It can be annoying to be online
On growing up.
What does it mean to be an adult? Is it age? Financial security (or lack thereof)? Responsibility? Or is it some mysterious combination of factors, some alchemical reaction between your life and other people’s?
I ask because I think the answer feels far less clear than it seems — as with pornography, you kinda know an adult when you see one, but I’m not sure there’s a single yardstick that tells you exactly when it happens. That said, it is very clear who is not an adult; childhood is much more obvious.
The reason I bring all this up is this piece in Dazed, titled “Everyone needs to grow up.” I will confess: I read it and my brain got hot like an old laptop. Here’s the lede.
We are a generation of adult babies. You can see it in the widely circulated – and largely untrue – idea that the human brain isn’t developed until the age of 25, which means that anyone younger is still essentially a child. It’s there in the notion that people with ADHD can’t text back their friends because they lack object permanence (a skill that babies develop at eight months old). It’s there in the narrative that, because gay people didn’t experience a normal childhood, they’re living out a second adolescence in their twenties and thirties. It’s there in the hegemony of superhero films and the cross-generational popularity of YA, whose fans insist that grown-up literature is only ever about depressed college professors having affairs.
You can see it in Disney adults; the rise of cuteness as a dominant aesthetic category; the resurgence of stuffed animals; people who identify as Hufflepuffs on their Hinge profile; people throwing tantrums when their Gorillas rider is five minutes late; people lip-syncing, with pouted lips and furrowed brows, to audio tracks of toddlers. Sometimes, it’s less about pretending to be a child and more about harking back to a lost adolescence: narrativising your life like it’s a John Green novel or an episode of Euphoria, bragging about crazzzy exploits like smoking cigarettes on a swing or doing cocaine on a Thursday; hitting 30 and still considering yourself “precocious”.
I admire the author coming out swinging. That said, this reads like a catalog of things they saw online that they didn’t like. Which is fair, of course, but does not necessarily constitute evidence that “we are a generation of adult babies.”
The thing about this that I really don’t like, other than its childish universalizing, is that it doesn’t actually describe offline behavior. The internet is a place where people post things — and, crucially at this juncture, where people know what it means to post things. In other words: at this point, posting is performance. You do it with an awareness that other people can see what you’re doing; everyone knows that anything posted online can go viral and change the poster’s life.
The author helpfully included a TikTok that belied their misunderstanding of posting as performance, right in the middle of the piece — a woman putting on makeup, lip synching to an audio of a toddler. While I’d rather not speculate on why she has, as of this writing, 312.8k followers there, I think it’s fairly obvious that she’s doing a bit online for clout.
A better piece might have asked: why do the algorithms that govern online popularity incentivize people posting infantile sensory content? For my own part I’d guess the answer is some combination of “it’s inoffensive and therefore appealing to many different kinds of people” and “people have very strong reactions to it” — which is a different way of saying that it boosts engagement and therefore increases a site’s all-important growth metrics. Investors famously love this.
Here’s more baby-brained shit.
What would rejecting this helplessness look like? The right see adulthood as a process of settling down, getting married and having children; in effect, conforming to conventional gender roles and being productive members of the workforce. We obviously don’t have to buy into that, at any age. But we can aspire towards a different form of maturity: looking after ourselves, treating other people with care, being invested in something beyond our own immediate satisfaction.
Ok, so if you’re (lmao) “aspir[ing] towards a different form of maturity,” what does “looking after ourselves, treating other people with care, being invested in something beyond our own immediate satisfaction” even mean?
In the next graf, we get this winner.
It’s much rarer to encounter the idea that we have a responsibility about what we consume, or that satisfying our own desires whenever we want is not always a good thing: “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” has morphed into “there is no unethical consumption under capitalism”.
[bong rip] There is no unethical consumption under capitalism, man.
It’s not all bad. There are some good ideas about how conservatives self-infantilize by insisting they don’t have any agency — e.g. when they say they’re being pushed toward the right because things are too woke now, or whatever. There’s also a great point about how some groups of people are denied the indulgences of childhood based on their race and gender. But claiming that you can’t make the world better if you think of yourself as a “smol baby bean” is kind of a stretch, not least because I refuse to believe people who describe themselves as such exist outside of a screen.
All this got me thinking about a video gameI recently finished, called Pentiment. It’s the brainchild of Josh Sawyer, of Fallout: New Vegas fame. The game takes place in a fictional Bavarian village in the year 1518; visually, it looks like an illuminated manuscript from that same time period. At first, you play as a guy named Andreas Mäler, a traveling artist who’s stopped by the town to (you guessed it) illuminate manuscripts. It quickly turns into a murder mystery, and then, later, something much more.
After I rolled credits, the first thing I thought was: what a dad game. Pentiment is basically about making a decision that will hurt other people, and what it’s like to live with those consequences, even decades later. It is about family, history, and the power and abuses of organized religion. It is about being responsible for the place you live.
It is, in short, a game about being an adult — caring for other people, and doing your best for them, even though you don’t know how things will turn out in the end.
I’m of the opinion that the only way to be an adult is to be willing to meet people where they are and care for them in the way they want to be cared for. It is about setting healthy boundaries; it is about knowing who you are and what you, yourself, can do and can handle. It is about planning for the long-term. All of this is quite frequently cringe and also annoying. But it is better than the alternative.
I don’t think people are adult babies now, at least not offline. Although I do think it’s maybe harder than ever to be an adult. The traditional markers of transitioning through life-stages are evaporating; basically all that’s left to guide you are bills and literature. The structures that created our modern idea of adulthood have collapsed — which is to say governments aren’t subsidizing things like homeownership like they did after the Second World War — and it’s easy to feel adrift.
But you’ll figure it out, I promise. Everyone does, eventually.
I do, however, agree that it sucks ass to see so many annoying posts online.
“this article suffers from ‘you can't just say people are annoying anymore’” — @hypirlink
This is the kind of bullshit people are always saying online — along the lines of influencers saying things like “my goal is to inspire people,” because it’s inoffensive and, broadly speaking, something nobody can argue with.
Unless of course they’re extremely rich. Then all bets are off.
This a bit of a left field comment, but have you read Simone Weil? Especially The Needs of the Soul? She digs into what it is people need, and also how capitalism and propaganda (social media!) make it harder to meet those needs. I bet you'd like it!