- Jameela Jamil dragged for comparing reproductive rights to landlord rights Tuesday 6:54 PM
- Trump campaign posts Thanos meme, totally misses point of ‘Endgame’ Tuesday 5:58 PM
- Petition calls for Apple to make a Baby Yoda emoji Tuesday 5:16 PM
- This BTS-Billie Eilish mashup is the most popular tweet of 2019 Tuesday 4:51 PM
- Michelle Wolf embraces vulgarity in ‘Joke Show’ Tuesday 4:24 PM
- Influencer gets 14 years in prison for trying to steal domain name at gunpoint Tuesday 4:14 PM
- ‘Three Days of Christmas’ is a delightfully dark holiday alternative to Hallmark Tuesday 3:55 PM
- The way Trump Jr. holds his own book inspires mockery Tuesday 3:47 PM
- Woman facing backlash for no longer wearing hijab in end of the decade photo Tuesday 3:16 PM
- Report: Consulting firm lied about decreasing violence at Rikers Island jail Tuesday 2:36 PM
- TikTok users are sharing things they thought were ‘ghetto’ as kids Tuesday 2:31 PM
- Republicans just blocked a net neutrality vote in the Senate Tuesday 2:24 PM
- ‘Fox & Friends’ host stuck using dad’s account after Twitter suspension Tuesday 1:10 PM
- ‘They’ is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year Tuesday 12:56 PM
- Inside Dolby’s big ‘Star Wars’ retrospective exhibition Tuesday 12:48 PM
Peterbd and me: How I befriended an anonymous alt lit superstar
“i feel like i can trust you,” said Peterbd, the anonymous Internet entity. “i can tell we’re gonna be good friends.”
In January 2014, my friend, writer/director Alex J. Mann, forwarded me an email he’d received from an anonymous poet:
Subject: alex j mann is a lifestyle
To: Alex J. Mann
academics appreciate alex j mann because he’s the shit
keep in mind that alex j mann won america’s next top model twice
if you’ve ever heard alex j mann sing acapella and you didn’t give him money afterwords then wtf is wrong with you?
alex j mann is the adele of not answering your phone calls
being responsible is something that alex j mann doesn’t have to think about because he is a fucking celebrity
alex j mann brings all the girls to the yard
if alex j mann is apathetic to your existence then you probably should be freaking out right about now
whenever alex j mann gets hungry, he texts francis ford coppola and then francis goes over to alex’s place and makes him a snack
seeking alex j mann’s approval will get you everywhere
lmao @ you thinking that you can dutty wine better than alex j mann
jack and jill
went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water
jack fell down cause alex pushed him
then jill and alex decided to go out on a date
everybody knows that alex j mann is banksy’s publicist
if you didn’t cry the first time you realized alex j mann is a triple threat then smh
dis was good – a youtube commenter reviewing an alex j mann video
beyonce wrote ‘flawless’ after she spotted alex j mann pimp stroliing down atlantic ave
Alex J. Mann has not won America’s Next Top Model once, let alone twice. (I think the title of the show precludes repeat winners.) To my knowledge, he’s never pushed over another man to win a date. Alex is the Adele of actually answering my phone calls. He’s never worked as Banksy’s publicist, though in his days as director of a startup, his office in the Meatpacking District was suspiciously close to Mr. Brainwash’s exhibit. Seeking Alex’s approval, even the “triple threat” himself would admit, won’t get you very far.
In other words, all the details of the poem were invented, except maybe the YouTube comment “dis was good.” Yet the subject of the caricature—a writer who is aggressive, ambitious, organized, protective of his time—is consistent with how I’ve come to see Alex in the five years we’ve known each other. I wondered if the poet knew my friend in real life and was teasing him, highlighting certain imperious and grandiose threads in his character. Or, if “Peterbd” was a stranger to Alex, what compelled him to dash off something that, though funny, seemed sort of careless and unkind?
Not bitter enough to be the work of a troll, not adulatory enough to be the work of a fan, the poem’s intent seemed unclear.
I asked Alex what it felt like to receive the email. “I was amused and curious,” he said. Did he sense that Peterbd was trying to knock him down a peg? Not at all. “Honored to be ‘chosen’ by him,” he told me. “I kept asking, ‘Why me out of everyone on the Internet?’ The only people who were frightened or suspicious were the people I showed it to. But I think those same people wouldn’t be frightened or suspicious if they had been on the receiving end.”
After a short search, Alex found a Tumblr called “peterbd complete works.” The sidebar reads, “PETERBD IF ANY OF THESE ARE FRAUDULENT EMAIL ME AND I WILL DELETE THEM AND OUST THE CHARLATANS!!!! i love yu.” You can click through 11 pages of emails addressed to people and entities you likely haven’t heard of: Casey, Nathan, Drew Millard, Elaine Sun, Scrambler Books, and many others. Alex dutifully submitted his poem—and another one the next month (“alex j mann is dichotomous”).
“Peterbd complete works” was created by real-life friends of Peterbd, poet Shaun Gannon and Pennsylvania-based writer DJ Berndt. In Peterbd’s ebook, I AM, a fictionalized Berndt urges the author, his “cousin,” to become an “anonymous internet entity.” “Trust me,” fake DJ says to Peterbd, “this will be amazing for your relevance.”
i had no idea what relevance was in that moment, but now it’s what i live by. i have tons of internet friends, my self doubt and insecurity have all but disappeared, and everyone talks about how ‘mysterious’ and ‘intriguing’ i am due to my anonymity. this is all because of dj berndt. he pushed me to believe in myself. he created me. he got me likes on tumblr. for this cousin deej, i thank you.
“I’d love if you could figure out [Peterbd’s] fascination with me,” Alex nudged me. “I’ve received two poems. That’s gotta be a record.” Alex’s intrigue was an understandably human reaction to a calibrated cold read. We’re reflexively curious about anonymous provocateurs, easily baited by novel spins on ourselves.
Alex gave me Peterbd’s email address. The poet proved remarkably willing to trade long, confessional emails (see for yourself: [email protected]). “i once sent a guy named chris seder a 20,000 word email,” Peterbd wrote me. “that was my longest and it kind of drove me nuts and it probably sucks but it was fun to write because it taught me a lot about discipline.” Charmed by his discursive self-effacements and unwieldy aperçus, I began to wish for my own poem. Requesting one seemed untoward. I resolved to wait until a poem appeared in my inbox, at the whim of some enchanted algorithm. Then I would submit the poem to “peterbd complete works” and join the ranks of Casey, Nathan, and Alex J. Mann.
I’m still waiting for that poem. What I got, however, was even stranger.
Peterbd, seen above with a sheet over his head, rarely capitalizes anything. His poems are associative, deadpan, improvisational, declarative, complimentary, sloppy. He scraps celebrity names for parts (“junot diaz and daniel roberts go to the strip club every sunday. if it wasn’t for these sunday night shenanigans, junot diaz would’ve never wrote his short story ‘the money.’”), similar to how novelist Tao Lin appropriates the names “Dakota Fanning” and “Haley Joel Osment” for non–child star protagonists in Richard Yates.
