Collaboration and Connection in Social Media Literature
The pandemic has forced us to conduct our relationships in ways that foreground the ambivalence of the 21stcentury digital network’s effects on human connection. Our ability to remain in touch with loved ones stranded overseas is concomitant with “Zoom fatigue”: the network facilitates intimacy over long distances even while it makes intimacy seem ever more distant. Nonetheless, authentic and intimate connections remain possible online albeit in novel and highly mediated forms. Of note are social media literatures ranging from fiction blogs to writing subreddits to “Twitterature”. In contrast to conventio- nal narrative forms, wherein reading is private and predetermined writing is addressed to readers who cannot technically respond, social media literature engages in discursive storytelling. Abstracting from prior research into communal, campfirestyle urban legend and horror storytelling on Reddit’s r/NoSleep forum, this presentation elucidates such discursive literary practices by conducting a close reading of paratextual comments sections and demonstrating how narratives develop out of and simultaneous to collaborative authorreader relationships. Accordingly, we understand social media literature as the product of intersubjective and egalitarian authorreader poiesis that can be understood through what Grant Kester has termed “dialogical aesthetics”. Thus identifying social media literatures as sites of creative communion, this presentation also emphasizes the depth of human connection made possible by collaborative storytelling online. Despite the apparent detriments digital connectivity has for genuine connection, authentic relationships persist within the network, only in unfamiliar forms; while relation- ships between profiles and avatars rather than people remain ultimately equivocal, storytelling at least remains a way for us to relate to each other intimately online.
Common wisdom teaches us to beware the incremental and seemingly irreversible slide to FaceTime from actual face time, the migration of human interaction into the ether of the World Wide Web. We are, by now, familiar with the rhetoric of the doomsayers: in developing a dependence on—and, indeed, great comfort with—the digital network’s facilitation of our interactions with other human beings, we risk eventual, profound alienation from “real” people and in turn risk losing the ability to connect with one another. Numerous Cassandras, from broadsheet op-ed writers to ironically anti-social media social media content creators, warn tirelessly against our apparent contemporary (over)reliance on the technological mediation of our interpersonal relationships; academe too boasts several voices in the choir albeit with the apposite reflexivity. In the introduction to the tellingly titled volume Young People and the Smartphone (2022), sociologist Michela Drusian acknowledges the “fierce debates on the harmful effects of [digital network devices] on interpersonal relationships and on the psychological balance” (2). “In our [present] state of deep mediatization,” Drusian writes, “in which smartphones have become common technological prostheses, fears of their effects on the personalities and identities of the younger generations have been growing” (4).
Arguably one of the most prolific among these portentous voices is Sherry Turkle’s. In 2011, Turkle published Alone Together, an imploring polemic that examines “how we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face” and how, “[a]s we instant-message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude” (11). In her conclusion, Turkle appeals for us to make the conscious effort not to subtend our relationships to social media lest “we expect more from technology and less from each other” (295). And while Turkle’s views have been criticised for their totalising pessimism, even more moderate perspectives express great ambivalence towards the digital network’s intervention in and mediation of our relationships (Drusian 2022, 4). If, then, according to extant research the digital network already threatens to attenuate our real-life relationships, how well do we and can we truly know the friends we make online?
From the moment online-only relationships became a possibility, the popular imagination was wary—moreover, it was unabashed about expressing this wariness, that is, across a host of entertainment media primed to galvanise our apprehensions towards the still somewhat obscure apparatus of digital communication. In film, one of the earliest examples addressing, among other digital-oriented anxieties, the potential for one’s identity to be decimated as a result of an exclusively digital social life is Irwin Winkler’s The Net (1995). Naturally, since the advent of contemporary social media with Facebook’s public listing in 2004, numerous other more and less nuanced commentaries on twenty-first-century digital social life have emerged to participate variously in what Daniel Powell (2018) has referred to as “technohorror”: films like Levin Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2014) (which also pioneered the “screenlife” format) as well as documentaries like Felicity Morris’s Tinder Swindler (2022) and Choi Jin-sung’s Cyber Hell (2022) explore the real and fictional horrors stemming from online relationships-gone-wrong. For similar trends also exist outside of film, the effect is a pervasive present-day web of readily available media that ceaselessly forewarns against the “unreal” and thus potentially dangerous acquaintances we make online.
