Audience in the Internet Age

Lately I have been noticing more and more the way we are motivated by the internet to turn our lives into content. To some extent, this is a pretty obvious side effect: a low barrier to access means it’s easy to have a platform to share your work, and that impulse is baked into how we see and use the internet. What I’m talking about here goes slightly beyond using the internet to share content; it’s that we are the content.

If I had to write the history of life-as-content, I’d start with Lonelygirl15, who is in my mind the first ‘vlogger’, though the irony is, of course, that her ‘vlog’ was not someone turning their life into content, but a fictional web series produced by someone else. Either way, watching YouTube in 2007 and 2008 felt like exploring a landscape created by Lonelygirl15, to the extent that her videos were a direct inspiration for the Vlogbrothers, and to me, in 2007, the Vlogbrothers seemed to be the inspiration for every other videoblogger on YouTube. Interestingly, the Vlogbrothers have pivoted away from videos that are simply life-as-content, making more and more videos about something other than themselves. Meanwhile, a YouTuber named Emma Chamberlain, who at time of writing has 10.5 million subscribers, posts videos that largely consist of her wandering around her cavernous house, absentmindedly playing the drums, lying in her bed, or unloading her Amazon-delivered groceries. In their list of the ’25 most influential people on the internet’, Time magazine described her as ‘pioneer[ing] an approach to vlogging that shook up YouTube’s unofficial style guide’ by ‘populariz[ing] a normcore-adjacent aesthetic’.[1] Her videos give the impression that she’s just turned the camera on and is going about her day.

It is impossible to separate the drive to turn our own lives into content is from the amount of other people’s lives-turned-content that we consume. The allure, the deceptive promise of ‘content creation’ is that you don’t have to really do anything that special. You just have to turn the camera on to your life and have something about you that people want to come back to and keep watching. Why do people watch Emma Chamberlain? I don’t know—they like her. She’s likable. She doesn’t have specific skills (other than video editing, which I assume she picked up along the way.) In theory, she could be anybody—even you.

I think most of us think this, a little bit, and my evidence is the phenomenon of Instagram stories, which I read once described as ‘reality TV starring your friends’. [2] Or every time I see someone share a picture of a nice view they have or a delicious looking meal, I am reminded of this belief we have that our lives, if pretty enough, are of interest to others. It’s difficult now, even as someone conscious of how online we are, to experience a good moment—especially an aesthetically good moment (previously known as, oh, I don’t know, beauty?)—without documenting it. I often have what I think is a clever thought, go to tweet it, then delete what I’ve typed in a sudden fit of self-awareness. In ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag argues that the camera has changed our method of interacting with the world, especially in the context of tourism. Instead of looking at something new, then reflecting on it or confronting ourselves with it, we are given an easy, default response: we take a picture of it. I wonder if now that impulse has been guided a step further, and that an experiences become real once it is captured and shared—once it is consumed by an audience.

The divide between creator and consumer—artist and audience—has never been thinner. More and more accessible tools, and the incredible popularity of ‘lifestyle content’, have made it such that everyone can believe they are one viral moment away from being someone, from being a creator instead of simply a spectator. The narrowness of this divide has another side effect, which is my primary concern in this essay: it has made it uncomfortable to be simply a spectator. There is a kind of guilt, or fear of missing out, or envy in consumption, in being a member of an audience. Perhaps because so much of what we consume is other people’s lives, our own lives, undocumented, feel wasted, invalid somehow.

All of this has, of course, been exacerbated by the pandemic. In many ways, the internet has saved us. Moreover, much of the creation that has come out of it has helped us live better and feel closer. I have witnessed real art, and joy, and escapism that was so needed, simply through others filming their little lives and projects and posting them online. But I can’t shake the unease that comes after I watch a thirty minute compilation of rollerskating TikToks and realise I haven’t been outside today; that sense that the people on the screen are living, but I, watching them, am not.

Without that solid touch on the outside world, that reference point to reality that we lost when we all had to hunker down inside, that feeling became worse. I have always struggled with social media, but during lockdown it became unbearable. I had no way to tell myself that what I was seeing was cherry-picked, was not a real reflection of existence, because I wasn’t encountering the existence of others in any other way. The real master on this topic is Bo Burnham, who says in Inside:

‘…over this last year [. . .] I’ve learned that real-world human-to-human tactile contact will kill you, and that all human interaction [. . .] should be contained in the much more safe, much more real interior digital space. That the outside world, the non-digital world, is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space. One should only engage with the outside world as one engages with a coal mine. Suit up, gather what is needed, and return to the surface.’[3]

If the internet is the real world, and I’m not putting anything out into it—do I matter? What is my reality?

