A Book About The Internet

By

Smartphones are ruining our brains[1] and how we interact with one another.[2] Internet porn is killing sex and, consequently, relationships.[3] Facebook gives us depression.[4] Or: the Internet will help end global poverty.[5] It will give a voice to historically marginalized communities[6] and take the best college classes and make them free[7] and allow access to information for all,[8] in all languages, in real time, always and everywhere.

I read books. Physical, tangible books with pages that get wet in the rain. I do not own a Kindle or an iPad. I am not an early adopter. Nor, I think, are books. Maybe it’s because of the amount of time required to write and edit and publish a novel, but literature has only started to grapple with the issues that have been flying around online for the past few years. And grapple it must, in order to stay relevant in a world where one can scroll through a few hundred thousand BuzzFeed listicles instead of reading Proust. But we still understand that there is value in reading old-fashioned books. Book sales are, in fact, up.[9] Books ask of us precisely what online culture often does not: a commitment of time and energy over days and weeks to the same art and artist. Books, therefore, have a unique opportunity to connect with us in ways that the Internet never could and perhaps never will.

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Q: What has online community meant to you? What do you think the space you’ve created has provided for others?

A: I think what’s wonderful about certain online communities is that they remind you that you are not alone in your thoughts or concerns about the world around you. They remind you that not only is your pain not unique, but neither is your capacity for healing. At their best, these communities operate as needed affirmation and connection.[10]

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For example: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a big and messy and imperfect novel. It follows Ifemelu from her childhood in Nigeria to her immigration to the states to her rise as a prominent blogger and, finally, back home to Nigeria. We also see her erstwhile and future (?) lover Obinze leave his home in Nigeria to become an undocumented immigrant in England and return home again. In scale and time and also in number of pages it is a big book. At its best, it complicates notions of home, language, technology, and geography. It is a book for our decade.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah grapples with art and race and culture—topics that are not new to literature. But, by making Ifemelu a blogger, Adichie tackles less familiar territory for literature: online rhetoric. Americanah is A Book About The Internet, and Ifemelu is living the dream of basically every blogger I know: she gets big enough to make her living through writing stuff and posting it online. We also see, through her story, the ways in which the Internet can take over a person’s life. The book begins with an Ifemelu who has decided to quit her lucrative blog, but still sees her daily experience as a series of potential posts, likes, shares: “She thought it would be the perfect blog post, how this stranger had decided she was fat…” and “Her blog was doing well, with thousands of unique visitors each month, and she was earning good speaking fees…”

Americanah is not the first novel to document the post-Internet age, but it is among the first books I have read to make the web such a complex character. The Internet in Americanah allows community and communication across geography and time, and yet there is an underlying anxiety that pervades the space. Documenting, deconstructing, problematizing, and reimaging our current Internet-addicted society is something that old-fashioned analog books (and criticism thereof) should do. At its best, Adichie’s book does precisely this; Ifemelu lives, loves, reckons, and writes online, in emails and status updates and blog posts and comments. This is the world we live in. We need books to help us understand it, and change it. We need books to make us want to change ourselves.

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Q: What has online community meant to you? What do you think the space you’ve created has provided for others?

A: It’s cliché, but the online community gave me a greater sense of self. Part of writing for the world is narcissism. “Pay attention to me! What I’m saying is important!” When people do pay attention and respond and engage and further the conversation, it’s a little boost every time, especially for someone who felt ignored a lot when I was younger.[11]

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The average American now spends more than eight hours a day interfacing with a screen.[12] We clearly love the Internet. We blog or make YouTube videos or make a Tumblr of our photography in the hopes—let us all just admit it—that our work will go viral and we will be elevated out of humble anonymity. Like Ifemelu, we have all become our own type of celebrity, living our life for public consumption. There may be much to recommend this type of existence. But we also understand that this comes with a certain existential sadness—the kind that has always led old-fashioned celebrities to be particularly prone to addictions and high profile bad behavior, which are then reported on and written about and consumed.