Peterbd repeats the email recipient’s name ad nauseum: “you are shaun gannon and you can recite every word tracy chapman has ever said / you are shaun gannon and you believe the devil needs to get on your level.” Just as he did in his poem about Mann, Peterbd renders his subjects heroes by pumping up their résumés (“he beat the lead singer of maroon 5 in a debate because he knows what he’s talking about”).
As I excavated more of Peterbd’s body of work and poked around his digital milieu, I learned of his friendships online and in real life (IRL) with many folks in the “alt lit” scene, a network of writers who publish prose and poetry on social channels: blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, Tumblr-hosted lit mags, and DIY publishing houses.
Alt lit writers share many of Peterbd’s stylistic tics, namely a facility and fascination with the Internet’s memes and mores. Much like the digressive status updates they parody or mimic (or neighbor in your News Feed), typical works prioritize verisimilitude of online interaction over workshop-endorsed strictures of form, structure, or—sometimes regrettably—spelling. Even militant boosters of alt lit will admit that most of the output is pretty amateurish, but in a community that seems a simulacrum of the Internet itself, perhaps we should welcome tyro typists’ intrusions as authenticating details, even as we click to the next pastiche of tweets.
My knowledge of alt lit before writing this piece was limited to a few pages of Richard Yates and a few laughs at wry posts on Thought Catalog. In my mind I cast these people as nervous hermits tinychatting with strangers, emojis who smoke. According to this narrative, the Internet has enabled the hermits to crawl into Book Culture’s empty shells. They’ve built their own publishing houses and lit mags and have written extensively about themselves, capitalizing on the gap between the respect we still afford these old markers of legitimacy and the ease with which anyone can now beautify and broadcast their ramblings.
I was afraid to post this article on the Internet, where a savvy or bored commenter might immediately point out a critical flaw in my argument, rendering my work—and, by extension, my existence—invalid. To be exposed for not taking the time to sniff around this clique, to seem glib—such infractions online are never forgiven. Fair enough, I guess. Internet writers’ disregard for truth in pursuit of publishing first might be even more flagrant if we lived without any fear of being strapped to the ducking-stool and plunged into the Twitter stream. As I roamed the alt litscape in search of Peterbd’s context, I worried I’d never find a ledge where I could sit and look out at the jagged terrain of Tumblrs, Blogspots, Gchat logs, Facebook status updates, archived Formsprings (a social Q&A site, rebranded last year as Spring.me), online lit zines, the comment threads of alt lit blog HTMLGIANT … I would probably not even click through the right series of links to find alt lit’s most important works. What if I dropped in the story what I assumed to be a canonical trope of the community, only to be trolled for 20 years by invisible alt linguists who’d seized on my tiny oversight? What if I didn’t get it?
Good luck cobbling together the complete works of a choice alt poet. Maybe art today is, and should be, short-lived, fragmented, byte-sized, audience-specific—crafted to engage only its immediate audience. Snapchat, longform improv comedy, alt lit—maybe today these ephemeral, ecstatically insular forms best capture today’s destabilized conceit of legacy. Snaps won’t be collated in several volumes by Francis Steegmuller. Those convoluted, 40-minute mono-scenes at the UCB? Sorry, had to be there! Alt lit insists on living and creating in the present, untethered to the impossible dream of epochal transcendence.
The scene, of course, has its detractors. Last January, Vice published a hit piece by Josh Baines, “Alt-Lit Is for Boring, Infantile Narcissists,” in which the author derides alt lit for “the narcissism, the solipsism, the glorification of online communication, the brattiness, the backslapping, [and] the fucking image macros” he claims are pervasive in its culture. Though the article’s provocative title obscures the author’s somewhat more nuanced argument (he likes Tao Lin), I found myself unmoved by the litany of literary sins, instead impressed with the equanimous responses from alt lit writers in the comments section. “you ended your thing saying it’s vice hating on things,” Tao Lin cautioned another commenter, “but it’s not, it’s 1 person typing something & posting it, ‘vice’ doesn’t exist as a conscious entity that can hate on things.”
Alt lit doesn’t exist as a conscious entity, but, as I discovered in my study of Peterbd, it does have an ethos—one I found inclusive and playful, pertinent to 20-somethings who write poetry and work as line cooks, attentive to the pulse of the Internet in a way I haven’t felt elsewhere.
Internet denizen Beach Sloth, whose glowing alt lit reviews in the past have bestowed a kind of status on their subjects, complicated my notion of these people as socially-avoidant meanies. “My goal is to try and make anonymity kinder,” Beach Sloth told me. He described himself as a “pretty outgoing person” and opined that “a lot of the alt lit scene tends to be extremely social and hang out on a regular basis. Whatever is written about social anxiety and such is partly though not fully true.” He took note of Peterbd in 2011: “This is the first time anyone’s really focused on Peterbd. Personally, that’s a shame. Any contact I’ve had with Peter has been beyond engaging.”
DJ Berndt spoke warmly of driving with Peterbd from York, Penn., to College Park in Maryland, to hang out with people in the D.C. scene. Maggie Lee, also a writer, told me about her time as a freshman at The College of New Jersey (“like super unhappy, so always on the Internet”) who was “consistently tinychatting like every day” with Peterbd and a group of cyberfriends. She was
really getting into like getting the hell out of nj to visit people i liked from the internet. I went up to boston to visit elaine [Sun], and we threw a party in her apartment at tufts, and we had been telling peterbd he better come, like harassing him almost, lol, jokingly, but also seriously. he said he wasn’t coming. then a ‘friend’ of Stephen mcdowell’s (buttercup) came with buttercup and was introduced as ‘Sam’ and we sort of believed it, but also were like ‘this is totally peterbd’. elaine and I were shouting ‘you’re peterbd’ at him throughout the night and he continued to deny. he commented positively about me playing gwen stefani though, and then I knew it was him, because we both love gwen stefani and I knew that. I don’t actually remember whether it was admitted while in boston or like some time after that. anyway, he’s a chilled out dude. he texts me sometimes when weird shit is happening to him, he says we are like family, lol, i do feel like we have like a sibling relationship. he was recently in the hospital texting me pics of his shitty hospital food and stuff. one time he drove me from brooklyn to manhattan so I could pick up my birth control.