A significant portion of this mediascape is constituted by peculiar and ostensibly more obscure literary artefacts known colloquially as “creepypastas.” This cult genre of horror writing has been characterised by internet folklorists as the urban legends of the social media era: short, chilling tales designed for the digital network’s global campfire and specifically to be shared like early-internet chain email curses (Henriksen 2018, 267-69; Kvistad 2020, 959). Unsurprisingly, a good many creepypastas tell of online acquaintances who turn out to be malicious, sometimes supernatural entities. An especially relevant (and recent) example is a story posted to Reddit’s horror fiction forum (“subreddit”), r/NoSleep, by user u/mrmichaelsquid entitled “I Finally Saw My Online Girlfriend” (2021). Operating according to r/NoSleep’s overarching premise, as stated in the forum’s rules, that “Everything is true here, even if it’s not,” the story is a parable told in the form of a first-person account, extolling the dangers of being catfished—that is, being deceived or misled by an online user who has assumed a false identity, occasionally in order to perpetrate a scam. The author-protagonist describes his romantic pursuit of a female user he meets in an MMORPG (massive multiplayer role-playing game) which culminates in his discovery, upon their arranging to meet in person, that she had long been dead, and that his interactions were with her killer. u/mrmichaelsquid’s story effectively adumbrates what researchers like Cosimo Scarcelli (2022) have discovered, that increasingly global scepticism towards online relationships are “bound up . . . with the fear of false profiles or potentially dangerous people” (35). As with the aforementioned cinematic examples, “Online Girlfriend” therefore suggests that the people we meet online cannot be trusted, and that all such relationships are likely to be inauthentic—perhaps even monstrous—because we cannot verify these individuals’ real-life identities.
Indeed creepypastas which explore the hazards of online relationships are horrifically potent because they trade in not a little truth. Even if we have never fallen prey to catfishes or alleged refugee princes purporting to need help moving vast amounts of money, we have seen the emails and text messages, or we know someone who knows of someone who was a little too trusting. Creepypastas of the sort, however, particularly effect a unique hermeneutic paradox whereby their oft moralistic anti-social media invective is undercut by the interactive, participative, collaborative, and vibrantly social forms of reading they demand. There exists a unique contradiction which arises between “Online Girlfriend’s” cynicism towards social media and how the story actually engages its audience: through r/NoSleep’s forum-based modality, readers express concern for the author-protagonist; they commiserate their own experiences making and sometimes losing online friends. In their responses to the text, they establish an ad hoc online community—despite having just read warnings against the same. It is on this contradiction that the remainder of this paper will focus as I propose we reconsider the common wisdom that advocates pessimism towards relationships forged online. By examining the unique commun(al)ity that Web users build with one another when they participate in the discursive storytelling of social media literature, I argue that when readers collaborate, with the author and each other, to tell stories and develop narratives, they build shared albeit fictional spaces in which their common stake allows for genuine relationships. Following a broad survey of the digitisation of reading and literary consumption as sociocultural practices, this paper undertakes a close reading of a serial story on r/NoSleep entitled Has anyone heard of the Left/Right Game? (2018), paying particular attention to its comments sections.
That reading is a private activity is a commonplace in both popular and academic thought. Owen Tregaskis notes that “we talk about getting ‘lost in a book’, and only when a book is read aloud do we speak of ‘sharing the experience’” (1985, 38); J. Charles Alderson observes that “[r]eading is, for many people, an enjoyable, intense, private activity…in which one can become totally absorbed” (2000, 28). Phrases and words like “getting lost” and “absorbed” in turn point to notions about the “transporting capacities of literary form” (Knight 2016, 435), going as far back as to the eighteenth-century “science” of reading, where transportation as such connotes our intensely personal engagement with literature, to the extent we imaginatively “enter” the fictional worlds of the books in which we bury our noses. Certainly, the still-familiar Romantic image of the lone reader, momentarily dead to the real world, established itself in around the 18th century and today remains present in popular consciousness.
