3 weeks ago

Girl Offline: My Illusory Friends and Other Animals

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That little ‘screen-time’ section on the general settings of the iPhone was initially the most frightening thing that had happened to my relationship with technology, until it was the most helpful. The hours I spend in this vast alternative landscape, in the online, logged, added up, and put before me. Graded by colour: this many hours a week using Entertainment apps. This many hours a week using Shopping apps. A horrifying quantity of hours a week using Social Media. When I started to check my daily timing and felt what can only be described as a cold wash of shame run through me, around the time I started writing this column, I knew I had to make a change to those little blue and green bars in my phone. Over time, the bars have shifted. My hours are down – but there’s one change I didn’t anticipate.

The Entertainment hours have gone up in place of the Social Media hours going down. I know I watch far, far more Youtube than I used to: I just didn’t feel it crawling in at the corners of my life and insinuating itself so tightly into my daily routine. It used to be something more of a fascination, rather than daily form of company, or distraction, or somewhere those two phenomena met. Last year I didn’t really know any Youtubers names: I thought that following their lives closely was a world that belonged to Gen Z and not to me. Now I turn on Youtube when I cook, when I do my makeup, when I am travelling for work and alone in a hotel, when I am trying to go asleep in a foreign bed, whenever I want to hear a voice.

Here’s the part of that sentence I nearly didn’t write: whenever I want to hear a friendly voice. Let me be perfectly clear. I don’t have any friends who are on Youtube. But over a period of two years of intense work, constant travel, and that strange fracturing of a social life that happens when you enter your thirties, I’ve come to find these Americans who only talk about themselves or the thing they’re trying to sell me, really friendly. The friendliness is not one that is interested in me or what I am experiencing: they do not ask me questions that I can answer, though they ask the screen in front of them tiny questions all the time. Me and their millions of silent viewers, observing their road trips, their makeup-applications, their house tours. Their performances of their best lives. Their clear voices. It feels like keeping company without any risk, any cost, any danger. Nobody is going to ask how I am, and I won’t have to process a neutral response. I don’t actually have to say or risk anything.

What a strange drug, a thing that numbs your desire for contact with other people, that neuters your social instincts. That makes you feel like you have mates, that you’re in a deep conversation, that you’re at a fun-day-out, when you’re actually in a corporate hotel outside an airport, alone, again. Perhaps this is the internet’s greatest and cruellest magic trick but it is one that I don’t really want to look away from, even as I pry social media from my hands, this video world feels different. It feels better, and I suppose, therefore it is worse.

In 2016, I covered the case of Marina Joyce for The Irish Times: a teenage Youtuber who’s devout audience believed she had been kidnapped due to some strange behaviour and noises in her videos. Back then it felt so alien to me that strangers could feel entitled to get so involved in a performer’s life and feel so close to them that they call the police to their home, or decontextualise their videos to form conspiracy theories. Now, Joyce has never fully disclosed the reason her videos became strange for a few months – and no more should she have to, but to this day her commenters view her through the lens of the campaign to ‘rescue’ her from unknown, fictitious kidnappers. I know. Wild.

While researching that original piece I came across the term ‘parasocial interaction,’ which was coined in 1956 in order to describe the relationships people form with individuals or characters in the media. Back then they never could have anticipated the illusory closeness we have with our beauty gurus, our sweet vloggers, our spillers of tea and drama, our renovation experts and purveyors of storytime upon storytime upon storytime. I keep telling myself I should be smarter than this, my brain should demand better stimulation than listening to beauty gurus that look like sexy aliens selling me expensive products I would never in God’s name use on my extremely average face. But my brain doesn’t demand better stimulation. This is perfect. Attractive people speaking in a way that I perceive to be safe to me, breaking the fourth wall and communicating as though I am in the room with them. Their vocal tics and expressions, when you look right at them, would at times give you the distinct sensation that they were right there with you. But they ask for no social response in return. I mean, they really want me to buy their make-up palettes and hoodies and phone cases or whatever their sponsor for this particular video is shilling, but I’m like 31, I’m at no risk of doing that.

Their wants and needs from me go no further than that: financial response, or further viewing. In unpacking this, I hate it even more, but I know that as I get ready to go out tonight I’m going to apply make-up to my face while watching a far more attractive American applying makeup to their face in some mundane ‘Get Ready With Me’ video, for a sense of company.

If I don’t say, aloud or in writing, that this is how I consume Youtube, I’ll just keep doing it without interrogation. I can’t live with the internet without interrogating my relationship to it. If I interrogate it, if I ask questions about that increasing Entertainment timer on my phone, I might find an answer somehow. I like television, I like video games, but this is new. I don’t have a language yet to unpack why I like the Youtube channels I like, other than learning about what parasocial interaction is, because I watch Youtube alone, like most other people who use the platform.

I am just beginning my not-so-smartphone journey, and just beginning to detach myself from my iPhone, but in some ways I am taking steps forward and backwards in that quest. I downloaded TikTok last week and I have found myself losing hours to staring at thin people mugging for the camera for under a minute at a time: the same strange unnamable hit of focus you get from Twitter or Instagram but drawn deeper, because each video somehow tells a tiny story. On my long scroll, I came across this cat. He wears a yellow raincoat and goes around a park on a lead, like a dog. He’s gorgeous, long-haired and big eyed, not unlike the cat me and my husband have hung around with for the last eight years.

I went to follow him, because I want to see more videos of him walking around the park in his raincoat, and took in a few more tiny videos on his page. One featured him sitting alone at a lakeside, watching the ducks swimming in the water. On the screen, tiny text stated that he would love to make a friend today, but the ducks wouldn’t be his friends. The film cut to his enormous, blank eyes, and text that read maybe he would make a friend tomorrow. 

Nobody can tell this cat that the ducks aren’t ever going to be his friends, I thought, welling up, and scrolling on. The cat doesn’t want to be friends with ducks, realistically. Equally, nobody can ever tell the people who own him that emotional manipulation is probably wrong, even though it’s gotten them half a million followers, including me. And even though that manipulation was cheap, it still left me with tears in my eyes.

None of this is right, but god, it’s all doing exactly what it was designed to do, and probably so much more besides.

To read more from Sarah Maria Griffin visit THEGLOSS.IE/GirlOffline

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