Hearing these stories and noting the nostalgia my questions about Peterbd seemed to elicit, I started to get excited about taking road trips, which I’ve always avoided for fear of screwing up my meditation practice or paleo diet. I wanted to become more spontaneous. The more I thought about it, the more cooped up I felt living in Brooklyn, trying to cultivate discipline and good habits at the expense of experiencing strong emotions and being irresponsible. Noah Cicero, an influential alt lit novelist, echoed in an interview this idea of writers needing to lead free-wheeling lifestyles:
What I think is most important, essential to all this, is the idea of the return of the literary life. The idea of a person ‘living a literary life’ was dead. Dave Eggers, Franzen and DFW weren’t living a literary life, they were like professors and do-gooders. The literary life is about ‘living,’ like Rimbaud, Whitman, Celine, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, traveling, doing drugs, partying, standing on street corners in cities and thinking crazy thoughts, taking shits in gas stations in Nebraska at 4 in the morning, going to Asia to teach English, flying over from New Zealand or England just to get drunk with people who’ve met online. Staying up till 5 in the morning talking about philosophy and politics. Making a ten-minute long YouTube video about something you can’t get off your mind. It’s that kid walking down the street with headphones playing Ladytron, carrying a laptop, and a copy of The Stranger, who just feels like this is fucked …
Currently I am sitting in Seongnam, South Korea on a beautiful blue sky morning, staring out at a Buddhist pagoda on a mountain. I can see some cherry blossoms from my seat writing this, I wouldn’t be here unless I met Brittany Wallace through the alt lit connection. To reduce alt lit, online literature or whatever, to merely literature is not the truth. It is a way of life, a new type of view that doesn’t correspond with the views of societies that want us to be good little college kids that get jobs and pay off our student loans, then buy televisions and cable, and spend our lives watching “Two and Half Men”, Fox News, CNN and Shia Lebeouf movies in some dumbass suburb going deeper and deeper into debt.
Maybe this idea of “living a literary life” is a tired trope. Evidently such a life consists of doing drugs, talking, thinking, pooping, and traveling. Sounds like a regular life. And what’s so bad about being a “do-gooder”?
“what is the more vital ‘rite of passage’ for alt lit brands,” poet Steve Roggenbuck once asked his Twitter followers, “geting a email from peterbd, or geting mentioned in a @beach_sloth review?”
Noah Cicero, in the interview quoted above, expressed admiration for the 26-year-old Internet troubadour and do-goody evangelist, a dirty-blonde, gap-toothed Neal Cassady type whose infectious positivity has earned him a profile in Gawker by Internet folklorist Adrian Chen and the Adderalled allegiance of thousands of alt teens. (Roggenbuck didn’t respond to my email about Peterbd.) In handheld-video poems, the bard jump-cuts from platitudes cribbed from self-help dogma, to cleverly raw exhortations to make art (“As a poet, it’s your job to text people pictures of the sunset,” he shouts), to vaguely confessional non sequiturs that “parody … every boring YouTube video blog you’ve seen,” as Chen says.
Watching the videos, I realized Roggenbuck’s dizzying camerawork, weird Twitter wordplay, and war whoops had so scrambled my state that I’d become receptive to the maxims and calls to action. Normally I’m numb to the moralizing. I sometimes feel like the Holstee Manifesto—Dream Big, Make Awesome Stuff, Incessantly Pitch Your Loved Ones—sets the tenor of online content, a chorus of bromides resounding in a gymnasium full of fitness gurus and life coaches. But somehow, having been boosted to the gills with Roggenbuck’s rapid-fire appeals to Queen Latifah (lent extra poignancy with Explosions in the Sky’s overblown loops), I felt ready to “have some agency,” “to scale feminism, to scale anti-oppression.”
The barrage of quirky observations and phony outrage mimics the experience I have each morning scrolling through my Twitter feed. The Web’s dissonant polyphony is beamed back at me by a man who, in Chen’s words, “appears to have just broken out from a dark basement where he’d been imprisoned from a young age, raised entirely on AOL chatrooms, reality TV and Monster Energy Drinks.” While I’m reeling, just as the inborn itch to click to a new tab surges from brain to wrist, Roggenbuck reminds me of words I’ve long aspired to live by and know to be true from experience, and from reading the books in school that first made me want to write.
I don’t think the Internet deadens our senses to life’s wonders. The Internet’s a wonder itself. A much more nefarious force—habit, the most primal and artless productivity hack—was eroding our joie de vivre well before the invention of the Kindle Fire or even regular fire. When KNM ER 3883 and his H. erectus bros nibbled tubers around a hearth near Kenya’s Lake Turkana shore 1.6 million years ago, long before the dawn of cave painters and bone flautists, were our ancestral laggards lucky enough to have a holy fool in the tribe to prod them with Acheulean tools and shout about the shortness of life?
Roggenbuck’s videos strike me as examples of what an artist must do today to “frick” us, to remind us of the hovering birds of prey. Should more artists shout like Roggenbuck to slap us awake? His work seems a potent salve for the daily smear of content I hate-read. Within a day, maybe a few hours, I forget the long-form works I’ve read, let alone the 700-word “essays” or responses to responses I’ve skimmed. Each day I half-consciously defer the process of severing my attachment to tiny red flags. Roggenbuck boosts himself into a frenzy of gratitude and tries to transmit, via YouTube, the heightened sensitivity to the physical world I pine for at low points.
“These are people who felt so much,” Roggenbuck says of poets like John Keats and Walt Whitman,
and wanted to communicate it and needed to communicate it to people. And the way that they communicated it was in books because that’s how people communicated what was in their hearts in the 1800s. We don’t just have the opportunity to produce books for people now, we have the opportunity to be in people’s lives every day. When people wake up and check their phone, and they’re scrolling through their Twitter, they can get your poetry right then. You get to reach people with lines of poetry immediately when they wake up. And on their lunchbreak everyday. And before bed at night, when they’re scrolling through. And you get to be right next to their friends, their family members. They’re reading updates from their mom, and then they read an update from you, the poet. You get to be in people’s lives on such a crazy level. This is the dream. This is the dream for poets.
I’ve never read a Steven Pressfield novel, but I devoured The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles and the more recent Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work. I bought copies for malingering friends. “Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end,” says Pressfield, as work-shy creatives anticipate the inevitable, dreadful conclusion, “the question can only be answered by action.”
Pressfield, I suspect, is better known as a life coach for writers than as a novelist. Genre-bending author Geoff Dyer ranks D.H. Lawrence’s and John Cheever’s letters above their novels. Marc Maron’s stand-up comedy leaves me cold, but his conversations with creators on his twice-weekly podcast revive my flagging will to write. Instead of doling out his consciousness in measured doses to letters, short stories, stand-up routines, podcast episodes, keynotes on marketing, and discourses on how to Do the Work (another Pressfield title), Roggenbuck crams it all into five-minute Gesamtkunstwerks. And unlike the work of Marcel Proust, whose descriptions of the plant kingdom we endure to get to the general truths that will change our lives (as Alain de Botton promises in his oft-maligned treatise on the sage hypochondriac), the vlogger from rural Michigan is unafraid to bludgeon us with the moral of the story. In fact, the moral of the story is nearly the whole story: the stuff of self-help rejiggered as poetry.
Peterbd admitted to me that he often emails Internet writers with whose work he’s never read. His emails to these people are usually grounded in a familiarity with content they’ve published on less traditional channels. “i’ve never read [Mira Gonzalez’s] poetry book,” he confessed. “i’m too busy laughing at her insane tweets.” Peterbd is more curious about his targets’ personalities than their works. When I asked about his interest in Beyoncé, who is mentioned in both of his paeans to Alex J. Mann, his alleged fascination with my friend fell apart:
i don’t know if i have a thing for beyonce but i have been putting her in a lot of stuff i write lately. i think it’s funny to maybe write something serious and throw beyonce’s name in there. it makes things less boring. like if i’m writing to a female poet, i’ll say she’s like anne sexton and beyonce in one. … choosing who to email is not something i think about. it just happens. like when i came across alex j mann. i thought he was funny and wanted to email him something that would make him laugh.
