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Rattling the Cage

Claiming authorship in the age of the internet

My business was boredom. For years, I was the person whose job it was to keep you clicking, to keep you scrolling. To keep you grimly entertained. Forgive me—the concepts of “amusement” and “information” have never been so porous, the line dividing “news” from “diversion” has never before worn so thin. What I needed from you was time, your time, now understood to be a commodity. Somehow, through the alchemy of AdSense, this was supposed to turn into money. In the so-called attention economy, even the most cloistered institutions were aghast to find themselves now begging for spare change.

“It had occurred to her early,” begins Henry James’s 1898 novella In the Cage, which follows an unnamed telegram operator in London, “that in her position—that of a young person spending, in framed and wired confinement, the life of a guinea-pig or magpie—she should know a great many persons without their recognising the acquaintance.” James’s protagonist—young, female, lower middle class at best—passes her days as a kind of ghost, sending and receiving other people’s messages, other people’s words. She is the conduit for so many other people’s lives—all while remaining essentially invisible. Every letter, every piece of punctuation, every “STOP” must pass through her, but she herself leaves behind no trace. Not even when she tries to intervene, to insert herself into the story—not even when she tries to better shape the goings-on of Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen—can she truly claim authorship. She is brimming with words, too many words, she spills over with too much information. “She had seen all sorts of things and pieced together all sorts of mysteries,” is how James writes it. And yet she does not garner a name.

She is not unlike her more contemporary iteration, the social media manager. When I first encountered her, I was in the cage myself, spending my working hours tweeting for one outlet or another, and I underlined more sentences regarding her life than I thought possible. Her concerns, her observations, the arc of her story, startled me, so closely did they seem to resemble my own. Spending my days mired in the muck of other people’s words, shaping and reshaping their phrases so as best to fit a character limit or possibly make a desperate morsel of content go viral, I also felt as though I were invisible, swept up in the detritus of other people’s days, other people’s fantasies. Every day I stared at my computer, and my computer stared back at me.

It hadn’t always been like that. When I was younger, I had regarded the computer as a kind of friend, a companion, and I often fell asleep with it in the same room as me, the soft whirr of its fan like the familiar breath of a pet. When I was lonely, it was there for me: in those idealistic days of the early 2000s, it was very easy for a shy adolescent to go online and fire up an entire parallel universe, losing themselves to the advantages of anonymity. As a child, I had been warned to never give my real name or location to strangers online, and so I never did, hiding occasionally under LiveJournal nom de plumes but more often than not simply lurking. I’d log on and idly read some tidbit of celebrity gossip while illegally downloading an MP3 of a Japanese surf rock band gleaned from some obscure blog while clicking through a Flickr album featuring street fashion trends from half a world away. It all seemed very innocent, practically prelapsarian in its rhythms, even when a pop-up beckoned me to click on geriatric pornography or digital slot games. “Anonymity,” writes Joanne McNeil in her 2020 book Lurking: How a Person Became a User, “is the state of being public but unacknowledged, while privacy refers to protection from intrusion from the public.” And to think of all that consumer data I was so freely giving away!

Electricity and its attendant contraptions, including the telegram, had changed literature, hadn’t they?

Things are different now. The world has shrunk since the advent of the smartphone. The women of Tokyo dress the same as the women in Paris dress the same as the women in New York. We scroll and scroll through our individualized content streams, but we’ll never reach the end; in this atomization of experience, it is hard to see the collective point of it all. I no longer like to fall asleep with my computer in the same room; I’ve read too many ugly articles about surveillance. Lying in bed, though, I know it’s out there. I know it’s sitting in my living room, and the phone lying plugged in on my nightstand is even worse. I can feel it, somehow, radiating heat, pulsating. A kind of electric moan.

