The Year I Got Back Online
Returning to an internet where, suddenly, everyone was calling themselves dumb sluts
When I left the internet in 2019, the girls were listing their favorite places to cry in public and posting dense chunks of theory underlined with pencil to main. When I came back in 2021, nobody could read and everyone’s tits were huge and they were hot hot hot girls because of, not in spite of, their tummies hurting. When I left, men were trash and God was dead. When I came back, wearing a sweater meant a guy was “dressing for the female gaze” and a lot of those hot girls, it seemed, were dabbling in Catholicism online – their usernames always some portmanteau of, like, Elfriede Jelinek and a synonym for male ejaculate. I couldn’t tell if any of these cultural developments were a net good or bad for the girlies. I couldn’t tell if anything had changed, or if we were being less selective in the way we shared our insecurities online.
I was only offline for two years, which is not a particularly long time to be away from anything. And it’s not even like I didn’t have wifi. I was in Utah, doing not much of anything besides staring at a Google doc that I hoped would eventually become a book, and I was still routinely giving fake Instagram clothing companies my phone number in addition to my email address for that insulting 10 percent off discount on my first order. I was doing some painful front-facing Instagram story work, but it was in a vacuum. I wasn’t wordlessly making enemies of my online tethers, and I wasn’t getting the name “CLAIRE.” tweeted at me in block caps just like that when I said something off-kilter about my too-tight pants or my mental illness. It annoyed me when people tweeted other people’s names at each other like that to each other in a show of performative online closeness (“KATE.” “DAN.”), but it didn’t bother me being admonished like that. If someone’s ragging on you, at least you’re on their mind.
For so long before that two-year period, freelance writing online had been my job, and it required me to understand what people kept referring to as “discourse.” Then I went back to school, stopped working so much, and made an effort to fall out of it. Some of this also has to do with a boring story about me losing my Twitter account for a brave foray into political activism (tweeting “die bitch” at the president). If I’m honest, though, I left because other people’s opinions annoyed me, often because they thought of them quicker than I did, or were able to convey them in fewer words. I wanted those quote tweets for myself. I wanted the $150 for an essay about my greatest psychic injury and my mother and how they impacted how I pack the three-ounce liquids in my carry-on luggage, or whatever barely clickable SEO chum I was writing for women’s websites at the end there.
In school, I rarely let my classmates know I was an internet girl, though it was probably easy to discern. I was always posting photos of my acne, as was popular at the time: girls buying shit and pretending to be commenting on consumption, like accruing Sephora points was a brave new kind of honesty. That was all a racket: I still always felt I wasn’t serious enough for grad school or book writing because the internet had poisoned me before I got a chance to become a respectable writer.
I left New York after I graduated for what was to be a temporary stay to finish my big project, and a pandemic hit, and I had a Nintendo Switch and a DVR and my books and my poetry to protect me. I worked at a bookstore part-time, and I read all day when I wasn’t explaining to tourists where the public bathrooms in town were. I had no friends and wasn’t a part of any community, which I was sure was going to make me honorable and dedicated to my little Google doc.
Once, during Sundance, a well-dressed girl I knew from a website I used to write for came into the bookstore. (The website has since shuttered, not long after getting canceled as a cultural entity for, among other grievances, recommending a $1,000 pinkie ring as an “investment piece”). She choked out my name with suspicion, unable to compute what I was doing there, hunched over in the kid’s section in the back of the store, sweating in a tank top in a snowstorm. I told her I was, “Writing a book,” but that was a lie. She could see what I was doing there: rearranging seasonal Jelly Cats that children on a ski vacation had torn from the shelves and finger-printed with chocolate ice cream. She had been invited to town as an influencer, and introduced me to the friend she was festivaling with as someone “who used to write about makeup online,” which was more or less true.
If I was the protagonist in a romantic comedy I would have realized at that moment that my little Utah life was more meaningful and authentic than whatever fleeting validation I used to find online. Maybe it would have cut to me scrapping the novel I’d labored over to write my own children’s book about how sometimes what you’re looking for is right in front of you, which would be duly shelved beside the Jelly Cats. But none of it was romantic: I was celibate, and I wanted the empty acknowledgments of internet acquaintances back.
Ater a series of humiliating professional failures and small HR miracles, I got the job at Gawker. I vowed to return to the internet, clean-brained and newly thoughtful in a way I hadn’t been when I had to pay attention to the discourse before. When I signed on for my first day, back in New York even though we work remotely, I realized within an hour that something was amiss. I didn’t know who my enemies were anymore. Were the online grudges I was holding from 2016 quaint now? It seemed many of them had either moved to the Sun Belt, gotten sober, or started working in marketing. Would anyone want to read stories on Gawker about coronavirus, the Duggars, or Robert Durst, my primary extracurricular hobbies at the time? One thing I was certain about was that more people were watching “Real Housewives” and “Survivor” than ever before, to say nothing of any HBO prestige series from the early 2000s. I’m still not sure where everyone actually stands with gaslighting and girl bosses, if we’re all being honest with ourselves. Notably, it also seemed like everyone was raw dogging it, sexually.
I didn’t know if I was supposed to be humorous online by being a literary type or if I could squeeze more comedy value out of being aggressively anti-intellectual. I wasn’t even sure if I was funny anymore, which I used to be able to gauge. It wasn’t antipathy I sensed; it was more like a tremendous fuzziness around the middle of everything. Medium culture. Hanson O’Haver called this “The Great Irony Level Collapse,” a phenomenon which is fine by me if it means I can laugh in a straightforward fashion at meme pages or TikToks of people hurting themselves while trying to impress their friends. But it does make it difficult to stake out where one stands relative to the culture. I thought that I needed to have a clean brain before coming back online, but it turned out the prevailing aesthetic was having an empty one. Now it was all no thoughts, just vibes, as I’m sure you’ve heard.
So I’m back, attempting to figure out my vibes. In Utah, I had tried going trad in a way the e-girls could only wish for and moodboard about — I had to be careful about how big my dresses were, lest I be confused for someone with fundamentalist politics — and I hated it. I’ve traded my intellectual insecurities in for something else: I’m older and can digest dairy, but I long to be as dumb and slutty as the rest of the girlies. It’s nice to be home.