It’s Not the Internet, It’s You: Fake Accounts

Being meta is pretty much essential to the twenty-first century “novel.” So is exhibiting signs of “immediate retromania.” In the case of Fake Accounts (a non-risqué double entendre of a title), that means taking us “all the way back” to the Women’s March that transpired on Donald Trump’s inauguration day in 2017. As Lauren Oyler’s debut, Fake Accounts firmly establishes her place in the usual insular “New York circle” of what constitutes literature. It also emphasizes that all one really need do (at least, if they have the right contacts) to write a book is “dress up” their own life just a little bit, tweaking details here and there to make it seem more stylized and “titillating” than it really is. In short, the essence of social media. The very “tool” for which Oyler is coming for in this book. Or maybe not “coming for” it, so much as disconsolately accepting it while showcasing all of the ills associated with the medium. 

As you might know, it’s very twenty-first century to decry the twenty-first century, in addition to lambasting social media while simultaneously benefitting from it and also being “permitted” to succeed in an “industry” (that still wants to believe it is “literary,” but is actually an algorithm itself based on which “right people” know which other “right people”) solely and directly because of it. Oyler faintly disguises herself as the first-person narrator, who has recently discovered her boyfriend of barely two years, Felix (one of the biggest twat names for a “man”), is a faux right-wing conspiracy theorist online. That’s right, not even a real one, which is somehow lamer, but is necessary for Oyler to make her point about how anything and everything can be manufactured when you exist as an internet persona. After all, she would know better than most, what with having written for such a product of the millennial mind as VICE’s Broadly (RIP). Described as a website “devoted to representing the multiplicity of women’s experiences” and “dedicated to covering gender and identity,” one could see why Oyler might grow jaded about how impossible it is to reduce such “noble” concepts into “breezy,” “easily digestible” articles that never really made much of a difference. Her own protagonist also writes for just such a website and lives in New York. But to make things slightly more “interesting,” she has this boyfriend, Felix. With a conspiracy theory account, @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_, designed, basically, to prove his suspicion that people are as stupid and manipulable as he believes them to be. That the revelation of him being in charge of such an account occurs at the same time our narrator decides she ought to do her “womanly duty” and go to the Women’s March is meant to add further dramatic cachet and irony to the entire “ordeal.”

Oyler’s and the narrator’s perspective on the internet informs us, as if we did not already know, that it is an echo chamber, and none of us should throw our hat in…except those, like Oyler, who actually get a book deal out of it. Alas, to Oyler’s dismay (read: delight), it’s unlikely that the white noise will ever stop (unless the world experiences something like what happened in that South Park episode, “Over Logging”). Because the entire purpose of the internet, for most, is to stoke the ego. To feel heard, even when no one is actually listening because, well, there’s just too much to pay attention to, and most of it is saying the same thing anyway.

Speaking of the homogenization of how an experience is portrayed, what’s perhaps actually most vexing about Fake Accounts is Oyler’s constant portrayal of Berliners as layabouts and do-nothings. Well, of course, they seem that way to an American constantly burdened with having to pretend to do something marginal for an equally marginal salary. Is she as bad as Emily in Paris? No, but the so-called “authority” with which she describes Berlin, its gentrification and its “off-the-gridness”—peppering in details (the wasps, the stinging nettles) that will make her seem “wiser,” though, ultimately, we know she could have just looked up everything she needed on the internet—is nearly tantamount to Emily Cooper’s irksome depiction of a European city from such a myopic perspective. But then, the entire book serves to iterate that myopia is the great problem caused by the internet age. Plus, how can we doubt Oyler’s authority on Berlin when her author bio assures us that she divides her time between there and New York?

After “Beginning,” we get “Backstory,” during which we flashback two years to Berlin, 2015. Otherwise known as: a much simpler time. Undeniably so. David Bowie hadn’t even died yet—and, inevitably, Oyler’s narrator sees fit to mention him after she moves there, citing the Potsdamer Platz lyric from “Where Are We Now?” Irritatingly more esoteric than just alluding to something he wrote during his actual Berlin years, she instead chooses a song that reflects upon those years in a more general, all-encompassing manner. But, undoubtedly, the choice to use “Where Are We Now?” is so obnoxiously niche for a reason, what with Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, remarking of the single, “I think it’s a very reflective track for David. He certainly is looking back on his Berlin period and it evokes this feeling…it’s very melancholy…” Which brings us, somewhat unexpectedly (though not really) to Freud’s interpretation of melancholy in his essay, “Mourning and Melancholia.” To distill (because, as the internet has taught us, distilling is the name of the game) his thoughts on the “pathological” condition: “In melancholia, a person grieves for a loss they are unable to fully comprehend or identify, and thus this process takes place in the unconscious mind.” Forever haunting, invading. And Berlin is nothing if not a haunted city. The perfect place to “abscond” to when one is themselves haunted. Like say, by their boyfriend’s unexpected death in a biking accident right before she was planning to break up with him anyway. That “Where Are We Now?” is itself an existential question that extends into the realm of asking where a person really “is” when they’re “on” the internet, what Bowie (a pioneer of the internet medium himself) was actually ruminating on in this song was the formation of two separate and disparate Berlins: the one before the Wall and the one after. This is evoked in the lyric, “Twenty thousand people/Cross Bösebrücke/Fingers are crossed/Just in case.” Or, to apply it to this topic, the world before and after the internet. 

