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COVID-19 and the ‘trick mirror’: how the pandemic has forced us into an eternal performance of the self

Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion sheds light on internet culture
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ISLA MCLAUGHLIN/THE VARSITY
ISLA MCLAUGHLIN/THE VARSITY

I bought Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion after encountering a TikTok that featured a list of recommended readings for ‘hot girl summer.’ Days later, the essay collection rested atop my pile of books containing Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love and Sally Rooney’s Normal People

The paperback collected dust on my carefully curated side table for a while, but in a futile attempt to ease my increasing anxiety — which I blamed on endless and unavoidable screen time because of virtual learning and the stay-at-home order — I decided that I would read an essay each morning before going on social media. 

Ironically, the first essay of the collection is “The I in the Internet.” The essay is a deconstruction of internet culture. It features topics such as the performance that users oftentimes feel obligated to maintain and the greatest concerns we should have with the never-ending advancements of mass media. Tolentino uses autotheory, an academic research approach combining theory and anecdotes, to examine how the internet exploits attention and monetizes selfhood.

The text argues that identity on the internet is an intersection of emulation and manipulation — most content is shared to convince an audience that the user’s manufactured existence is real, like an endless ‘I am not a robot’ test. “The I in the Internet” culminates with a cautioning of an unquestioned symbiosis between selfhood and the internet, in which the parasitic internet will continue to benefit at users’ expense.

Jia Tolentino finished writing Trick Mirror in the fall of 2018, almost two years before classrooms became pixelated, offices were relocated to kitchen tables, and grocery shopping was considered an expedition. As I worked through the first essay, I continuously questioned how Tolentino’s “The I in the Internet” applied to the pandemic.

Tolentino draws from Erving Goffman’s framework for playacting, which claims people perform their identity to an audience. Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, published in 1959, predates the internet. However, his theory is the basis for Tolentino’s interpretation. 

Like most of my generation, I learned how to perform various acceptable versions of myself on social media, all carefully curated for each platform’s anticipated audience: Facebook updates always remain family-friendly, while Twitter festers with oversharing and unhinged likes. Unlike Goffman’s analysis of in-person performances of identity, Tolentino argues those online are not afforded a “backstage” — a place to decompress from the performances.

Capitalism eliminates this “backstage.” Users are positioned in an eternal panopticon surrounded by personalized content the algorithms determine desirable to them. We will then, as Tolentino says, “replicate for the Internet who we know, who we think we are, who we want to be.”

In the conclusion of “The I in the Internet,” Tolentino prophesied that a user’s complete identification with the internet arrived earlier than expected because of the unprecedented shift to a virtual everything. Forced to rely on the internet for connection, the pandemic has left us immobilized. However, it has also held us to the same standards of content production on platforms where we have been conditioned to create desirable performances of the self. 

With limited opportunities to create said performances, I have watched as users — myself included — overindulge in materialism and exploit personal opinions for attention, all in some deluded attempt to reproduce real-world autonomy online. Writing this article is an excellent example of that.

I bought Trick Mirror because I wanted to be someone who could recommend the essay collection for the likely prohibited hot girl summer. I bought Trick Mirror because the past fourteen months of isolation have left me vulnerable to potential photo opportunities of an aesthetically pleasing stack of books on my bedside table. I bought Trick Mirror because the internet convinced me that owning this essay collection would reaffirm the perception of myself I desire from my audience.

You should read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, but not because you’ll appear to be well-read for hot girl summer. You should read Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion to relieve yourself from the obligation to continue to perform online when the pandemic makes authenticity nearly impossible.