I remember the first time I saw it, like a freshly alert hare alarmed by movement in the distant grasslands. It was 2013. Model Kate Upton was once again the subject of a Reddit post, but this time her then-ubiquitous image was speaking back, telling the viewer in an advertising campaign that ‘I wouldn’t date a guy who has grooming problems’. Ergo, why not try Gillette’s Fusion ProGlide Style razor, the 3-in-1 tool ‘for whatever style she likes’? (Kate does not like back hair.) Posters in the comments were confused, some even angered, by this form of marketing that did not vaunt a masculinity represented by driving cars in wide-ranging deserts to the triumphant howls of Bon Jovi, but rather one shaped by a self-conscious call to capitulate to What The Other Likes. We like Kate Upton very much, they seemed to agree. But we don’t like this weird new advertising that makes us feel lesser, like we’re observed objects held to someone else’s standard.
Gentleman, welcome, I thought at the time. It made sense. A digital world based on images and aspirations – images that made you feel bad by emphasising the gap between the aspired-to and the disappointing reality – would eventually come for us all. I wondered then whether this would lead to a gentler and more sympathetic settlement in the ongoing ‘battle of the sexes’ (as the phrase went), by unveiling to more men – particularly those in the more privileged echelons – the hell of having your sense of self read through a body you did not ask for, and having that body constantly subjected to the hostile judgment of a marketplace; a marketplace that tells you that you are not beautiful enough, thin enough or that your back is not shaved enough for Kate Upton. I thought, perhaps, this was the crucial step in recognising that it was all bullshit, and developing forms of love and desire actually worthy of ourselves and one another. That is not how things turned out.
‘A girl online is an avatar for everyone’, Joanna Walsh writes in Girl Online (2022), an exploration of living on, and with, the internet and the type of modern citizen it has produced. The girl online is hypervisible and easy to mould; representative of ‘power, wealth, art’, she is the internet’s most useful subject. Unlike the woman, who denotes a certain specificity of experience and self-possession and invokes the unsexy notions of domestic and paid labour and the passage of time, the girl can fall into a slipstream of her peers, the other eternally young faces that look like they have never known labour, even when they extoll the virtues of hard work. She is endlessly malleable and without history. Familiar with the notion of life-as-performance enacted to an ever-present and fickle audience, she blooms online. Yet the girl is merely representative of power, not power itself. She is not Mark or Jeff or Elon. Her visibility and participation in this culture is contingent on accepting her nearly inevitable downfall, yet she will do her best to ward it off by being watchful of threats on the horizon; she will not hesitate to buy Gillette’s 3-in-1 Fusion ProGlide Style razor when faced with the very real possibility of humiliation.
And anyone – like that Reddit thread proved – can become a girl; she is the model subject that all users are nudged to become. In 1999, French writing collective Tiqqun’s relentless, fragmentary Preliminary Materials for a Theory of a Young Girl positioned the girl as the ‘model citizen’ for the infantilising consumer capitalism of the post-war West – the vapid commodity-lover who ‘orients’ society towards her. (Although there are parallels between the two texts, Preliminary Materials has been criticised by many feminists for ventriloquising the very misogyny that makes this iteration of capitalism hell for women, and Girl Online takes qualified leave from it.) ‘Onscreen, woman defaults to girl’, Walsh writes. And yet that is only what she is: ‘A girl, taken up with the act of appearing, is less free to act than to be an icon for action by others.’ Through the distorting logic of the screen – Walsh often refers to the twisted world of Alice in Wonderland as a sort of proxy for cyberspace – being seen and superficially celebrated is no guarantee of safety or protection. It grants you no wisdom. It does not even necessarily give you more money.
