8 Essays on Social Media

Welcome to Laundry List, yet another Wildchild column, which is essentially a list masquerading as an article. Call it a listicle, if you will. What is a laundry list exactly? It is defined as “a long or exhaustive list of people or things.” We’ve deliberately kept the column title vague so we can talk about anything that tickles our fancy. No refunds if the list is not long or exhaustive. 

This time, I present some thought-provoking essays on social media, which I love to hate and also can’t quit!! Since the list is pretty long, it got a bit unwieldy when I offered too much commentary. So here’s my attempt at distilling the essence of the articles:

#1. Not at fashion week

by Haley Nahman for Maybe Baby

Three weeks ago, my favorite writer asked for writing prompts and I happily obliged. At that time, I was working on my essay about feeling the pressure to cultivate an online presence in order for my work to gain more visibility. So I replied that I would love to know her thoughts on the concept of the writer-influencer and how necessary self-promotion is for writers today.

Last week, I got part of what I asked for when she published an essay about how her relationship with social media changed over the years. She writes about being less online now even though she knows that milking her online identity increases her marketability as a writer.

Here’s my favorite excerpt from the piece (the second line explains why the concept of online dating feels particularly fraught to me, while the third reminds me of the hedonic treadmill):

There is no mere existence on the internet. There is no being known for who you idly or incidentally are. You have to show up and beg to be loved, then beg to be loved again, but for newer reasons.

#2. Going Postal

by Max Read for Bookforum

This award-winning essay is actually a review of Richard Seymour’s book, The Twittering Machine. Published after the height of the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2020, Read writes, “The main purpose of social media is to call attention to yourself, and it was hard to think of a worse time to be doing so. […] The already paltry rewards of posting disappeared, while the risks skyrocketed. And yet: people kept on going.”

Have a peek at his provocative thesis:

What if the urge lurking behind our compulsive participation in the Twittering Machine is not the behavioralist pursuit of maximized pleasure, but the Freudian death drive—our latent instinct toward inorganic oblivion, destruction, self-obliteration, “the ratio”? What if we post self-sabotaging things because we want to sabotage ourselves? What if the reason we tweet is because we wish we were dead? […] What the Twittering Machine offers is not death, precisely, but oblivion—an escape from consciousness into numb atemporality, a trance-like “dead zone” of indistinguishably urgent stimulus.

#3. Why Twitter’s New Interface Makes Us Mad

by Kyle Chayka for The New Yorker

On how social media redesigns disorient and manipulate users and “often route us toward the most convenient or monetizable option for the business.” He also quotes Walter Benjamin, which seems like a prerequisite for cultural critiques — not that I’m complaining.

#4. The Anxiety of Influencers

by Barrett Swanson for Harper’s Magazine

This long-form essay was recommended by Rayne Fisher-Quann through her newsletter, internet princess. According to her, it went viral on TikTok, which makes complete sense because it was probably promoted by the TikTok-famous teens whom the writer shadowed at a content house in Los Angeles.

Not to sound like an English professor or anything, but as a professor of English, I can’t help thinking of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin suggests that fascistic governments aim to maintain the status quo by providing citizens with the means to express themselves aesthetically without reforming their lives materially. Thus the aforementioned government that Brandon thinks TikTokers have scared shitless actually, as Benjamin writes, “sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses—but on no account granting them rights.”

Lots of insights to be gleaned from this piece. Another observation he articulated was how the creators treated him with the same “backslapping effervescence” that they were accustomed to performing because their success depended on their likeability to brands and followers alike.

#5. TikTok and the Fall of the Social-Media Giants

by Cal Newport for The New Yorker

An interesting analysis of how legacy platforms like Twitter and Facebook no longer monopolize the attention economy. This article explores how their heavy reliance on social graphs for engagement is a strategy that TikTok does not prioritize given that “the short-video format grabs the user’s attention at a more primal level, relying on visual novelty, or a clever interplay of music and action, or direct emotional expression, to generate its appeal.”