I hope this revelation does not make Alex feel like a woman who discovers that her Mr. Right has poached all his smooth lines from The Game—or that the huckster has received scripted sweet talk from an earpiece linked to a lavalier pinned to the unbuttoned Oxford of a ponytailed lothario crouched in a bunker beneath a bottle service table. But because of their spontaneity and arbitrary selection criteria for targets, the emails lack the more sinister angle I initially detected. Maybe there’s no reason to be suspicious of Peterbd.
A more accurate model of Peterbd’s gambit—why his poems seem to inspire curiosity and appreciation from all recipients except one Vice writer—is, as I mentioned at the outset of this essay, a kind of seduction to which both parties are privy. Maybe art, if it is to catch our attention online, must deal specifically with us. Acclimated to apps and Amazon accounts that cushion us with algorithmic bliss, we now expect the same from all content. Peterbd feeds his subject what xoJane writer Mandy Stadtmiller calls chick crack:
Chick crack = there’s no real substantive relationship between the man and the woman, but the hyper-sweet, sensitive or thoughtful language being used implies a helluva lot more than actually exists, often inspiring the woman’s sexual affections on the basis of some cracky sweet nothings being flung her way.
I think, though, that this comparison makes his poems out to be more frivolous than they are. Peterbd susses out peculiar details of people who hover around the bubble of Internet success and embellishes, twists, and warps these facts. He refracts our personas, makes us more intriguing to ourselves.
In this case, the charming dude is not deluding me of anything. I’m a horny chick who rarely finds someone I want to work out that sexual energy with where I can feel good about it afterward. I’m using him as much as he’s using me. And we do have an authentic basis of friendly affection. We’ve talked for hours on the phone, and I think we genuinely care for each other—as much as anyone genuinely cares for someone who they could also go months without talking to and be totally fine.
There’s mutual complicity in the construction of a dream world. I’ll talk more about this kind of collaboration in my discussion of Internet friendship and my relationship with Peterbd—a charming dude who isn’t deluding me of anything, I think.
Roggenbuck raised $17,006 from 392 backers on Kickstarter in December to fund Boost House, an alt lit publisher and a vegan, drug-free, and alcohol-free co-op house to be rented in Brunswick, Maine. “We want to amplify voices who fuse poetry and internet humor with positivity and anti-oppression,” he wrote on the Kickstarter page. A $150 donation got you “RARE DOCUMENTS FROM STEVE ROGGENBUCK’S PAST.” For $200:
ONE OF YOUR SELFIES WILL BE PRINTED OFF AND KEPT IN ONE OF THESE RARE LOCATIONS IN BOOST HOUSE: in the crisper of the refrigerator (next to the Justin Bieber pic of course), underneath Steve’s pillow for 1 full year, on the ceiling of every single room, across from a toilet, or in a shower.
ONE OF THE BATHROOMS IN BOOST HOUSE WILL BE NAMED AFTER YOU, + “EXTREME YOLO PACKAGE”: there will be a sign posted that clearly names one of our bathrooms after you, referring to you as if you are dead: “The [Your Name] Memorial Bathroom.” We can use your internet name, other nickname, or legal name. All visitors to the house must refer to the bathroom by its full name, or they will be asked to leave.
Boost House’s first major project, The YOLO Pages, released on April 8, is an “epic anthology of poems, tweets, image macros, and prose from over 50 people” that covers “‘alt lit,’ ‘weird twitter,’ and associated communities and figures.” It has “a focus especially on politically and spiritually minded writers” and “affirms the integration of poetry into concrete efforts to make the world better.” Two weeks before the anthology’s release, someone submitted an anonymous comment to Boost House’s Tumblr:
i just saw the contributor list for the yolo pages and it’s pretty obvious that steve roggenbuck and boost house operates on a nepotistic basis – that’s why it’s so hard for other writers to get involved in the alt lit scene – people only care about the same rotation of names
I get the sense reading Roggenbuck’s measured response (“one of the main purposes of the anthology is to introduce people to these communities … and what’s been happening there, so of course it’s going to have a lot of ‘greatest hits’”), several posts on Tumblr, and over one hundred comments on a thread Roggenbuck started in Alt Lit Gossip’s Facebook group that, basically, this commenter is wrong. The discussion provoked by the anonymous figure illuminates alt lit’s inclusivity as well as larger quandaries about status, publishing, and the future of artistic communities online. Several writers featured in The YOLO Pages made statements in support of Roggenbuck and Boost House that included stories of alt lit discovery. Here’s Bob Schofield, one of the lesser-known contributors:
Finding alt lit and the twc [Tumblr Writing Community] was like finding some weird little Narnia in my pocket. Not just bc there was interesting stuff being put out, but also that it felt totally approachable.
I mean, I’m not like a mountain of self-confidence or anything, but I felt pretty sure that I could send stuff out there and it was going to be seen by someone and judged more or less on its own merits and just like wasn’t going to die frozen and alone in the vacuum of space.
And though I do remember also sensing a certain “cliquishness” in the beginning, seeing the same names over and over, it also seems to me now like a lot of those names were the ones that would consistently put out the best/most interesting stuff.
And I think that’s just the natural tendency in these kind of open communities.
There’s going to be some level of reciprocity. It’s instinctual. People scratch each other’s backs. It’s a thing.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s like a “cool kid’s table” and some big velvet rope.
James Ganas, another YOLO Pages contributor:
i had been friends with steve [Roggenbuck], commenting on his statuses occasionally (not like, deep facebook chat-type friends), for about 9 months, starting in august 2011, before he came to seattle in may 2012. when he came to seattle he was looking for people to stay with, so i offered my place (again, publicly, on a status update), and he took me up on that offer. he stayed with my girlfriend at the time for ~2 weeks and then with me for ~1 week. while he was staying with my girlfriend he did a reading in tacoma, that i was invited to read at, or attend, if i wanted to. at this point i had not shared any of my writing online and was probably invited a) because i was nice to steve and b) on the assumption that i probably wrote, without full knowledge that i actually did. we read at a coffee shop, and afterward steve said he liked my poetry and was interested in helping set up a click-through ebook for the poems i read that night. we did, i believe, 2 more readings during his initial stop in seattle. …
my experience tells me that getting involved in and gaining notoriety for involvement in alt lit can be very easy. be kind to people, continue writing, prioritize real-life interaction if possible, and you can become involved. it is not very difficult.
This sentiment—Hm, yeah, I can see why you’d say that, but this community is as welcoming as any you’ll ever find—was almost universal among other commenters. Tao Lin wrote a response in which he detailed a process, at the outset of his career in the mid-aughts, of submitting to the “smallest, ‘shittiest’ venues” that he could “adapt [his] identity to feel a part of at that point in [his] life.” When even these small, shitty outlets rejected him, he invented his own: “i had a magazine called ‘squid and rat’ or something and other magazines that don’t exist anymore. in some of them i published myself i think.” Roggenbuck has shared a similar story of rejection from academia: “i started fully embraceing my identity as an ‘Internet poet’ only after my [MFA] workshop teacher left me a condescending comment on my poem, ‘save this stuff for your blog.’”
