JUNE 19, 2016
IN AN EMOTIONAL YouTube video that went viral in November 2015, a young Australian model named Essena O’Neill announced that she was quitting social media. She had built a lucrative modeling career after years of careful cultivation of her online persona. Having accumulated a vast social media following, she earned thousands of dollars for wearing clothes and accessories, effectively becoming a living television commercial. “I had ‘the dream life,’” she said, “I had half a million people interested in me on Instagram, I had over a hundred thousand views on most of my videos on YouTube. To a lot of people I ‘made it.’” But now she wanted out:
What I’m doing scares the absolute fuck out of me […] I wanna tell you that having it all on social media means absolutely nothing to your real life […] Everything I was doing was edited and contrived to get more value, to get more views […] Everything I did was for views, for likes, for followers […] I let myself be defined by numbers. And the only thing that made me feel better about myself […] was the more followers, the more likes, the more praise and the more views I got online. It was never enough. I was miserable because when you let yourself be defined by numbers you let yourself be defined by something that is not pure, that is not real, and that is not love.
O’Neill’s post met with a degree of skepticism. Some commentators accused her of hypocrisy, while others suggested that, at just 19 years of age, she might come to regret a decision that bordered on career suicide. Broadly though, the video elicited a sympathetic response from the online community. (The irony of gauging a critique of social media by reference to its reception on social media is both glaring and symptomatic.) If O’Neill’s lifestyle was making her miserable, she was at least making good money out of it; what excuse do the rest of us have? Her declamation resonated far beyond her immediate professional milieu because the complaint at the heart of it — an almost pathological addiction to digitally mediated social approval — is a major epidemic. A quietly burgeoning corpus of critical nonfiction, which includes books like Joseph Reagle’s Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web (MIT Press, 2015) and Deborah Lupton’s The Quantified Self (Polity, 2016), attests to a growing willingness to explore and interrogate this phenomenon.
The debut novel by Natasha Stagg, a fashion writer and essayist based in Brooklyn, joins the discussion by way of a cautionary tale of love and internet celebrity. The narrator-protagonist of Surveys bears more than a passing resemblance to the beleaguered model, Essena. Colleen, 23, quits a dead-end job in marketing and moves to Los Angeles, where she embarks on a new life as a chic, trend-setting socialite under the tutelage of a super-hip beau called Jim. Colleen and Jim become an It couple — professional narcissists who upload heavily edited versions of themselves for the delectation of an enormous army of social media admirers: “He made images of me, and I of him, and we decorated the whole internet with our fondness for each other.” They make a killing from product endorsements and enjoy a lavish lifestyle of endless partying. But Colleen’s bliss is tempered by the existence of a rival, Lucinda: “Lucinda is just like me. She is alone in her bedroom, taking selfie after selfie, and relating to the world as it if it is a soft, sexist, thing.” Lucinda is doing the same thing as Colleen, only she is doing it just a little bit better. Cue envy, resentment, and a slow unraveling.
At the root of Colleen’s ambition is a yearning for personal reinvention. She speaks of inhabiting a “new life,” which she contrasts approvingly against her “old life.” Paradoxically though, she hasn’t really changed all that much. We learn that in her teenage years, Colleen had a habit of telling little white lies — embellished accounts of escapes with boys and whatnot — to make herself seem cooler than she really was. In her present iteration, she cannot bring herself to admit that she is from dreary Tucson, Arizona, instead telling people that she is originally from Los Angeles. If the obsessional online curation is specific to the contemporary context, the motivating impulse — the desire to shed one’s provincialism and become cosmopolitan, whatever that might entail — is an age-old literary trope. Technology is merely an enabler, while the anxieties, jealousies, and insecurities are still societal. That said, some of the cleverest moments in Surveys are riffs on the quotidian absurdities thrown up by digital culture: can a tryst constitute a one-night stand if you’ve been talking online for a year beforehand? What do you do if you find out your colleague is a Facebook fraud? (“His occupation was ‘business owner’ and he had thirty friends, even though he had been online for two years.”)
Colleen’s life goal at the outset of the novel is devastatingly simple: “to get rich, and to be known by an astonishingly vast range of individuals.” Having achieved this noble aim, she revels in it until it gradually dawns on her that there might be more to life. The epiphany, when it comes, is an eloquent and damning précis of social media narcissism, and its pernicious symbiosis of egotism and voyeurism: “What a stupid thing to want, since people who do that are gross. People who watch and do not want to be watched, people who listen and do not want to talk, people who live vicariously, are just perverts, and no one should want them around.”
Stagg deploys a flat, colorless register in order to bring out the mechanical monotony of the process in which Colleen is engaged, showing up the inherent fakery of the spectacle of glamour. Dialogue is pointedly insipid and the narrator’s own adjectival range regressively limited (a mode of dress is described as “fashion victim-y” while a liqueur tastes “mediciney”). In these moments the prose vaguely recalls the affectless monotone of the drug-addled rich kids who populated Bret Easton Ellis’s late-’80s novels. The effect, however, is severely diluted for want of consistency: the first-person narrative voice lapses frequently into a different, altogether more self-conscious key. The text flits between sociological rumination (“The biggest motivation of internet communication is trying to find out what people think of you”) and diaristic introspection (“If I knew that people wanted to be me, I had solved some part of living”). The result is a stylistic haphazardness that makes Surveys, for all its topicality and emotional insight, more notable for its thematic interest than its aesthetic qualities.
The promotional material for Surveys credits the work with “wryly mirroring the classic, female coming-of-age narrative.” If there is a satirical edge to this novel, it is worn so lightly as to be almost imperceptible. At one point, the narrator makes a passing, conspicuously naïve nod to Salinger and Plath, saying, “I read a book I once loved, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar … nobody got what it was like now, though.” This is the closest we get to any sense of reflexive pastiche, and even this appears more straightforwardly earnest than ironical. The remark feels more like a candid acknowledgment of formative influence than a send-up. It would be more accurate to observe that Surveys follows in the tradition of female coming-of-age narratives; and that there is, moreover, nothing wrong with that.