This is a research-assisted essay written for Dr. Elizabeth Dodd's ENGL 665 - Advanced Creative Nonfiction class in the Fall of 2019. A "research-assisted essay" is something of a blend between a traditional research essay and a personal essay. It's less formal than a traditional research essay, but the research drives the story.
Ella Dawson’s relationship with the internet has changed over the years. A 12ish year old online-Ella found her way into her first social media: a freshly minted Myspace page with the sweet serenades of Seattle’s most famous grunge as her background song. When Ella was a freshman in high school, Facebook opened its digital doors to non-college students, and she was in. After that, the internet would always be—in one way or another—a part of her day to day.
Most importantly, they both occupied the same space online, and that was enough to develop the back-and-forth, writer/editor relationship that could be rivaled only by the Ellison/Erskine’s and Heller/Gottlieb’s of the world. The inevitable disconnect of this type of relationship, though, first shined through in a message Ella received from her online friend.
“You know, we’re hiring actually!” Christina shared after some time working with Ella. “We’re looking for a freelancer to do this gig for us and you’re a really wonderful writer. Are you looking for any kind of copy-writing work?”
“I am a minor…?” Ella typed back, imagining the difficulty of balancing a freelance workload with her upcoming paper on The Great Gatsby.
“First of all,” Christina hastily wrote back, “I am so sorry!”
Their editorial relationship continued— though a little more reserved on Christina’s part— for a time following this.
Since Christina, since Draco, Hermione, and LiveJournal, Ella (now @brosandprose on Twitter) has experienced a wide breadth of internet relationships. There are those which end positively— a fellow young journalist who DMs her to meet up when he moves into her area; they commiserate over how broken the internet has left their brains. Constant stimulation and exposure to what seems like a never ending cycle of posts and opinions and just generally garbage will do that to a human brain, they share over burgers. But then, as one may expect from internet relationships, there are… others.
In the blog post “A Friendly Reminder That You Don’t Know Me,” we see, through Ella’s words, harassment from a “fan” online. Incessant tweets piled into her notifications from an account following only two people— Ella and Ellen DeGeneres. Unless Ellen was getting the same attention, it’s safe to assume this account was made with a focus on Ella in mind. His bathroom mirror selfie of a profile picture appeared over and over again in her notifications, comments on how “beautiful” and “attractive” Ella is, assuring her he didn’t care the she had herpes. She made it clear to him in replies that his incessant words were making her uncomfortable, which he quickly, and opportunistically, misread as invitation for more “conversation.”
“@brosandprose no never I’m sorry I was just telling you that you’re a beautiful woman I’ve been wanting to make a Twitter,” his words thrown at Ella in lackluster defense of himself.
“@brosandprose and like I said I’m sorry I’m a nice guy I have a heart only reason I followed you because I thought you had a good heart 2 :(“ Sad face indeed.
But, as Ella says in the blog, perhaps most telling:
“@brosandprose you’re not the person I saw on YouTube your judgemental you treated me like crap for no reason and I never once judged you”
How do we know someone we don’t know? How do we balance that inherently precarious relationship? Creators, public figures, and even just particularly online people put pieces of themselves out into the world through the internet. What kind of invitation does that open up for those who are able to see it? And what obligation do those recipients have to respond?
Ella writes often about sexuality and sexual health. She digs into the misconceived world of hookup culture, writes erotica, and is an advocate for those feeling the stigmatization that comes with an STI, as she herself has. Through that writing, though, she becomes an unwilling participant in a number of conversations. Are there those messages from significantly older, intrusive men leering through their keyboards? Obviously, this is the internet. But the messages that linger more and take up guilt-heavy space in her internet-broken brain are those from, for example, a young teen in the Midwest who was just diagnosed with herpes, who is feeling lost and alone.
Ella stops, staring at the message. This isn’t the first time a call for help like this has appeared in her inbox.
“Then I feel like a failure, then I spiral out,” she recites with the quick cadence of someone who has endured this routine before. “Then I need to close the app and remember I can’t do everything, I can’t help everyone.”
But for all of the messages she must conflictedly ignore and all of the “You’re Not the Person I Saw on YouTube” guys she will un-conflictedly ignore, the internet can still be a place for community. Ella shares a “poppin’” group chat with other herpes activists who write and work in the same anti-stigmatizing ways she does.
“I’ve never met either of them in real life, but I’ve known them online for what feels like years,” she says, a smile shining through her voice.