Bret Easton Ellis often rants on his podcast about Generation Wuss—people in their 20s raised in a culture where “everyone gets four gold stars,” where any attack on a work of art is perceived as an attack on the artist, where if you criticize any piece of art you’re labeled a hater. In a way I trust Ellis’s perspective since he seems to have been marginalized and mocked from the outset of his literary career, which began when he was 21, still an undergraduate at Bennington College in Vermont. Reading the Facebook discussion of nepotism-gate, I wondered if the commenters were too willing to understand and engage with a criticism scrawled by someone whose writing was just really, really bad. What if alt lit provides a sort of self-congratulatory avenue through which bad writers who have not put enough hours into their craft can reify their delusions? Publish now, skirt the painful process of feedback and rejection. I know, for example, that when I write a post on Medium, I can fool myself into thinking I’m a bonafide writer-savant because I can sculpt blocks of text to look so good so easily with the site’s sleek interface. I can fuss with the perfect image caption and tinker with headings instead of attending to the clarity and precision of my sentences. I suppose there are algorithms and “Editor’s Picks” (the placement of that apostrophe really bugs me) to reward posts that add value to the site, but still, when I try to read these top posts, I lose trust in Medium and its contributors after encountering too many errant commas and clumsy formatting choices.
Which leads me to the end of George Packer’s essay in the New Yorker about Amazon:
At the moment, those people [book consumers] are obsessed with how they read books—whether it’s on a Kindle or an iPad or on printed pages. This conversation, though important, takes place in the shallows and misses the deeper currents that, in the digital age, are pushing American culture under the control of ever fewer and more powerful corporations. [Amazon.com CEO Jeff] Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?
What I take from nepotism-gate is that kinder gatekeepers (Boost House, maybe even Medium) in the literary world are constructing more porous barriers tailored to the specific contours of their communities. Alt lit might suffer from an abundance of shlock, a byproduct of its success in attracting enough writers and readers to have a community at all, but I think the efforts of people like Roggenbuck will, with time, breed a more vibrant, meritocratic atmosphere and deliver more crossover successes like Tao Lin. I itch to see what kind of strange, beautiful writing emerges from the collective in 10 years, when it finds a more accessible and potent balance of infrastructure and improvisation.
In an almost inexorable process, then, alt lit becomes more selective. Packer’s idea of a flat post-publishing world that lacks any method for separating the gold from the dross—or whose method consists of counting five-star reviews—seems, at best, to insult readers’ abilities to recognize “quality” writing. Or it insults readers’ abilities to organize their own systems for discovering and directing attention to whatever they define as quality. There are loads of micro-cliques on Twitter where books of the moment are bandied about. If we believe Packer, publishers delight in saving neotenous writers with unmonetizable ideas from lifelong penury; they prevent the printed word from devolving into listicle chapbooks and ultimate business cards. But when we have more tastemakers and fewer gatekeepers, will the former not eventually stumble upon a decent mechanism for recommending art, for allocating attention?
I understand the concern that, without the support of a big publisher, a young novelist might subconsciously steer away from sustained experiments in form and language. Writing a zany novel like Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude without that kind of backing might feel like trying to win the Tour de France without a team of domestiques and soigneurs. That said, I accept the challenge of finding an alternate route, of skirting the industry’s speed wobble and crash on my descent to the finishing straight, of independently funding and promoting and sustaining my unmarketable drivel. (Please know I’ll hop off this soapbox the second I’m offered a measly advance and a half-enthused editor.) By all accounts, save for one or two anonymous commenters, any number of alt lit magazines are eager for Packer’s dejected “new talent” to submit their work. Maybe these wayward creatives will test fictional forms on YouTube or podcasts, build platforms large enough to fund Kickstarters, attract the attention of residency programs. Maybe they’ll make friends on Facebook who have couches in cool cities, where they can try out the literary life (walk around listening to Ladytron, feeling like this is fucked, as Cicero suggested). “The complete commercialization of ideas” could just as easily spur a renaissance as it could spurn the next quirky novel.
The personal brand
While reading Peterbd’s 25-page ebook, I AM—published by NAP Magazine in 2012, the recipient of the first perfect (100.0) score from the popular review site i am alt lit—I was struck by the number of times the poet, speaking as one of more than a dozen cyberfriends or figures he impersonates in the book, mentions boosting, blogging, tweeting, branding, and staying “relevant” as an anonymous Internet entity. After he (falsely) admits to being Beach Sloth, Peterbd rants about the strain of schlepping around this hefty digital image:
And sure, a couple people have seen me, but a couple of people seeing me is not going to get me the large amount of tumblr notes needed for a true boost. I want to be fucking boosted. I want to be so boosted that steve roggenbuck and his fans surrender to my boosted level of enlightenment. I can’t take this shit anymore! I’m tired of running all these blogs, and twitters, and tumblrs. I’m tired of emailing random people. I’m tired of ignoring my wife. Yes, I have a wife. She is a very poundable wife. She helps me boost alt litsters on weekends. Her name is Brenda. I’m tired you guys.
I suspect this exhaustion with image management is familiar to most writers today. Seeing our obsession with status online presented as nothing more than a tirade on Tumblr notes incites us to reorient our attention to our art. Or perhaps, more cynically, the passage suggests we’re so mired in our self-fashioning, our selfie taking, our digital witnessing—“If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?” asks Annie Clark (alias St. Vincent)—that it’s become the most relevant topic for creative exploration today. “if you ever watch someone post a story online or tweet something and no one likes or tumbles it and they get sad or anxious,” Peterbd said to me, “it’s kind of a depressing thing to see because it shouldn’t be about that stuff at all.”
I’ll try to describe I AM, though I do recommend you click through it at some point. It needs to be experienced. Each page of the free ebook—not a downloadable PDF but rather a linked series of pages—is a screenshot of a poem or story set in a doctored webpage in a Chrome browser. For example, the first poem, “I AM STEPHEN TULLY DIERKS,” looks like a post on Dierks’s personal Tumblr. Other tabs in the browser are visible at the top of the page, including the third issue of Pop Serial, where Dierks is an editor, and a YouTube clip of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” (According to the poem, Dierks is a big R&B fan.) The poem follows the form its title suggests: The narrator lists facts about himself with slight modifiers and caveats (“i enjoy updating my blog / correction / i enjoy updating my blog occasionally”). The page, like many others in the ebook, is partially shrouded in blue highlighter, or “mystery smoke.”
