#20: Who are you online?

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Why hello,

Today marks my 20th Maybe Baby newsletter. That feels like nothing and also something! For my 21st I promise to get drunk. Today I’m writing about who we are online, and the difference between habitual deleters and those who let it all hang out. Which are you? Let me know in the comments. Also please enjoy some of my old Instagrams, sprinkled throughout for posterity and starting with the first selfie I ever posted: 

A post shared by Haley Nahman (@halemur)

Pulling levers

I’ve gotten into the bad habit of deleting Instagram Stories after I post them. Three from recent memory: A flash of me lifting my shirt up to reveal a ridiculous banana bikini. A video of me dancing alone in my apartment to a pop song, muted and scored with classical music to make me look like someone who died 50 years ago. A series of memes wherein I overlaid photos of animals with text that indicated I hated the internet. All equally stupid. None remotely useful. Delete delete delete!

I never used to do this. I’ve historically seen deleting as a kind of failure—at being authentic, maybe, or at least being consistent enough to not renege on a decision you’ve ostensibly made of sound mind. I’ve only ever archived three Instagram photos from my feed because I felt they were misunderstood. I’m pretty sure this places me squarely in the millennial generation, known to hoard our internet output as if it were a time capsule, compared to our younger counterparts, known for whittling their accounts down to only the most relevant information. One of my distant cousins only ever has between 10 and 20 photos on her Instagram feed, which change regularly. I’m sure the real shit is elsewhere, hidden from nosy people like me. My feed, meanwhile, has 1,216 posts dating back to 2011.

A few eras of my internet life are gone. My old Myspace account, decorated with embarrassing photoshops; an old Tumblr I panic-deleted when I was 19. But most of it is out there—old blogs, try-hard posts, bad writing—even if I’d never willingly guide someone to it. Something about this feels right to me. As if by refusing to hide my former self I am standing by my right to publicly evolve, and by extension am preserving the right for others. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. On a creative level, I love reading undercooked writing from writers I now think are brilliant. It gives me hope to bear witness to the arc, rather than just hear about it once it’s been mythologized in an interview about The Creative Process. Real canon is more inspiring, and I appreciate people brave enough to leave their early work up. Not sure it makes sense to apply this moral framework to my “work” from 2012, but that’s what I’ve done.

A post shared by Haley Nahman (@halemur)

Caption award goes to...

Thus, my rule has been: don’t delete. Live with our stupid internet choices like we live with any choice we’ve made in our lives, whether it’s an outfit we wore or a thing we said or a place we went. So maybe we wouldn’t do the same thing now, but that’s just how life works, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we be allowed to disagree with our former selves? In fact, wouldn’t it be an issue if we didn’t?

The problem with thinking this way is it implies a stronger parallel between online and offline life than actually exists. No matter how stubborn I am about “embracing the arc,” I can’t deny that the internet registers as far more flat. We may be able to understand, intellectually, that a stupid joke was posted 10 years ago, when “Tik Tok” was a #1 song and everyone was blowing their load for Avatar—the timestamp says as much. But on Twitter the joke is clear as day, next to the person’s current photo and handle as if it were said just now. It feels current. In real life our memories can’t recall 10-year-old offhand comments with such clarity—we’ve forgotten or overwritten the information with new context and data. We understand that a lot of time has passed because we lived through it. Online those barriers don’t exist; your identity is divorced from linear time. It is a readily available mosaic of everything you’ve ever done.

Maybe, then, Gen-Z—or however you’d define the now-cross-generational population of people who hyper-curate their feeds—has it right. The way they approach content is in better harmony with how it’s interpreted: as an upload of who you are, timestamp-agnostic. Why not delete everything you don’t currently stand by if that’s how it will be understood by others? Obviously this is the appeal of Snapchat and Instagram Stories; they self-destruct, thus saving you the trouble. The journalist and prolific tweeter Elizabeth Bruenig has a bot that deletes all her tweets after two weeks. When I first heard that, the digital hoarder in me was horrified. Didn’t she want a record of what she’d said, conversations she’d had, articles she’d posted? But the more I thought about it, the more I got it. The trend of disappearing content is a response to the fact that the internet is functionally similar to a printing press, providing ideas with a permanent home, while being used more like a casual, everyday forum. The utility and its medium are incongruent, and manufactured ephemerality is trying to address that.

Still, I resist it. I don’t want everything online to self-destruct. I don’t like that the most impulsive content is now gone in 24 hours, and I resent that this has imbued anything posted to the feed with an air of importance—or more accurately, performance. I’ve never really wanted my internet presence to “represent” me like a one-sheeter on who I am. I find that stressful. As an increasing number of my followers are strangers to me, it’s made me more aware of the gap that exists between who I am online—much softer, less goofy, more careful—than I am offline. It’s as if I’m a muted version of myself in 2D, so self-conscious and censored. That’s the insecurity that drove me to post those three stories I ended up deleting; I hoped they might show a looser side of me, and then I became certain, ironically, that they felt forced. There are some things we simply can’t transmit digitally—how we behave in conversation, how much we roll our eyes, the way our faces move, how we dance in a crowd. All the visceral information that fills out a person.

