When Your Fake Account Is Real

“So Many People, Talking, Mumbling, Murmuring, Muttering, Suggesting, … Pay Attention to Me!”

CJ Green / 2.15.21

The internet — it hardly needs to be said anymore — has become a crucial facet of daily life. In its early days this was one of Mockingbird’s key insights. It might be quaint to imagine that life, friendship, religion, and all manner of daily staples are separate from the internet, but if one hopes to speak to humans, one must do it where the humans are.

The book critic Lauren Oyler noticed this discrepancy in literature. From many of today’s bestsellers, the internet is weirdly absent, or only occasionally mentioned. Do characters have cell phones? Only when necessary. Meanwhile, the rest of us suffer phones when they’re unnecessary (in bed, while driving, during conversations, etc.). They’re one of our hugest sources of conflict. Additionally, it says something about you if you have a Facebook account, or an Instagram account, or one or the other but not both, or neither; it says something about the type of life you want to lead, or how you’re already leading it.

Oyler’s debut novel Fake Accounts has been reviewed favorably as “a twenty-first century comedy of bad manners” and less favorably as “an exercise in snark” (different levels of appreciation for essentially the same thing). In his recent column, David Zahl excerpted the following quote from the novel, but it’s worth reposting. Referring to the internet, Oyler writes that

it was compared to white noise so often for a reason: so many people, talking, mumbling, murmuring, muttering, suggesting, gently reminding, chiming in, jumping in, just wanting to add, just reminding, just asking, just wondering, just letting that sink in, just telling, just saying, just wanting to say, just screaming, just *whispering*, in all lowercase letters, in all caps, with punctuation, with no punctuation, with photos, with GIFs, with related links, Pay attention to me!

Fake Accounts is told from the perspective of an unnamed young woman whose boyfriend claims to have given up all social media. Our narrator senses, however, that he’s active elsewhere in the vast, invisible online landscape, probably cheating on her. It is the eve of Donald Trump’s election. She stealthily obtains her boyfriend’s phone, hacks into it, and finds a secret Instagram account where he has been anonymously posting a potpourri of strange conspiracies. He’s also very popular.

This launches our narrator into some rough equivalent of soul-searching. She decides to break up with him, though her problem, she realizes later in the book, is not really with her boyfriend but with herself.

“I was so frustrating,” she admits. “I seemed combative, wily and unyielding, immature and in denial about it, yet also typical, typical, typical.”

It’s a clever, self-effacing way to identify this character with the book’s readers and also the general population: despite her “snarky” idiosyncrasies, she does, perhaps upsettingly, represent us. She is an Every Woman for the Internet Age. And as we all know, the best way to quiet any simmering angst is to spend time online which, as Oyler writes elsewhere, is both “placating and stressful.” “Time spent this way was worse,” she quips, “but at least it was faster. Spending three hours on Twitter does not feel like three hours; that’s the danger and the appeal.” Adrift, she explains,

Usually when you have these sort of searching bourgeois white-person narratives you have to offer a disclaimer, I know my problems do not rank in comparison to the manifold sufferings of most of the world’s people … but, but this preamble isn’t meant to be perfunctory, a tick on a checklist; I really mean it as a point to be made in itself. Nothing was wrong. I had no problems. And yet I had problems.

The novel is structured straightforwardly, with sections entitled, “Beginning,” “Middle (Something Happens),” “Middle (Nothing Happens),” “Climax,” and “End.” By the time we arrive at the middle where nothing happens, Oyler’s narrator seems completely lost, often geographically, having fled to Berlin, where she doesn’t know the language or any of the people. She begins operating her own (in a manner of speaking) “fake accounts.” Not online, but in person: on a series of haphazard dates, she fabricates a series of believably unbelievable personas.

On one such outing, she encounters an old acquaintance, who, since their parting, has grown an upsettingly long mustache. He explains that he hasn’t shaved it off yet because he felt it was more of a costume, not reflective of his actual self. He says, “I sometimes do a persona, you know? … But I guess I always assumed I could distance myself from it, because the persona wasn’t me.” And yet, as Oyler makes clear, the persona was him. Who else had grown the mustache, if not him?

One of the mythologies popularized after the Internet Boom was that there is “a real world” and “an online world,” but in Oyler’s view, no such bifurcation exists. The internet is the real world, albeit in overwhelmingly strange ways. Anonymous accounts may proliferate online, but it is not a fake world. The “authentic self,” on the other hand, might serve a protective function of guarding against the uncomfortable notion that there is, in fact, only you: no bad persona, and no better one.

Twitter was not a distraction from reality but representative of it, a projection of the human drives and preoccupations that with free time and publishing platforms had been allowed to multiply and evolve. The superficiality this encouraged — pithiness and oversimplification were rewarded — felt appropriate not merely because it mimicked the way most of us choose to move through life but also because it had compounded those aspects of life that felt so desperate and precipitous.

The internet can seem so all-encompassing, so ubiquitous that it feels inescapable. And perhaps it is. It is often theorized that social media is physically changing the structure of the human brain. It is also theorized, more frequently, that it is destroying the fabric of our society. And if that is so, Oyler remarks, then how “convenient.”

How convenient that the fault would lie with mysterious wizards behind curtains, tech companies, millennial coders a thousand miles away. The best literature knows better, that our conflict is both unique yet so incredibly ancient: “typical, typical, typical.” Our tendency to point the finger of blame outward can be found at least as far back as the Garden of Eden (see Domenichino’s “Adam and Eve,” where Adam is blaming Eve, who in turn is blaming the serpent), but the blame game might be just another fake account, a story we tell ourselves in search of absolution from the harm we self-inflict.

Oyler’s anthropology is low, but when it comes to the ways we use the internet to achieve spiritual solutions, she has a point: “It was easier to think of technology as something that was happening to me rather than acknowledge I was doing something with it.” We might be powerless against the urge to keep clicking, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t us who is doing it.

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2 responses to “When Your Fake Account Is Real”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Goll-lee! I’m 30 pages in and this book is completely under my skin. Your review, from what I can tell, is worthy of the book, Ceej. Thank you thank you thank you.

  2. […] internet is to invoke the demonic. (I love the epigraph in Smith’s book, from Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts: “This is the struggle with describing social media: it devours importance.”) While on a […]

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