Talking of melancholia and that search for something that no longer exists (at least not as it once did—i.e. life after the internet), it bears bringing Cynthia Cruz’s The Melancholia of Class into a discussion of Fake Accounts. Oyler, like many authors of her kind, “touches on” the subject of something like class when mentioning a certain guilt about gentrification, yet never truly acknowledges her own place in it. In Cruz’s manifesto, she interweaves the narrative and characters of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir as examples of how a working-class person must create a construct of themselves in order to function in middle-class-driven neoliberal society, also highlighting the notion of how the privileged desire to be part of the suffering of the working class (despite it being a class they rarely acknowledge). As though to gain a modicum of “credibility” where their affluence does not provide it. The internet, in so many ways, has intensified this desire, as it’s “hard” for the middle class to drum up much struggle from behind the comfort of their own glowing screen. Or perhaps it’s even easier, as there is no one around to “fact check” their so-called struggle as told through a “moving” personal essay they were overpaid to contribute to somewhere like The New Statesman. But beyond just the wielding of identity for one’s own unique purposes, The Melancholia of Class applies to Fake Accounts in an entirely more nuanced way. With Cruz mentioning time and time again how the “art” of the present does not and never will challenge the status quo because it is hopelessly gatekept by the middle class. Especially the white middle class, try as they might to give a shit about “other” perspectives by insisting they’re “seeking BIPOC stories above all else.” Or rather, BIPOC stories as molded and fetishized by the white middle-class gaze. The gaze of someone who, say, went to Yale on a National Merit Scholarship and is from somewhere like West Virginia. Of someone who is afraid of being seen as “rich” just because she’s “unemployed” (a.k.a. how most writers—even well-paid ones—are viewed by non-writers). 

Another relevant statement Cruz makes with regard to Anthony in The Souvenir as it can apply to present internet “culture” is this: “Where the two concepts meet: authenticity versus a flat, superficial representation and Anthony’s own attempts at passing for what he is not, is the space where he cannot go.” In the internet sense, that “space” is the conduit, the interface that allows one to project a certain version of themselves that’s slightly glossier, more polished. Whether it’s through Twitter, TikTok or whatever else may come in the future, there will now perpetually be some virtual “apparatus” with which to create that flat, superficial representation. And yet, wasn’t there always some means of doing that “pre-technology”? Whether through letter-writing, putting on a “phone voice” or ensuring you looked “just so” before going into a public space where you might encounter someone from school. And even our narrator showcases that Felix already had a joie de vivre for lying to strangers who couldn’t otherwise question the backstory he presented them with. It occurs most glaringly on page seventeen of Fake Accounts, when he tells their waiter that his girlfriend has just been accepted into a PhD program at Harvard because he “liked to tell strangers little, inconsequential lies and build slightly alternate realities out of them, a game with no objective except to delight himself…” So: the essence of online behavior translated from “real life.” 

The narrator herself soon one-ups this form of self-delighting by trying on an array of personas (in an exasperatingly on-the-nose move, the narrator lists Persona as her favorite movie on the OkCupid questionnaire) once she moves to Berlin. To boot, she addresses them often in the book as “the ex-boyfriends” despite having gone on all of one date with each of them armed with a different moniker and backstory, finally deciding to wield personae like she’s exhibiting signs of the zodiac. And yes, Zodiac Dater could have worked as a title or title of a segment. Of course, we’re meant to see the narrator’s little “experiment” as a commentary on how everyone’s identity on the internet is nothing more than mere artifice (particularly those created on dating apps/websites)—and that everyone can be whatever/whoever they want to be (a.k.a. what moving to a big city was once supposed to achieve). And so, it would seem, we’re meant to respond to this type of metafiction with Lady Gaga-level enthusiasm by saying, “Talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show-stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before, unafraid to reference or not reference, put it in a blender, shit on it, vomit on it, eat it, give birth to it.” Indeed, there are many who would posit that Oyler has, like, “invented” a genre. Of the “thriller”-social media variety. But the truth is, as with everything, it’s all been done before. And post-(post)-(post)-(post)-(post)-(post)-modern ruminations on the dissatisfaction and anxiety of living in “late capitalist” society is something that was perfected long ago (e.g. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated CultureLondon Fields and Glamorama), in a magical decade called the 90s. 

