Remember when we liked the Internet? Longing for a world without trolls, tracking and Twitter roundups

We used to go online to feel understood. A new film gets what's lost in the move from LiveJournal to "social media"

Published July 10, 2015 10:40PM (EDT)

I made a commitment a while ago, in the wake of the deeply embarrassing statistics about female directors in Hollywood, to boost the work of women--especially Asian women--in film.

It’s been easier to do so than I thought it’d be, since two of the most powerful films I’ve seen this year about the experience of being a young person in today’s world happen to have been made by Asian-American women--"Advantageous," written by Jennifer Phang, a woman of Chinese-Malaysian and Vietnamese descent, and "The Sisterhood of Night," written by Marilyn Fu, a Taiwanese-American (with a Taiwanese-American lead character played by Willa Cuthrell).

I talked about how the film "Advantageous" uses the qualities of emptiness and quiet to convey the silent desperation of the millennial generation in the face of a “jobless recovery.” "The Sisterhood of Night," written by Marilyn Fu and directed by Caryn Waechter (a contributor to the crowdsourced documentary tour de force "Life in a Day"), uses similar tools to address the world outside of work--the way technology has transformed our social lives and relationships, the way our lives are paradoxically filled with digital noise yet we ache for the sound of a real human voice--the kind of paradox Paul Simon sang about decades ago.

"The Sisterhood of Night," currently available on Netflix and most other streaming platforms, is based on a 1998 story by Steven Millhauser, collected in "The Knife Thrower and Other Stories"--worth tracking down if you can find it.

It didn’t surprise me at all that Marilyn Fu had been working on her adaptation since the early 2000s, and that the screenplay of "The Sisterhood of Night" reflects the evolution of the Internet from the IRC and LiveJournal haunts of her youth--and mine--to the status-update-and-smartphone-saturated world of today.

It did surprise me to read Millhauser’s 1998 story, written when most normal people thought the Internet was for weird nerds in college and laughed at Homer Simpson’s friends hogging Marge’s landline with a dial-up modem to argue about "Star Trek" on Usenet. Because Millhauser’s story prophesies most of the angst of Web 2.0 without ever mentioning it.

The original story is only a few pages long, told in a terse, detached style with the narrator an unnamed “We,” a Greek-chorus-like consensus of the parents of a single small town, reminiscent of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” The premise is simple: Teen girls in Kingston, New York, have founded a secret society, the titular sisterhood, that parents fear has become some sort of Satanic lesbian sex cult, like a modernized version of "The Crucible." The girls realize they’re coming under dangerous scrutiny, but even in the face of possible criminal charges refuse to come clean about what the Sisterhood of Night really does, on the grounds that compromising the Sisterhood’s “vow of silence” would irreparably destroy it.

The un-"Crucible"-like twist is that the Sisterhood does in fact exist and does go out for secret meetings in the woods, but they don’t actually do anything. The vow of silence doesn’t just mean they don’t speak about the meetings in public--it means that during the meetings themselves they are completely silent, and motionless, simply sitting in each other’s company without lifting a finger or uttering a word.

The question of why these girls would rouse the suspicions of the whole town and risk their reputations to do nothing at all is never resolved within the story, but one of the town’s parents--an unnamed narrator who breaks from the “We” chorus to become “I”--theorizes that not doing anything is the whole point. “I submit that the girls band together … solely for the sake of withdrawal and silence … they wish, above all, not to be known. In a world dense with understanding, oppressive with explanation and insight and love, the members of the silent sisterhood long to evade definition, to remain mysterious and ungraspable.”

Isn’t that something? Even in 1998 Millhauser recognized that teenagers already found the outside world’s observations and judgments oppressive--and that was before the all-you-can-gorge-yourself-on buffet of “explanation and insight and love” we live with today.

What is Facebook, after all, but a steady stream of “explainer” videos, “insightful: articles, and all the love--or at least likes--anyone hungry for positive affirmation could ask for? As Louis CK put it, doesn’t our collective expectation that everyone should have their phones on them at all times amount to an edict against ever being truly alone?

So of course the first thing the members of a modernized Sisterhood of Night do is to permanently log out from their Facebook accounts. Of course the scariest thing the 2015 version of the Sisterhood does isn’t just meeting out in the woods at night, but meeting out in the woods without their phones--no check-ins, no location tracking, no live-tweeting, no video or audio feed.

And of course the film transforms the "Crucible"-style witch hunt of the original story into an Internet witch hunt. Emily Gehring, the girl who starts the initial malicious rumor about the Sisterhood in Millhauser’s short story, becomes the film’s Emily Parris (played by"Moonrise Kingdom’"s Kara Hayward), a blogger who “exposes” the Sisterhood with a grainy YouTube video and a viral WordPress post. The film becomes about the war between the original Sisterhood--focusing on the core trio of Mary ("The Chronicles of Narnia"’s Georgie Henley), Lavinia (Olivia DeJonge) and Catharine (Willa Cuthrell)--and Emily’s mirror-Sisterhood composed of tens of thousands of online fans. An Internet inquisition develops against a small group of real-life friends, demanding they break their “vow of silence” and explain what they do at their Sisterhood meetings or else be presumed to be criminals and deviants.