In the wake of the new millennium and its technologies, however, reading has changed. Increasingly literary media join in the migration from analogue to digital forms; more and more, we are reading not print on the page, but bits and pixels on the screen. As literary media scholar N. Katherine Hayles observed, these ideas are “shot through with unrecognized assumptions specific to print” (68). For, since the late twentieth century, reading and writing have gradually expanded beyond the printed page, we must update our understandings of literary engagement to account for the “complications” introduced by “the new medium of electronic textuality [which] vibrantly asserts its presence” (68). In the present-day digital landscape, populated with networked media most if not all of which are broadly encompassed by the term “social media,” a significant part of these “complications” is the mediated presence of other people, simultaneously reading and writing, and in ways that affect each other in real-time.
This is the premise of “social media literature.” Today, speaking of reading in terms of electronic re-presentations of the printed page—PDFs, e-books, Word documents—is already insufficient; in fact, we read on a dizzying array of interactive, “living” platforms: blogs, messenger apps, fora, message boards, feeds of all sorts. If even prior to the era of social media, scholars have already insisted that “reading is not the private activity of an isolated consciousness but a deployment of conventions for understanding which help to define the reader’s social being.” (Armstrong 1994, 1), today the imperative rings ever more urgent. Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp (2017) note that individuals today experience the “consistent ‘presence’” of members of their community “through mobile phones and other devices” which now take over from the print-and-paper media of the 19th century and earlier, only at a much greater intensity by “offer[ing] manipulable interfaces with the world” (§8.1, original emphasis). The question, therefore, is not of whether the nature of reading has changed, but how it has already changed in this shift from the privacy of one’s encounter with the book-bound text to the inescapably public fora of cyberspace.
By adumbrating the transformation of reading into a communal practice, where once it was a solitary activity, social media literatures represent just one example of how many seemingly solitary aesthetic practices are developing social aspects in the course of their translation into and onto digital formats and platforms. Concomitantly, this expansion of the fields of aesthetic, and creative, sociocultural practice and performance serves ostensibly to refute at least some of the popular anxieties regarding the detriments that the web promises our real-life relationships: on social media, the Romantic figure of the lone artistic genius refracts through screen and network into a myriad agencies collaborating, rather than competing, to produce material culture.
As specifically regards the question of how exactly reading has changed, social media literatures, this paper argues, promise to reconfigure the literary economy into a system of collaborative textual production and consumptions—a system, moreover, characterised by its intense communality, in contrast to common wisdom vis-à-vis the alleged loneliness of web-based interaction. In other words, the participation in social media literary practices by user-authors and user-readers alike—participation by the latter which far exceeds mere liking and sharing—effect ingenuous communities motivated and in-formed by their common investment in the given text/s. The remainder of this paper defends this thesis by explicating its case study, a close reading of the heretofore mentioned Left/Right Game series by Reddit r/NoSleep user u/NeonTempo (Jack Anderson), which examines how user-readers are implicated in literary production alongside user-authors even as they consume the text, and thereby illuminates the potential for authenticity in web-based relationships as construed according to the digital network’s particular context.