It is quaint to think that the internet of the early 2000s had a popular catchphrase: There are no girls on the internet (this also supplies the epigraph to Girl Online). It was not true of course – the mothers on the gymnastics forums and the other girls on the gentle pet-themed gaming websites I frequented proved as much – but it resonated in a symbolic sense, particularly in the worlds that regarded themselves to be the true carriers of internet culture (the Reddits, 4Chans, early iterations of YouTube). During this time, browsing as a girl online felt like a private thrill, as my eyes flicked up and down forums and comments sections, seeing columns of text delivering largely anonymised commentary about the world around them – the news, workplace grievances, advice on talking to girls – in which the speaker, assumed male, spoke to a public, also assumed male. The language was brutal and short (‘a/s/l’ and ‘tits or gtfo’), the fonts – Impact for memes, other unremarkable sans serifs for comments, Comic Sans for the true believers – evinced a frank disregard for taste that preceded the design revolution of Apple and Instagram. Images were not made with an eye to aesthetic pleasure, unless they were of female 10s, in which case the primary goal did not even seem to be enjoyment, but a chance to issue a judgment and so feel like a god in a world that otherwise rendered you, presumed unattractive man, powerless and dumb in the face of such aggressive femme beauty. (‘I would definitely NOT hit it’, a satirical post that became famous went, ‘she has sharp knees’.) A Harvard student would soon exploit that impulse for stupendous ends, consolidating a new stage of the web as he did so. I strove to keep my own ‘girl identity’ concealed out of some incipient but probably not entirely unreasonable fear of getting kidnapped, which is ironic because the slogan that labelled the internet as a girl-free zone first emerged when multitudes of men discovered, to their disappointment, that the bustychick420 expertly slaying, say, hostile aliens on starships alongside them, and on whom they lavished attention and sometimes gifts, seemed entirely too often to actually be a male catfish.
What changed in the intervening years to transform the digital world to one where, as Walsh puts it, ‘a girl online is an avatar for everyone’? Though Walsh does not explore that social history, I am still curious. Perhaps – like how modelling is one of the rare professions in which women out-earn men – the change came when the internet became oriented towards the image, and all the modes of self-presentation and exposure that dynamic rewards; when it became no longer about seeing but being seen. ‘There’s a shop near me called Objects of Use’, Walsh writes. ‘The shop has far more objects in it than a minimalist would use, and its piling up is what makes the objects attractive […] objects look so good when they’re waiting on the shelf, all looking useful, none of them in use […] they look good when they’re ready for use; better than when being used.’ The Objects of Use shop captures the feeling of being on the internet – not only in terms of being on perpetual display, but also in the way it calls you to be a collector of desired objects yourself (‘you may like…’; ‘this ad is not relevant to me’; the one pair of shoes that follow you around on different websites after you briefly click on them, etc.), in order to create data for ads and thus keep the economy going. And, like in the object shop, the promise of what an object may bring is far more dazzling than its actual usage, which invariably disappoints. The machine does not want your lasting satisfaction but your endless desire, sustained through engineering a persistent sense of lack. Being its wilful (and sometimes not so wilful) participant often invokes a feeling of pointlessness, in which the pursuit of new objects and the momentary elation it provides –‘when I feel like nothing, I buy something online’, Walsh writes – is followed by a sense of a dissatisfaction and frustration that one cannot articulate or explain, beyond the sense that we are not there yet, wherever ‘there’ is, and must work harder, so we can acquire more objects, so we can feel more things.
Airing these disappointments, one runs the risk of falling into another trap of the girl online – of entering ‘confessional mode’. In the second part of the book, Walsh writes about the model ‘girls, online’ when she started writing on the Internet in the late 2000s and 2010s. (Girl Online sometimes uses a first-person narrative, although it is not always obvious if the ‘I’ should be conflated with Walsh.) There was Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City; what purpose did i serve your life (2013), a book by a young woman published under the pseudonym Marie Calloway which explored her then-prolific online identity, and a popular anonymous blog called Petite Anglaise, by an English woman living in Paris. The author was unmasked after a post, ‘Tripping Down the Stairs’, which recounted the time she fell down the stairs at her office, led to her firing (her office claimed it was a breach of confidentiality). British journalists followed the case and named her as Catherine Sanderson, a secretary at an accountancy firm.
