“Fuck Up My Dopamine, Website!”
On Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, Grief, and Being Online For a Decade
I wasn’t a very Online Teenager. In fact, handwriting ‘zines in my room and ripping CDs from the library into Windows Media Player because I didn’t know how to download music, I was the opposite. My mom drilled a fear of the Internet in me from a young age, making it out to be a dangerous and predatory place filled with viruses and kidnappers, a fear that led me to keep the majority of my accounts set to private for many years. My family shared a single laptop, which I mostly used to type up my homework and lurk on Green Day fan websites after school.
Twitter was the first social media website I joined. It was 2011; I was 16. I followed a handful of local bands and didn’t use my real name. For some reason, I chose to use a photo of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta on the poster for Grease as my avatar. It was, to use modern parlance, essentially an “alt” account–indecipherable to anyone who didn’t know who I was in real life.
Two years later, I found myself in my first year of journalism school. All of my middle-aged professors extolled the values of Twitter for the Modern Reporter. Journalists need to keep up with current events and find sources! I remember a professor explaining Twitter “rules”: “Don’t post more than four times a day” has always stuck in my mind for some reason, a rule that literally no account has followed for the past decade.
I made a “professional” account, professional insofar as I used my real name and a real picture of my real face. Still, the majority of my tweets would be what they call “shitposts”: dumb one-liners without any capital letters. I dropped out of the journalism program only a year later, but I continued to use Twitter, not to try to make it as a career reporter, but to keep up with friends, blogs, and the news.
Although I have long stopped using Tumblr and Facebook, I can’t quit Twitter. Every year in September, I get a notification that says, “Congratulations, it’s your Twitter anniversary!” along with the number of years I’ve had my current account. Every year I look at the increasing number and think to myself, “Oh no.”
It is, for better or for worse, my favourite website. I look at it first thing when I wake up and then almost every hour thereafter until I go to sleep. “I saw this tweet that said” is a common phrase in my vocabulary, said to friends and more often than I would like to admit, my therapist. I have been around long enough to live through all the design changes: When the character limit increased from 140 to 280, when you could quote a tweet and add your thoughts instead of just retweeting, when the algorithm changed to include tweets other users you followed liked. I have witnessed the Great Days on Twitter (Trump getting COVID) and perhaps more significantly, the Fucking Awful Days on Twitter (the majority of the last five years).
Patricia Lockwood’s new book, No One Is Talking About This, published in February by Riverhead Books, takes on what it means to live through a decade of being online. The story is told from the point of view of a nameless narrator Internet-famous for a post on “the portal” that reads “Can dogs be twins?” (Lockwood is infamous for her own Twitter usage, notoriously for tweeting @parisreview, “So is Paris any good or not”).
The first section reads like an absurdist stream-of-consciousness Internet prose poem, with Lockwood writing in short bursts of texts, like tweets (it should be noted that another Twitter-famous writer, Darcie Wilder, did the same thing in her 2017 novel, literally show me a healthy person). The autobiographical novel presents a reality much like our own: The nameless narrator is a substitute for Lockwood, “the portal” is a substitute for Twitter, and “the dictator” is a substitute for Trump.
This section perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be online in a dystopian decade. Reading the book on my phone felt so similar to scrolling through my Twitter feed that I didn’t even notice there were chapter breaks until I was halfway done. In the first section, the narrator takes us through her consciousness, filled with what she sees on the portal. There are outcries over guacamole substitutions and fidget spinners and vagina eggs, all of which “happened in the space of like four days” The majority of what Lockwood nods to are real Twitter phenomenons and outrages, both niche and infamous: “Cat Person”, Sophia the Robot, Harambe (all of the references are collected in this fantastic article from Literary Hub, who never cease to do God’s work).
The narrator describes that it wasn’t always like this. In the early 2000s, “social media” was limited to more mundane, emotive, and anonymous platforms like LiveJournal and Myspace. The constant reaction and “main characters” are a phenomenon unique to the portal/Twitter. The narrator states that in the 2010s, social media shifted to reflect more of a hive mind mentality, as more and more of our lives played out online.