(These anxieties could be solved by logging off. But I have found that now that I have entered the dialectic of the internet, of experience + document + share, it is like I’m wearing a pair of glasses I can never take off. It shapes how I experience. Tied up in how lovely something is, is how lovely it would be to photograph, or write about. Even if I resist the impulse, the impulse is always there.)

Is it possible to simply spectate anymore? Are we uncomfortable being an audience? I have found that I am. I sometimes think about starting a YouTube channel (I’m funny!), but it really comes to the foreground with respect to things I think of myself as already in my wheelhouse. I so resent my own inability to sit down and write that I feel a writhing ache, a discomfort intermingled with my enjoyment, when I read a really good essay. If other people are writing, why aren’t I? The difference between us, I tell myself, is simply my own inability to actualise (plus the attention of the editors of some publication, but I could be doing that if I just tried, probably, and right now I’m just sitting here watching someone on YouTube whose life is better than mine show me how to put on eyeliner).

To be laid bare, I can’t honestly distinguish between my desire to write and a desire to have my thoughts validated by someone else reading them. My head is so full of noise, so jam-packed with other people’s thoughts, and while the rational impulse would be to quiet those other thoughts, my instinct is instead to want to jam my own in among the clamour and see if I can’t make up for it by occupying someone else’s brainspace.

The more I drill down into this, the blurrier the lines get, and the more I wonder if this phenomenon is new or even particularly unique to the internet. In ‘Coming to Writing’, French philosopher Hélène Cixous describes an anxiety she felt before she began writing:

‘This was in fact what most obscurely worried me and pained me: being no one. Everyone was someone, I felt, except me. I was no one. “Being” was reserved for those full, well-defined, scornful people who occupied the world with their assurance.’[4]

While Cixous’s feelings of being ‘no one’ are in part a result of her outsider status as a woman and immigrant in her own society, she also speaks of writing as a giving birth to her own self, to play God and say ‘I am.’ In a way, this is creation. Is it possible that the instinct to create can’t actually be separated from the desire to be heard, to be known, to matter?[5] And does that apply equally across some arbitrarily-defined ‘artistic’ creation as well as the kind of creation that’s now accessible to everyone?

Do most people feel like this, or is it just me, and all those kids who want to grow up to be Minecraft YouTubers?

When I ask myself if this phenomenon is really from the internet or if it’s always been true, I think about Nora Ephron saying that all life is copy. In the internet era, every lived moment can be copy—or not even copy, ‘content’. What happens to your life if it does? My sense is that the internet has taken an eternal human desire and made it into an anxious compulsion—to be seen, heard, celebrated—always—because you can be.

In the same special I quoted earlier, Bo Burnham concludes a song by asking, ‘Is it necessary that every single person on this planet um, expresses every single opinion that they have on every single thing that occurs all at the same time?’ He rephrases the question: ‘Can any single person shut the f— up about any single thing for an hour?’ This in itself is affronting, but to me, more affronting, is his expression of the anxiety of creating in a space where everyone else is also trying to have their say—‘And I know you’re thinking, “You’re not shutting the f— up right now,” and that’s true, but…’

Burnham doesn’t spell it out, but I will—while I am repelled by my discomfort at being a spectator, while I don’t think it’s good for us that we all feel one inch from Being Someone in the sense of internet renown, if we only had better wardrobes or makeup skills or senses of humour (or better cameras); while I dislike that we live in the age of personal essays that exist to validate niche experiences, while I don’t think we need to create content in order to matter—

I am writing this essay to feel like I matter.


[2] I can’t remember where, so forgive me this one. It’s possible it’s from Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is worth reading anyway.

[3] Bo Burnham, ‘Inside’, Netflix, 2021.

[4] Hélène Cixous, ‘Coming to Writing’ and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 16.

[5] Savannah Brown recently released an interesting video on creation and ‘mattering’, which hits on a lot of the anxieties I’m expressing here.

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