It was 00s and 10s literature that sullied such work with offerings like Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life, Tao Lin’s Richard Yates and Jarett Kobeck’s I Hate the Internet (which, at the very least, doesn’t make New York a central backdrop [that was reserved more for The Future Won’t Be Long] and admits, “Most books are quite bad. Like this one. This is a bad novel”—and as such, takes itself off the hook for any pressure to be something beyond just mediocre: the benchmark of twenty-first century literature). The former two books wield twenty-first century internet interfaces as a storytelling device to convey something like existential dread, while the latter boils down Fake Accounts into one sentence, “The Internet was a wonderful invention. It was a computer network which people used to remind other people that they were awful pieces of shit.” Alas, this is the great problem with trying to wield anything like criticism in the current epoch. It’s automatically written off as “talking shit” or “being insecure about yourself” and taking it out on other people more “successful” than you. Naturally, people forget what a critique is meant to do, and will accuse this critique itself of being nothing more than “shit-talking” when, in fact, it’s an honest assessment of the book and the somewhat over-the-top accolades it has received. Something Oyler herself could surely appreciate from her erstwhile critic’s vantage point, as well as her Harriet the Spy stance on wanting to be talked about, even if negatively. Or, as Madonna once said, “It’s flattering to me that people take the time to analyze me and that I’ve so infiltrated their psyches that they have to intellectualize my very being. I’d rather be on their mind than off.” 

Like the Bowie song, other seemingly “off-handed” pop culture mentions that have weightier implications than might meet the eye are geared toward underscoring accoutrements of the millennial childhood. Of course, Harriet the Spy and, later, Furbies (a central component of a lie Oyler’s narrator tells to a “friend”)—both such willing references that Oyler makes to date herself in a manner that also simultaneously connotes the innocence of the millennial world pre-internet takeover. When their minds were “clean.” Then again, how could anyone’s mind be clean after seeing Michael Jackson say “my penis” on TV, the O.J. chase and subsequent trial, Bill Clinton’s infamous denial, MTV Spring Break or any other manner of “daytime” television? The myth of the internet destroying innocence (as spurred by Pam and Tommy’s sex tape) is just that. And we all use it time and time again as a means to blame what is actually the ugliness of human nature through a conduit that merely facilitates that ugliness at its most grotesque. At the same time, maybe even print tabloid “journalism” in the 00s still had the internet beat on hideousness as it drove the likes of Britney Spears to rightful madness with its “salacious” headlines.

With regard to Britney, shaming a woman for her sexuality continued well into 2013, when the aforementioned what purpose did I serve in your life was released by Tyrant Books. The autofiction that Marie Calloway was mocked for has been polished and “intellectualized” by the likes of Oyler into a new hybrid breed, bridging the “old internet” (pre-2015) with the new. Incidentally, the only recent information to crop up about Calloway is through a, oy vey, BuzzFeed article commenting on how she blazed a trail for a certain kind of internet-centric literary genre, as well as her current reclusiveness in the wake of being so public. In one paragraph, an unwitting assessment of the tried-on personas that Oyler’s character performs is made when it is said of Calloway’s current age: “She’s probably 30 or 31. No one seems to know for sure because no one seems to know Calloway’s birthday. Rachel Rabbit White, a writer, longtime friend, and erstwhile lover of Calloway’s (White told me they had matching necklace vials filled with each other’s blood), told me even Calloway herself doesn’t. ‘We both spent so long in [sex] work lying about our age that she would forget… She decided she was going to be a Scorpio but then forgot her actual sign.’” Believing the lie so badly in real life is harder to do than it is online. A testament to Calloway’s (not her real name) skill. 

