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Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, sentiments of solidarity proliferated on social media, rising above the normal stream of noise.
With more people spending their time at home, we shared photos of homemade loaves of bread. We shared the songs that comforted us. Theaters and venues closed, we viewed online movies and concerts together instead. We made regular dates to connect via video chat. But any notion of the internet becoming “nicer” quickly gave way to “more vicious and judgmental” human impulses, Jia Tolentino said.
“Early on, I thought it was really funny when everyone was posting pictures of their sort of gross banana bread loaves and their messy houses and everyone was like, ‘Wow, maybe the internet is getting nicer and more real,’” the author of “Trick Mirror” said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t think this is going to last for longer than a couple of days.’”
The January pick for our “Now Read This” book club was a book of essays exploring many aspects of American culture through the prism of the internet and social media. Jeffrey Brown spoke with the “Trick Mirror” author to learn more.
Digital access has become more crucial amid the pandemic, as children have migrated to online classrooms and some workers are suddenly and indefinitely using home as their office. With the rising risks of leaving home, there was more time for streaming video binge-watching, scrolling through the latest worrisome news updates or spacing out with the latest TikTok meme. Amid the anxiety of the unprecedented moment, social media could also remind us just how unpleasant it could be, in part because that behavior is incentivized by the structures that rule the internet, Tolentino said.
“But also because without people interacting in the real world, without it being lawful, really for us to bump up against each other and have social interactions, there’s no gossip, right?” she added.
That’s because we rely on this “low-level drip of new social information that comes from just who’s doing stuff right,” she said, pointing to the intense focus that can be directed at something like a picture of someone not wearing a mask. “Let’s direct six months worth of pent-up social commentary onto this little tiny thing that we can see,” she said of the online reaction to such an image.
Tolentino, who has critiqued our online behavior in her “Trick Mirror” essays and for The New Yorker, said there was another social media-driven behavior she has mixed feelings about: People hiding any behavior from their online communities that would draw shame during the global health emergency.
“I think that a lot of people are hanging out in ways that are not socially prescribed, but hiding it from social media,” she said. While she loved the idea of people concealing more of their lives from surveillance giants, she hates that people are also secretly running afoul of safety guidelines that help reduce the spread of infection.
“The social desire to not get shamed is overriding the social incentive to show your life,” Tolentino said. She thinks that short-circuiting that impulse will be more interesting in the long run.
“Although, of course, nobody should be hanging out maskless,” she added.
READ MORE: The advice that freed Jia Tolentino from “the worst traps in both life and writing”
Joshua Barajas is a senior editor for the PBS NewsHour's Communities Initiative. He also the senior editor and manager of newsletters.
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