Jia Tolentino on the ‘Unlivable Hell’ of the Web and Other Millennial Conundrums

Reflections on Self-Delusion
By Jia Tolentino

In May 2017, Jia Tolentino declared the personal essay dead. “The personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was,” she wrote in an essay for The New Yorker’s website. Five years ago, readers salivated over “it happened to me” essays posted daily on women’s websites. But after the 2016 presidential election, such pieces started to seem petty, self-indulgent, naïve. Still, Tolentino, who once edited this kind of writing for The Hairpin and Jezebel, found herself occasionally nostalgic for the authorial voices that developed during the personal essay’s heyday. “I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability,” she wrote. “I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.”

Now a staff writer at The New Yorker, Tolentino has made her own foray into self-study in her absorbing first book, “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion.” The book is a collection of nine original essays, some of which have their roots in writing she’s done for The New Yorker; each is a mix of reporting, research and personal history. Her voice here is fully developed: She writes with an inimitable mix of force, lyricism and internet-honed humor. She is the only writer I’ve read who can incorporate meme-speak into her prose without losing face.

Unlike the digital personal essayist in her description, Tolentino considers the modern self not as something to be exposed or exploited, like a mineral deposit, but as something to construct and critique. She finds her subject in what she calls “spheres of public imagination”: social media, reality television, the wedding-industrial complex, news coverage of sexual assault. Tolentino wants to know how Americans, particularly those of her generation, have adjusted to life under late capitalism. What happens to people when they are forced to compete for the smallest bit of security? Who do we become when we’re always being watched?

The brief answers to these questions are: not very good things, and not very good people. The book’s first essay, on the “feverish, electric, unlivable hell” that is the internet, makes a good case for the degradation of civic life in Mark Zuckerberg’s America. Posting on Facebook or Twitter “makes communication about morality very easy but makes actual moral living very hard,” Tolentino argues, in part because so many jobs require online engagement — which in turn lines the pockets of tech moguls. We often confuse professing an opinion — posting, liking, retweeting — with taking political action. Meanwhile, social media makes us feel as if we’re perpetually onstage; we can never break character or take off our costumes. Channeling the sociologist Erving Goffman, Tolentino explains how “online, your audience can hypothetically keep expanding forever, and the performance never has to end.”

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