Sanderson, Calloway and Bradshaw all presented an idealised model for young women writing online at the time. Bradshaw’s successful career as a magazine writer with a closet full of Manolos made her an ‘onscreen example with enough to identify with, enough to envy, to produce a movement of desire’ for aspiring writers; at the start of Walsh’s career, an agent advised her to read Petite Anglaise, as its author had recently won a £450,000 two-part book deal with Penguin. Sharing details about their insecurities, dating and sex lives, these writers traded intimacy for visibility, assumed a voice that was less knowing and more bright and questioning, and therefore unthreatening (think of Bradshaw’s infamous refrain, ‘I can’t help but wonder’), and in Bradshaw and Calloway’s case, channelled their identities into memorable images. Calloway and Sanderson attracted reprisals – Walsh observes that what purpose did i serve your life was ‘greeted critically with fascinated disgust’ – in which criticisms of their craft were conflated with criticisms of their person; in which the word ‘craft’ was made to seem like a lofty term for what they were doing, because there was supposedly no real imagination involved in writing your own life, and because it seemed unfair, ungenerous and unbecoming to vomit your psychic mess in public so openly, dragging others who did not ask for such exposure into the fray.1 They were sometimes deemed frivolous and attention-seeking, though unfortunately it remains the case that getting some degree of attention – which requires in these times an ability to self-brand and self-promote, and maybe have some sort of follower count that might help plug the gaps in ever-stretched publishing marketing budgets – is usually necessary when trying to become a successful writer.
The price of attention, and the means of getting it, for a girl online, is a trap. The path to your flourishing – delivering the confession – becomes indistinguishable from that of your diminishment. To point out that the girl online is caught in this confessional double bind is not to suggest that confession is the only way forward; there are others who do not chose this path, and thus escape both its soaring rewards and crushing punishments. Nor does it excuse our culture’s tendency to overload confession with a political power when, at worst, it prematurely self-absolves and at best unveils what is broken (but only unveils). Rather, it is to see the girl, online – master of self-presentation and publicity, who expertly trades her image to get ahead in a vicious market – as a phenomenon in a wider cultural and economic system that engulfs us all. Trying to distance yourself from her by exhibiting disgust is to ignore the reality that the imperatives that shaped her will come for you, if they have not already.
Calloway and Sanderson are now digital ghosts. Calloway deleted her accounts over a decade ago, citing that she disliked ‘being “‘watched”’, and her whereabouts, age and subsequent life are the subject of speculation.2 In Petite Anglaise’s last post, in 2013, Sanderson says ‘personal blogging lost much of its attraction for me when I could no longer hide behind a pseudonym […] These days I have very little internet presence.’ I didn’t know about Calloway or Sanderson when they were coming up. Googling them recently, reading about how they gripped the (very small) worlds of New York and London publishing, then disappeared, was an exercise in recognising ephemerality, particularly for the girls of the moment. Their fates feel like warnings, but the internet moves too fast for us to really remember and learn from them. Only Carrie Bradshaw, the one fictional example among the three, lives on, brought back once more for a questionable spinoff. Perhaps this is how the girl ends: going up in proverbial flames, or reanimated once more as a farce.
Towards the end of Girl Online, the narrator observes, ‘I stopped writing online. I stopped writing blogs. I stopped writing on Facebook. I stopped writing on Instagram.’ After deleting Twitter, they ‘saw the walls of my room, small and bare’, and they wondered ‘which had been more real?’ What follows is the questioning of this decision, the inevitable sense of failure and loss: ‘I had handed over the narrative to those who were still online. I had lost. I became one of the unwritten.’
