Jia Tolentino's "Trick Mirror"
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
It was Jia Tolentino's first essay in this collection that initially drew my attention. Titled "The I in Internet," it promised to articulate some of the ways that the internet is shaping our identities and our culture. Tolentino and I are about the same age and the timeline of her relationship with the internet mirrors my own in some ways. She writes that the internet "... positions personal identity as the center of the universe. It's as if we've been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection. Through social media, many people have quickly come to view all new information as a sort of direct commentary on who they are." Tolentino is clear-eyed about how the internet has shaped her work and even considers how writing in the world's public forum (more specifically, offering opinions) doesn't feel optional when a person is online. She offers that writing online "... is to operate on a set of assumptions that are already dubious when limited to writers and even more questionable when turned into a categorical imperative for everyone on the internet: the assumption that speech has an impact, that it's something like action; the assumption that it's fine or helpful or even ideal to be constantly writing down what you think."
This struck a chord with me as I have been writing more this summer (especially in this blog). I tried to explain why early on in my blogging project. Mostly, I was trying to move away from knee-jerk posts on social media in favor of more thoughtful compositions (I also just enjoy writing!). I noted the effects of writing for an audience and the appeal of this. A few months on, I can look back and think about how the unique audience of the internet probably shaped my decision more than I realized. Like Tolentino says, I had likely internalized the idea that my writing was akin to identity-defining action, perhaps a function of the titular "trick mirror" of online life. Her first essay is so dense with insights, I should probably read it a few more times. Other citizens of the internet willing to interrogate their use online platforms and how it shapes their self-identities will like this one.
I also enjoyed the other essays in this book and most returned to some of the same themes. In "Reality TV Me," Tolentino writes about her experiences as a teen on a reality TV show. I had never considered the intersections between the teenage mind, the performative demands of reality television, and the similar demands of lives lived partially online. In another of my favorite essays,"The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams," Tolentino reviews some of the most notable scams of recent years including the 2007 financial crisis, the Fyre Festival, Trump University, Theranos, and the shenanigans of technology companies like Uber and Facebook. She writes specifically about how younger generations have observed and internalized these episodes, even while coming to terms with another scam: the unlimited promise of an expensive education purchased through crushing debt. She posits that this environment, where blatant scams are ignored or even rewarded, has consequences for our democracy. Maybe scams are priced into our political decisions, the possibility of straight-dealing so far-fetched that it colors our electoral choices. Tolentino writes that Donald Trump was elected president "... for the same reason people buy lottery tickets. It's not the actual possibility of victory that you pay for; it's the fleeting vision of victory."
I got a lot out of this collection and would recommend it to anyone interested in a sharp look at our cultural moment, especially as it's shaped by our online identities.