across the globe. Twitter, Google, and their ilk profiteer off the suffering so endemic to our times— where police officers are routinely acquitted of killing unarmed Black men, and wars are fought based on lies—as well as the much less significant human trespasses, like a 40 year old female comic book illustrator calling Beyoncé and Rihanna frauds.
It’s a tough thing to think about when meting out our responses online: who are our strong emotions most benefiting? Who are they most hurting? And who are the ones most deserving of our anger? Using whose corrupt tools are we fighting for social change? And what does that say about us, knowing that these tools are corrupt, that we continue to use them? Considering their vested interests—would these platforms really want the social change that we think we are using them for?
While reading I HATE THE INTERNET, I found myself thinking about the people I know in online publishing circles, myself included, who have sometimes found themselves hesitant when publishing their stories, especially if those stories touch in some way on matters related to gender, class, sexuality, or race. Well if you’ve nothing to hide, then what would you have to be hesitant about? a voice—the ghost of internalized internet dramas past— asks. Well, it’s not always so cut and dry, a voice sounding like my own replies. There are grey areas to things, there are the experiences that exist on the peripherals of our being—there are the tangents: things we’ve seen, places we’ve been, people we’ve known, people we’ve sometimes been ourselves. In online publishing today, if you are writing anything touching on those subjects, you might feel like it would be beneficial to you to mark your side —establish your stance. Qualify. And experiences don’t happen that way, if you are to write about them honestly. Our lives happen in experiences. When experiences are fine-tuned to fit agenda they become politics.
If we were to get very kindergarten about it, inherent to the most common occasions of internet upset is the idea that the person at its center has done something offensive, and that offensive thing in turn reveals something about the offender’s moral center —their inner core as a person. Things in this way easily become very black and white. Once one has incited internet upset, that person has become marked, branded: they are bad. I've never seen a person's reputation completely recover from this. (And would concur that some people have done things so egregious, a tainted reputation is far less than they deserve.) The implication to this might be if one wants to avoid finding themselves in the center of internet upset, if one wants to try to remain "good,” one should try to stay attuned to what constitutes offense—but keeping track can be difficult, because the definition is always in flux. A recent example of this would be the death of music icon David Bowie. By mourning David Bowie online, the week of his death, Jan 10, 2016, a person could find themselves unexpectedly considered "bad,” a person could find themselves unexpectedly considered horrible: a person could find themselves considered by some to be a rape sympathizer.
On Jan 10, I posted this on Facebook in response to Bowie's passing:
There are some people you don't think of as being mortal. David Bowie made the world a much more interesting place.
Soon afterward, I started seeing posts conflating people's grief with rape sympathy, because of a sexual encounter Bowie had had with an underage fan in the 1970s. As I read the posts and comments, more posts began to appear. Some posts posited it was OK to mourn David Bowie as long as one also acknowledged their support for victims, their disdain for perpetrators of sexual assault.
I had a strong reaction to this. In order to avoid causing offense, I had to qualify my post about David Bowie’s death to explicitly state that I was against sexual assault?
If I had amended my post to reflect this—immediately after reading the other posts— it might have looked something like this:
That my feelings of sadness at David Bowie’s death might be somehow misconstrued as an endorsement of sexual assault… Frankly, I’m offended by your offense.
I didn't amend my post, though I did put up a new post saying that I found the conflation to be madness. While I stand by that, I wish now that I hadn't responded at all.
Later, I found myself wondering: noting my interest in the posts that had made the conflation, had Facebook tailored my feed to specifically highlight the posts that had made that claim? The more posts I read reflecting that view, the stronger my need to react felt.
Noting my interest, had Facebook tried to inflame me?
Reading the posts had kept me from logging out. They had led me to post again, and to comment, which I hadn’t planned to do. And there were things related to the posts that Facebook could try to sell me. As I stayed online reading and clicking, these books popped up as ads on my computer screen:
While reading I HATE THE INTERNET, I also found myself reflecting on other incidents of big internet response. When websites use elements of sensationalism and scandal-mongering in their stories, it’s called clickbait: the sites are purposely focusing on the more provocative aspects of a story in order to up web traffic; often, at the expense of the story’s accuracy. A semi-recent, yet unique example of this would be when the online site Jezebel published the unretouched photos from a photoshoot Lena Dunham had done for Vogue magazine. What was unique about the situation was that Jezebel was called out by their readership for the reason they claimed to have run the photos: Jezebel claimed they published them to expose Vogue for body-shaming Dunham. Their readers said they didn’t believe Jezebel’s motives were nearly so righteous.
If we acknowledge that websites do this, manufacture upset in the hopes of garnering reaction, can we not acknowledge that individual people might exaggerate their upset online, too? When our supposed altruism and goodwill towards others becomes “shareable,” “likeable,” commendable in the moment, a commodity that can be used to increase online Klout scores, might the integrity of that altruism find itself in danger? Might we invent occasions by which to show off our supposed altruism—might our good deeds become performative? And what if those good deeds were best showcased when juxtaposed against the supposed misdeeds of others? Might we go out of our way to look for, and create villians?
Dunham, took to Twitter (of course), to share her thoughts about Jezebel running the unedited photos: “It’s way cooler when people do things out of pure blind spite than phony altruism,” she wrote.
So what post-reading activity did Jarett Kobek’s I HATE THE INTERNET inspire in me? I’m proud to say I deleted the Facebook app on my phone. I still have an account, and can access the site from my browser, but it’s baby steps—my goal is to get down to a maximum of an hour and a half of online time a day. In the weeks before reading the book, I’d been considering setting up an account on Twitter: I thought I liked the idea of downsizing my thoughts to 140 characters or less. Ultimately, I decided against it. I deleted my secret Instagram account, too.
Because the truth of the matter is, I really hate the internet.
And if you stop to think about it, after reading Kobek’s great new book, you’ll probably realize you really hate the internet, too.
I’d like my actions to reflect that.
For now, real social progress for me happens in baby steps.