“There are weirdos online,” Ella explains, “and then there are people who are really nice and respectful— you just have to sort through them.”
This puts Nathan in a unique position. Nowadays, he sets more boundaries about who all can access the Man Behind the Beef, and how intimately. But that was not always the brand of Steak-umm’s account.
In the first two years of Nathan’s running the account, Steak-umm received— in his words— “a loooooot” of DMs and tweets from its young followers who felt a personal connection to those behind the account. This was an institution of sorts, an established brand that posted things such as “do you beelieevee in life after beef” and “happy friday everybody remember that in life sometimes you're the steak and sometimes you're the umm time is a flat circle.” It’s easy to gravitate toward a voice which “speaks” like yours, a personality which has the same apathetic tendencies that consume what seems like most heavy Twitter users like Steak-umm’s satisfied customers consume frozen beef sheets. It also helps when the account posts things like,
“alright we're hitting the steaksack for the night but seriously we love you all and just remember if you ever need anything, even just a beef to talk to, hit us up
And so they did. From abusive relationships to eating disorders, mental health issues like depression and anxiety to not knowing what they want to do with their lives as the prospect of college and careers looms overhead, young Steak-umm fans flooded into these beef sheets’ DMs. Hyper-conscious of the fact that the extent of his counseling qualifications was running an influential meat-based meme account, Nathan stuck mainly to asking questions and being a digital ear to listen, and when he did feel the need to offer advice, remained as generic as possible.
He opened the message to find a book’s length detailing the toxic relationship the follower was in. He detailed the issues he and his boyfriend were having, and was reaching out for help and advice.
“it sounds like you already know the situation you’re in is bad, and you know what you need to do,” Nathan— through the voice of Steak-umm— cautiously advised.
One year later, a notification popped up in Steak-umm’s DMs. “hey, I’m just letting you know that i appreciated you even getting back to that message i sent forever ago,” the same boy said. “i ended up breaking up with that person, i feel way better, and they’re happier.”
Nathan fielded these messages as well as he could. When he thought they were out of the purview of Steak-umm, he redirected followers to his personal account to continue the conversations. Through these DMs, he built relationships. He met and helped people online, people who he has gone on to— in possibly the most telling sentence of our time— do “lunch, and coffee, and podcasts with.” All of these people who are just looking for a connection, some guidance, or at least mutual confusion. And though there are the times that things can “get kind of squirrely,” when it goes right, Nathan loves this.
“Cool, this is awesome,” he says while reflecting on these relationships. “It’s working in the kind of way the internet is intended to work at its best.”
Or, in the words of Steak-umm:
“…young people today have it the best and the worst. there's so much to process and very few trusted, accessible outlets to process it all through. so they go to memes. they go to obscure or absurdist humor. they go to frozen meat companies on twitter. end rant
Zach St. Clair (@zarcasticness) does not know either of these people. Zach is a college student who is deathly afraid of the self-reflection that would come if he ever actually checked his Screen Time .
Club Penguin, Poptropica, and most of all, Pirates of the Caribbean Online filled Zach’s after school free time. As a child, Zach knew a lot less about what addiction is, though it may have been helpful context
A gruff, virtual pirate Zach stands on the pixelated beach of Tortuga. Another player, a virtual woman in a weathered three point hat and worn leather overcoat, approaches.
“Level 16?” she inquires in reference to the experience level floating above virtual Zach’s own hat. A level that high comes only one of two ways, money or time. “How much are you paying for your subscription?”
Today, Zach likes making bad jokes on Twitter and admiring the bad jokes and great thoughts of people like Ella and Nathan. Through the strangeness of the internet, he’s made some… nontraditional friendships? That questions mark is there because it feels somewhat difficult to describe a blossoming friendship with someone who is halfway across the country from you and you first met when you matched on Tinder while you were on a weekend trip to Philadelphia with your family.
But regardless of the descriptive difficulty, Melissa and Zach have stayed in touch after never actually going on any dates and meeting up twice in person purely by happenstance. Once, Zach was visiting New York City for a broadcast awards conference (nerd) while Melissa happened to be at home which happened to be just north of NYC. Melissa took a train into the city and she and Zach got thin, yet superb, pizza from a hole in the wall and explored Melissa’s favorite Brooklyn warehouse-turned-record shop. Once more, Zach and his partner, Lexi, took a day trip to Philadelphia to see a concert on a Thursday night because Zach accidentally won tickets through another school’s college radio station he follows on Twitter. They stayed on a thin, black futon in Melissa’s dorm for the small amount of time they slept on that trip.
