If social media was once a place for posting information as mundane as what you ate for lunch, it has, a decade-plus in, now gone somewhere much more intense. The first thing was hilariously simple and even sort of stupid; it has since morphed into something grotesque. And we don’t know how to turn away.
Case in point: Last week, a surf instructor named Sarah Brady began posting screenshots from a text conversation with, she claimed, her ex-boyfriend, the actor Jonah Hill. It started with a request from “Jonah” that she remove from Instagram a video of herself surfing; then there was a list of things he could not tolerate in her as a partner, including surfing with men. In text on the Instagram slide, she explained she was sharing these incredibly personal and intimate exchanges because she wanted other women to know the “signs of abuse.”
People received all of this and then responded by getting into their various positions: For some, Brady was a brave truth-teller in the vein of the #MeToo movement. For others, “Jonah,” who had invoked the concept of boundaries, was a man who was earnestly trying to make the relationship work. There were various positions along some kind of middle ground (though for many, this was also an extremely wrong take): Brady was right that he was a weasel, wrong that he was an abuser, wrong to post screenshots of a conversation with an intimate partner for all the world to see.
Brady, for her part, has kept posting through it. Her Instagram stories by Wednesday were a cacophony of support from friends and fans (in screenshots), notes-app explanations of why she did it (“I couldn’t not share this”), and TikTok riffs from other accounts on the entire situation (these range from a parody song to earnest explanations from therapist-y types about the warning signs of abuse). There were more screenshots of conversations with Jonah, ones that looked less squarely like weaselly behavior on his part and more like a newly broken-up couple going through a head-spinning fight where neither of them sees eye to eye whatsoever. At one point, Brady accuses Hill of flirting with her while having a new girlfriend; Hill responds with a thumbs-down reaction and this text: “I’m sorry WHAT.”
I feel for Brady. No matter what the facts on the ground mean, precisely—we really can’t know what happened via selected texts from one party, as much as it feels like we can—clearly this relationship sucked for her, and the fallout that preceded her posting the screenshots must have been horrible. But the main way I have felt while watching this unfold is: I am seeing something I wasn’t supposed to see.
I have had that feeling twice this week. The second instance is because an influencer I follow died recently of cancer, very young. She had recently started a family, and, in addition to her main influencing account, a business with a few employees that was centered around her personal brand but also frequently featured the faces and recommendations of her employees. Mere days after her death, it was Prime Day, a huge opportunity for influencers to make money through Amazon affiliate links. Her team, which had been dark for a few days, announced in an Instagram story that they would be doing Prime Day … in her memory. The links proceeded at a rapid clip, and included things they thought she’d like, and things culled from her Amazon order history. It felt like watching a literal ghost sell skirts.
I felt for the team, too. What else could they do, really? They are humans with families to support. I would guess that her own family gets a bunch of the money from this. I added a plastic desk organizer that they recommended to my cart.
What to think about all of this? Of course I don’t think that we should keep quiet about the shitty, possibly abusive—or not!—things famous men do. (I also don’t think that screenshots of private conversations should be shared without any kind of mediating force, nor do I think they are always so clear-cut.) Of course I don’t think that people should balance jobs and grief in a particular, exact way. (I also don’t think influencers should have to still influence from beyond the grave.) Maybe I think that we shouldn’t have people and their real, actual lives be a driving advertising force behind Amazon sales?? Maybe I think that we shouldn’t know so very, very much about the personal lives of celebrities.
All of these ideas are about what the world should be like. To me, this week was an experience in realizing what the world we have created actually feels like to live in. The raw, barely mediated clip at which we consume other people’s lives—including their tragedies, their terrible fights, their breakdowns, their deaths—feels like it has accelerated. It occurred to me that down the line I may very well watch acquaintances from high school—the ones I don’t talk to anymore, but still “keep up with” by virtue of being connected to them on social media—die online.
It has also been jarring to watch these extremely human impulses—working through a shitty or even abusive ex, going back to the office after the death of your boss—be tucked into rationales and bigger causes. It is terribly, terribly human to do both of those things, but maybe it feels more noble to do them in service of something larger? To share your anger because he was abusive, and that means that sharing your anger is not for you, it’s for everyone else, somehow. We are not normal people online anymore—we have to have arcs. We have to be the heroes. What else would you want to be when everyone else can see you?
Social media was always for more than talking about your sandwich order; it’s just that the private moments used to happen on a smaller scale. In college, I had a Tumblr account where I posted about having trouble adjusting to school, and about my crush who lived down the hall and who had a girlfriend who conveniently never materialized in our conversations. I remember checking the Google analytics and being thrilled when more than 6 people read something. Facebook itself was created for bonding at school. You couldn’t screenshot texts because there were barely smartphones. You couldn’t put affiliate links for skirts against your life story because there was no Amazon kickback program.
Posting about our lives in real time has become a reflex; even, for some, an economic necessity, as the audience for those posts has expanded rapidly beyond 6 people, beyond double digits, into the tens of thousands and beyond and beyond and beyond. Social media has replaced tabloids; it fuels news cycles. We fill our homes with things that people we feel like we know told us to buy. Maybe sometimes we feel like we are known by this personal audience, or that serving them can bring us something deeper. That was the promise: connection.
We’ve had a long time and many essays to process what it means to share online now that the internet is so hard to contain, now that the internet is the world. But this week, it felt especially like social media wasn’t offering vacation snapshots or even pivoting to shopping. It felt like a live-wire connection into the pain of others. In a sense, we get that all the time—through journalism, through novels, through music. It’s just never been so raw, haphazard … unfiltered. It doesn’t feel good. And I’m not entirely convinced it’s helping people who are suffering, either.