Elsewhere in the book, Beach Sloth’s blogspot is co-opted for the aforementioned rant about branding (“sloth porn” on YouTube occupies another tab). There’s a multi-page, seemingly-earnest account of the anxious and indecisive narrator’s two-hour drive to a reading by “C.M.,” a writer embroiled in a minor “media storm” who he’s emailed but has never met before IRL. The story is pasted over a screenshot of a YouTube video of Ted Nugent performing “Catch Scratch Fever” live at Cal Jam II in 1978. After nervously excusing himself when C.M. introduces herself, the narrator concludes the story with a moral of sorts:
on one side, it’s so easy [on the Internet] to get your writing out there and to get stuff published, but on the other its easy to contact and have sex with people whom you probably would’ve never had sex with if the internet didn’t exist. this isn’t all i learned from this story, just one of the things.
On a Taco Bell Doritos Locos page, Peterbd admits to paying poet Ana C. $200 per month to tweet for him:
if you compare our tweets you can definitely tell it’s ana c. ex: tweet from 3/9 2012: making mashed potatoes is harder than i thought. that’s obviously something ana c. would say. so fucking obvious.
Additional subjects include Diana Salier (pasted over a Saved by the Bell “Lost Episode” titled “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” on FanFiction.net), Jimmy Chen (over the contact page for escort “VIP Alexa”), Sam Pink (over Maury’s website), and Tao Lin (over a request on 4chan for a free copy of Lin’s work—“I’d like to check out his writing myself without giving him any money,” the user explains). When the narrator emails Tao Lin to express his admiration for the alt lit god (other browser tabs: “Koala Dance Bots Workshop” on YouTube, Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, Jesus’ Wikipedia page), Tao Lin gives a one-word response: “jesus.” The narrator hacks Lin’s email and Twitter, informs him of this transgression, and threatens to reveal Lin’s “secret emails to the alt lit world” unless he acknowledges Peterbd’s existence.
to this, tao lin responded ‘jesus’ and told me i could ghost write some pieces on thought catalog as him alls i had to do afterwords was stop being so ‘unchill’ and stalk other alt lit people instead i said ‘ok’. and tao lin said ‘sweet’. tao lin swiftly gave me the email addresses of the most ‘relevant’ alt lit players in the game and the rest is history i’ve become part of this small indie lit community as well as writing some pieces for thought catalog as tao lin i think i can die now.
Peterbd confirmed to me that the story was entirely invented. “[Lin] probably [knows] nothing about me to be honest,” he said. I struggled to figure out where in the ebook the author was being earnest and where he was lying, what was true and what was not. To complicate matters, Peterbd told me about an incident where his art foretold his life:
i wrote this thing for sway press, run by lucas cellar and ian dick jones, about this guy whose a male prostitute for a day. someone asked me before if it was a true story and at the time it wasn’t but i can’t say the same thing today haha. it didn’t involve any sex or anything too weird though, if you’re wondering. i just needed a couple of hundreds bucks to make rent. it involved this woman who had a fetish and i’ll just leave it at that for now.
Click to expand:
I’m now friends with Peterbd. We have not met IRL or spoken on the phone or tinychatted or even Gchatted, though I hope to do some of these things with him soon. He’s a college graduate in his mid-20s. I don’t know where he lives or what he looks like. He has a “cool uncle in dubai” and a brother who used to play soccer “overseas.” He won’t talk about his parents—“a touchy subject.”
What I know about him I know from my emails with him or with people who have met him, though I chose not to ask friends about his identity, appearance, or whereabouts. Neither I AM nor his 2014 chapbook, we’re fucked—261 (according to my tally) flash-fiction accounts of writer Janey Smith’s sexual encounters with everyone on the fuck list he published on HTMLGIANT (including Lin, Roggenbuck, Beach Sloth, and Peterbd)—offer any substantial biographical info.
He’s emailed roughly 100 people—not just alt litsters, he emphasized, but also “comedians, sports writers, musicians, and fashion editors.” He delights in watching these people find greater exposure and success. “i remember when gabby bess was working at target two years ago,” he mused in one characteristic rags-to-riches yarn. “now she writes for a number of publications and she’s becoming a respected writer.” He finds it pretty easy to get in touch with his subjects:
i don’t usually have a hard time finding people’s emails. people post so much about themselves online that it’s almost scary. i only got a bad response to one of my emails from one or two people which i thought was weird since they had all their contact information on their tumblr/twitter etc. sometimes if i’m on tumblr and a person is like ‘send me a message. i love emails!’, i’ll send them a long, intense story about themselves just because i can do that. telling me you like emails is like telling a crackhead that he’s about to get some free crack.
Although it’s more common for Peterbd to spend hours writing a piece, email it to the subject, and not receive a response, negative reactions to his work are a reality. One such response came from Vice writer Jamie Taete, to whom Peterbd had sent an amusing series of images of Donald Trump with abusive captions, such as this one:
‘you see this unfinished building i’m pointing to? this building is gonna be turned into a 5 star hotel. i’m a successful business man. i get money. what has jamie taete done for society besides being chill and funny. oh my god. fuck that guy’
Peterbd’s take on the incident:
i remember i sent a writer an email and he posted it on vice and said he hated alt lit and disliked my wacky internet art. i thought it was weird that he labeled what i did specifically alt lit which is a weird term to me in general. i was still somewhat new to the game at that point and didn’t understand where his hatred for young people being creative online came from. prior to that, i thought vice embraced like different new shit that other people were doing on their own terms. i don’t think i’ve looked at vice the same way since lol.
His discomfort with his work being tagged as alt lit—which I guess one could connect to a long tradition of writers disavowing any affiliation with groups or schools of artists with whom they seem to have obvious commonalities in style or perspective—makes more sense when you know the story of Peterbd’s genesis:
school ended [in 2011], i was unemployed and had lots of free time. when you have lots of free time it’s easy for you to stumble upon things on the internet that you otherwise would’ve never even knew existed. all of this literally happened in a day and the rest is history. i don’t think i have an enterprise. i’m a one man show and just do this in my free time, but i think things really started picking up steam when that tumblr [“peterbd complete works”] was created and i’d get emails from people asking me questions or wanting to know why i was so mysterious. i got coined ‘the mysterious peterbd.’ this was like a couple of days after i starting doing it.
i was immediately embraced by them which was strange because i had no idea what any of that stuff was all about prior to emailing a couple of people associated with alt lit. a good portion of them encouraged me, and started asking me questions, and wanted to meet me etc. at first i thought it was kind of strange because i never talked to anyone online ever and was oblivious to online literature communities but once i realized lots of the people were cool, i just rolled with it. …
i do feel like i was adopted [by the alt lit community]. a lot of those writers have told me that they really wanted to get into the scene and they studied it for months while i just came into it with curiosity and ignorance. it’s fun discovering things that way i think. my life is more interesting ever since it happened. i don’t want to come off like my life is so horrible and everything is fucked up in it. for the most part, my life was ok and relatively stable. it’s just that a lot of stuff happened in the past couple of years and it was hard to deal with. i’m no different from anyone else who went or is going through a tough time. most of my stress just came from school and living my life for everyone instead of my self. this is the first time in my life where i’m doing shit that i want to do and it feels good.