Digging deep for sources to talk to about Calloway, the author of the article, Scaachi Koul, produces Brandon Proia, “an editor at the University of North Carolina Press and an old acquaintance of Calloway’s (according to him, they met on OkCupid).” How apropos for Fake Accounts. Per Proia, “I do think [Marie’s] work looks back at you. Which is why it’s hard to duplicate. It’s an inimitable thing. She was so fucking ahead of her time.” Or was she merely at the right place at the right time to find someone willing to publish her Tumblr and Facebook posts? Again, “talent” is extremely arbitrary in what Stephen Marche, when reviewing what purpose did i serve in your life, dubbed as part of the “‘Asperger’s style’ of literature, the mode of a small New York-based coterie of writers who specialize in disaffection and disconnection.” A “specialization” that makes such writing no less untenable. Koul then feeds into the message of Fake Accounts by inserting herself into the narrative to admit, “One thing Calloway likely understood earlier and better than almost anyone else was the cruel tides of the internet. And after experiencing intensely corrosive blowback, she simply decided to leave. Like everyone, I think about logging off most days. The more I stare at Twitter and worry about my least generous critics, the less I feel capable of cogent and publishable thoughts.”

What purpose does Fake Accounts serve in your life? Well, to accent the certain nihilism of a generation conditioned to be desensitized to essentially all stimuli, everything rendered devoid of meaning through repetition and the fact that there’s no “censorship” anymore on what should be deemed “publishable.” Maybe that’s part of the reason why the “heroine” has such a sociopathic reaction to Felix’s death. In some sense, she was already preparing to “kill him off” anyway—at least from her own life. And, as Chuck Klosterman (another pre-social media indicator of what was to come re: real vs. unreal, being “authentic” vs. a curated persona) stated in his Saved by the Bell essay, “Being Zack Morris,” we assume that just because people are “cut” from our lives (a precursor to “blocking”), they simply don’t exist anymore—because we really don’t think about them when they’re not around, or that it’s “odd” at all. It’s just what happens when, as Bueller said, “life moves pretty fast.” Such is the narcissism furnished by the solipsism-on-steroids of social media. But before that, Klosterman merely referred to it as the “Tori Paradox.” A paradox named for Tori Scott (Leanna Creel), a student at Bayside High who materializes solely to fill in the female void for Kelly and Jessie in their absence during season four. After an episode called “School Song,” she never shows up or is mentioned again. As Klosterman describes it, “On paper, this seems idiotic, borderline insulting, and—above all—unreal. But the more I think back on my life, the more I’ve come to realize that the Tori Paradox might be the only element of Saved by the Bell that actually happened to me. Whenever I try to remember friends from high school, friends from college, or even just friends from five years ago, my memory always creates the illusion that we were together constantly… Whenever I seriously try to piece together my past, I inevitably uncover long stretches where somebody who (retrospectively) seemed among my closest companions simply wasn’t around… Tori evaporated. Coming and going is more normal than it should be.” With the internet, IRL coming and going has translated to ghosting or breadcrumbing (both terms that Oyler’s narrator mentions as part of why the internet is a horror show she can’t help being a part of). 

Around the time when Klosterman was becoming more “widely known” with Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs in 2003, Zadie Smith was also making her name with 2000’s White Teeth. Ten years after this debut, she would still fall prey to the long-form essay writing game. And even as a Brit, she was another one of those “darlings” of the petri dish-sized literary world that exists in NY, therefore a natural choice to provide a small vote of confidence on the front cover of Fake Accounts, declaring, “This novel made me want to retire from contemporary reality. I loved it.” Smith herself was among the “original” hard-hitting appraisers of what the internet and social media hath wrought upon a generation, penning a lengthy essay in 2010, after the release of The Social Network, called “Generation Why.”

Among other conclusions drawn, she determined (at a time when Facebook was more pertinent to youths), “Finally, it’s the idea of Facebook that disappoints. If it were a genuinely interesting interface, built for these genuinely different 2.0 kids to live in, well, that would be something. It’s not that. It’s the wild west of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul… Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind… Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what ‘friendship’ is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?” To be honest, life looks ridiculous in all formats. And, depending on your perspective, it can seem even more ridiculous based on the time you came of age in. Obviously, we think the “cave man” way of life was ridiculous, wearing powdered wigs was ridiculous, putting a wax cone on your head to conceal body odor was ridiculous, using a Mid-Atlantic accent was ridiculous. Life at every stage in time is, that’s right, ridiculous. But at least the internet can provide a more self-aware spotlight on that ridiculousness. Because everyone knows that self-awareness is still a get out of jail free card. 

But no, Smith is of the doom and gloom camp when it comes to appraising the internet: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.” All of that was already lost when twentieth century office work was invented. 

