In a social world that is increasingly collapsing the barriers between the online and the offline, novelist and literary critic Lauren Oyler wants to ask the question, “How real is the internet?”
On March 25, 2021, Oyler joined Stanford Professors Adrian Daub and Rob Reich in conversation about her new book, Fake Accounts. In this gripping debut, Oyler explores fiction and reality in the internet age. The discussion spanned a variety of topics—including online personalities, literary culture, and Twitter politics—but was primarily motivated by the underlying concern about distortion and creation in virtual spaces.
Without a doubt, the internet has insidiously crept into our lives, often merging the online and offline world. During the conversation, Oyler brought up the example of the 2017 Women’s March. “Something about the internet that is important is the sort of broad awareness that it creates — or seems to create. It creates all these sorts of self-referential conversations that give us the sense that the Women’s March takes place primarily online, because we’re reading all about it beforehand, we’re reading all about it after.” This blending of what is happening virtually and what is actually happening tests the process by which events come into being. In a way, it demonstrates Oyler’s observation that “the internet is … part of the political system, it has real effects on every aspect of our lives.”
Daub, the director of the Clayman Institute, had a different perspective on the march, arguing that it was the one time he felt “at peace” with the internet. For him, the online presence of the Women’s March represents the “positive aspects of the human drive for constant communication and constant community.”
Fake Accounts explores how men and women behave online — referencing how the internet can act as an outlet for both toxic masculinity and the expression of unrestricted emotion. Men and women’s behavior online isn’t necessarily worse; instead, it may just manifest differently, and the characters in Oyler’s novel demonstrate some of these manifestations.
Oyler also discussed gender performance in the virtual world. Fake Accounts explores how men and women behave online — referencing how the internet can act as an outlet for both toxic masculinity and the expression of unrestricted emotion. Men and women’s behavior online isn’t necessarily worse; instead, it may just manifest differently, and the characters in Oyler’s novel demonstrate some of these manifestations.
In response to an audience members’ question about whether or not this delineation between men’s and women’s internet behavior perpetuates stereotypes, Oyler drew a distinction between generalization and essentialization. “There is some value in making a generalization periodically … but I’m very resistant to essentializing. I think it’s quite hard to discuss anything if you can’t say … the idea that a woman is this, or a man is this. What I resist is saying that it has to be this way.”
Later in the conversation, Daub, Oyler, and Reich dared to discuss cancel culture. Oyler remarked that cancel culture is neither fully positive nor negative, and that there have been “convenient exaggerations” on both sides about what cancel culture actually is. Cancel culture is ultimately a question of the consequence of online words, and thus internet discourse serves as a testing ground for other forms of civil speech.
Reich highlighted this connection while questioning the alleged democracy of online speech. “As someone who thinks about democratic theory, I always find it abusive to call the internet the democratizing phenomenon if it only means that every person has permission to express themselves without any norms of civility or moderation at all,” said Reich, the director of the Center for Ethics in Society. In response, Oyler noted the power dynamics at play in online speech and debate. “So much of these debates take place on what’s called ‘media Twitter,’ many of whose participants have a lot of power and they have a lot of platform … So much of it, at the end of the day, is about making money in some way,” said Oyler. She asserts that, as a result, these discussions cannot be called truly democratic.
The panel then addressed the connection between the internet and literature. The relationship between these two—both of which merge fiction and reality—is forefronted in Oyler’s “internet novel.” Daub raised the argument that the internet is replacing literature in providing discursive elements, but he observed that Oyler’s book demonstrates how literature and the internet can be complementary. Reich and Oyler both remarked on how the online world can also be a place for individuals to connect and discuss literature, whether or not this is a consistently positive development in the literary community.
“I don’t think that just because there are a lot of bad things about the internet, we must say the Internet is bad. I think more in terms of do the benefits outweigh the costs,” Oyler said.
Overall, Oyler underlined how internet culture intersects with — and thus impacts —multiple aspects of identity and experience. “I had to admit that Twitter was not a distraction from reality, but representative of it,” Oyler read in an excerpt from her novel. Certainly, this dynamic becomes ever clearer and more important in contemporary society.
The Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society co-sponsored the virtual event.
Story appears courtesy of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society