We mythologize anonymous artists while working to unmask them. It’s how we amuse ourselves on the digital playground. Reading the story of Peterbd’s initial contact with alt lit began to quell my distrust of his intentions engendered by his emails to my friend Alex. Rather than some indignant troll, here was one of Packer’s lost writers flailing around in cyberspace, trying to find the right outlet and audience for the idiosyncratic works he’s powerless not to make. “before i would just have tons of notebooks of crazy ideas and stories and lyrics and i’d never do anything with them,” he said. “with the ‘peterbd’ thing i feel like i’ve found my creative niche. even though some people might think it’s a weird niche.”
Why email? Beach Sloth expressed appreciation for “how [Peterbd] approaches people [he’s] interested in (via email, which is nearly an outdated form of communication in many ways, like how email seems almost corporate-like). Somehow PeterBD manages to make email playful which is getting harder to do.”
“it’s crazy that you asked me why i write my emails to people,” said Peterbd.
i never thought about it in great detail. maybe i should unplug from the internet for awhile and do some soul searching lol. but yea you’re correct about me wanting to make the other person’s day, to engage with them, and to connect because in some way it just feels good. life is hard out here for a lot of people so it’s nice that some people feel good reading the emails. i haven’t really looked at it that way. most times i feel like i’m punishing the person and they’re extremely irritated that a stranger is polluting their inbox with spam. a good portion of people have emailed me and told me they thought i was a spambot until they realized i wasn’t lol.
Approaching strangers—in person, on the phone, via email—is daunting, even for someone sharing something as benign as a free, personalized poem. Lots of stuff has been written on the Internet about the best way to approach people on OkCupid or how to hobnob electronically with high-octane, busy people. The skill demands a dollop of empathy and a willingness to offer good vibes without any expectation of reciprocity. It demands firsthand knowledge that “life is hard out here for a lot of people,” a truism Peterbd has learned firsthand. He works crappy service industry jobs and struggles to make rent. He once worked at a Syrian restaurant as “a driver, waiter, dishwasher and whatever else the owner wanted me to be at any given moment.” When he found himself buying food for the restaurant without being reimbursed, driving his boss’s wife to the mall, and picking up his boss’s teenage daughter from a party at midnight, he quit. When I first contacted him, he had just been fired “10 minutes ago” from another part-time job as a line cook:
it involved me peeling and chopping lots of potatoes, broccoli, squash, and sweet potatoes. the hardest thing to chop and peel was squash. i cut myself twice chopping squash. me and the head chef live in the same neighborhood and even though he’s cool i don’t want to run into him because you know, awkward.
The dismissal leaves him with only one full-time job, which he declined to discuss. Given the nature of his employment, he’s come to expect periodic bouts of financial uncertainty. He recounted a strange, unfortunate, and amusing story of his recent hospitalization triggered by overwork and exhaustion:
the hospital thing capped off a month of shittiness. i worked for basically the entire month of february. besides my wonderful mother giving me money so i can ride the train, i support myself and can get in the habit of working way too much. this year has been insane because i lost my job, and owed people money, and had all these bills and i came up with the bright idea of working for an entire month so i could deal with all these issues at once. so basically on the 28th of february, i was having severe chest pain and i could hardly breath. i was having a little pain throughout the week but i was ignoring it because rent was due and me paying rent comes before everything. when i was in college, i didn’t have a place to live for my entire junior year and i slept in my car sometimes or not at all so i don’t want to go back to ever living that way. so i was in the hospital for 24 hours and they kept an eye on me, ran tests, and gave me shitty hospital food. this hospital was also super religious and anytime a phlebotomist drew my blood or a nurse took my blood pressure they would ask if i loved god or if i was keeping holy on the sabbath. i don’t have any problems with super religious people, but in the state i was in, all of that shit weirded me out. there was also a pastor who got my number and calls me from time to time which is think is weird but i guess nice of him? so i left the hospital and took a bus back home. my insurance just so happened to end on the 28th so i had to buy my own medication. this medication made my condition worse but i went to work anyway because i already missed two days and you know, rent. at the job that i still have now, one of my coworkers asked if i was better. i said no and explained my condition to her and she basically told me that i probably had a lung infection because she went through what i went through the year before. she made me this hot tea concoction and immediately after she made it i felt like i could breath. hospitals are a sham lol. this was only the second time i’ve been to the er. i was there last year but i’m pretty sure that was due to having an anxiety attack caused by very potent weed cookies. i don’t have health problems but know now that i have to slow down and take care of myself. i had saturday off for the first time this year and it feels good. i can’t believe i worked all those saturdays. i’ve been missing out on lots of fun shit.
As our emails grew in detail and length, we began to sign off with expressions of genuine affection.
“i’m enjoying this back and forth conversation,” he said at the end of his sixth email.
“I’m enjoying it too,” I said.
“you’re a cool dude,” he said in No. 7.
“Several things in your last email made me LOL,” I said.
“i feel really inspired again after talking with you,” he said in number 8.
“I like you a lot and hope we can meet IRL some day,” I said.
“whatever else you want to ask me you can. feel like i can trust you,” said Peterbd, the anonymous Internet entity. “i can tell we’re gonna be good friends.”
We made tentative plans to meet in Virginia in May, when I’d be in Richmond for another writing project. He has my phone number. He didn’t offer his. “i saved your number in my phone,” he said. “i’m going to text you out of the blue one day.”
i guess i only give my number to people i consider friends. [a] couple of people who i’ve never met and some i have met have my number. sometimes i won’t give my number to someone just to fuck with them. i know it sounds a little mean but it’s kind of funny haha. like they want me to be this anon person so i’ll just act like not giving them my number is part of the mystery. in a way i do feel liberated because i feel like i can do whatever the fuck i want and not have to answer to anyone but sometimes i feel like i can’t show certain sides of myself. peterbd is super ambiguous so i can’t be too much of one thing or people will find me out or think of me in a different way. a lot of times people will ask me if i’m asexual or a woman or what race i am. i think all that stuff is funny. for the most part though, i feel liberated. regarding irl, i think i’m even more myself than i am online. i feel like i can 100% be myself and bring those two sides of me together. some people thought i was going to be super awkward and weird and they couldn’t believe how normal i was. like i wasn’t just sitting [at] my computer all day afraid to face the real world. i actually have a social life but yea i can be shy sometimes. it depends on who i’m talking too. sometimes i’m shy with people i don’t know and other times i’m super talkative and enjoy engaging with those around me. i think lots of people are like that. in school i was known as the shy, quiet one and then the next minute i was known as the class clown. i feel very reserved but also very uninhibited. i don’t think i’d be shy talking with you irl. we’d have a crazy, fun time haha.
Peterbd’s depiction of himself as shy but not awkward was consistent with what I was told by Beach Sloth. “PeterBD is shy in real life,” he said. “Once he begins getting excited by something he tends to talk more.” The phantom poet is—even in his disembodied, anonymous form—a bundle of contradictions: a shy class clown meticulously crafting a digital persona that makes him “feel liberated,” a sweet-natured provocateur who bothers people to make their day. The ambiguity of tone and intent that had piqued my interest, aroused my suspicions, actually constitutes the emotional crux of his work.
