It was summer 2016 and I was looking after a friend’s flat in Kirribilli.
Out the back was a communal laundry and clothesline.
About a week into my stay, a typed note was slipped under my door. It was from a neighbour, requesting that I not hang my “private undies” on the communal line.
As I transit a lot from my kitchen to the corridor and garden to get fresh air, to tender my plants ... the clothe line is in front of my kitchen window, it is very unpleasant to have the private undies of other people’s where I can’t avoid it. So THIS IS MY REQUEST: Do you mind placing your undies from this unavoidable location to a more invisible location ... and also spread less your washing as to give more traffic room for my transit.
I experienced a range of emotions reading the note: horror (wtf/??!!), anger (how dare she/he tell me my undies need to be hidden), shame (actually maybe my undies are offensive), confusion (but where am I meant to dry them?), indignation (how dare this person tell me what to do?!) and finally amusement.
I rolled through these emotions both quickly and privately – and never encountered the neighbour who sent the note. In other words: it didn’t, and also couldn’t, escalate.
But I wonder how different it would have been had the scenario played out on the internet, say if the note was posted on a neighbourhood or the building’s Facebook page? It might have ramped up swiftly into something ugly – with lurkers adding their two cents, posters using shouty ALL CAPS, power-hungry moderators deleting retorts, screenshots gathered and insults flung.
Maybe it would have resulted in the greatest honour of all: TikTok artist Lubalin making a viral hit about my internet drama.
Lubalin’s music has been living rent-free in my head since the start of 2021 (“Ohhhhh Caroline … KEEP MY. NAME OUT OF YOUR THIN. MOUTH”).
He has two wildly popular videos on TikTok, turning arguments between boomers in the comment sections of Facebook into absolute bangers.
The first song concerns a Facebook marketplace sale gone wrong, and threats to involve the attorney general. The second song charts the drama of a broccoli casserole recipe that “Caroline” stole eight years ago from “Helen”.
Lubalin’s songs capture the confusion, emotion, syntax and misspellings of these exchanges and turn them into catchy power ballads. They are almost as addictive as internet drama itself. Singing them is so satisfying because it’s a means of embodying the way we now talk to each other and read each other on the screen.
All of us are inhabiting the wild world of internet dramas for an increasing amount of time each day. This has only increased with lockdowns, isolation and the shutting down of face-to-face activities.
Right now we still have one foot in the land of all the Carolines and the Helens, gorging on the rage of the righteously wronged on Facebook marketplace – and the other foot in the world where we are more restrained, where there are still remnants of collective civility. The note under the door or attached to the windscreen is annoying – triggering even – but it’s also private. No one else need get involved or know. These real-life disputes were once governed by ancient and unspoken rules: speak at a normal volume, don’t scream, play the ball not the man, look for a mutually acceptable solution. But on the internet, everything is a drama.
The comments section online embody the collective id, where our base instincts towards incivility are given permission to flourish. The more intense the drama, the more spectators, the higher the fuel load, the more eyeballs it attracts – and on it goes, ad infinitum.
The most noxious internet dramas are hysterical, angry, funny, misspelt, ALL CAPS, toxic and addictive. They are the stuff of Lubalin’s next song. The escalation of a dispute (there is rarely resolution on the internet) takes place in front of rubber-necking crowds who can morph from lurkers to participants in a keystroke.
The discourse is harsh and horrible – but can also be funny. Donald Trump excelled at it. In many respects it is his dominant mode of communication. (There are so many examples of this on Twitter but the one that springs to mind is his weird feud with the hosts of US breakfast show Morning Joe. On social media, Trump described host Mika Brzezinski as “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and claimed in a series of posts that she had been “bleeding badly from a face-lift” during a social gathering at Mar-a-Lago.)
In Trump’s political rise and fall though we can see the darkest manifestation of unhinged internet drama. Over the last decade he went from being a celebrity who mocked and taunted other celebrities online to a political leader carrying out unhinged Twitter diplomacy and inciting a violent mob to attack the seat of American democracy. What happened at the Capitol last week was in part this violent division we see online spilling, terrifyingly, into real life.
What we are seeing now is internet discourse acting more like a virus, mutating and jumping from the screen to real life – from viral TikToks to violence on the street. Online neighbourhood disputes in Australia frequently spill into our courts as the subject of defamation proceedings, with people having to pay out tens of thousands of dollars over intemperate internet comments.
It’s enough to make you long for the cranky note slid under your door.