Beginning already with the titles of u/NeonTempo’s posts (and which also name the series), Anderson enlists user-readers as collaborators in the making of his fiction, first of all, by asking the question “Has anyone heard of the Left/Right Game?” Left/Right Game, then, presents itself as a plea for help as u/NeonTempo, the otherwise unnamed protagonist narrator, describes in the series’ first instalment his perplexity upon receiving “a stack of text files,” ten in total, in a “suspicious” email with “no [body] text, no subject, and no sender’s address” (Anderson “Part 1”); user-readers are thusly invited to participate in u/NeonTempo’s investigations. As u/NeonTempo relates that the files once belonged to his estranged friend, Alice Sharma, an investigative journalist who has now gone missing, we are given the impression—reinforced by the post’s enquiring title—that we have as much information as he. We learn the files are in fact Alice’s draft scripts for an unfinished documentary project in which she attempts to investigate a mysterious and little-known urban legend called The Left/Right Game. In reading Alice’s transcripts, u/NeonTempo discovers the supernatural overtones of the situation in which he now finds himself, and therefore turns to r/NoSleep for help, for “[t]he people who suggested this forum said [they] discus strange occurrences” (“Part 1”). Necessarily observing r/NoSleep’s “Everything is true here” rule, the conceit of Anderson’s story is that his narratorial persona is genuinely seeking assistance, and this premise thus develops over ten separate posts by the user u/NeonTempo, each of which consists of an update on the ongoing search for Alice followed by a transcription of one of said draft scripts.
However, in addition to investigating alongside u/NeonTempo in his search for Alice, and, indeed, alongside Alice, in her search for answers to a supernatural mystery, user-readers who engage with Left/Right Game in good faith also come to inhabit its fictional world. This world, which we shall refer to henceforth as the diegesis, is an epistemological plane of plausibility built not only upon the story’s premise in the context of r/NoSleep’s specific rules, but upon the pervasive ambiguity of information which comprises the web. Like many other r/NoSleep stories and creepypastas more broadly, Left/Right Game’s full title “echoes…familiar question[s] posted across countless question-and-answer sites, discussion boards and fora” and is accordingly imbued with uncanny plausibility despite our appreciation of its ostensible falsehood (Balanzategui 199). Certainly, the creepypasta in general functions precisely because it “does not need to be true to affect its readers; it just needs to be potentially fake” (Kvistad 958). In fact the slang portmanteau was “originally a horror specific derivative of ‘copypasta,’ meaning a shot text or image that has been transmitted online by repeated copying and pasting, so that the text’s origin and authorship is lost” and belies the genre’s “free-floating, sourceless quality” (959). The creepypasta’s lack of origin, then, allows it to spread like the urban legend or folklore, to infect the web variously as a piece of uncanny trivia or, indeed, culture that now comes to form part of the web’s already obscure landscape of mis/information.
In turn, the co-existence of horror fiction with truth (or relatively more truthful information) “in the same informational streams” (Powell 61) online allow user-readers, at least at the time and in the context of creepypasta consumption, to experience the alteration of reality—if they read more judiciously; if not, they enter the diegesis. To be clear, in saying that user-readers enter or come to inhabit or enter the diegesis I do not speak literally: as mentioned, the diegesis is an epistemic territory, rather than a physical one, in which the otherwise certain impossibilities of fiction become uncertain plausibilities, that is, founded on their unverifiable character. Earlier, we touched on the “transporting capacities of literary form” (Knight 2016, 435) hinging on the privacy of reading. In contrast entrance into the diegesis hinges on other people—specifically, on one user-reader’s social relationship to others, or even merely on the potential for such sociality.
The mechanism at play here is what folklorist Jeffrey Tolbert has called reverse ostension, “a self-conscious process” which “relies on an awareness of the existence of a given semiotic system and a deliberate attempt to mimic or replicate that system, together with its attendant expectations of form, structure, and content” (44). Tolbert goes on to elaborate that reverse ostension “is centrally concerned with . . . communal acceptance, and operates on the shared understanding that the thing being constructed, the semiotic system being developed, has no experiential grounding: there is no connection to reality beyond the resemblance of the system to those already existing” (44; emphasis added). In other words, user-readers engaging with and sharing creepypastas (again, in good faith) neither believe in the fictions they consciously perpetuate, nor do they even pretend to do so, for there is factually no basis for such a practice. Rather, creepypasta user-readers knowingly participate in acts of fiction-making—an act which is communal, and whose communality begins first and foremost with their agreeing to the terms of consumption and participation set about by the given creepypasta’s user-author within the context of their authorship (i.e. the platform on which they choose to publish their stories).
