Indignity Vol. 1 No. 52: The view from 30,000 feet.


Indignity Vol. 1 No. 52: The view from 30,000 feet.

We Live in a Parasociety

I GOT ON an airplane for the first time in more than two years, and the biggest difference I noticed had nothing to do with the pandemic. It was that when the plane touched down, I had no urge to dig my phone out of my pocket right away and turn off airplane mode.

I could see the airport rolling by outside the window, and I could remember what it had been like to eagerly revive my dormant device and reconnect with all the people out there, but that eagerness was gone. Technically of course there must have been in-flight Wi-Fi that I could have used; that whole situation of being up in the air and cut off from the world is obsolete by much more than two years. I can imagine someone raising that objection to the whole feeling I'm describing here, but my ability to imagine that objection coming from someone is the thing I'm really driving at: the impersonal antagonistic sourness I expect on the far side of the screen now.

The internet was never nice, but the awfulness on it was human awfulness. “Everything you hate about The Internet is actually everything you hate about people," Alex Balk declared, sometime before he exited the internet, leaving the rest of us to quote him again and again. The internet was people—and it still is people, and some of the people are even good, yet the overall effect is something else.

It all feels schematic. That was basically, I think, the point of the innovations and institutions that are called "Web 2.0" by the people trying to usher in "Web3": to divide up and restrict and standardize all the things people had been doing online into identifiable and brand-controllable categories. There are valves on the tubes—proprietary valves, keeping the flow moving in certain ways. One learns the gurgling rhythm of each valve-set, and gets habituated to it.

Eventually, the sound of the content-valves is louder than anything else. "Some conversations can get heavy," Twitter now says sometimes, below tweets its valve-maintenance algorithms have apparently identified as bad ones. "Don’t forget the human behind the screen."

When I did get back online, I saw a bad tweet, and I tweeted about the tweet. I don't know if it came with a warning or not, but I could have used one. The tweet was from Shadi Hamid, of the Atlantic and the Brookings Institution. In the middle of a long thread about anti-vaxxers, Hamid had tweeted this:

It was a huge mistake for liberals to make masks, expertise, and "the science" a cultural identity marker, which then further politicized everything having to do with COVID. Anti-vaxx sentiment is fueled by distrust. And it's understandable that they wouldn't trust us.

This was ridiculous, as anyone who remembers the beginning of the pandemic knows. The coronavirus was designated as a subject of political-cultural warfare by Donald Trump, who made rejecting the seriousness of the disease an essential test of loyalty, to try to prevent the bad news from harming his reelection campaign. Everything that followed was an expression of Trumpism, a test of the political power of nihilism and bullshitting against the fact of mass death, which unfortunately—

Who cares? Hamid doesn't care. There's no point in arguing against Hamid. This is someone who argued in September 2020 that the greatest threat to American democracy was that Democrats might refuse to accept the legitimacy of a Trump victory. As the writer Jonathan Bernhardt tweeted while Hamid's bad tweet was going around, his "entire job is being a guy who claims he's a lefty-liberal and does nothing other than laser-focus on squishy centrists libs to drive them farther right."

Bernhardt added, "please mute or block him," and I felt a pang of regret. I had quite genuinely forgotten the human behind the screen. With apologies to the Twitter abuse-reduction team, however, the valuable thing I had forgotten was that this particular human behind the screen did not matter, or did not deserve to matter.

In the span of time between Shadi Hamid's warning that American liberals were about to abandon democracy and his warning that American liberals had unnecessarily politicized the coronavirus, I am pretty sure I did not think of him even once. In some very real sense, he only exists to me as a source of a certain kind of irritating opinion.

And the online experience, as currently constituted, is full of figures like Hamid and their intentionally annoying opinions. We have the concept of "parasocial relationships" now, to describe the asymmetrical and essentially impersonal way that ordinary people interact with the not-exactly-human personae they encounter through media—originally, the rarefied personae of celebrities, but now the ever-multiplying personae of everyone who wants to create one.

Put enough personae together and you end up with something parasocietal: an imitation of social interchange and communal values, based on the thinnest of constructions. "[T]hinking of inventing a new type of person to get mad at on here," wrote dril, the only prophet and oracle our online times deserve. Hamid's dangerously overreaching liberals are simply a bulk order of new-type-of-persons, around which to organize resentment—to draw other people into political struggles on terrain that doesn't really exist.

Mute or block. What is the benefit of arguing with someone whose whole hope is to be argued with? All it does is thicken their watery claims on quasi-reality. What is Glenn Greenwald anymore but a faithful conduit for Tucker Carlson's talking points? What is Nate Silver but the sort of fact-free gasbag who Nate Silver got famous for disdaining? What are the self-congratulatory group-thinkers of the Intellectual Dark Web? What are any of these weird little scolds talking about except themselves?

And how does one even talk about it without descending into being a weird little scold on one's own? In the middle of writing this, I lobbed a tweet at another dumb online fight. Two others, really, even as I let two or three more go by. Platoons of straw men were being marched this way and that, itchy and inflammable. In the glare of the all-consuming moment, they were human enough.


WE PRESENT instructions for the assembly of a select sandwich from Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Recipes, Copyright 1916, now in the public domain for the delectation of all, written by Marion Harris Neil, M.C.A., former Cookery Editor, The Ladies’ Home Journal, author of How to Cook in Casserole Dishes, Candies and Bonbons and How to Make Them, Canning, Preserving and Pickling, and The Something-Different Dish.

6 slices bread
Potted egg
Green butter
Deviled ham
Aspic jelly

Butter the slices of bread and make three sandwiches, one with potted egg, one with the deviled ham, and the other with the green butter. Now put a little softened butter on them and stick all three sandwiches together, press them lightly, trim off the crusts, and cut them into six pieces; dip each one into liquid aspic jelly that is just about to set, and put them in a cool place or in a refrigerator until required.
To make the potted egg: Hard-cook three eggs, allow them to get cold, pass the yolks through a sieve, beat them with a tablespoonful of butter, season to taste with salt and paprika.

If you decide to prepare and enjoy this sandwich, kindly send a picture to us at