Making the Mistake of Writing on the Internet

A shaky shot opens with Megan Boyle sitting on her bed, explaining to the viewer that what follows will be a series of updates recorded after each trip to the gym over the course of her week. She flushed her Adderall five months before and worries that she has gained weight. The shot follows her to a mirror, streaked and dirty, as she examines her body, comparing this current form to some younger version that fit better into her clothes. She wants to be healthy. She is trying to improve. The self-negotiation begins. She wants to go to the gym every day but knows she won’t. She knows she won’t go every other day either, so she asks herself if she can go three times. Just three times in the next six days. Then, of course, she realizes that this is every other day. Her face fixed in apprehension, she reaffirms her goal. None of this has the informational value one might expect from a self-improvement project recorded for YouTube. There are no helpful tips or maxims for viewers to extract, no product sponsors or requests for subscriptions. What follows is failure, dejection, a transparent accounting of why does not meet her goals and how she has lied along the way, to herself and us. She finally makes it to the gym, and then again the next day. It’s not nothing. She’ll get better, she tells herself, a little bit more each day. 

For nearly a decade, Megan Boyle has amassed a body of work by displaying her life for the internet. This may not seem notable in a moment when the internet is littered with the careers of influencers and creators desperate to manufacture lives worthy of advertising dollars, but Boyle’s creations are guided by more inscrutable motives. Her work is informed by the aesthetic of an internet that predates the algorithms assigning dollar figures to every upload. She is a holdover from a time when blogging ecosystems hadn’t yet been smothered by new media companies eager to appropriate the cheap labor of hungry young writers. In 2009, Boyle fell into the orbit of Tao Lin’s Muumuu House, a publishing house interested in online ephemera trawled from social media, chat logs, emails, and blogs. In practice, Muumuu served as a venue for a cohort of writers unified in their detached affectations, unadorned style, and confessional writings. They were early recorders of the intrusive internet. Boyle soon had a published collection of poems compiled from the draft section of her blog, a following on Thought Catalog, a column in Vice. Her work garnered viral attention for its intimate revelations about her drug use and sex life: column-length reviews of her body parts, an account of everyone she ever slept with, a list of the most embarrassing moments in her life. This work was absurd and dissociative, full of references to the small artistic world she orbited, and uninterested in the critical assessments of outsiders.  

In early 2013, she undertook a project of staggering scope. Over five months, she would liveblog her experiences and thoughts. Half a decade later, those 350,000 words constitute a novel published this fall by Tyrant Books. Despite the grasping comparisons to Knausgård, this is not a work of autofiction. Liveblog is a novel in a much older sense of the word, an assortment of formless writing, a work that respects few rules or conventions. In another sense, it is a journal written before a live audience. Or maybe it is a confessional memoir, a secular accounting of one’s sins. Boyle suggests as much in her introduction that begins with a declaration: she will document everything in her life because she is alone and no longer feels ownership over a life being lived passively, unremembered and unremarked upon. This journal will be a memorial to her experience, a way of remembering what she does not want to forget. She warns her audience that it will not be interesting, she will not dress up for us, she will not write to entertain. As in her YouTube videos, Boyle hopes these diurnal records will cajole her into making better choices, but there is little evidence in these seven-hundred pages that a catalogued life offers much in the way of personal reform.

This transition from the internet to paperback is awkward. Gone are the exchanges between author and audience in the comment section that hung below the original text on Tumblr, where readers pushed their way into her life and the pages of Liveblog. The images and videos, tweets and polls, are dead. What is left is a rather claustrophobic encounter with the author’s gaze, stripped of social context, flattened out across a catalog of daily minutia. 

Liveblogseems more like an act of exhibition than a literary creation, performance art disguised as antiliterature. The book comes to us under-edited, uncondensed, undramatized. Freed from the artificiality of narrative, Boyle’s rendering of her life lacks the ironic distance between a public persona and a private self that has become the hallmark of a culture drowning in manufactured authenticity, in lives shoehorned into serialized content or memories refashioned as literature. As with life, the only coherence is the passage of time. Between the lists of daily errands, social interactions, and drug use are radical displays of vulnerability. Records of those kinds of thoughts we all wish we didn’t have, painful observations about her own limitations, about the failure of relationships, and confrontations with the many regrets that hung over her life during these months. 

Early in the liveblog, Boyle is living out the final days of an expiring lease with her ex as they ready their apartment for new tenants. Memories of her excitement of moving into the neighborhood and the potential of their relationship clash with the reality of their acrimonious final days. They fight. They drink, wake up after noon, have sex, and bicker like “children doing competitively angry things” (64). The fights spiral into punishing brawls. The boyfriend, who doesn’t want his name used in Liveblog, dismisses the project as a waste of time, for author and audience, and condemns her unprocessed openness as “an attack on your readers” (81). She thinks he’s bitter because he cannot find an audience. A frantic syntax conveys what the overly literal tone cannot, namely, the anger and inebriation fueling these clashes. At times, the reader becomes a stand in for him and what she cannot say to him in person. All this, of course, she writes publicly, in real time, knowing full well he could open the blog and see what she really wanted to say.  

Entanglements between her work and the lives of those she writes about are a persistent source of anxiety. A paranoia hangs over her communications with the people in her life. Are friends contacting her less since she started documenting everything she does? Are her parents reading what she wrote about their interactions? Did the computer repair guy google her and see that she thought about sleeping with him? She suspects so. At one point, a friend asks her to stop writing everything they say and do; he doesn’t like the anxiety of being constantly documented. She agrees, but of course she still records this. A new boyfriend is referred to only as [omitted]. Her mother reads of her drug use—the cataloging of drugs being so matter-of-fact that the reader will hardly notice the bump of heroin after she cleans the litterbox—and worries that Boyle is rendering herself unemployable by sharing so much on the internet.

Months into the project, Boyle herself begins to worry that her writings have altered her in some fundamental way, especially as this catalog of her life becomes her life. Lurking behind so many of her lacerating judgments about the state of her existence is a version of herself before she “made the mistake of writing on the internet and using drugs regularly” (241). Recollections of this past self frequently serve as a foil to her present condition. The remembered self is active whereas the author is passive, full of potential rather than the sum of squandered opportunities, carefree versus burdened by a drug habit. This life of hers threatens to become a spectacle documented in excruciating detail.

This tension between Boyle’s commitment to record her life and the anxiety of living with what she refers to as a “horrific permanent display” of herself is the heartbeat of Liveblog. It is palpable from the earliest pages until the project stutters and stalls toward an exhausted ending in the late summer months of 2013. The desire to remember justifies the project, but then accumulation of memories across these long months does not lead to self-improvement as she had hoped. Instead, Liveblogfeels like a slow wound the reader watches Boyle inflict upon herself. The experience is hypnotizing and discomforting. And the whole thing, all seven-hundred pages, raises questions about the value of documenting a life in real time. Boyle’s writing is not in the service of extractable truths. She is not fashioning memory into literary narratives. Instead, Boyle is grappling with the persistent stress—the alienation—of living online. She is pushing against the boundaries of what our online ecosystems ask each of us to do every day: share ourselves constantly for the voyeuristic curiosities of those near and far.