Immaterial Girl

Surveys: A Novel (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents) BY Natasha Stagg. Semiotext(e). Paperback, 176 pages. $15.
The cover of Surveys: A Novel (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)


Natasha Stagg laid it out in her DIS Magazine advice column back in 2011. “The internet is a void, nothing like life,” she wrote to a tween seeking advice on how to boost his Twitter following. “And it is your whole life, sometimes, isn’t it?” Stagg went on to give the kid a crash course in how Twitter functions not as a grid of RL (real life) but as a system of constructed fallacies. These fallacies, in turn, can be used, like language itself, as a persuasive tool—one that allows you to hide and reveal desires, to be sincere and also to rewrite yourself. Stagg’s debut novel, Surveys, takes on this notion in depth, offering a sustained investigation of what it means to create an identity online. Through a confessional first-person account of an erudite and self-absorbed young woman’s rise to Internet fame, Stagg at once deflates and makes full use of social and social media fallacies, pathologies, currencies, circularities, and desire/feedback loops.

The protagonist of Surveys, Colleen, is a listless twenty-three-year-old psychology grad with a paralyzed eye working at a market-research center in a Tucson mall. By day she pops painkillers to endure petty office politics while overseeing a convoluted and often falsified survey process in which brands pay people who need cash to give opinions on products they can’t afford to buy. It is Colleen’s job to oversee the data intake and help fudge rejected stats to meet quotas. Her bosses in turn fudge the fudged surveys to ensure their clients (the brands) get the results they want. So, as Colleen concludes while drinking SoCo samples with a coworker in a utility closet, the market research is worth crap.

By night, Colleen experiments with her own value, dabbling, for instance, in selling her body to a drug dealer. But mostly, she works on her brand, and satisfies her deepest desires, by honing an Internet persona: “I had a tingling on my lips fifty percent of my waking life, and the tingling was a sensation like thirst, but I wanted not water or alcohol but true, trembling words to come from me. More and more, I spent entire nights online.” For Colleen, the Internet “is where trans happens. It’s where a person finds out that they’re someone else inside, or many someones, and, hopefully, the person they are becoming outside. It’s where secrets see light and take shape, so that when they come out to the important people—the ones you’ve really met—they aren’t so scary.” Her Internet persona gains a substantial following, and she soon begins an online flirtation with a well-known male Internet persona named Jim. Colleen and Jim—or rather, their online alter-egos—fall in love. Their followings merge and multiply, and before they know it, their numbers have reached levels of bona fide fame. In RL, Colleen quits her job and moves to LA to be with Jim. Money and sponsorships come rolling in, and the couple embarks on an American tour in which they’re paid to host parties and stand around where they can be seen.

Together, we became more famous than Jim had been alone in a matter of months. We were on buzz sites as lists, and then models played us in magazines as editorials, and then we were on buzz sites as items, but there were no photos of us together, just screen grabs of our live face-to-face chats. But we weren’t as scary famous as the lifers or the blockbusters. Those mainstream places are dangerous valleys for the talentless. They facilitate flash floods of attention, so forcefully consumed that the readers can’t help but vomit. Our fame was, if there is such a fame, pure.

This is quite a departure from the Tucson mall, but Stagg shows how the person (or persons) Colleen has discovered inside of herself is still very much a part of a marketing machine. With her mauve manicures and monochrome wardrobe palette, Colleen does not outwardly turn into one of her inner selves. Rather, she starts constructing her outward appearance to fit her Internet persona’s signature brand. She and Jim deliberate for hours over what to post, then gauge the response of their fans. The Internet may be a place of trans, but Colleen also sees how “a tight grip” on image “is what the Internet is all about.” As she explains to her mother’s boyfriend, “producers can [now] learn from the fans before they write the songs what the fans want.” In this sense, their social media followers become survey takers—they just don’t get paid for it. Feedback online is unmitigated and immediate, and as we see Colleen lose rather than embody her inner self(/ves), it becomes clear that the construction of an Internet persona can easily slide into a cycle of constant market research and brand maintenance. (“It’s hard to describe Jim, or me at that time,” Colleen admits, “because I spent so much energy inventing myself for Jim, reacting to everything he did, reacting to the fans.”) In our post-Kardashian world, perhaps this insight isn’t new, but it is certainly relevant.

What is new in Surveys is the keen portrait Stagg gives of coming of age in a world where online and offline identities collide. Colleen can remember the first dial-up modems, the shock of seeing early bestiality porn jpegs, and how, with the Internet, “the world opened up like a CD-Rom drive . . . and it became a tugging part of our personalities.” Now when Colleen experiences a beautiful moment in her mother’s garden, she thinks about “how I could distill it further, with a photo or text, and [I] felt guilty for that.” Moreover, she asks, “But why was sitting, enjoying nature . . . better than creating some representation of it?”

Colleen feels the pull of the numbers and gains confidence as they rise. Riding high on her new income and status, she and Jim tour America, lounging about in hotel rooms, getting paid to host parties and make appearances behind DJ booths (without actually spinning or dancing, because neither of them spin or dance). “Every night, we were sharing our feelings with strangers, in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, speaking with everyone that wanted in, or were jealous of us, or just as happy.”