David Foster Wallace on Writers' Reel on YouTube

David Foster Wallace on Writers’ Reel on YouTube

The Internet is not the first technology that has apparently threatened the very heart of what makes us human. When I was young, the technology that was ruining us was TV. David Foster Wallace wrote a stunningly challenging and beautiful essay about the effect that TV has had on the general US and its writerly populations.[13] TV’s only goal is to ensure that we watch as much as possible (so it can sell as many ads as possible, for as much money). And its brilliant trick was to create a world of beautiful people acting natural and then to convince us that our only access to this world was watching and the only way to watch was through the TV. Or, according to DFW: “The most significant quality of truly alive persons is watchableness, and that genuine human worth is not just identical with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching.”[14] Well, now things make a bit more sense. TV conditioned us to want to be celebrities; the Internet makes it possible to act like one.

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Q: If it weren’t for the Internet, where would you be right now?

A: In my case? I honestly think I would be dead. The Internet to some extent saved my life. Me, at 13, mourning the loss of my big brother, in the midst of my becoming sexually aware, and all the craziness your body goes through when you’re that age, on top of being raised strictly Christian. I was petrified that I was doomed to hell because I was gay. I felt extremely lonely and depressed, and for a nice amount of time, I was seriously thinking through plans of suicide. It’s weird to say now, but at that point in my life, it was very much true, until one day I came across a support group on Livejournal. Via the Internet! It opened up a world of possibilities, help, life, and I mean life in beautiful abundance, but also without sugarcoating the journeys that are harsh truths of such paths.[15]

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The Internet has done some good things, too. The notion of being alone and yet not alone is critical to us now in a really profound and life-saving way.

Prodded by a friend, Ifemelu, in Americanah, decides to make the leap and to go natural with her hair. Without anything like a natural hair community in her IRL existence, she plugs into the Internet. This is the first time in the chronology of the book that the Internet becomes a main player. We learn, with Ifemelu, how the Internet can make what were once lonely experiences less so. The Internet gives her a community of folks dealing with the same issues; through the Internet she is not alone; online she has support and care and maybe even love.

a computer repair shop in Nigeria

a computer repair shop in Nigeria

Lest you think that I am yet another white reviewer talking about a black author writing about black hair,[16] Adichie offers more instances of online community, including among immigrant communities (e.g. page 118 “He had not been back to Nigeria in many years and perhaps he needed the consolation of those online groups”). Many of Ifemelu’s blog posts end with questions that are meant to be answered in the comments sections of her blog (e.g. pgs 362, 300, 304, and a nice example on pg 308 in a blog post called “Open Thread: For All the Zipped-Up Negroes”: “Tell your story here. Unzip yourself. This is a safe space.”) That we never get to examine these comment sections only seems to heighten their importance, at least to this reader.

And look back at the interview with Jarvis. It was the Internet, and his ability to find and connect with other people like him online, that saved his life.

Holy shit.

The Internet can create the types of communities that some folks need to survive. Particularly people who have been traditionally erased, excluded. Queer people. People of color. Women. Trans* folks. The list goes on and on and on. And I cannot think of anything much more important than that.

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Q: What is the most exciting part of sharing your work online? The most terrifying? What makes you decide, in the end, to put stuff out there?

A: There’s an emergent culture on the Internet, of tearing down others’ work for being inadequate or offensive, instead of engaging in a positive, ongoing dialogue. My fear is being rejected by my very own community, for not being accurate, inclusive or radical enough. In the end, I do it anyway, because true social change can only happen when we are all willing to be vulnerable and put ourselves out there and define for ourselves what the work is. [17]

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Ifemelu’s blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negros) by a Non-American Black. In the title of alone we have shifting national and international identities, the notions of outside and inside, and lots and lots of race. I found the writing in the blog sections to be the most compelling in the book. The tone is perfect: earnest in spirit but sarcastic and funny. The posts are caring and engaged. They exemplify the best of the new rhetorical space that has come out of the Internet, and in particular out of blogs about race and class and gender.

This type of thing used to be public rhetorical fodder, mostly for academics. Achibe takes pains to convince us that Ifemelu is not an academic. For one, Ifemelu says,[18] “I’m not an academic. I don’t even have a graduate degree.” These conversations are perhaps most vital outside of academia, where people are living daily experiences with racism and sexism and homophobia. We can feel so alone, out here by ourselves.

Perhaps Americanah has been so successful because it places the blogosphere directly in the international high-art conversation. Here we have a book (i.e. old-fashioned literature) discussing the relationship between academics and the public in the blogosphere and, by so doing, claiming that the Internet is worth talking about as serious art. Americanah focuses on race blogs, but this rhetorical space is not limited to race. Race blogs, feminist blogs, queer blogs, trans* blogs, blogs about class, and blogs that live at the intersections of all these identities, are online and some of them are really really good.

