I wonder if there is a way measure how Extremely Online has changed, if at all, since the early days. Certainly the markers have shifted: what qualified you, what your public socio-political disposition reflected, and how you funded it. Because it’s always been at least a part time job. From hasty, typo-ridden screeds dispatched to your music LISTSERV or USENET group to hasty, typo-ridden tweets fired off minute by minute, the defining characteristic of EO is that you cannot be asleep at the switch.
Online has always felt like a space, and that is likely the notion that sustains the most deluded, which is not an attempt at diminishing the experiences of those in thrall. I am most definitely one of those people whose life has like been denuded or otherwise constrained because I have actively sought to be Online for the better part of the past twenty years.
One of the earliest instances of seeing someone report about online behavior through the lens of cyberspace not only being a proxy for IRL, but that we should engage and judge behavior using the same frame we use in meatspace dates from 1993. So none of these concepts or issues or referents are new. And when you consider the relative weight of expended intellectual effort to parse them relative to what my generation normally consumed while struggling with Big Issues of the Day, it’s basically terrifying.
My Extremely Online experience is grounded in the notion that all of Online was manageable and comestible, in the same way that if you made sure to look at the TriQuarterly, Granta, NYRB & Paris Review regularly (with drive by glances at titles in Salmagundi and the Critical Quarterly) you were On It in certain circles, back when I was an MLA striver. And make no mistake, that was a shit ton of work, because there’s dozens of other offshoots and minor players that might flare up and you had to be ready and knowledgeable if they did. The tail end of my academic posturing came at the last seminar I sat in on of the PhD program I bailed on (to be clear, I never enrolled, this was just an abortive campus visit), where the professor sat his MFA students down and explained that you read essays in all the credentialed journals thusly: read the first three paragraphs and the last three paragraphs closely and skim the rest. And move on. There was too much noise in the market of tenure track chasers and you would never be able to keep up. This was 1995.
The idea that you could be apprised of Online was exceedingly blinkered at pretty much every stage after 1976. I think of the communities that I either sniffed at, or just missed entirely back when people believed you could actually catalog all of the shit that was out there.
But the weird thing is, even though I was ignorant of huge swaths of Online at every stage, they actually existed and thrived. Now it feels like everything circles the drain towards the inexorable suck that is Twitter. Facebook is a whole ‘nother thing, sure, but for the Online crowd, there is Twitter, Slack channels (deserving of their own rant) and… dust.
There isn’t any cool site no one is reading yet. It’s just what ever amount of the firehose you wish to direct into your face at a given moment. And perhaps it was always leading inexorably to this. No one seems capable of resisting, and for the EO segment, why would they? Everything that is ill advised about such a lifestyle seems optimized for this very moment. Ev, who, if there is any justice, will be as reviled as Leni Riefenstahl at some later date, took a couple bites at the apple before he perfected the tool that both exposed the futility of the notion of a polity while sharpening the means to further erode the efforts to establish one, had given a dying planet a tool that exemplifies why we can’t save ourselves.