There were not many jobs in 2012, the year I graduated college, and fewer still in the sectors in which I hoped to work, the ones that produced words and imagery and even the occasional dream. Paradoxically, the very thing that helped eliminate these jobs—the advent of the digital—was also responsible for one of the few avenues of expansion, of growth. Magazines and corporations and political campaigns and non-profits alike all needed someone to run the social media accounts they now relied on while simultaneously professing to disdain. Publishing and media, especially, created a hierarchy between digital and print, one that felt increasingly absurd with every passing year.

It was a moment in time which people were always predicting that the internet and the e-book were about to kill off the novel itself, a prognosis that I found irritating. Electricity and its attendant contraptions, including the telegram, had changed literature, hadn’t they? That abrupt bit of rag time inserted halfway through The Waste Land, as though one were listening to a spurt of recorded music blare while walking down a city block—“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag / It’s so elegant / So intelligent”—still startles, like a gramophone from beyond the grave. And yet the rhetoric of the other side—the early and eager adoptors who embraced change for change’s sake as they live tweeted “experimental” short stories or evangelized on behalf of book-lending start-ups that resembled nothing insomuch as a privatized version of the public library—also bothered me, what Dubravka Ugrešić once wisely termed the “ecstatic self-satisfying revolutionary rhetoric” in her critique of “Twitter literature.” The internet, I thought, was simply a tool, to be used in service of spreading the gospel of something far more important: art and culture. I had no desire to disrupt literature, not in the way Silicon Valley used the term—they worshipped at the altar of the present tense, mistaking their propensity towards iconoclasm for a more benign futurism. But was even this a self-entrapment, a form of being in the cage?

“When she noticed, she noticed; that was what it came to,” writes James. Sitting bleary-eyed and tense behind the names of various companies and publications—including the accounts belonging to the very magazine publishing this essay—I also spent my days noticing. I noticed when you liked a post praising the point-of-view featured in a post from the magazine’s blog, and I noticed when you likened me to a Nazi prison guard for some perceived affront. I noticed all the conversations that unfolded all around me, the threads that twined and splintered, until the original point had been lost entirely in the churn of retweets and reactions. It is a kind of fan dance, the ways in which people strategically choose what to and what not to reveal about themselves online.

And I had a front-row seat: unlike the telegram operator, I was also a collector of information, a tallier of private consumption habits, responsible for monthly reports concerning the popularity of certain posts and the “engagement” rates of readers. I was privy to the click maps provided by newsletter services like Mailchimp; I added up likes and comments and shares and divided them by the number of literal eyeballs sliding over a post and thought I’d go crazy as I chased after “key performance indicators,” otherwise known as KPIs. Often I felt as though I were a spy, reporting back from behind enemy lines, but I, too, was an enemy, an enemy to myself—I could not stop clicking. I could not stop looking. Late at night, even when I wasn’t on the clock, interrupting my evening for one celebrity death or another, I’d lie in bed with my phone cupped in my hand, acting as a voyeur; or, more accurately, a ghost.

Have I commodified myself entirely? It was with my own fingers that I used to press “send,” that I used to take on the viewpoint of another. My “real” self merged with the purported self of the brand. At some point, it became popular for brand accounts to use “I,” as though the account was the personification of the person itself, Galatea as focus grouped by a room full of marketers. This trend eventually morphed into the bizarre phenomenon of “horny brands,” which reached its apotheosis, as Nathan Allebach notes in Vulture. The jumble of information turned even stranger, as fast food brands waxed poetic about how much they wanted to fuck one another while teenagers cancelled contemporary YA authors and former U.S. governors shamelessly declared their distaste for presidential term limits. And the entire time, I was there, I was noticing. It was a human behind that machine.

The cage has descended, and the forms in which we write have changed—our sentences are different from the long and twisted parentheticals of Henry James.

