Author Olivia Sudjic On How Social Media Breeds 'Sympathy-On-Steroids'
The Debrief: 'Sympathy has many definitions – one is imagining what it is like to live someone else’s life.'
I didn’t set out to write a novel for ‘millennials’. Not because I didn’t take them or their reading habits seriously, but because I originally set my story in the seventeenth century, hoping to be taken seriously as a debut author and ‘millennial’ myself. As we all know, nobody takes millennials seriously except marketeers. More on that later.
The term 'millennial' is already clichéd clickbait and yet, as I type, Microsoft repeatedly underlines the plural with a red zigzag. Rather than questioning the word’s existence – ‘millennials’ has surely reached the farthest rock one could live under in 2017 - the red zigzag seems a neat visual representation of most people’s feelings toward it. The contempt with which elder, less-maligned generations invoke it (usually when their own dubious legacy is being criticised), as well as the bristling of those born between 1980 and 2000, to whom it technically applies. Narcissistic, entitled, app-happy, SJW snowflakes who opposed Brexit, didn’t vote, then threw themselves into the path of oncoming traffic playing Pokemon Go. Such tropes are lazy, sanctimonious, and savour of bitterness. Besides, as anyone who has taught their mother to use Instagram knows, smartphones are most dangerous in the hands of 55-70-year-old baby-boomers.
At first, I was actively trying to ignore the present and its associated hashtags in order to write my book – eventually locking myself away in a remote, rural location, hiding Wifi passwords, poring over books on seventeenth-century life. But millennialism (not to be confused with millenarianism, though you can see why it is) soon became the subject of the book itself. The themes of identity, connection and the human impact of mysterious technology, previously in the context of the past, persisted. Our modern notion of selfhood originated in the Renaissance, and, to my mind, has reached its next most significant evolution with millennials. Though I usually have enough self-preservation not to read below the line, an early Amazon reader criticised it, simultaneously, for being both a critique of millennial narcissism and a product of it… ‘the superficiality of internet culture… asinine internet effluvia… the first page drops an f-bomb… themes include internet porn, threesomes, and a boatload of blather only a fifteen year [sic] would care about.’ Scott, many thanks, I hope to use your final line as a quote for the paperback: Brace yourselves – I suspect this is the future of ‘literature’.
Writing is always a product of the times in which it’s written, and, when it’s any good, works in the opposite direction too, prompting readers to think about the times in which they live. This reciprocal relationship between life and writing is similar to the way social media works, our so-called ‘real’ and virtual selves. In every Age, and with every prefix (Stone-, Iron-, Steam-, Internet-), we are shaped by the tools we use. Yes, the internet liberates and empowers, it connects and is convenient, but at what cost to our inner lives? I wanted to explore the trade-off. How it erodes privacy, selfhood, and what it can do to someone already psychologically vulnerable. This was something I’d had some second-hand experience of – having met someone who’d let online-stalking of an ex take over their life. The medium was not a neutral player in this. The options it gave, the paranoia and vigilance it encouraged, shaped the unhappy timeline as it unfolded.
My protagonist, Alice, begins online-stalking an older woman she admires. The woman’s life – played out on social media for all to see – seems to have special significance and strange parallels with Alice’s own. I saw the arc of this relationship between the two women not just as a comment on intimacy between people in the internet age, but as a reflection of our individual relationship with the internet itself. A double bind where we are both addicted to and continuously stalked by a ghostly double online. Over the course of the book, Alice’s mind is usurped by a stranger. Not just the woman she is stalking, but the online self she has become. But I’m less unnerved by her, and by millennials in general, than how that word fits into the paradigm of neoliberal individualism.
The power structure (political, social, technological) that holds young people in this double bind, lured with the promise of crafting the perfect self online but left vulnerable to the giants of the web such as Google, and the companies they sell our information to. The more personal information Alice feeds into social media, the more her smartphone uses that information (unrepresentative, filtered, warped as it is) to add detail to the marketeer’s picture of her online. This picture is used predict and define her, a virtual self that is ultimately just as instrumental in the real world. The relationship between those two selves becomes a feedback loop, eventually, they converge.
Technology is concerned with how we manipulate our environment to suit us, and it is the comfort zone that millennials are criticised for. To me it seems difficult to break out of our me-centric bubbles should we want to. When online marketing, apps and algorithms, trap you in their crosshairs, how can you not be always at the centre, even if you don’t want to be? How do you get outside your filter bubble when your phone is always in your pocket? Alice’s smartphone gives her a false sense of mastery at first. Like being asked to pick a card by a magician. She imagines herself to be making choices but increasingly these feel predetermined, as though a search box is anticipating her keywords. Alice is a manipulator, but it is the tools she uses that make her into one. To an unknowable extent, her choices have already been shaped, upstream, by software designers and architects she has never met and by corporations that exploit her. The technology nudges her into the actions she takes and shapes the menu of choices she is given. The stalking is a compulsion. At first, she does it because she can, because it’s so easy, like Autoplay encourages you to binge-watch a Netflix series in one go. After a while, she does it because she has no self-control. She’s relinquished control to the medium itself. Her inability to make good choices, the real harm she causes, is therefore not so much due to straightforward narcissism, or an inability to imagine herself in the shoes of others, but a surfeit of ‘sympathy’.
Sympathy has many definitions – one is imagining what it is like to live someone else’s life. That’s what we do when we read a novel, and we get an echo of that when we use Instagram. The narcissism involved in social media is well-documented, less so the related syndrome of sympathy-on-steroids. If you yourself lack definition, lack ownership over your identity, or it is marginalised, then online, you can end up living on the periphery of all these other lives, all at once. Time and space and boundaries collapsing as they do in dreams. A porous kind of self that leaks and is vulnerable to being overwhelmed by others. It means losing sight of yourself, becoming formless, even as social media seems to be all about self-discovery and finding your tribe. Alice constantly imagines herself to be in someone else’s place, living someone else’s life, and so she neglects to take responsibility for her own actions until it’s too late.
Alice is not representative of all millennials any more than she is representative of all women. She lacks identifying marks, but it is this that prompts her response to her Instagram idol – her hunger for more than connection, for identification without boundaries. And I do think this is especially dangerous for young women, who are taught to alter themselves to suit others’ standards. To modify themselves and make nice. Misogyny is wired into the motherboard behind most modern technology. I’m the first to admit I don’t understand how my smartphone works. I imagine it like a tracking device, but it’s not like an axe, or even a car, or any other tool I have a rudimentary knowledge of. The statistics on how majority male the tech industry still is are as depressing as the persistent idea that women are public property, with no right to privacy or respect if they partake in public life, even if that is only a virtual sphere that takes them beyond the confines of their home. Women are more than three times as likely to report having been stalked online as men, and female identities online are seen as fair game for all kinds of abuse, from slut-shaming to sexual harassment. The platforms are built by people who do not experience this. If a male Amazon reviewer thinks these are issues that ‘only a fifteen-year [old] would care about’, that’s fine with me. I’d like fifteen-year-olds, especially girls, to read this book. But perhaps he also says that because female subjectivity and virtual violence against women and girls is rarely taken seriously. It’s as invisible to men there as it is in literature and in real life. The 'safe spaces' that millennials are mocked for creating are not taken seriously by certain people because they do not need them.
'Sympathy' by Olivia Sudjic is published by ONE/Pushkin Press, available now for £14.99. Also available on audible.co.uk
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