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Q: Is blogging your full time job?

A: No / no / no.[19]

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Let us not be naive: writers have long had to grapple with these types of questions, with notions of technology and audience and to whom, exactly, they are writing. As writers, our lives have always been a part of our work. But I argue (non-hysterically) that technology has changed the pace of the conversation between writer and audience.

As Kiese Laymon, whom I first came to know on the Internet, likes to remind us, there is a difference between loving someone and loving how someone makes you feel. That goes for art and entertainment, too. The Internet feels good for one reason and is good for another. The Internet feels good because it allows us to never be alone if we don’t want to be. There will always be noise. The Internet feels good because we can flirt with celebrity and affection and fame. The Internet is good because it can foster connection and discourse and thinking and learning and messy, messy love.

We see this discourse in Americanah and it sings. Adichie wrote A Book About The Internet. Books still get into us in unique ways. We need more books to make us look honestly at the web, at ourselves.

"Four Toxic Computer Monitors" by Tonx

“Four Toxic Computer Monitors” by Tonx

So, given this clusterfuck of a situation, what are we, sensitive and conflicted writers and readers—reasonable folks who know that Facebook might both make us sad and allows to connect—to do? How do we make technology our tool and not our master? How do we reflect the odd reality that we know is all-the-way true in our art? It’s not necessarily about being on the Internet less (because as if that’s a viable option); maybe it’s about being on the Internet differently. Maybe we can look to literature for some guidance. Let us do what Ifemelu does at the beginning/end of Americanah. Spoiler alert. Quit. Logoff. Return home. Find our love(s). Hurt. Heal. Start again. Make a big and ugly and complicated mess of things.  Connect. Read. Write.

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[1] http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/all/1

[2] http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2007/10/how-cell-phones-are-killing-face-to-face-interactions295/

[3] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2522279/Porn-destroying-modern-sex-lives-says-feminist-writer-Naomi-Wolf.html

[4] http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0069841

[5] http://one.laptop.org/

[6] http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/biography/v028/28.1rak.html

[7] http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/online-course-startups-offer-virtually-free-college/2012/01/09/gIQAEJ6VGQ_story.html

http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

[8] http://www.wikipedia.org/

[9] http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/some-good-news-from-the-world-of-books

[10] Interview with Robert Jones, Jr, who runs the blog Son of Baldwin (http://sonofbaldwin.tumblr.com/ and

https://www.facebook.com/sonofbaldwinfb), and whom I have never met but know only through Facebook

[11] Interview with Rafi D’Angelo who runs the blog So Let’s Talk About… (http://soletstalkabout.com/) and whom I met on Adam4Adam years ago.

[12] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/business/media/27adco.html?_r=0

[13] http://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf

[14] http://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf

[15] Interview with Jarvis Derrell, whom I met on Facebook and who is now running his blog (http://shehashadit.tumblr.com/) as well as appearing on TV and writing books and basically living the dream

[16] http://www.npr.org/2013/05/15/182313317/coming-to-americanah-two-tales-of-immigrant-experience

[17] Interview with Promiti Islam, whom I know through old-fashioned analog friend-of-friend interactions and who just started a brand new online magazine with her sister (http://hiwildflower.com/)

[18] This hints at my major criticism of the book: Adichie can tend to over explain her character’s feelings and motivations, and some of this over explaining can border on the cheesy. It happened enough that I started writing frowny faces in the margins of the text whenever I rolled my eyes. As examples and chosen essentially at random from the section I was just quoting above “… leaving Ifemelu with an embittered knot, like bereavement, in her chest.” (338); “It felt to her like bereavement that she could not vote ” (360); “… his collar sprinkled with snow like magic dust.” (310). =( =( =(

[19] Interviews with Robert and Promiti and Rafi.


Joseph Osmundson is a scientist, writer, and educator born and raised in the rural Pacific Northwest. His research focuses on protein structure and function while his writing explores identity and place and sexuality and class and race and all sorts of messy, complicated stuff. His work has been published on Salon.com, The Feminist Wire, and Gawker, and he will have essay included in the upcoming anthology The Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press) due out in the Fall of 2014. He has taught at The New School and Vassar College and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Systems Biology at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter at @reluctantlyjoe. More from this author →