The amount of decontextualized information was overwhelming. This is true, too, for the protagonist of In the Cage: her attempts to learn more about and intervene in the lives of her clients are born out of telegrams passed back and forth between her fingers, telegrams containing information that she attempts to impose a narrative on—a narrative that, in the novella, reveals itself to be different than what she imagined. The affair between Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen, characters who pass their telegrams back and forth via the protagonist with increasing frequency, is one in fact defined by debts—those that Everard owes, and that which allow Lady Bradeen to convince him to marry her. But the protagonist remains in the cage, the conduit for the information, unable to actually intervene. The words and actions of her clients, their games, “remained all day; their presence continued and abode with her, was in everything she did till nightfall, in the thousands of other words she counted, she transmitted, in all the all the stamps she detached and the letters she weighed and the change she gave, equally unconscious and unerring in each of these particulars.” She is defined by these words, she is shaped by them, she merges with them, and yet she has no idea what they really mean. She is more akin to an automaton than a thinking human being.

I likewise wondered sometimes if people realized that it was not a robot tweeting to them, or a child. Now and again someone would tweet at an account either congratulating or denouncing their “social media intern,” a phrase that took on the quality of a meme in various social media manager online groups. The average age of a social media manager, according to one survey conducted by the recruitment service Zippia, is thirty-eight. Wired, in 2018, noted that 70 to 80 percent of social media managers self-identify as women. Like the telegram operator of old or the coders of the early days of the computer, social media depends largely on the labor of women.

At my screen and off it, I lived a double life. Even as day turned into night, there was its ever-present glow. “This was neither more nor less than the queer extension of her experience, the double life that, in the cage, she grew at last to lead,” writes James. Our lives today are lived on screens; we lose our hearts and even our minds to algorithms with increasing frequency. “As the weeks went on,” he continues, “there she lived more and more into the world of whiffs and glimpses, and found her divinations work faster and stretch further.” The fantasy of it, the danger—what I often longed for, in those days, was the ability to go offline, but in the cage, the online always surrounded her.

In his forthcoming book Digital Lethargy, the academic and poet Tung-Hui Hu quotes from the scholar Anne Anlin Cheng when discussing the German writer Heike Geissler’s novel, Seasonal Associate, set in an Amazon sorting facility: “How do we take seriously the life of a subject who lives as an object?” Hu’s point, essentially, is to ask how art can best approach the flattening, depersonalizing effects of the internet. It’s a good question, one that I’m unsure if many novels have yet answered.

Curiously, even when they take as their subject matter the very people who work on and create the internet as we know it, the social media manager is often absent from the so-called internet novel. In Dutch writer Hanna Bervoets’s We Had to Remove This Post, translated by Emma Rault, social media posts are major plot points, but the characters are in-house content moderators for a social media platform: a job that is low-paid with grueling hours, and that often exposes its workers to horrific images of human cruelty, including murder, pedophilia, and animal torture (as reported on in a disturbing 2014 Wired article by Adrian Chen following content moderators in the Philippines and cited by Bervoets as inspiration for her novel). Kevin Nguyen’s New Waves is set among employees in a tech start-up, as is Dave Egger’s nefarious Facebook stand-in The Circle. The writerly narrators of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This both spend prodigious amounts of time on Twitter (referred to by Lockwood, preciously, as the portal), but though the fragmentary experience of the scroll bleeds into the form of both these books, it’s met with disapproval: “If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter,” the narrator of Fake Accounts petulantly claims, sounding rather silly.

Brandon Taylor, in his essay on the latter two novels, points out that this is essentially a moral claim: “The Internet Novel captures some of the weird Gothic horror that white people have come, by way of their new digital Calvinism, to accept as being inherent to digital life.” There is a latent conservatism to all this fantasizing about a life lived without the corrupting influence of the internet—but the cat is out of the bag. The internet is here to stay. The cage has descended, and the forms in which we write have changed—our sentences are different from the long and twisted parentheticals of Henry James.

Do I regret working as a social media manager? Of course not—it’s how I’ve paid my rent and bought my groceries. Without the internet, I suppose I would have lived a very different life. It has afforded me, too, glimpses of other worlds, other people’s points of view. There is something to be said about the pleasures of spying: silent on the other side of the screen, some of us are looking. Some of us are watching. Some of us are writing this all down.