Before we talk about talentless fame or its degree of relative purity, let’s pause for a moment to talk monetization. If you see someone with a high number of followers on Instagram tag a cup of tea she is drinking in the tub, chances are, she is making bank. “I did it when I started at like $300 a post,” wrote Essena O’Neill, an Instafamous Aussie model who had over half a million followers before she deleted all of her social media accounts this past November. “With my following now,” she posted in November, “I could make $2000AUD a post EASY.” Not to mention, say, around $100,000AUD for a lipstick tag.

Monetization of social media accounts and personas—be it by ads, affiliate linking, product placements, endorsements, tie ins, etc.—is a bona fide business model these days. But it can also be a precarious living, and its moral, psychological, and cultural implications are still being sussed out—in public, on screen. In Essena O’Neill’s weepy farewell YouTube monologue, she said she was quitting social media for her twelve-year-old self:

I had messages and messages of big companies, brands, sponsorships, on my hands, and I was in L.A. and I was at a pinnacle of success . . . I was dating a guy that was way more famous than me. . . . I’m the girl who had it all, and I want to tell you that having it all on social media means absolutely nothing to your real life . . . . I let numbers define me at twelve and that stopped me from becoming the person that I am and I should be. . . . And now at nearly nineteen with all of these followers I don’t even know what is real and what is not. . . . I was just living in a screen wishing that people would value me.

Self-worth becomes elusive for Colleen, too, as the parties begin to lose their glamour, and infidelity turns her romance sour. But she is not a bleary-eyed Essena ready to throw in the towel. She flip-flops between pre-fame nostalgia and feeling empowered by her status, but luckily she has a friend who tells her: “Get. The fuck. Over yourself.” And the bottom line is, Colleen was never really so naïve. In the sorority house of social media, Colleen would be the girl who stays up in her room highlighting Roland Barthes. “What [Jim and I] got was that there were all these unwritten codes, that every message, because it was coded, was sitting on a mountain of meaning. . . . We were dropping in U-turn signs on everyone else’s roads, smiling at each other, driving forward.” Even as the joys of fame begin to wear thin, Colleen continues to check her feeds: “I can cut off anyone on these lists, simple, but they’ll always be there, sending out energy that I’ll always in some way be receiving. I may as well know exactly what it is.”

Jim and Colleen become famous through a controlled and reckless (and playful) manipulation of the Internet celebrity-making apparatus. Their fame is not talentless; their talent is constructing fame. And yet a provocative question hovers over Surveys: What exactly is Colleen’s persona? The actual content she and Jim produce is, for the most part, absent from the text: “Describing it would be pointless, and anyway, you can look it up,” she quips. Surveys’s greatest strength lies precisely in this omission. The narrative is structured as a shell around the absence of the content driving it. Surveys is incessantly pointing to both the actual Internet and the Internet-as-void. Perhaps they are one and the same.

This gaping lack, in turn, produces a subtle but pervading anxiety, a feeling of being left out, an urge to get online and read the Internet. For non-users and social media dabblers, Surveys becomes a means of feeling those outlets’ allure. And for social media users—especially all of those tweens and teens out there—the book gives a framework for articulating what they’re grappling with, namely a competition for attention and what one loses when that competition takes over. Feeling alienated at one of her parties, Colleen recalls, “I read a book I once loved, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar . . . nobody got what it was like now, though.”

Hey, remember that little detail about Colleen having one paralyzed eye? It could almost go unnoticed. It could be nothing more than just one of those many details that enliven a novel’s world and keep a character from being stock. It does, however, inspire a train of thought. “Men tended to obsess over me or not even look at me. It was my paralyzed right eye,” Colleen recalls. “The guys who looked past me were probably shallow, but then again, so was I.” It’s hard to think about the eye without thinking about the gaze, and this hints at a feminist line of investigation that runs through Surveys—one that can seem a bit underdeveloped until you realize that it is intentionally presenting a stage of budding perspective.

Recall that Colleen becomes famous only after and through Jim.When he cheats on her, the other woman’s social media fame is also on the rise, and the affair certainly gives it a boost. Colleen, in turn, becomes obsessed with this other woman, Lucinda, who is at once her enemy, her opposite, her uncanny twin, her mirror. And it is only by way of Lucinda’s presence that we finally follow Colleen’s gaze onto the Internet for any significant period of time—that we actually get to see what she is posting there. Colleen and Lucinda both take “selfie after selfie . . . relating to the world as if it is a soft, sexist thing.” But Lucinda starts “something that looked like chapter one of something bigger. . . . ‘You don’t scare me,’” she says, looking into the camera and seemingly out through the screen.

We read a paper Lucinda has put online: “In the future,” she writes, “no one will want to be famous, in the way that no one now wants to be exploited. We will all aspire to be less and less known as we grow up.” And then Lucinda is gone. Her Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr all disappear. “How stupid is she?” Colleen thinks. “You can’t really delete any of it.” But the thing that keeps her up at night is the fact that instead of constantly posting, “People work on things for years. People work on one thing, every day, without an audience.” You see, Lucinda has chosen another persona-building project. She is writing a book.

Catherine Foulkrod is a writer and editor based in New York City and Bilbao.