With enquiry-based fictions like Left/Right Game, this communality on the part of user-readers expresses itself initially as an “agreement” to investigate alongside the author and/or their characters, and later as collaboration with one another. In Left/Right Game specifically, we have seen that user-readers ostensibly engage with the story most immediately as u/NeonTempo’s plea for help: user-readers “respond” to the question in the titles of u/NeonTempo’s posts, and which underpins his account entire, by reading to find out more and by contributing their own speculations and guesses as to what is actually going on—even while appreciating that Anderson, arguably, possesses the author’s given omniscience. User-readers’ participation in the text, which precedes or is concomitant with their entrance into the diegesis, is then further enhanced by “the allure of a mysterious situation [and] both explicit and implicit formal imperatives” (Chng 39) such that Left/Right Game is experienced totally as an appeal to community. At times, this appeal manifests quite literally, as u/NeonTempo implores user-readers: “if you guys have any other ideas about how I could pursue this [investigation] I’d really appreciate them” (Anderson “Part 2”); “please keep any and all insights coming, however small” (“Part 8”). Accordingly, and moreover when they choose to leave comments, user-readers enter the diegesis; importantly, they do so together.
“Helping” NeonTempo by reading along becomes a communal, collaborative endeavour taking place in a world user-readers now co-inhabit. Such user-reader activity subsequently crystallises into discursive storytelling for said comments, consisting of suggestions, speculations, even expressions of concern, contribute to the development of narrative as well as of horror affect. Comments sections, in other words, are not merely incidental to the text or post proper, but are “paratextual region[s] of [user-reader-text] discourse” whereby readers help construct the diegesis according to commonly accepted terms (Chng 26). In turn, creepypastas, perhaps exemplary of social media literatures more broadly, represent spaces for genuine interpersonal connection because they encourage intense collaboration and discursive storytelling to the extent of producing communities whose members together build shared spaces in which they co-habitate. This process is merely made hyper-visible by r/NoSleep’s community dynamics and the longform, serial formats of multipart stories like Left/Right Game, wherein readers and writers communally roleplay according to norms and conventions established over time, and by the group into which their online presences coalesce.
For this sort of interaction is vividly comparable to “real-life” community relationships, they suggest in turn that we should not discount the validity, or “genuineness,” of online relationships: we cannot dismiss these electronic, digital, and networked forms of being with and knowing one another simply because they remain “uncanny” compared to older, analogue ways of conducting the same. Indeed, I choose to speak of r/NoSleep precisely because, out of other social media literature sites, it most obviously simulates the real-life community in the way its members’ behaviours are governed by social contract. The coherences of r/NoSleep and other subreddits, as micro user-formed and user-regulated “interest groups” hosted in a macro structure comprising specialised yet overlapping “societies,” are maintained by individual users and voluntary moderators (Kiene 1154). Rules such as “Everything is true here” allow for the erection and subsequent preservation of internal orders unique to the given subreddit and thus serve comparable functions to real-world norms, mores, and laws.
In more literary terms and with respect to r/NoSleep specifically, these institution-like mechanisms determine that all user-interactions are predicated upon the active suspension of disbelief—hence NeonTempo can ask for help and readers play along in their comments. In Lindsay Dodgson’s words, “everyone commenting underneath has to post on the assumption that they’re existing within the realms and boundaries of the world the OP [original poster] has created.” This, in turn, “engenders robust, distributed literary production” (Chng 27), making r/NoSleep not merely a repository of texts, but an atlas of collaborative diegeses—a topography of vividly co-inhabitable micro-communities that comprise a wider social fabric. The dynamic described is, then, not unlike a cosmopolis, for example.