“Eerily foreboding,” Smith stated, “Maybe the whole Internet will simply become like Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous” (what Bret Easton Ellis also summed it up as in White). Or rather than being “eerily foreboding,” was it merely Smith marking the moment when we transferred our “slickly disingenuous” behavior in real life to a more effective medium to convey that slick disingenuousness. As for the increasing chicness of displaying contempt for the internet (via articles called things like, “How To Disappear From the Internet Completely”) in general and social media specifically, one has to wonder if this anger over “wasted time” isn’t somewhat misplaced. Maybe the scapegoats of social media and doom scrolling are all we currently possess to tell ourselves now that, if we didn’t have it, we “coulda made somethin’” out of our lives, ourselves. But no, that’s not really the internet’s fault. It’s still on us. And if Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t been the one to initially lead us down the primrose path, it would have been somebody or something else. Even Oyler herself remarked, in an essay that was sort of like a blueprint for Fake Accounts, “…procrastination expands to fill the space life provides; if I were writing to you from 1880 or 1930 or 1975, I probably would have spent all the time I used this week to collect retweets and passively monitor the online activities of people I’ve never met to instead pace or stare at the wall or flip through old photo albums or call my friends on the phone or whatever else it is they did to procrastinate…” But of course, anybody could remind that at least those “activities” involved some sort of communion with the “real world.” 

With the total lack of empathy one feels for the narrator in Fake Accounts (explained with the ongoing logic, “That’s the point”), it goes without saying that it already takes a very specific kind of reader to “relate” to this sort of “protagonist.” Obviously, someone white, middle-class and faux “well-traveled.” Not to mention someone with a vested interest in the hyper-“niche” New York “literary” world. Without at least ticking one of these boxes, it would be difficult for any reader to wait the duration of the book for the big “payoff.” Which is, shock, Felix actually faked his own death as part of some grand “artistic” statement on, in a nutshell, how much more meaningless one is rendered as a result of social media. Not just because you’re not “real” when presented on it, but because people are actually so much more invested in what’s going on within the “realm” of the screen than actually taking the time to, say, “tangibly” mourn (instead posting on what effectively become “memorial accounts” to express grief). Hence the narrator’s decision to skip the funeral and assume the one thousand dollars given to her by “Felix’s mother” was something like “sympathy money,” as opposed to cash for the cost of airfare to get to the funeral in Los Angeles. Land of Lana Del Rey. A millennial spokeswoman herself who refuses to believe in her own persona, as evidenced by the venomous quote she directed at a music critic in 2019: “Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” The rather insane assertion (for no millennial, famous or otherwise, has been able to avoid an at least vaguely cultivated persona thanks to the internet) was met with some rightful responses, like “laughable.” 

Maybe even Bret Easton Ellis was laughing. He who, as mentioned above, somehow forged more of a path about the key issues with social media and false personae in his last “treatise,” White, essentially a series of essays lambasting millennials who feel the need to post everything, even if it’s not very good. Or relevant in any way. As he put it, “Unlike any previous generation, they had so many outlets to display whatever they wanted (thoughts, feelings, art) that it often went—unfettered, unedited—instantly and globally everywhere, and because of this freedom (or lack of any restraints at all), a lot of the time it tended to seem rushed and kind of shitty, but that was okay. It’s just the nature of things now, for everybody.” Low benchmark equals low expectations that will only further crystallize throughout the coming decades. 

Before Oyler and Fake Accounts, Easton Ellis declared, without the guise of narrative fiction, that everyone has succumbed to turning themselves into a more “likable” version of who they really are for the sake of online appearances. He was also sure to add of the generation, “They don’t care about literature. None of them read books. Where is the great millennial novel? There isn’t one.” Just “smart,” “well-reviewed” ones published by one of the any number of “small” presses that are actually quite clout-laden in New York (read: Brooklyn). 

But even a Brooklyn-centric show like Search Party does a better job as scathing commentary on millennial (and now, Gen Z) narcissism as spurred by internet “culture.” Or Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, for that matter, complete with an episode sardonically called, “Social Media is a Great Way to Connect,” summarized as follows: “Arabella’s bloated social media presence finds her more glued to her phone than ever, internalizing the stress of her followers.” This after another episode concluding with her experiencing the transitory dopamine rush of getting hundreds of “hearts” on a post that start to visually pop out from the screen and onto her. As though this form “love” could ever actually be “enough” to sustain a person. And yet, because so many believe that’s the case (especially “influencers” and autobiographical writers), they can’t understand why they still feel so hollow despite all the follow. 

In any event, perhaps, like Yes, DaddyFake Accounts could be more effective as a limited series. The new Great American Novel. 

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