Discover more from Griefbacon
the novelty seekers
how the wilderness becomes the town, how the town becomes a home, and how a home becomes the wilderness again
I made my first Facebook account in the basement computer lab at my friend’s dorm at Oxford, at the end of finals week, on a strangely warm December night that smelled like moss and lightly rotten river water. I made my first Livejournal account at one of the candy-glass iMacs along one wall in my high school’s library. I made my first AOL account at the desk on the upstairs landing of the house where I grew up, on the shared family computer, greenish-beige and ugly and functional.
I made my first Twitter account the year after college, at a coffee shop that had free wifi, in the wealthy, remote district southwest of the river in the city where I was living with a family whose kids I tutored. I made an Instagram when I got my first iPhone, which I bought in cash from the Verizon store in Union Square, the night before my birthday, near the end of my twenties.
I made the Tinyletter account that become this newsletter in a room at a Holiday Inn Express in New Hampshire, at the end of a long day teaching a high school student to write the kind of essays I wished I were writing. I made that newsletter into a Substack here, in my own apartment, in the chair in the corner by the window where I’m sitting right now. I made a lot of other accounts on other platforms that never ended up mattering to me, or that mattered a little for a little while, but which never bored a tunnel into the center of my life, the way all of the ones I’ve mentioned here did. I don’t remember where I was when I made those.
The first time I thought in posts—the first time I imagined my fears and desires, my crushes and my worries, playing out in the immediate future specifically on social media—was during a winter break when I was twenty or so, on vacation with my family. Obsessing over someone who’d broken up with me, I filtered every experience I had and every beautiful thing I saw through how I would post about it, and the reaction I hoped those posts might compel. That was the first time I can remember living in the way I’ve lived since then. Online had seeped into my real-time emotional life; it was like realizing you’re fluent in a language when you wake up from a dream in which you were speaking it.
I signed up for Gmail in my last semester of college. It was the first email I’d made with my government name instead of a whimsically anonymous handle; I was trying to get a job. I was in my old apartment in the big red brick building near the river. It was April or May, and outside my window every tree bloomed like a line of bright green fire. White blossoms drifted down through the air. The day was beautiful like you could put your teeth in it. I closed my computer and went outside to meet up with my friends and we got drunk in the park in broad daylight. We were twenty-one and thought we would never die or get old. We lived, then, in a state of perpetual novelty; every time we turned our heads someone offered us something new.
The world has offered less and less novelty since then, while the internet strives again and again, at every juncture and inflection point, to offer more. The longer it goes on, the less any of the novelty feels like novelty. The internet is a creation myth stuck on a hamster wheel. It invents itself over and over, again and again. Online, we are all novelty seekers.
When I got on Twitter it was boring, and then it was a novelty, and then it was my home, and then, slowly and all at once, it became a nowhere place, somewhere I didn’t recognize.1 I stopped logging in because I no longer felt at home, but also because I was bored; whatever novelty it offered was no longer renewable.2
Maybe that’s just how living anywhere works: I find a new place, I’m drawn to it partly if not primarily for its novelty, I get used to it and learn the habits and cheat codes required to live there, I burrow into its layers and make a home, and then one day it’s gone. It still exists, but most things still exist after they’re gone; the form in which it exists now neither includes me nor moves me, so I go looking for the next new place. I summon up the desire for the new, now that the familiar is no longer on offer. I convince myself that novelty is what I was seeking all along. The whole thing starts over again, lurching toward the same familiar points on the same wheel.
We never really know when the world ends while it’s happening. The day after I made my first gmail account, I sent several emails about jobs, and then replied to the replies to those emails, and then I never used any other email address again. The version of myself that lived online had changed overnight from who I could pretend to be into who I already was. The unreal place where I had spent a decade inventing myself blinked out like a dead star and became part of everything else. Fantasy turned to fact, and a game of playing-pretend yielded to the reality of showing an ID card at the airport.
My life went on like normal, with no seeming change or noticeable rupture, except that every single thing was different. The internet was finally merely the world: Treacherous, un-magical, and profoundly consequential, full of documentation and tax forms and marriages. The world online, the one that once skittered to the corners when the lights came on, had moved into the daylight; it had closed the door to the haunted house and walked out into the marketplace. Life online was real the way a body is real, not the way a conversation is real. The wilderness had become the town.
The change was so large that it was impossible to perceive it as it happened. It was only much later when it occurred to me that something that had happened continuously for a long time was now over, and something else had begun. By the time I noticed the new thing, it wasn’t new anymore.