Lexi, Zach’s aforementioned partner, is an interesting case as well. Technically speaking, Zach and Lexi met in person in the medium-fancy foyer of Manhattan, Kansas's Bluemont Hotel at a local music festival called Midfest. Zach stood behind a nearly merchless merch table for his college radio station (budget cuts, what can ya do), when he saw a “familiar” face. Lexi, the photographer for the event, followed Zach on Twitter for nearly a year by this point, and Zach followed her for about the same. As she marched by the table on her way to the next set, Zach flagged her down with abounding confidence.
“Are you… Lexi…?” he apprehensively muttered, moderately nervous about interacting with a cute, real life person.
Even Zach’s closest relationships that found their geneses predominantly offline all, in some kind of way, link back to or are bettered by social media.
Zach’s best friends— David, Jackson, Ryan, Gerit— communicate more regularly through group DMs and texts than in person. As almost bleak as that sounds, it isn’t a failure in reality as much as it is supplementing through the virtual. David and Jackson have graduated and moved, and neither Kansas City nor Austin, Texas, are in Zach’s daily routine. Ryan and Gerit live across town together, so time spent in person is more regular, but several overlappingly busy schedules makes that difficult to do consistently.
In the offline world, I live six hundred miles away from Ella and double that from Nathan. I’ve never met them in real life, and probably never will. But I followed both of them on Twitter because they posted angrily about the fact that interns don’t run brand accounts, and I— the social media student at the time for the much lower stakes K-State Libraries— thought to myself:
The second theme: the internet is a place for communities to form that could never have done so in the offline world. This can be both good and bad. On the positive side of things, Ella talks about meeting other people with internet followings and commiserating over their shared stresses and anxieties, “the kind of things you can’t really explain to other people who haven’t experienced it firsthand.” Even more so, for people like a young, queer person living in a small, stiflingly-conservative town, or a young person of color whose family immigrated to a predominately white community, the internet can be that bridge to similar experiences.
This essay can only touch so much on that, though; everyone represented here is both white and in a heterosexual relationship. A byproduct of the communities I have placed myself in, I imagine. I realized a little too far into this process that the groups I’ve made for myself are predominantly white and straight, something not done with intention but with complacence. And while I may attempt to broaden my multicultural understandings in other ways— through the classes I take, the news I follow— that exclusivity can be a dangerous thing.
For communities that find new space only online, in Nathan’s experience, this concept “is true of all of the coolest— and worst— parts of the internet.” For as much as this makes camaraderie accessible to those most marginalized, it can also create echo chambers for those who do the marginalizing, e.g. Nazis are back. The opportunity to assemble and feel a part of something has become simultaneously vital and vitriolic, a strong contender if the internet ever needed a tagline.
Finally, in tandem with the two previous revelations and to quote a culturally defining part of our generation, we’re all in this together. While it feels like everything is collapsing around us— the impending demise of the environment which for some reason we’re still doing functionally nothing about; the ever-growing student debt crisis which is crippling us immediately after everyone in the world told us we have to go to college; the fact that healthcare in the U.S. is a for profit business that has every regular person on the constant brink of financial destruction; this list could go on but this aside has already been thoroughly abused— at least, when it feels like we have control over nothing else, we can make shitty jokes about it all and feel just a little bit better. And when we see each other making our shitty jokes, and we favorite it, and we DM it to our friends, we know we aren’t doing this alone.
Does this all mean the internet is good? hahahahahah god no. But it’s something we can share. In our ability to find these spaces, to find these people, it almost feels like a power. That maybe— just maybe— in our constant dumpster fire of a world, our togetherness can do something about the impending list of environmental, economic, social, and close-minded afflictions. Maybe a social media literate generation, coming together through comments and posts and jokes and shit, will be able to give some motivation and— if we’re really lucky— some hope to feel just a tiny bit better and make some kind of impact on a positive future, while there still is one.
So, at the end of the day, Zach’s going to keep racking up minutes on his Screen Time. He, Ella, and Nathan, along with all the others who have found themselves sucked into the wonderful chaos of being Online, will keep writing tweets, breaking their brains, and pretending like TikTok is super cringey when in reality they’re definitely addicted to it (the last one may just be Zach). And hopefully, as each day comes to an end, maybe, at some point, they made a new friend.