#6. Who Would I Be Without Instagram? 

by Tavi Gevinson for The Cut

At 12 years old, Tavi Gevinson rose to prominence because of her successful fashion blog, Style Rookie. This was back when bloggers first started getting invitations for fashion week, way before the word “influencer” was in our lexicon. Tavi explains how she participated in sponcon to fund Rookie, a now-defunct zine/site that she founded, and talks about how the making of art itself is often intertwined with self-promotion:

I don’t expect ever to fully unlearn the inner salesperson or the shareability lens, nor do I necessarily want to. The never-not-branding feeling of being on Instagram — and the seeing the world as a reflection of your brand, which comes with it — can also be part of being an editor or curator. Knowing you could always end up writing about what you’re experiencing is part of being a writer. Watching yourself within a moment can be part of acting and is certainly part of the self-promotion that comes with doing any of the above for a living.

#7. Tavi Gevinson and Natasha Stagg On Instagram, Incels, and Lana Del Rey

for Interview Magazine

Natasha Stagg is the author of Sleeveless, an essay collection that was inspired by the years she spent working in the fashion industry. This article is technically not an essay but a conversation between the two writers. They discuss Gevinson’s aforementioned article for The Cut and dive into the nuances of performance and authenticity:

GEVINSON: […] One thing I wish I’d clarified in that article is that I don’t think analog equals real and digital equals fake. Like, if something is shared publicly and online, I don’t think it should be considered strictly performance, or more performative than in-person behavior—or that performativeness is automatically fake. 
STAGG: You touched on this idea of the multiple selves that we all have. There is a way to represent yourself that feels, to you, more authentic, or like your real, true self, but that someone else would see and say, “That’s not how I see you. This is not the real you.” And so the more we get into the future of technology and AI, anything that questions the idea of what makes the true core of a person’s being…like, their social media output is more real or more emotional than their in-person actions. That’s very real. I think that that’s stigmatized in a way because it’s so connected to branding and big corporations owning your data. Which is true, but also, this is a way for some people who find their physical existences too painful to really work through. The way we live in physical reality is also governed by brands in so many ways that we’re not not buying into their version of culture by just living and wearing clothes and eating food or something. 
There’s not only one way to be a real person. And so you have created different versions of yourself, and none of those versions even match up to the versions of yourself that other people have created, and it just multiplies exponentially.

#8. The IRL Fetish 

by Nathan Jurgenson for The New Inquiry

An essay about our tendency to perceive the physical world as separate from the digital realm when they are in fact connected and how that has led us to fetishize the offline — guilty as charged!

Nothing has contributed more to our collective appreciation for being logged off and technologically disconnected than the very technologies of connection. The ease of digital distraction has made us appreciate solitude with a new intensity. We savor being face-to-face with a small group of friends or family in one place and one time far more thanks to the digital sociality that so fluidly rearranges the rules of time and space. In short, we’ve never cherished being alone, valued introspection, and treasured information disconnection more than we do now. Never has being disconnected — even if for just a moment — felt so profound.

I’m not fully convinced that “we can’t log off”, as Jurgenson writes elsewhere in the piece. Even if we only apply this statement to digital natives, the underlying assumption is that logging off is a temporary state that we are suspended in, which excludes those who are simply not that concerned with being plugged in. Also, I don’t think that our hyper-awareness of being disconnected is necessarily a bad thing, though I can see why any display of our resultant self-satisfaction can be irksome.


Writing this list inspired me to re-read How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell because I’m fully convinced that getting off social media — even as a passive consumer of content — would do me good. Oddly enough, it also reminded me that one of the things that I love the most about the internet is how it has given me access to writers, ideas, and an audience (you!) that I wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise.

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Feature collage by Sherryl Cheong

Sherryl Cheong

Sharer and carer of wildchild