There was a new thing, and then there was another new thing, and then there was another new thing, and then there was another new thing, and each new thing said it was the only thing that had ever really been new. There’s another new thing now. This house, that looks like all the other houses in which I’ve ever lived, wants to sell me a new house. Every house is new; every place is new. Everyone you’ve ever loved is new every next time you see them, recreated between one eye-blink and the next. The internet was made to be a vehicle for novelty and to be a novelty itself. Now that it’s been around for so long, its insistence on novelty makes its cadences strange and its party games forced and try-hard. There isn’t really wilderness anywhere anymore, just other versions of every place where I’ve already been.
I don’t understand the internet, and I never have, not on any real, technical level. I've never been to the intersection of science and business; nobody knows me there. But its language has nevertheless seeped into my bones. I’ve lived online, for some value of lived, for some value of online, since I was a child.3 I learned its customs and manners and codes at the same time I learned the customs and manners and codes of being human.
I say all the time that I miss the internet, but I use the internet to say it. All I really mean is that I miss a different version of myself. I miss when I knew less; I miss when there was more time. Despite being engaged in the act of shedding at every moment from birth, we don’t notice what we’ve shed until no part of it clings to us any longer. This is merely forward motion— not a tragedy, not a triumph, not a hardship, and not a miracle. We live in planned obsolescence, learning the new technology just in time for the newer technology to outpace it and render those skills useless. Whatever I thought the internet was is already long over, something the newest generation of novelty seekers has never seen, and would likely not even recognize.
Anyway, my point here is that Substack has a new feature called Notes, which is more straightforwardly a social media feed than any part of Substack has been before. You probably already know about Notes, but if you don’t, or if you do but haven’t tried it yet, you should join me there. That’s my thesis, or at least I meant for it to be my thesis. This post was supposed to a brief, boilerplate hello welcoming you to Substack’s new (for some value of new) Notes feature, and encouraging you to download Substack’s app, if you haven’t yet, so that you can try out Notes.
Notes is basically Twitter except it’s Substack, although also it’s Tumblr in certain ways and also it’s, again, still Substack. It’s what everything is, trapped in this awkward era of social media in which the old forms are dying out, but the new ones haven’t yet fully arrived. It’s a novelty-seeking device, but so is everything. So is everyone, you and me and everyone we love, seeking novelty all day long, dogs with our noses twitching at a puddle on the ground.
The internet is still a means of eavesdropping, driven by the old, unkillable hope that, just this once, we might hear something we’re not supposed to hear. It’s channel surfing other people’s lives. It’s everyone you sort of know from the internet — remember the internet?— the names that recur like those naggingly recognizable character actors who show up in every TV show. It’s a listening device, a crowded street, the slurred voices four stories below my window in the hour after the bars close. It’s a long drive alone on a flat road between desolate towns with the radio dial scanning again and again for signs of life. It’s the corner at a party and it’s the center of a party, and it’s the party itself, and the upstairs fire escape behind the house where every fourth word from the party is audible and the slow dusk drags down the sky, in a midwestern city, in the green heartsick burst at the end of a long summer when you got nothing done.
Anyway, this newsletter is part of an app that now has a social feed in it and I genuinely like it so far, or at least I hate it less than all the other forms of novelty I keep in my phone. Notes is a new way to keep up with this newsletter, and I’m going to start figuring out some subscriber-only features and secret little rooms for paid subscribers using the app. It’s a good way to waste time, which is all the internet ever really is or has been, but only because, in the largest sense, rounding up, that’s all life is at all.
Come join me on Notes, if you’re not on there already; come download the Substack app if you haven’t tried it out yet. I’ll be there, on whatever new thing is new next, up late with the internet, trying to prod at it enough times that it gives up a hint of the old magic with which it was once so ripe that the fruit overwhelmed the trees. Come hang out with me in the new place that isn’t really new, before it becomes familiar, and then replaced, and we start the same dance over again. Come do a new thing, before the newest new thing gets old.
this is griefbacon’s weekly public essay (it’s not always like this but honestly it’s usually a little bit like this). it’s free for everybody, but if you enjoyed this, maybe consider a paid subscription to read extra content and help keep this project going.
This isn’t my twitter essay, I promise. I wrote that already; it’s here if you want to read it (honestly, I kind of love this one; I wrote it between midnight-thirty and four am and it reads exactly like that, which I think is appropriate to the subject matter. Whether that appeals to you is up to you.)
Many other people have written about this better than I have. Off the top of my head, and recently, I’m thinking of these two essays in particular, although there are doubtless many more at least this accomplished; one thing twitter was always good at was offering itself as a subject to people desperate for one.
I wrote this essay, about coming of age online, several years ago when AIM shut down, and I still like it a great deal, and not just because I got to ask all my friends to tell me what their first screen names were (there’s one story in here that maybe made me laugh harder than anything else ever has).