The early era of the internet had all the qualities of a fetish. My first online experiences felt like a vaguely embarrassing secret, a vast and exciting anarchy. Real names were anathema. A real picture of a person from the internet was a #rare, voyeuristic thrill (the exact opposite of the familiar affection I feel looking at selfies now.)
My generation is the last one who will even remember living without the internet. And for people around my age in the lineup of underwhelmed-and-underemployed millennials, those memories are vague. We got dial-up when I was nine; my earliest memories of the internet involved spending an entire era of my after-school life on a website called HorseCity.com. Things spiraled outward from there, until I was 16 and spending a family vacation making out with a boy I met on a music forum while my parents went to SeaWorld.
Now 16-year-olds are writing literature on Tumblr. I've always been enamored with words and that vice eventually led me, at age 19, to the literary movement known as "alt lit": the beats 2.0 who were online and off-script. I stumbled across some of Tao Lin's poems on the internet and they felt like love letters to the details of my alienation; odes to an intense inner life writhing around inside a reality that was essentially banal and sad.
But then I went back to being a college student, reading the Bronte sisters and forgetting about alt lit until 2012, when I discovered that there's nothing like a tedious Young Female Desk Job to reacquaint you with the weirder, more obsessive corners of the internet. The scene had exploded while my head was turned: alt lit now had Vice columns, a dozen lit mags, a blog called "alt lit gossip." I would get to work every morning and read ten freewheeling poems and stories with my morning coffee; and if a lot of them sounded malcontent and filled with ennui, well…— #ditto.
Sometime around the end of the aughts, Bret Easton Ellis coined the phrases "Empire" vs. "Post-Empire" and nothing had ever fit so well. A word for the Grand Canyon divide in the timeline of our lives; a new binary that obliterated so many of the old ones. And swept up in this dustpan of crumbling Empire ideas is the old world's concept of literary merit, of what makes words worthwhile.
Alt lit is accused of navel-gazing myopia, but technically any writing occurring outside of traditional institutions qualifies for the label. Everyone I know has written alt lit: every status update, every blog post, everything that has ever been said on Twitter. And Twitter, unbeknown to Jonathan "$70 million in net worth" Franzen, is especially literary.
I'm not very good at tweeting but I love reading tweets. A cursory scroll of my timeline reveals tiny blips from a Muslim feminist writer, a handful of witty escorts, a Dominican tattoo artist, a high school senior, and Lena Dunham. The most brilliant thing about the site is that you can use it to get whatever you want; and what I mainly want, apparently, is to read other people's spinning thoughts in 140 characters or less.
There's an electricity inside these offered glimpses into other people's minds, and I like to be electrified. So if millennial writing has a distinct tendency towards the personal, towards the "you and I" — under these conditions, who can blame us? We've never had this kind of horizontal access to each other, our lives ("content") suddenly flung across an endlessly expanding array of digital mediums.
David Shields, co-author of Salinger – marketed as a biography of J.D. Salinger's "private world" — calls this phenomenon "reality hunger": as our exposure to each other has increased, so has our appetite for the real in its many incarnations. When every single person with Wi-Fi is a primary source with a platform, why would you do anything *but* write about your own experience of the world?
This impulse isn't limited to lowercase Tumblr poets in Brooklyn —- it's everywhere, in millennial writers of all stripes. It's no coincidence that the death of old journalism coincided with the idea of "objective" reporting being discarded as a lie worth telling. "Me" is now the default position and every word you read has a target demographic.
This sudden, universal entropy of the personal is like a fourth dimension, an alien ship that we don't know how to fly, and alt lit is literature's maiden voyage into space. You might think that it's bad art, but to call it narcissistic is as Empire as VHS.
Which brings me to Facebook. The most Empire of social networks, the most used and not coincidentally the most hated. My account used to be a graveyard full of irritating classmates, basic co-workers from jobs I quit, republican relatives I haven't seen in a decade. A couple dozen friends who "got it" were dotted like driftwood in an ocean of factory-farmed content.
There should be a word for the repulsive haze that folds over your brain when you're scrolling Facebook in an ugly mood; for when every stupid update from a person you don't actually like, every pretty picture of some nice-looking life feels like a paper cut to the face. Maybe there already is one: paranoia.
And then, a few months ago, I saw this on somebody's blog:
It made me laugh. I impulsively added "Heiko," — a pseudonym for a 20-something man in Chicago — as a friend and started seeing his aphoristic, aggressive prose in my Facebook feed every day. Choppy anecdotal poems and poetic anecdotes injected between pictures of "girls night!!!" and links to Upworthy.
One night, up late with Adderalled insomnia, I deleted or hid over half my Facebook friends, using a phrase by Blake Butler (found in a Thought Catalog article he wrote about Twitter) as my guiding mantra: I only want to see things that "produce a feeling that licks my blood."
There's an inherent sense of playfulness here, a veering vitality. This is writing that treats the internet as a form rather than just a medium — staccato thoughts perfectly calibrated to Facebook. His profile is a case study in how the internet, for those who are either young enough or adroit enough to adapt, increasingly functions as more than an extension of self, or even a phantom limb — it's a symbiotic relationship. A way to discover the self you want to express.
The novelist Rachel Kushner said, during an interview about her gorgeously sprawling novel The Flamethrowers, "I find people's firm and insistent grip on identity and origins to be sad and arch. Who knows what defines us? What interests me and excites me at a given time — that is what defines me."
The internet is dividing outward exponentially and every new possibility pops a new fissure in the Empire concept of identity; it's cracking open like a fault line and the earthquake's happening inside our lives. With the future wedged somewhere in between global warming and Google Glass, who knows what daily life will look like in 20 years? History is just another word for human nature and neither one is linear; even "expert" projections are just darts flung in the dark.
Buried underneath this generational impulse towards connectivity and documentation is a collective intuition that our situation is unique. That our sphere of circumstances have never happened before and will never happen again. And maybe every generation has felt like this, but we're the first ones to do so while pivoting through a tech revolution. It's a sea change that's ultimately experiential — when the kids being born this year become young adults themselves, I don't think they're going to recognize much about our 2013 lives.
And that, I think, is alt lit's most redeeming quality: the impetus to explore this realm of uncertainty. The writing that's been happening around the rise of the internet is a tiny explosion in the idea of possibility; of what words can be and do; of what words can do for you.
My favorite book review of all time is an Amazon customer review of Tao Lin's new book, Taipei. The novel is alt lit's magnum opus and crowning achievement so far, about a man in his late 20's living in a city and doing drugs and going to parties with his friends and slowly ruining his romantic relationships. It's undeniably boring and astoundingly beautiful.
The review, written by "JMR" and titled "Not for me,"- reads:
"I'm 74 and have lived in Maine for 40 years. I just could not relate to it. I did try."
I love this. I get this warm little rush every time I read it. Within the last 12 months on planet earth, a millennial man wrote a reactionary Vice article called "Alt Lit Is For Boring, Infantile Narcissists" and a 74-year-old Maineian read Taipei. And if "JMR" were willing to try Tao Lin, chances are there's something else in this new spaceship of words that would do more for him. He should try Twitter.