The art of optimizing one’s self for an online audience is hardly an obscure one. Just think of all the loyal followers one can groom on a daily basis simply by custom-fitting and (re)designing online posts to get their attention—make them believe they really do belong to the bigger picture that, more often than not, turns out to be someone else’s life context. Surveys‘ 20-something Colleen is exactly this—a mistress of content, both offline and online. In her pre-fame day life, she works at a survey research center in Tucson, cruising between people paid to take surveys about products they couldn’t afford in real life and work colleagues whose pettiness is difficult to ignore altogether. In her pre-fame nightlife, she sells her body just to see what it really feels like to be an affordable product. It’s also during this pre-fame era that she becomes the center of a peeping Tom’s attention, an objectification process she contemplates as if it were happening to another person until reporting it to police becomes the only solution. And somehow, she still finds time to tend to her social media accounts and online congregation. She posts updated entries, over-sharing her daily life in an uninterrupted search for attention and validation you could only guess from her frisky disposition, as the content of the entries is, shrewdly enough, left out of the text.
‘I was taught, by my father, to spend money when I had it. Otherwise, it could be taken from me by the government or by karma. Collecting money was a form of hoarding, and punishable by the spiritual world. I didn’t adhere to this doctrine completely, but my track record and my credit score reflected a carpe diem attitude.’
For Colleen, offline time has a syrupy consistence, with carefully concocted social interactions and high-school still working as a major reference. Once she gets to meet Jim, already famous on the Internet, Colleen’s life speeds up as she decides to move to L.A. This also marks the precise moment when she becomes more self-conscious and competitive, caught as she is by the merciless public gaze. It is against this exposed scenery that Jim and Colleen begin to fake their online relationship in a committed effort to entertain their followers and merge their streams of online followers—a kind of monetized foreplay. You don’t actually get to know exactly how these two managed to become famous in the first place. But this is a familiar pattern to anyone accustomed to the volatility of social media fame and this couple is no exception—they survey their target market and deliver the exact brand of coupledom the audience expects from them. Glamorous but without being too unattainable, theirs is the kind of pairing that solicits attention, followed by money—real, not bitcoin.
Because of Jim, I forgot I was an asshole, which made me even more of one. My friends became this mass of opinions that felt so malleable and untrustworthy, I forgot the conversations we had while they were happening and remembered only the screen, the numbers, the results, our exchanges.
But with Jim’s affair with another woman, Colleen’s narcissism and self-absorption begin to crack and loneliness and anxiety overwhelm her. Her real life doesn’t match the perfect appearance displayed by her social accounts. Suddenly, faking perfection is not so easy anymore. Stalking the other woman’s online presence for updates turns into a toxic addiction that delivers no respite for her growing insecurity. Made famous thanks to the affair, Lucinda comes across as being more real and critically engaged with what’s happening around her without forgetting—not even for a second— that she inhabits an online world that devours every piece of her content. It is only when Lucinda deletes every online trace of herself, seemingly without reason that Colleen becomes even more obsessed with her rival, refusing to believe that anyone that famous would want to give up everything that secures instant validation and monetized attention. Against this background of unfaithfulness and biased certainty that Jim isn’t exactly the alluring character that crops up from the internet, Colleen decides to stop hypercoding her real life sensations and translating her moods for everyone’s entertainment.
She was working on a book. I was sure it would be bad, but that she was working on it, not constantly publishing it, was the type of thing that kept me up at night. People work on things for years. People work on one thing, every day, without an audience.
Slowly, she returns to her pre-fame life, refusing to collapse under the pressure of her online notoriety—gaining a self-worth that has nothing to do with the fierce competition for attention and the empty validation provided by the Internet. By this point, it would probably be easier to completely dismiss Colleen as a shallow character, more interested in the way people perceive her than in her own substance. But that would be way too convenient and reductionist as well, as she constantly punctures her coming-of-age story with harsh insights that are anything but superficial. It’s her way of letting us know that after all, appearances have always been deceptive. It’s only towards the end that she becomes able to resist the compulsion to condense each real life experience into a digital counterpart.
‘I hadn’t been keeping up. The wolves were back and I felt I had to do some Internet searches by any means possible, in order to keep the dark thoughts away. I went to the bathroom again and locked myself in, crying with no tears, seeing vibrating green bubbles slip in through my eyes and out through my mouth.’
A diagram of digital celebrity and how it morphs in not-so-mysterious ways, Surveys is also about deliberately performing oneself on multiple levels but mainly as the object of others’ attention. Colleen’s personal brand might be cut-and-dried with delicate yet surgical precision but it still manages to exude both genuine shallowness and critical awareness in an incipient stage. And despite its seemingly volatile meaning and detached tone, Surveys comes with an abrasiveness that doesn’t allow you to rub off the sense that online life is, at the end of the day, just indexable content.
Natasha Stagg is a senior editor at the fashion magazines V and VMAN. She has received a Hopwood Award for nonfiction and the Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship and the James H. Robertson Award for fiction. Her essays have appeared in Dis magazine, Dazed, Kaleidoscope, Riot of Perfume, Sex, The Brooklyn Rail, and Bomb. She lives in Brooklyn
M H used to write for what used to be Bookslut and is currently cross-stitching Dissonances at Drunken Boat.
Surveys is published by Semiotext(e). Author bio courtesy of the same.