This collectivity is shown in a certain shared sense of humour: The phrases “it me” and “shoot it into my veins,” using the word praxis to describe things that are not praxis, cheap one-liners about unionized brain worms. Still, this shared set of jokes is different from other generations. Whereas baby boomers once chuckled along to laugh tracks while watching TVs in houses they owned after getting home from their full-time jobs, millennials and Gen Z have much more to worry about between precarious employment, climate crisis anxiety, and constant images of police violence and murder. In the novel, the narrator’s pregnant sister texts her, “you know this baby’s gonna be a world traveler bitch… if the world is still there when she gets there haha.”
Lockwood’s turn towards the uncomfortable grows in the second half of the novel, marked suddenly by two urgent texts from her mother: “Something has gone wrong,” and “How soon can you get here?”. Suddenly, the narrator finds herself in the midst of a very offline family tragedy. No One Is Talking About This goes from a treatise on Twitter to a meditation on life, death, and grief, a meditation made all the more heartbreaking when one learns that the novel is based on Lockwood’s own life.
Reading the second section reminded me that as much as social media, cellphones, and the Internet have been around for multiple decades, there still isn’t an etiquette guide for how to express or deal with grief online. When a former high school classmate of mine passed away a few years after graduation, I remembered fellow students posting on his Facebook wall, expressing how much they missed him. And when my own stepdad passed away of early-onset Alzheimer’s a year and a half ago, I felt the need to write a long post on Instagram, with many pictures of him, explaining how much he meant to me and how much I missed him, even if it meant sharing these intimate feelings with virtual strangers. Yes, I eulogized and grieved him in real life, but something was important to me about sharing it online too.
The thing about it is that a significant portion, if not the majority of our lives, plays out online, and has for quite some time. For instance, how many of you refer to people you’ve never met before as your “friends” in conversation? By the end of Lockwood’s novel, I was grieving too, crying for someone I’d only interacted with by reading about them on a screen. Whether it’s online or IRL, No One Is Talking About This proves that life goes on, no matter the platform, in all of its heartache and happiness.
What Else I’m Reading: I was lucky enough to get a digital advance review copy of Daryll by Jackie Ess, which comes out in May on Clash Books, and was absolutely blown away. PRE-ORDER IT! I also loved this article about baking a wedding cake for no reason by Pooja Makhijani and this article about cold-calling your friends by Clio Chang.
What I’m Watching: I’ve been waiting for Minari to come out in Canada for months now and it’s finally available to rent. Highly recommended if you want to Sob The Big Tears. I loved Alexander Chee’s reflections on the film and his life, as well as these adorable recipe cards of food in the movie from A24.
What I’m Listening To: I re-listened to a bunch of Superchunk last week, after not listening to their music in a long time. I forgot how much Here’s Where The Strings Come In rips: “I HAD A CRUSH / NOTHING WORKS OUT”, “IRON THIS ON WHEN YOU GET HOOOOOOOOOOOME!”, etc. While I’m good at keeping up with new books and movies, I’ve become horrible with keeping up with new music, so please e-mail or comment with some recommendations for recent stuff if you have any.
How I’m Feeling Now: Did anyone else have a terrible time during the last two weeks of February? Knowing that March is going to be, uh, rough, has made me try to amp up my self-care routine. I’m using a habit tracker for the first time in a long time so that I can remember to put my phone down and go outside. Real winter pandemic hours over here.
Mutual Aid Calls: Lots of calls for support here, here, and here.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed it, please share, like, comment, and subscribe. The next newsletter will come sometime during the week of March 14th. Take care of yourself and each other.
Ahh I am looking forward to reading this book so I can talk about it with you, and also cry! Thank you also for the links to the wedding cake and calling friends essays, they both made me ~emotional~. I am also interested in your bold decision to spell zines with an apostrophe!