In each of these micro-communities, user-readers thus collaborate with user-authors and each other both to explore the diegetic landscape and to contribute to its very construction. For simplicity’s sake, we might say that such construction serves the development of both setting and plot, as evidenced by a survey of comments. One example is a comment thread initiated by user u/M0n5tr0 in Left/Right Game’s second part. In context, u/M0n5tr0’s comment responds to Alice’s encounter with a devilish Hitchhiker while playing the Left/Right Game which takes place on the road and which is played from within a vehicle. The urban legend is a driving “game” in which the player is supposed to make consecutive left and right turns until they encounter otherworldly happenings, such as the Hitchhiker. Despite Alice’s attempt to disregard the Hitchhiker (one is apparently not supposed to acknowledge him), he knows details about Alice’s past, which he weaponises by taunting her and her investigation: he says to her, “You’re just a fucking disappointment aren’t you,” and “You want to know things? I can tell you” (Anderson “Part 2”). Responding to this, u/M0n5tr0 notes that between Phoenix, Arizona, where Alice starts the game, and Oakwell, Texas, whence the Hitchhiker came, there is “a town in New Mexico called, I kid you not, Truth and Consequences” (“Part 2”). u/M0n5tr0’s comment has the dual effect of contributing to plot and setting. Their “discovery of [the] uncanny association between [Alice’s encounter] with the Hitchhiker and an actual but obscure nominal detail, does not merely position the Hitchhiker’s harrowing taunting . . . at the abstract intersection between truths [and] their consequences. Rather, the New Mexico town, or some eerie version of it, is built up in, or sublated by, Left/Right Game’s diegesis” (Chng 45-46). Vis-à-vis u/M0n5tr0’s relationship to the text and to Anderson we might read this interaction as an attempt on the part of the user-reader to establish common understanding and thus co-inhabitable common ground with the user-author. No doubt u/M0n5tr0’s hypothesizing helps them rationalize the story, but in this manner it elaborates the diegesis so as to give them a stake in it alongside Anderson.
In making such contributions, user-readers like u/M0n5tro interpolate themselves into, come to inhabit the diegesis alongside the author’s persona, u/NeonTempo. The world of the story thus becomes its reading-writing community’s shared domain; a communal space in which they all have a part to play because they contribute to its construction, even if to widely varying extents. As will become apparent, these acts of collaborative construction and discursive storytelling evince the negotiations in which readers engage, both amongst themselves as well as with the text and its author, all of which discourse makes a convincing case for the authenticity of r/NoSleep’s—indeed, social media literature’s—social environments. These are communities just as “real” as any real-world ones.
In the same comment thread initiated by u/M0n5tr0, other user-readers respond to the first commenter’s discovery by modulating and elaborating on the information uncovered. u/Mephil79 corrects u/M0n5tr0 on the name of the town—it should be “Truth or Consequences,” not “and”; u/ofein affirms the same. u/ofein then further relates the town u/M0n5tr0 mentions to “the ‘new box’ mentioned in the story” via David Parker Ray, a serial killer who, according to u/ofein, grew up in Truth or Consequences (“Part 2”). This “new box” is something Alice hears about on her vehicle’s radio: during a night-time stop, the radio picks up “the local station for a nearby town” whose deejay ominously says, “let’s take ourselves to the new box,” then, “They’re going to hurt now,” following which the station “begins to broadcast a cacophony of bone rending screams” (“Part 2”). Following u/M0n5tr0’s revelation, u/ofein’s proposition is that this all has something to do with Parker Ray, “also known as the Toy-Box Killer, as he kept [his] victims in shipping containers while he tortured and killed them in absolutely horrific ways” (“Part 2”). While later on, u/Jintess contests u/ofein’s contribution by clarifying that “actually [Parker Ray] was a resident of Elephant Butte,” they make the concession that “that is right beside Truth of Consequences” (“Part 2”); in turn, u/ofein concedes.
The seemingly rare congenial civility of this online exchange aside, what is important for us to note is that these discussions function—methodically, no less—as a means for coeval readers to consensually rationalize the story and its diegesis more or less in real time. In the first place, “community” is evinced by the social character of their simultaneous reading. More significantly, these interactions take place within a common environment—the diegesis—and do so precisely, as I have argued, in order to elaborate the fictional world as a comprehensible and therefore shared, inhabitable space for all readers alike. These negotiations do not need to happen if reading was private, as is the case with non-social media literatures. u/M0n5tr0 can persist in believing the town to have been named Truth and Consequences; u/ofein can read on bearing his David Parker Ray connection in mind. But in this environment readers must relate to one another—and as they do so according to the parameters set by the text (and, in this case, the r/NoSleep subreddit), they forge relationships and communities predicated on common understanding, social norms, rules, and order—just like any other so-called genuine relationships in supposedly more authentic real-world communities.
Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp note that “we have to be careful not to romanticize [the] collective cultures” engendered in social media environments, and that while present-day technologies have allowed for the intensification of these groupings, “we have to be aware that using the word ‘community’ to describe them is not necessarily helpful”; they imply, instead, that the term “collectivity” with its connotation of looser attachments might be more appropriate (2022, §9.1). To be clear, Couldry and Hepp do not prescribe that communities ought be defined solely by so-called “older,” pre-digital models; they merely point out that our understandings of communities continue to assume the same facets as evinced by said older models: “stability, coherence and embeddedness, tied to shared experience or common history”—all supposedly in contrast to digital, new media “social relations based on ‘network sociality’ less ‘narrational’ than ‘informational’, involving primarily ‘an exchange of data and on catching up’” (2022, §9.1; c.f. Wittel 2008, 177).
We infer that Couldry and Hepp intend to propose terminological and, in turn, methodological adjustment on the part of how these social media groupings are understood. However, through r/NoSleep and an examination of inter-user interactions and relationships in Left/Right Game, I am rather inclined to propose an epistemological adjustment—a paradigm shift—on the part of how we understand communities in the first place. Our present case study makes clear the impetus for our views on human sociality to transcend its analogue parameters. Is it not possible that shared experience and common history distinctly grounded in “real-life” are no longer essential qualifications for community now that so much of life takes place in the hyperreality of the social media network?
The earlier comment thread initiated by u/M0n5tr0 teaches us that if we want to understand Web-based relationships forged entirely online, we need to study them in context, rather than continue to cross-referenced against real-world relationships. Certainly there are many ways to do this; mine is simply to apply a literary methodology: to conduct critical readings of the comments sections of social media literatures as “paratextual region[s] of [reader-text] discourse that develops narrative both implicitly and explicitly,” just as one would read the text proper, and in addition to the same (Chng 26). In other words, social media literatures teach us how to conduct critical readings of inter-user relationships by giving us the “crutch” of the story as a substitute, as it were, for the “shared experience” and “common history” that remains so important to sociological definitions of “community.” But even as these unique texts help wean us off meaty, analogue ideas about the ways in which we relate to one another, they have already begun to intimate daring and unprecedented new paradigms. The question we need to ask ourselves, therefore, is not how digital networks negatively affect our relationships with one another and how we can remedy this supposed disease. In the bluntest of terms, there is no point; there is no going back.
As with any technological (or human operating system) update in history, whether the shift from telling to writing to typing stories, or the shift in communication from letters to telephones to DMs, it is easy for us to fear change, but to do so is to determine detriment where really there is only difference. Certainly, for we have only just started to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic we must confess there may be some truth to these fears and anxieties, however Luddite they may seem. Yet, even as we pathologise “Zoom fatigue” and recognise that texting “I love you” is not quite the same as saying it, we cannot disregard the reality that social media afforded us uninterrupted connectivity with kin and kith even as we went in and out of various lockdowns. We may now be weary of the surfeit of connectivity which has these past two years attempted to compensate for the deficit in actual connection; nevertheless we may do well to appreciate, first of all, that even if the digital network seems to make intimacy feel a little more distant, its affordance of long-distance intimacy is irrevocable. The lesson, if one will, might really be that we ought not to insist on benchmarking our attitudes, paradigms, and ways of being against older versions which have already begun to expire. It may be platitudinous to declare that “change isn’t bad; it’s just new,” but whatever the case it certainly cannot be stopped. Perhaps the only real “solution,” then, to what we have deemed a crisis of human connection is to really start to imagine how we can move past our valorisation of human relationships in order to start appreciating moving posthuman ones.
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