I confess, I’m into this movie partly because I, myself, have become close to a small group of real-life friends who have been endlessly harassed and trolled by tens of thousands of anonymous online creeps who loudly assert their right to know the details of everyone’s personal and professional relationships, and who label any communications that aren’t publicly available for them to pore over to be “collusion” and “corruption.” They, too, got started because of a single viral WordPress post filled with sly insinuations of lurid sexual sins. And they, too, exemplify the chilling effect of what Shanley Kane calls “hypervisibility,” the sheer exhaustion that comes from constantly living your life in public, the exhaustion that grinds down the Sisterhood with every scene as their determination to resist giving up their secrets to the media wears thin--the same exhaustion that made me walk away from the biggest audience I’ve ever had, on Twitter.

But "The Sisterhood of Night" isn’t just a screed about how the Internet is evil. Indeed, the striking thing about the film is that it insists on drawing uncomfortable parallels between Emily’s blog community and the Sisterhood--that Emily lashes out against the Sisterhood because Mary used the Sisterhood as a tool to bully and exclude her first, that the anti-Sisterhood community becomes a “safe space” for Emily and her friends the way the Sisterhood was for Mary.

And the Sisterhood itself, though it’s characterized in the film by its rejection of digital media, has its closest parallels in real life to digital communities.

Fu fleshes out the basics of Millhauser’s story quite a bit--don’t worry, when we finally see a Sisterhood meeting it is in fact more interesting than just watching a bunch of girls sit silently for an hour. Without spoiling too much of it, the Sisterhood is a place protected by a “vow of silence” where unspeakable things can be spoken--a safe space where the girls can share the darkest or most shameful sides of themselves without judgment.

It’s not just about the search for pure silence--it’s about the search for the kind of silence that’s the only place where you feel like your real voice can be heard.

The most obvious parallel is PostSecret, deliberately and defiantly low-tech--PostSecret isn’t as secret as whispering out in the woods with no devices allowed, but a scan of a physical postcard sent to the site has no metadata to scrape nor IP address to trace--even its text is in the form of an image file that can’t be Googled.

But in reality the whole 2005-era Internet that PostSecret came from felt more that way. It was a time before Mark Zuckerberg had normalized the idea of using your real name online to make yourself monetizable by advertisers. It was a time before your mom was online, or your boss was online, or there were professional journalists lurking online waiting to recycle your tweets into a feature story in a print publication.

It’s hard to recapture the feeling of the heady days when the Web’s most celebrated “blogging” platform was LiveJournal--but back then we didn’t say “blog,” much less “status update;” we said “journal” or “diary.” The Internet, bizarrely, felt like a private place we would go to escape public scrutiny--because anyone who was online was automatically part of an elite club, because the dumbest and nastiest members of the hoi polloi didn’t even know what LiveJournal was. (It was a place where, for instance, service industry employees could use their real names to swap stories of awful customers without fear of reprisal, because why the hell would your nightmare customer also be on LJ?)

And it was a place where privacy was paramount, where every post you made had the privacy settings for which “friends” you were going to “filter” your post prominently displayed right next to the “Post” button, and where breaking the “vow of silence”--mentioning the contents of a “friends-locked” post outside of that “filter”--was a social sin punishable by social death, i.e., mass-unfriending. (These are features that, on the modern Web, Facebook has only implemented slowly and with great reluctance and inconsistency, and that Google+ announced as their crucial advantage over Facebook that did absolutely nothing to prevent Google+’s ignominious failure.)

It was a place that was important to weird, introverted guys like me--but not nearly as important as it was to weird, introverted girls. LJ was the incubator for the modern incarnation of the community we call “fandom,” young women into creative writing, self-expression and remixing the pop culture they were handed to make boys kiss each other--a subculture that defines itself in opposition to and is frequently persecuted by the belligerent sausagefest that is mainstream “nerd” culture.

It was a place for teen girls--generally the least respected demographic in our society--to have some breathing room, a place to figure things out. It was a place where women, who in the “real world” deal with the constant threat of people policing their sexuality and critiquing their appearance, could just talk about their thoughts and emotions and ideas without being pressured to put up pics of themselves to be judged.

It was, in other words, in many ways the inverse of how the Internet is now--a place that, today, more or less demands that women put up attractive photos in order to participate in anything and demands the right to swipe left on any that are too old or too fat for their liking. Today’s Internet more or less demands that you presume anything you say online may be used against you in a court of law, by a prospective employer or by ten thousand bored bystanders who decide to do some “digging” on you.

Online used to be the private, quiet place we could go under cover of our pseudonyms to talk about the stuff we couldn’t in the real world--now we increasingly rely on meetups and “digital detox days” to escape the constant scrutiny that is life online.