I do think we’ll have a crazy, fun time when we hang out IRL, even if he only gives his number to people he considers friends, and has not given me his number.
Adrian Chen, the author of the Roggenbuck profile in Gawker, wrote an essay not long ago about online friendship. He recounts how, while taking some time off from college, he met his best friend on the message board “of a Portland-based online DIY community called Urban Honking.”
When someone asks me how I know someone and I say “the Internet,” there is often a subtle pause, as if I had revealed we’d met through a benign but vaguely kinky hobby, like glassblowing class, maybe. The first generation of digital natives are coming of age, but two strangers meeting online is still suspicious (with the exception of dating sites, whose bare utility has blunted most stigma). What’s more, online venues that encourage strangers to form lasting friendships are dying out. Forums and emailing are being replaced by Facebook, which was built on the premise that people would rather carefully populate their online life with just a handful of “real” friends and shut out all the trolls, stalkers, and scammers. Now that distrust of online strangers is embedded in the code of our most popular social network, it is becoming increasingly unlikely for people to interact with anyone online they don’t already know.
Fear of that digital wilderness, along with the hubbub about the documentary Catfish (and its MTV spin-off), contributed to my skepticism of the anonymous emailer. I’m saddened to think that, just as living in New York City makes you skittish—for good reason, in most cases—about meeting strangers, living on the Internet trains you to assume someone like Peterbd is a troll or spambot.
“Recently,” Chen writes, “an army of op-ed writers and best-selling authors have argued that social media is degrading our real-life relationships.”
“Friendship is devolving from a relationship to a feeling,” wrote the cultural critic William Deresiewicz in 2009, “from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves.”
Today’s skepticism of online relationships would have dismayed the early theorists of the Internet. For them, the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, from the privacy of our “electronic caves” was a boon to human interaction. The computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider breathlessly foretold the Internet in a 1968 paper with Robert W. Taylor, “The Computer as a Communication Device”: He imagined that communication in the future would take place over a network of loosely-linked “online interactive communities.” But he also predicted that “life will be happier for the on-line individual, because those with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity.” The ability to associate online with those we find most stimulating would lead to truer bonds than real world relationships determined by arbitrary variables of proximity and social class.
The ideas of early Internet theorists about online enhancement of offline life remind me of Tinder’s slogan: “It’s like real life, but better.” I’m not sure my online or offline persona could cope with the scale of rejection one must endure to find a mate in that brighter version of analog life, but the slogan makes sense. Considering all the variables of circumstance and emotion endemic to meeting mates IRL, the mutual right-swipe seems a markedly more efficient way to spread love.
In our email exchange, Peterbd and I discovered a mutual affinity for meeting strangers at bars. We believe these creative encounters with new people often feel more fun and stimulating than dinner parties with our social network, walled off from the “trolls, stalkers, and scammers”—people like us. “It’s funny what you said about how hanging out with your normal friends is bland,” he said. “none of my friends know what i do online and i like them a lot, but i find sometimes that some people i know strictly from the internet are more interesting than some people i know irl.”
I had forgotten about this brief episode in our conversation. When I read the entire exchange aloud to a friend IRL, she threw my insolence back in my face. Friendship, she argued, requires consistent effort on behalf of both parties to keep the relationship honest, interesting, supportive, stimulating. If you’re bored, it’s your fault. At once I felt like Adelle Waldman’s quintessential Brooklyn literary jerk Nathaniel P., who proves more captive to the whimsies of his fickle emotions—more conflict-avoidant, less willing to question his behavior—than the women he faults for having the same timeless, human inconstancy.
Ever suspicious of Peterbd’s motives, I had not yet questioned my own. I needed stuff to write about. I wanted details and funny stories from Peterbd’s personal life. Several times during our interminable email exchange I felt burned out by the saga. I’d come home from work in the evening and feel reluctant to respond point-by-point to all of Peterbd’s confessions and questions. I responded anyway. I put in the work to sustain the anecdotal flow, and now we’re friends, maybe.
“growing up, i was never the person who was the center of attention and if i was i never really noticed it,” Peterbd confided in me. “i think being anon is good for me at times because i feel like i can scale back a bit sometime and not soak up all this weird attention.” Does anonymity actually enable him to not have to be as forthright, open with himself and others in some way? Are friends not friends until they’ve swapped smells, blood, spit, tears, or pheromones? Am I, can I, be friends with Peterbd?
I brought it up in a conversation with British novelist Socrates Adams. “With more specific reference to peterbd,” said Adams,
I think I agree with what you said. I think almost anyone’s initial reaction to someone sending them a story about themselves out of the blue would be ‘he’s mocking me’. The fact that the stories he sends are so tonally ambiguous reinforces this assumption. But I ended up really liking him, and find him sincere (as much as anyone anonymous can be, in any case).
Peterbd’s first email to Adams was a Gchat argument between God and Satan about who Adams liked more as a friend.
god: lol. keep dreamin’ lucifer. socrates likes me the best because
he was made in my image
satan: i beg to defer. have you seen your image lately?
it’s a mess. sunscreen is not the enemy god.
oh yea and socrates likes me the best because i provide him with the best ways to sin.
After he swears that he “would give up being HOLY if that’s what socrates wanted and would anoint socrates as god as my replacement,” God wins the argument. Satan leaves the Gchat to go “convince tiger woods that it’s a good idea to bang a hot waitress at olive garden.”
Adams responded with a story of his own. In it, Peterbd is at a bar with a friend but is captivated by Socrates, who is joking, laughing, crying, and dancing atop an adjacent table.
Peterbd drinks a little more beer. He’s here with a friend of his. His friend is boring. His friend is telling Peterbd about his day in the office. Peterbd wants very badly to say to his friend, why can’t you be fucking more like Socrates you boring piece of shit work-obsessed fuck. Peterbd says, I’m really enjoying your story.
The real Peterbd did enjoy Socrates’ story:
this was interesting socrates. no one has ever written a story with my name in it. i have been alone in bars sometimes speaking to uninteresting people while being angry at the fact that you’re the fifth element and king of this galaxy.do you have any books out? i just ordered a book from a guy named tom fletcher called ‘the leaping’. have you heard of him or his books? i need to read more books. i should read one of yours if you have books out. i thought about calling you a bloke just now then realized it sounded ridiculous.
“We then started a really nice, casual friendship,” Socrates explained.
I sent him an early draft of my novel A Modern Family, which he seemed to like, and then, I think I sent him Everything’s Fine, which he also liked, I think. I would occasionally tell him things about my life and he would occasionally tell me small, vague things about his life. I really like him, he seems benign and even kind sometimes and really friendly. He seems to care about writing. I still do talk to him from time to time, and love it when he favourites my tweets.
There’s nothing more deflating to a recipient of chick crack (“it’s super easy to talk to you,” Peterbd once said to me. “i only talk like this to maybe one or two other people online”) than to be presented with incontrovertible evidence that the object of one’s affection talks like that to everyone.
Luke Stoddard Nathan is a writer living in Brooklyn and New Paltz, N.Y.
Photo via shabbydollhouse.tumblr.com