“What if you’re a bad person?”
I ask them, squinting momentarily at some imaginary lens somewhere to the side of me, before continuing to scroll, click, doubletap, listen and absorb my favourite internet people. These are twitter journalists, twitter comics, instagram creatives, niche relatability tiktokers, my collection of agile podcasters, and any other graduates of the internet that I follow because ‘hmmm, I like them’. Why do I like them? For some reason, usually a really good one, or a few. Lately though, that, to me, is insane. It is insane to ‘like’ anybody on the internet, to use it as rationale for staying tapped into their lives, and for being influenced by the equivalent of a dark alley stranger. That’s what suckers do.
In September, I got a newsletter in my inbox from Hayley Nahman’s ‘Maybe Baby’ blog, on the topic of ‘The Paradox of Politeness’, which has in part inspired this latest bout of scepticism. It is the ideas of ‘performed goodness’, and ‘saccharine public decorum’— of doing and being the right thing for reward that sort of detail what is going on online. That reward, at its base level, is a smoothing of your ‘road of passage’— how easy it is for you to go about your life in relation to other people, made easier still when we collectively shoulder the burden of cordialness. But at the top, politeness, charm, likability– they are interchangeable with livelihood, leafy greenness; they’re the oil in the cogs of good business. And this traditionally, is where, as Nahman puts it, ‘generosity and courtesy take on a self-centred edge’; when the knowledge that being liked is being better off cannot be plied from our intentions.
So where better to play and win this game than online, where we can so easily look convincing and deserving of the spoils of being liked. At 13, I lied about how many Chris Brown albums I owned during the early days of twitter to be enriched by a sense of community and belonging. It happens. I was playing into the social and reciprocal aspects of what it means to be drawn to someone/group– the theory of attraction that helps dissect our reasons for liking. I was attracted to the Chris Brown fan base because we were all similar ages, all wanted him to live forever, and we all wanted to say we had friends online.
When reciprocity is missing, people may follow and avidly keep up with some stranger online because they’re physically attracted, or ‘task attracted’– in love with their talents, abilities, lifestyles: the online person’s personality may meet some social expectation– they’re funny, witty, a charmer, argumentative, self-deprecating. I bet your favourite online person is relatable, the ‘real one’ rearing their authentic head above a wave of nauseating falsity. Social media prevents us from authenticating our reason(s) for attraction. That brutally open youtuber still presents themselves via their own resources, on their own terms. And there are also negative traits that cannot be translated from real life scenes to online spaces, like bad hygiene and people who cannot walk in straight lines; and the things that are only brought to life in the presence of others, like people who yap over conversations instead of finding a respectable way in, or people who hover instead of saying excuse me.
Many deceptions play out under the relationship between content creators, and entertainment seekers, people who want to be seen, and people channel hopping looking for something to watch. For me, as outlined, it is the deception that gathers at the shallow end of the pool— the feeling of being played in some only slightly meaningful way, and the feeling that there is no escape from dishonesty in the modern world. For me, it is also true that the petty reasons for disliking someone are only a walkable distance from the greater deceptions in the hills beyond– the bigoted and the outright criminal. But whether you are successfully hiding some unabashedly dislikable characteristic or one that’s a little more polarising, your reward is power.
Do I want someone who doesn’t like plants or birds to help me form an opinion on something I only mildly care about? I’d accept being influenced by someone I can trust, would rather be forced to engage with literally everything by someone with no surprise baggage. Too much of our knowledge intake is framed by the people we like online, which is why we often find ourselves leaning towards an opinion on something we’ve barely chewed over. Somehow it would all be easier to accept– the endless merry-go-round of infiltration and control, if its beneficiaries were people I really, truly would be friends with irl.
But there is just no way of knowing whether a distant, digitalised person ‘after my own heart’ is 100% deserving of my plushy mind. On the occasions where we get the unappealing reality, we replace the influencer, the twitter journalist, the podcaster– all of which are still capable of falling short of our personal standards, the standards we set for friends; inevitably so, because they aren’t our friends. So it feels a bit like a dogless fight, arguing for an impossible ideal– boundless transparency, the kind of which you rarely get in real life relationships, let alone the distant and barely reciprocal. It too feels a bit silly to push for an end to a system that helped install an under-qualified president to speak for the most powerful country in the world.
Let’s observe the twinge of panic and despair when the very funny, usually not ugly, usually sharp person online promotes an opinion we don’t share. It’s a gemstone moment, where the internet loses all meaning and hold, and you willingly admit that you were looking for a reason to dislike them anyway.