'Escape' cover

Escape (Bonnier): How a generation shaped, destroyed and survived the internet by Marie Le Conte

There are, very broadly speaking, three generations of humankind alive right now who will never coexist again. There are people – such as this reviewer – of middle age and upwards, who reached adulthood without Googling anything, sending an email, having a social media account or owning a mobile phone. We are the last of our kind: people for whom the default setting was being out of touch. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people in their mid-20s and younger, for whom the online realm is as taken for granted as electric light.

The journalist Marie Le Conte is of the generation between. She was born in 1991, and reckons she probably went online for the first time later that decade: a point at which the internet, as she notes, was still routinely capitalised as the Internet, much as baffled parents of earlier decades might have fretfully discussed Rock And Roll. New technologies are usually first adopted and appropriated by the young: Le Conte launched a blog when she was 12, and a website largely concerned with indie rock when she was 15. She was among the pathfinders who first used MSN Messenger, MySpace and Tumblr, and now presides over nearly 90,000 followers on Twitter. “I was born and bred online,” she writes in the introduction, “and if you remove the life I have led on there, it leaves me with no life at all.”

This is a statement of fact, not a plea for sympathy. Le Conte is emphatic that her time online has largely been a tremendous hoot, and has the anecdotes to prove it. But in her telling of how the internet changed during that period, something of the indie rock website editor can be discerned. Le Conte’s view of the internet now is similar to that of the early fan of a once obscure band that is now monstrously famous, who finds themselves jammed into some cavernous arena peevishly seething, “Who are all these bloody people?” (Le Conte, whose droll self-mockery is a strength of Escape, would probably not object to this characterisation.)

Le Conte uses a mixture of interviews with others and personal reflections to chart the internet’s trajectory from its Wild West period as a vast landscape of discrete communities, each with their own rules, conventions and traditions, to today’s much more centralised arrangement where much if not most online activity is filtered through less than a handful of social media platforms. The villages have become a megalopolis. Just like city living offline, this has advantages: you frequently bump into people, ideas and opinions you would not normally have sought out. It also has disadvantages: exactly the same thing.

Humanity has been living in three-dimensional big cities a good while now, and has by and large developed the key necessary quality: indifference. The deal is basically that our fellow citizens may say, do, believe, worship, wear, consume and love what they please so long as they don’t bother us with it. Online, you may have noticed, it does not work like that: social media is plagued by people for whom being performatively angry in public, very often about total bullshit, has become a hobby, and/or a job.

Le Conte takes issue, and persuasively so, with the conventional wisdom that social media has insulated us all in echo chambers. The actual difficulty, she suggests, is the opposite: “There is a fundamental problem with how we live online, and it is that we are now all together, all of the time.” Le Conte illustrates this via relating her own role in one of the inadvertent sitcoms often catalysed by social media: she posted a whimsical tweet about the mixed blessing of living within earshot of an opera singer, it was eventually retweeted into the timeline of another opera singer, and Le Conte duly found herself indignantly addressed by wrathful opera singers. The serious point: “Our spaces make us feel tense because we never feel truly safe in them anymore.”

Escape is a smart and funny analysis of a very modern phenomenon, but it’s also a tale as old as time: of us letting something get worse because it was easy, cheap and convenient to do so.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2022 edition. Subscribe here.