And none of this is really the fault of the tools themselves. It’s just that it’s hard to keep any club secret these days. Every engineer who wants to quickly monetize a platform tries to do so by giving it viral potential, by making the barrier to entry low, by making the platform fun to pick up and use--but that’s exactly what causes any platform to eventually rot as it gets overtaken by trolls. (Another work I recently downloaded, Adam Cadre’s farewell letter to the indie game world "Endless, Nameless," vividly illustrates this with a Lovecraftian vision of a game world sliding into chaos as an endlessly regenerating army of trolls pours through holes in reality.)

It’s not a new observation--the very first netizens on Usenet lamented the death of Internet culture with the “Endless September” of 1993. LJ stopped being worth it in 2005-2007, when the service “sold out” and an influx of Russian users who didn’t “get it” turned LJ into “the Russian MySpace.”

Facebook was cool when it was first introduced in 2004 and its selling point was its exclusivity, that it was only available to people with a campus email address at an “elite” institution, and when it was actually fun to create “groups” of random strangers based on one characteristic you had in common (“Super Mario Kart Players Unite!”) because you knew you also had in common that you were the kind of college students who used Facebook.

Hell, even now it seems ridiculous that anyone ever thought of Twitter as a “safe space,” since pretty much all of Twitter’s features centered around “openness” make it an ideal tool for harassing celebrities--and yet celebs like Trent Reznor initially led the charge to Twitter because they found it a safer, more welcoming place to be genuine with their fans than conventional forums, mainly because the trolls simply hadn’t discovered Twitter yet. Twitter’s original advantage was the barrier to entry, the fact that most ordinary folks didn’t “get” how to communicate using the 140-character limit and so everyone who was there was one of the “cool kids”--once the trolls figured out how to use Twitter to spam and harass, it became the spam and harassment cesspool you see today.

The problem is what the Silicon Valley geeks call “scalability.” No social system scales up cleanly. Even PostSecret, once it got famous, became a place where commenters could descend on individual postcards to mock and troll the poster and people could put up hoax postcards alleging serious crimes for the lulz of freaking out law enforcement. Within the world of "The Sisterhood of Night," the Sisterhood is primarily a victim of its own success, the fact that their “vow of silence” becomes unenforceable once they get big enough to get noticed and for Emily to resent her exclusion from it.

And keeping systems from scaling up doesn’t work in the long run. The world is too big and too interconnected nowadays to permit secret clubs--eventually the world will notice your existence, and once they do they will demand and eventually get all your secrets. We live in a world where you don’t really have a choice about “transparency.”

And that’s not all bad. There are real abuses that went on behind closed doors for a long time that the modern Internet’s “radical openness” has helped stop. One nagging moral dilemma in "The Sisterhood of Night" is that Emily’s malicious false accusation against the Sisterhood puts her in contact with real victims of real abusers who use her story to push their cause--to condemn the tools that made Emily’s witch hunt possible is to condemn the same tools that brought the Steubenville rapists to justice, that finally held Bill Cosby publicly accountable for his crimes, that exposed real abuses of power by the authorities.

Let’s not forget that the Old Internet where weirdness thrived and “deviants” were encouraged was also a place where abusers could rule their little fiefdoms unchallenged, local flamewars got really toxic really fast without any checks from the outside world, and apologists for pedophilia, Nazism and other charming “fringe” ideologies could incubate their ideas in peace.

I don’t necessarily want to bring those days back.

But we did lose something when we lost those barriers to entry, when our favorite platforms became a club anyone could join. There was a time when online spaces were places you could be vulnerable and let down your defenses, where you could take a chance on meeting like-minded strangers without constantly looking over your shoulder for threats.

Those days are gone. Teen girls on Tumblr are now fair game for “engagement,” positive or negative, from millionaire middle-aged men. Everyone decries celebrities who use Twitter “like a PR rep” while teetering only one viral tweet away from understanding why we do that.

I wasn’t surprised to see that Marilyn Fu doesn’t have a Facebook page, and that her Twitter appears to be primarily promotional. I’d be very surprised if, back in 2005, she didn’t have a LiveJournal.

I don’t know that anyone who didn’t grow up in our generational cohort can really understand the sense of loss that came with cyberspace and the real world merging into one--that sense that the city council came and built a four-lane highway into Terabithia. And I don’t know that guys like me can mourn it to the same degree as girls can. I have some insight, from my wife and from my sister, of the refuge that “online” used to be for teen girls--and I wonder where teen girls today go for a refuge from constant Snapchats and Instagram comments and requests from anonymous randos for nude pics.

But, as unrealistic as a literal secret society of girls hiking out to the woods for secret rituals might be, "The Sisterhood of Night" manages to evoke that feeling of what we once had and lost with its images of “withdrawal and silence.” It’s enough, I think, to give even those who never experienced it a twinge for what once was--and a desire, a hope, that it might be created again.

By Arthur Chu

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