Multiplicity Horror, the Intelligibility Urge, Categorization Imperative, & the Mosquito-in-Amber Effect
what we are, what I am, what you are, what you always have to be
I have become convinced that the ultimate cause of the basic conditions of online life is the way being online exposes us to the existence of billions of other egos. This is what I call multiplicity horror. What truly dominates online life is not the fact that our feeds are algorithmically sorted, not how advertising warps what’s created and broadcast, not that perceiving people as digital avatars destroys empathy, not the manner in which our brain chemistries are hijacked by notifications and dopamine spikes. What makes online life what it is (that is to say, a hellscape) is the constant and unprocessable realization that billions of other minds exist that go through everything we go through. Absent the internet we can conceptualize the existence of vast masses of other egos, but the internet literalizes and immanentizes it. Not that you can connect with literal billions, but that the untold hundreds of thousands you will connect with online in your life makes real your own meaninglessness in the sea of others.
A consequence of multiplicity horror is the deep desire to be made in some sense easily and consistently comprehensible to others in a way that provides comfort to yourself. This is what I call the intelligibility urge. When confronted with the innumerable personas that populate the internet, we’re faced with several different kinds of terror. The first is that we might be just one more face among all of them. The second is that they might perceive us in a way different than we perceive ourselves. And so the intelligibility urge is the desire to be easily digestible to others, to have clear boundaries and associations that enable others to clock us quickly and assign us to a tribe. Dogmom. Wine aficionado. ACAB. Funkopop enthusiast. Hufflepuff. Proudboy. 6’2. Hopeless romantic. Pronouns in bio. Whatever the current trappings of “irony” are. All of these things, what gets stuffed into Instagram bios and online dating profiles and all manner of other places, are the consequence of intelligibility urge - the fear of being misapprehended or, worse, not apprehended at all in light of multiplicity horror. When I agitate against viewing a disability or diagnosis as an identity, for example, it provokes deeply emotional responses. My reasons for opposing diagnosis-as-identity are pretty plain and are either correct or incorrect. But the basic desire to identify in this way is easy to understand: if I just am my obsessive-compulsive disorder, then at least I am not nothing.
But the urge to self-categorize comes alongside the urge to categorize others. If I’m to juggle all of these myriad personalities, I need to classify them too. The difference is that it’s just as good, or better, if there’s something limiting and pejorative in the categories I devise. The #girlboss. The litbro. The male feminist. The basic bitch. The himbo. The pickme girl. The helicopter parent. The thisbro, the thatbro, everybody, some kind of bro. Everyone must be a type, and this is the categorization imperative. Again, too many people, too many relationships, too many minds, too many souls out there. Who could keep track of them without some kind of useful acrostic to decompose them all into their most obvious and sortable features? Of course, despite the fact that we want to be intelligible to others, to ensure that we exist, we also rankle under other people’s categories. This is why so much of internet discourse amounts to the claim that one’s combination of factors and influences is unique and uncategorizable, while everyone else is merely a type of bro. (Even women.) I think if you study a lot of online fights (Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, anywhere), you’ll find that very many of them are at least in part a matter of squabbling about categorization, people taking turns trying to force the other into a group identity.
The game depends on the idea that we are always in the process of becoming ourselves, but other people cannot change. If you have any online persona at all, you likely have people who have been implacably critical of you. Some people are quite invested in certain others being Bad, and grow deeply frustrated when everyone doesn’t treat them as Bad. What’s interesting is that even if you go through some kind of personal change that would appear to have major social consequences, people still want to cling to their old conception of you. This is the mosquito-in-amber effect; people online want you to remain the way they initially clocked you because the idea of juggling so many relationships with such a massive throng of people is already challenging enough. If that vast multitude of people can change, too, then the challenge becomes truly discouraging. I already clocked you, they seem to think, and I cannot invest the energy to clock you again.
I think some people are really invested in me being Bad, and even more invested in other people considering me Bad, in a way that has nothing to do with me in particular at all. (Which does not at all preclude the fact that I might very well be.) Again, the fundamental need is to be defined: whoever I am, they appear to think, at least I’m not Freddie deBoer. Whoever I may be below, I’m above that guy. And you can extend this to all manner of other mildly notorious internet figures. I sometimes get hate emails that are more about Glenn Greenwald than about me, which is strange - Glenn is very much his own person and so am I. But what I’ve come to realize is that often enough, in the minds of these people, Glenn and me and the Red Scare girls and Michael Tracey and Taylor Lorenz and whoever else are just a construct, the construct of the set of people who are beneath that they can be above. All of the above are perfectly suitable to criticize; the point is that there's a constant tendency to use them/us for purposes of in group identity independent of our actual reality. The internet needs hate figures to create solidarity and give people a sense of superiority. I think anyone who enjoys even minor internet fame like me can recognize the experience of when someone rages about you and it really has nothing to do with you at all. You are merely an instrument for them to define who they are and are not. This is particularly true of those who played the game in the casino of our creative industries and, having failed, cannot bring themselves to blame the loaded dice.
Much has been made of the difference between the environment we evolved in for 300,000 years and the one we occupy now. This has been discussed in terms of our diet and our sedentary lifestyles and our problems with anxiety and depression. To me, an under-discussed element of our transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to digital homesteaders is simply the multiplication of relationships. Your little wandering clan in the Stone Age might have numbered a couple dozen. Then, with the dawn of agriculture and thus of cities, the number of relationships rose and rose, but linearly. And then, suddenly, the internet arrives, the number of people you’re exposed to rises exponentially, and you must keep track of a dizzying number of personalities. It’s all too much. So the mind begins to work in shorthand - and it happens that being treated this way offends us deep in our souls.
Jesus this is good. I have nothing to add, I just needed to note that.
I love this piece. I have to disagree a bit however, especially when it comes to politics. In real life, I live in a world where the political dichotomy of "conservative/Republican/right" vs "liberal/Democrat/left" is strong, almost ironclad. You rarely find anyone who reminds you that while those words have correlation, they are not synonyms. (Fortunately, I've known a few libertarians in my life, so I had an inkling.) But I have discovered even through Twitter, though especially following people, like you, on Substack, that that's not so. And that's beautiful because I finally found my "tribe" if not my ideological soulmate (political orphans who want actual discussion and nuance and solutions rather than campaign slogans and platforms).
But I agree with the rest, though I think the online world has just exacerbated an already existing human tendency to categorize. And our political milieu (meaning our uniparty system that pretends to offer two options and the media that acts as its PR arm) has in recent years made that tendency not just annoying and unhealthy but toxic.