Accounts of logging off often speak to this anxiety about disappearing, of losing solidity and being replaced by the all-too-visible others. Lindy West, writing on the one year anniversary of deactivating her account, observed: ‘I’m frequently approached by colleagues, usually women, who ask me about quitting Twitter with hushed titillation, as if I’ve escaped a cult or broken a particularly seductive taboo.’3 The authors of such accounts express the joy that comes from feeling like they can breathe again; they also describe feelings of anxiety regarding what they have given up, and fears about losing job opportunities now handed over to those who still remain. In an economy that increasingly asks us to sell our selves as well as our services (a phenomenon that academic Sophie Bishop has called ‘influencer creep’) – making it clear how replaceable we all are in the process – the question of whether to log off re-stages a fundamental economic drama: the price of participation, and the costs of refusal.4
We seem to be at an impasse with the internet. We know how it can damage our brains and civil society; how it is inseparable from a broken economy that enriches a tiny group of billionaires; how it loops us in a mimesis machine of wanting what we think we are supposed to want, and also makes us capable of previously unimaginable cruelty. And yet there is the good, too: the plurality of voices and the breaking down of some hierarchies; the salary sharing; the forms of solidarity; the videos of police brutality that sometimes hold police accountable; the joy and creativity that can be experienced by communities and people who are not safe in physical spaces.5 And yet these discoveries have not profoundly changed our behaviour, nor have they changed the market for which the internet is broadly run. If the internet has shown us anything, it is that access to information cannot in itself help us decide how we should live, together.
What could we discover if we shifted our gaze away from the seductive theatrics of the seen – the girls online and the glittering rise of the few who break through; the inane things we click on in spite of ourselves – and instead look to those at the helms of power in the shadows, profiting off the labour of the girls, online (the individuals the The New Yorker recently called the ‘boy emperors’, the ‘technically sophisticated but emotionally immature’ men currently dominating our era)?6 What are they building and continuing to build, and for whom? What are their visions for common life – if that is, for them, not a contradiction in terms – and how is it defining our era? It seems ironic that for all its touted democratic power, the internet has consolidated and strengthened the ever-widening gap between the victors and those left behind: the 0.8 percent of artists earning 90 per cent of the royalties on Spotify; the 3 per cent of YouTubers receiving 90 per cent of traffic; the 2 percent of Patreon creators who earn more than the US living wage; the few who manage to win in the world of cryptocurrency, which seems to have given hyper-charged meaning to the term cruel optimism. Perhaps the virtual world is not so different from our physical one, after all.7 It’s just that online it’s harder to tell how many others are also falling behind, and easier to believe that if you continue trying to feed the machine some content that may result in some attention that may result in some money, you could make it through.
The Internet has made my world large and yet has also shrunk it in the most embarrassing way. I have never had to dedicate so much energy to thinking about how I look, how my avatar comes across, how best to hone it and who is looking at me. And yet what it is creating is so much bigger than me, or any other person sitting in front of a screen. ‘We don’t yet have a name for this era, that intensified enclosure of relationship and feeling and the radical upward redistribution of wealth, that owning of the means of circulation as dominating those who once owned the means of production, this new hierarchy of power and wealth’, the poet Anne Boyer wrote in her email newsletter Mirabilary in 2021. ‘The “Amazon data center offensive” continues as does the screenification of all that exists – one corporation is in a quest for total ownership of the earthly shadow of the cloud, another for space, a third for all of information. I don’t know what we call this time, except the one that is not yet ours.’ A response to this wholesale transformation of our time, and its new systems of producing wealth and power at a scale that most of us cannot and will never access, cannot be found in the model of the girl, online – that purportedly exemplary figure whose ability to be seen comes at the expense of being able to act, that glittering, exceptional figure held up to be an object of symbolic envy while remaining in person incredibly powerless and alone. An overcoming of our time will take an overcoming of the very model in which it has locked us.
By looping us into an endless howl of the perpetually new, the Internet has damaged our ability to sense timelessness; those moments when everything feels frozen and slow and magical; when thought, a recognition of one’s dazzling smallness, and a sense of a future, takes place, and where hope can rush in to take up space. It has also turned us into sterling complainants, quick to take to our screens to air gripes with airlines and broadband providers and journalists who simply did not do their research. Beat back what it has done to the former and recover your sense of time; retool your enlivened capacity for complaint to look at all that it asks us to do, the personas it calls for us to become, and say, not this. Our time may still come.