A post shared by Haley Nahman (@halemur)

Should we talk about my Coachella phase

Our accounts are meant to reflect us, but posting is an entirely different form of expression, bringing out different sides of different people. In some ways you can do so much more to express yourself online than you can in person, and in others ways, so much less. And as much as we’re aware of the gap that exists within ourselves, it’s easy to forget to appreciate it in others. It’s the digital equivalent of: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” I know that you can’t really understand me based on my Instagram, we might think, but I completely understand you based on yours. I’m sure my increasing focus on this has come with developing a following, but I also think it’s increased for everyone as the venn diagram of “presumed identity” and “online presence” has moved closer to a circle. And especially as the stakes of who we are online have been raised by our inability to interact in person. 

In this way I guess I don’t really disagree with hyper-curators; we’re merely responding to the same insufficiency in different ways. I’d imagine most people don’t really want to be summed up by their shitposts. If the original promise of the internet was to connect us to more people, the challenge now is to remember it can only do that to an extent, or through a very particular type of lens. I’ll never forget interviewing a communication scholar years ago who told me that humans evolved to communicate and cooperate in person using not just words, but tone, context, and body language. She explained that when phones were invented, there was a barrier to understanding because facial expressions were lost, and when email became a primary mode of connection, tone was lost, and when talking to strangers online became the status quo, context was lost. Our tools have evolved faster than our biology. In other words, we are not ready. (Weird, because honestly things seem to be working out!)

Anyway, it’s easy to shrug off social media anxiety as silly, or to assume that worrying about how we’re coming off online makes us vapid—and there is something undeniably narcissistic about it—but social belonging is at the center of society, and has been since the beginning of it. Humans fear ostracism more than death. Whether we’re extremely online or not, we’re making a choice about how we participate in modern life that has real social implications. The pandemic has of course brought this into sharper relief, with our sloppy way of digital cooperation bringing about meaningful political movements as much as mass conflict. I’m still convinced we’d all fight way less in real life. The question is how do we adapt to the fact that the internet isn’t a digital reflection of the physical world but a paradigm shift away from it? I don’t think my hope that we’ll start giving each other the benefit of the doubt is remotely realistic (lol), nor do I find it existentially satisfying to edit ourselves into oblivion. What do you think is the solution?

It will be fascinating to see how the internet evolves, and a miracle if it even manages to before we light the whole thing on fire. Anyone’s guess as to which comes first.

1. This week’s Small Good Thing is this amazing essay by Jazmine Hughes in SSENSE about learning to skateboard. “Everybody loves a Black girl with a skateboard, especially one as cute as me. People call out after me as I walk down the street, board in hand: ‘Hey, are you any good on that thing?’ (‘NO!’ I yell back, triumphantly.)”

2. The definition of the word palimpsest, which for a long time I thought was palimpest (and now I resent the extra s): “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.” It’s most often used metaphorically.

3. “What You Lose When You Gain a Spouse,” a case against marriage by Wendy Len Catron for The Atlantic. Avi and I are committed to each other but leaning toward not getting married, so I’ve been reading a lot about the choice/non-choice. (Related: Andrew Cherlin’s “Marriage Has Become a Trophy,” also for The Atlantic.)

4. One packet of Ottogi Spicy Jin Ramen, while writing this newsletter.

5. Dakota Johnson’s extremely good home tour for Architectural Digest, which Iman posted about on her story and I promptly watched because I feel an unexplainable affection for Dakota.

6. “How Calling Someone a ‘Class Reductionist’ Became a Lefty Insult,” a thorough and considered piece by Asad Haider in Salon on why you can’t talk about race without talking about class, or talk about class without talking about race.

7. Another tattoo by @buoythefishlover which is so perfect it’s rude.

8. This slideshow about the problems with the cash bail system by Abbi Jacobson. (Donate to The Bail Project to help.)

A post shared by @abbijacobson

9. This conversation between Tavi Gevinson and Natasha Stagg for Interview Magazine about social media and identity. As I was reading it I kept thinking it was five years old or something and then remembering it was from October 2019 and thus was only five years old emotionally. Not one mention of a vaccine! But lots of good insights.

“STAGG: I’m interested in people with multiple personas because I think they have some sort of strange insight into the future. They seem psychic about what’s actually going on, and where we’re headed. I think it’s not a coincidence that the splintering of ourselves is coinciding with trans awareness. It’s a lot easier to understand having an identity that is not a part of your physical appearance.”

10. Circles, Mac Miller’s posthumous album, put on by Avi the other day while we were drawing and then by me, over and over, for the rest of the week.

11. This line from Ursula Le Guin’s book No Time to Spare, which I’ve already read but picked up the other day for a peek: “You can’t have growth and stability at the same time.”

12. One pair of Converse hi-tops in “parchment.”

13. This two-minute read by The Cut in which they photographed and interviewed postal workers in Queens. So much love for the USPS.

14. This outrageous story about the art and artifice of ghostwriting by Sean Patrick Cooper for The Baffler.

15. Absolutely no cure for my disease of looking at New York apartments for rent on StreetEasy and getting mad.

That should do it this time. See you next week,

This month a portion of all subscriber proceeds will be split between The Okra Project, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, and the Black Trans Travel Fund, three organizations that honor, protect, and advocate for Black trans people.