Elder States, Man

Lamenting a life lived online.

My generation was the first to fully come of age online. The end result is, in a word, cringe. Like every generation, we believe ourselves uniquely differentiated from the one before us. We were truly the first to catch the big wave of personal tech modernity – mobile phones, computers, email – so even now, we feel perpetually on the cusp of discovery, of harnessing the power of something transformative. As the oldest of us enters middle age, that sense of youth and its affectations grows effortful and mortifying.

Holding on to our defining identity becomes a performance, mostly online, of sustained bewilderment; of keeping age at bay. Everything laced with irony or sickly earnestness. Undergirding this is an inability to experience anything on its own terms, without refracting it somehow subconsciously through two questions: ‘how do I come out of this’? and ‘does this make me sound young?’ – the legacy of being on the internet for 20 years.

In that time, the ‘I’, the ego, the self, became a presentation to an audience which, even for the average person, comprises hundreds of people. It is an act of constant curation. A grid of poses that summarily communicates a brand which seems to come from a limited series of templates: Kooky, Cutely Compulsive, Real, Up For It. It eliminates, heaven forfend, the idea that anyone’s life has a set of consistent themes that make up a coherent whole, that one’s value as a human being is out of your control and is determined by their relationships with others, and that one is still not so ‘past it’ that they drop out of youth altogether and go offline, in itself a sort of death.

The online persona is a pre-emptive, self-written eulogy frozen in one’s earliest iteration, no matter how old they become. Here lies Nesrine, who colour-coded her books and only wore neutrals. She did in fact, only live once.

I killed Facebook a decade ago, am barely on Instagram, and Twitter is broadly for work purposes. I suspect – it’s too bleak a thought to fully articulate – that just as real life social milestones loosened their hold on my generation, social media’s new traditions imposed a different sort of tyranny.

We joke about doing things ‘for the story’ but the mask, at some point, eats the face. We end up caught in a slipstream of other people’s lives, a relentless peer pressure nudging us in the direction of big life decisions, ones to which, in the cold light of day, we might not remember why we committed.

This, to me, is the abiding experience of elderly millennial life of being trapped in social and economic arrangements we cannot escape, wallowing miserably within them while reaching for irony and the illusion that time is on our side. I cannot say for sure that people are getting married and having children and taking jobs for reel content, but it’s worrying that even I, self-aware narrator of our millennial state, cannot fully escape the glare of the gallery.

I find the biggest difference between me and older writers is that I think of publishing as a two-part process. The first is the writing bit, the second is the response; the comments, the emails, the occasional death threats. To me, these are all now such an integral part of having thoughts and putting them down that I’m not sure anymore if my thoughts are of value if they do not elicit praise, agreement, or the bile of those who have only read the headline. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that my thoughts do not at some point factor in these responses, and seek to encourage or mollify them. I like to think of this as kicking the tires of the logic of my argument, but it’s closer to self-hazing.

When people ask me why I am not as bothered by online abuse as one would expect, I say that I simply am blessed with thick skin (which means, I am young and cool and not so cringe as to take serious things seriously). The truth is that I am calloused, because as a comedian once said to a heckler, ‘there’s nothing you can say to me that I haven’t already said to myself in the mirror this morning.’

I believe the scientific name for it is ‘brainworms’. Other variants are ‘brain rot’ and ‘living rent free in your head’. These are all good and accurate ways of naming the problem, which is essentially the inability to think straight. Its corollary is an inability to live straight. It was all fun and games when we were uploading 300 pictures on Facebook from an average night out, but it’s a lot weirder and more jarring when your parents are ill, your children ungovernable, your dreams unrealised, or worse, realised but profoundly disappointing. The antidote is in dealing with it all like it’s one big joke, or trying to manage it by acting as a likeable, humble, noble put-upon main character, like choosing a video game avatar.

These are all infantile coping mechanisms. They maintain the illusion that there is still some time for us permanent children to crack that this isn’t it; that growing up is not a process of amusing grapples with booby traps, but an endlessly unsettling experience, interspersed with paralysing epiphanic thoughts that stop you dead in your tracks. Mine is that my parents didn’t screw up, that they did the best they could, and that my own children will only come to that realisation too late as well. I am hoping that being kind to my parents in their old age is a last minute effort that will be deposited somehow in my children’s minds. Not ‘adulting’, just allowing myself to grow up.


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