#48: The culture of confession.

What happens when you compulsively document everything about your personal life?

Some very messy notes on being a millennial trapped in adolescent self-discovery forever.

I have this hunch that the emotional landscape of the Internet—particularly the internet before Big Tech included social media—isn’t well-documented. Memes and trends, sure, but not the texture of how people were feeling. Certainly, some people have tried, but my sense is that it hasn’t been done at the scale or the level of detail it should be.

If my hunch is correct, there are a lot of reasons why this might be true.

One, it could just be that the emotional character of history is inherently difficult to capture. How do you crystallize how people were feeling? My understanding of previous eras is that we rely on oral histories, diaries, memories of memories, and conjecture.

Two, it’s too easy to dismiss the Internet’s impact as throwaway, unless there is some clear political motivation to do otherwise. In my lifetime, the Internet and Internet culture has always been understood as separate from our meatspace lives, and when not separate, a cancer.

I think we’re just now (and barely!) accepting that it’s interwoven with who we really are, how we navigate the world.

Throwaway culture: commodification of the socialite

A useful, and I’m going to apologize in advance, also tired, analogy here might be early 2000s (2002-2006) reality TV culture.

At the time, the commodification of the socialite, then referred to as ‘famous for being famous,’ was dismissed as an unimportant phenomenon, even a nuisance. “No one is going to remember Paris Hilton in a hundred years, who cares?” Here we are fifteen years on, and she remains an important pivot point in American culture.

Of course, now it’s obvious that you can’t fully appreciate Donald Trump’s presidency without also understanding the McAristocracy that began to accelerate during that moment in time. And when you dig even deeper, you realize that it’s not just Donald Trump either.

Nor is it just Kim Kardashian, or Kanye West, or the Influencer Cottage Industry that’s a product of the 1970s nostalgia that helped shape this new way of consuming the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. It’s a whole confluence of changes that we still feel today. It goes without saying: important to keep a record of these things. Not just that they’re happening, but how people felt about them as they were happening. We can’t rely on our memories alone.  

I understand the temptation write these things off. There were other much more serious events going on during the early 2000s, that eclipse Paris Hilton by orders of magnitude. But you have to wonder, at what point does documenting culture become important if everything is being dismissed as a footnote? Anyway, I digress.

The culture of confession: 2008-2015

Let’s talk about another moment in time. The title of this piece. What I’m going to call the culture of confession.

The Culture of Confession was a countercultural attitude (movement?) that existed approximately between 2008 and 2015.

In my opinion, this attitude started to really take shape when Facebook became slightly more mainstream. It was marked by a self-conscious, self-effacing oversharing that existed in contrast to the more sincere, though very self-unaware oversharing that began to happen with the novelty of social media.

Where your wino aunt might sincerely give too much information about her failing marriage, the ironic confessional Facebook user would post fifty consecutive Facebook statuses documenting his or her LSD trip live. Or perhaps post something about a recent sexual escapade, both gory and abject.

I think we’d be doing history a disservice not to understand this as a kind of avant-garde, at a bare minimum an artistic statement, even if not everyone participating was an artist. Lots of real artists and writers did come out of this scene though, and I think that’s well worth noting during this period you see the rise of alt lit and people like Mira Gonzalez, Tao Lin, Marie Calloway, Rachel Rabbit-White, and Bunny Rogers, to name a few.

You also see attempts to somehow capture the momentum through monetization: xoJane and Thought Catalogue.  

Eventually this attitude became cool, and people were embracing not only being a hot mess, but sharing it compulsively. You weren’t just sharing it compulsively though, you were in some sense gambling. Maybe this would make you a serious writer, artist, or personality, too.

Here’s the thing though: because this was youth-led, nobody had the foresight to realize that maybe this level of documentation wasn’t a good idea. It’s not just that what you post online can be used against you, or could impede your professional life (these things were well-known at the time though).

It’s that trends change. I believe that a lot of people felt they could will their way into it working for them eventually, that they could keep sharing until they could cash out. And then there’s also the fact that there’s a real impact to spending ~7 years of your life compulsively sharing everything with the people around you. When you change, there’s no moving on. You can put something behind you, but can everyone else?

Disembodied voices, rhetorical strategies, and a tangent I’ve got to document somewhere

This form of expression came to rise in sharp contrast to the very sincere oversharing that normies were doing on social media.

People were oversharing in the counterculture too, but it was considered disembodied. A sort of nihilistic detachment from what was happening to you, even though many of the things described should be deeply emotional experiences. I think somewhere someone even called the books that were born from this attitude Asperger’s lit.

What’s interesting is that I think there’s some good evidence that this kind of posting began as a rhetorical strategy, but overtime, became more sincere.

People were both giving away real parts of themselves, but also putting some emotional distance between themselves and what they were posting.

But then, finally, after sincerity, it became a product.

I have never seen this documented, but there are a number of other rhetorical strategies that became more popular during this time went through the same transformation.

It was around this time that broad stroke statements like, “All white people are the same,” or “White people don’t use spices,” started to infiltrate more mainstream (as opposed to Very Online) conversations.

Now, bear with me here.

Something like the first fifty times I saw someone use a phrase like that it was in direct response to something like, “All POC are the same,” or self-consciously parodying that kind of reductive language. It was not meant to be taken literally. It was a deliberate play on words to underscore how ridiculous racist language is. That was conscious.

Over time it became literal—like, between 2010 when I started seeing it, and 2017.

Sex work and the culture of confession

An interesting quirk of the culture of confession is how it dovetailed with the growing acceptance of sex work.

People often ask me how it is I know so many sex workers despite never having done sex work myself. This sliver of time is why.

Suddenly, everyone I knew was doing sex work, micro-blogging about sex work, sharing their sex work experiences quite openly. I don’t want to say it was encouraged, or even glamorized per se. But it was presented as an option in a way I hadn’t seen presented as an option before.

I noticed a mix of things happening here:

You had seasoned sex workers who were sharing invaluable resources with people. But you also had this new cohort of sex workers, who were mostly young women, who may not have gone into sex work had they not had this exposure. I’m not making a moral judgment here, I’m just remembering my own experiences, and the decisions close friends of mine were making.

I also wish there was just more information about this! I’ve spoken to quite a few people who remember this shift, who remember how suddenly everyone was escorting.

In certain circles, there was a certain currency to doing sex work that felt new. But there were so many other things that were being given this currency, the more we shared—

  • Nobody wanted to look like they had any money, abjection was hip.

  • People started reaching into their past and heritages, looking for differentiating factors—suddenly, the one Latin grandparent you had was enough to color how you viewed yourself.

  • More and more people started to label their sexual and gender identities more granularly.

(Another earmark and not necessarily a fully-fleshed out thought here: selling your interior life and selling your body have a lot in common. I don’t think it was an accident both of these became more accessible or visible or popular following 2008.)

Conclusion

At different times, I’ve proposed different theories about this kind of online behavior: a bat signal to people with shared trauma as a form of community building in the absence of more stable and reliable communities; a form of first differentiating yourself from competitors in a market, and then selling the most intimate parts of yourself; a reaction to a number of cultural and political factors, e.g. an embrace of the shitty hand millennials had been dealt.

I believe all of these are true, I also don’t think I’m done synthesizing the deeper implications of what happened during these years. It’s hard when any one individual actor or company or book doesn’t make a huge impact on its own, but the impressions of all of it together are still visible.

There’s so much more I want to say here, but I’ll need more time to meditate on it. Consider this post a roadmap for future ones.