01
02
03
04
05
06
07
08
09
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30

Intimacy and the Machine: Godposting – or: New Internet Esotericism

Column
Column

Did the internet find God? In her second column for V/A, the American cultural critic Biz Sherbert found an esoteric online aesthetic propelled by Catholic or religious iconography and practice: Admissions and confessions, baroque and obscure infographics, and individual mythologies. Are these signs of a yearning for transcendence; a search for what lies beyond the machine? Or is this the response to the ostensible transparency and authenticity of an online culture unable to distinguish between self-disclosure and neopuritanism?

Text Biz Sherbert
Illustration Friederike Hantel

A few years ago, I sat in an unmade bed while someone explained to me that the internet is a demon manifesting itself from the future. Or something like that. I can’t tell you for sure because I didn’t really know what he meant, but I was smiling and nodding and hanging on to every word the way you do when you really like someone and that feeling is still new. He also read me pages from a book called Fanged Noumena, which I had never heard of before. To me, it sounded like scary poetry about computers. He muttered that it was genius and I was like, yeah, for sure, I love you. It’s the future now, and I think I know more about what he was talking about.

It’s the future now, and everything cool on the internet is about God.

It’s the future now, and everything cool on the internet is about God. As I dart between apps and websites in repetition—not hungry for anything in particular but never full—I see phalanxes of pretty e-girls roped in cross necklaces, posting selfies alongside a little bit of scripture, semi-anonymous Substackers writing about the internet in a way that reads like an evangelical speaking in tongues but covered in kawaii runes, and meme pages posting sweet little sentences about God’s light glued to photos of girls edited to look like they’ve been drenched in blue Gatorade.

It’s not that I belong to a camp of deeply online Christians—it’s that I share a fence with the Godposting side of the internet, where people with art jobs, tattoos, eating disorders, and stimulant prescriptions post about their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and other people try to figure out if they’re being ironic or not. If what’s being posted isn’t about angels or church or God’s grace, it’s esoteric and pleasantly occult-smelling: prose built into pink plastic mazes; delirious, fragmented sentences that drop off into glitchy otherworlds; and more poetry about computers and the people who use them.

A new taxonomy of memes has emerged to graphically contain this interest in glyphic, transcendental wordsprawl—maps and diagrams that dissect and reassemble niche internet worlds, pasting their buzzwords onto PNG outlines of manic pixie kabbalah charts and CCRU numograms. These conceptual maps are repost candies with more complicated base notes—vanilla with some metal and ozone. You get an immediate hit of satisfaction through knowing you possess the cultural cleverness necessary to recognize the signifiers strung together on your screen, but the diagram format also makes these images feel less like pedestrian memes and more like pages ripped from A Thousand Plateaus and annotated in pink gel pen. In all cases, the money’s in putting what floats to the surface of the blood and guts of the internet into something you can screenshot and share.

These diagrams are in part a reaction against the aestheticized infographics that emerged in full-force during the summer of 2020, when activism took over the internet. They were tidy shareable squares written atop cloudy colorful gradients or designed to look like posters from 90s techno sets. The material was tricky, usually political, but sliced up like a snack to be served and shared. Everyone started hating them about 48 hours after they reached peak saturation on Instagram. The consensus on this dismissal was that infographics are charming, smooth non-gestures towards real change, and that no one really ever read them carefully enough to remember what they said 10 days later. Today’s cabbalistic charts chop and screw the quaint hyper-legibility that permeated the summer of infographics—swallowing up perfectly kerned, UI-friendly text blocks and transforming them into something that’s supposed to be hard to read, that’s sticky enough to tease the grooves of your brain instead of sliding right over them as you tap towards the next story. “That’s why the unnecessary complication, the baroqueness, of these charts… is so appealing: it requires us to actually spend time decoding something,” writes my friend and colleague Alexi Alario in a soon to be published essay on the subject for Talk Magazine.

In the mid 2010s, ambiguity died online—not of natural causes, it was hunted and killed.

I get why people are acting so weird online, why the fashionable form of posting feels in between an invocation, a shitpost, a chant, a sermon, and a poem carved into a streaked headstone. Well, I get it as much as I can without doing it myself. In the mid 2010s, ambiguity died online—not of natural causes, it was hunted and killed. Shitposting the wrong way was violence, in the way that you could be put on trial if the wrong pair of eyes saw you doing it. A lot of people buttoned up their social media accounts and deleted dubious old tweets and digital missteps. Those who didn’t private their pages went anon or found sides of the internet where their outcastable idiosyncrasies were allowed to bubble around in peace.

At the same time, confessionalism became a popular way to construct one’s identity, and the internet was the place to do it. Whether it was long-form and pedigreed, published in The Washington Post or some other publication with a board of billionaires, or condensed and pulled apart into Twitter threads and Instagram stories to be easily reposted, radical transparency became a fetishized currency. It wasn’t always the heavy, lifeforce-filled self-disclosure that comes with writing about your experience with things like sexual assault; sometimes it was just digitizing the symptoms of your poor mental health into a followable brand or over-sharing the details of your last fuck on Twitter. Either way, habitually being too real online collapses allure even if what was said needed to be said. The gospel of internet confessionalism told us to plug up the holes in our public histories in favor of pornographic honesty but left out what can be lost when you give the world enough to make total sense of who you are and where you’ve been.

Which is why autofiction made a big comeback this year. Or at least why a lot of people were talking about autofiction, which is basically the same thing as a big comeback. A lot of Godposters are or were autofictionists, which makes sense because both genres are attached to the beauty of constructing personal mythology and DIY lore. When everyone was publishing their autofictions on Substack and tweeting snarky things about other people’s autofictions, I was still living in the ignorant, paleolithic trenches. I thought all of society was bitching about automatic writing—the kind Dalí and the surrealists used to hunt down all their genius thoughts that were too slippy to extract consciously. Eventually, I realized autofiction is actually writing a story that’s kind of autobiographical but also kind of made up, which surprised me. I was like, wait, isn’t this what everyone on the internet’s been doing all along? Then I remembered confessionalism ate up littering your online life with semi-fictions, so now it’s returned under a non-liable name. Rumor has it that autofiction is already dead again, but that’s not important. The spirit of stylized half-truths is still in-tact, and now that we know the consequences of our sins existing online forever, it’s easy to see why making a myth of yourself feels like the only way forward.

As I mentioned earlier, outsiders and onlookers are constantly trying to figure out if all of this is ironic, stylistic, or sincere. It doesn’t really matter what it is; it just matters that people keep guessing—the incoherence is what’s transgressive. At the heart of all this motion is a lust for crawling through someone else’s ambiguity, in staring at a post or profile for longer than the machine’s trained you to, in the toothsome frustration of trying to figure out what’s a revelation, what’s a dark joke, and what’s just the result of a chemically imbalanced brain and an eternally available keyboard. The screen light bouncing off the highest points of your face as you try to make sense of someone is addictive, though exhausting. It’s coupled with the freedom of making this kind of content, a freedom not everyone can get. You have to come up in it. You can’t really make a name for yourself as an authenticity-poster and then pivot to posting unhinged textsprawls. Well, you probably can, and people probably will as this type of online life drips into the mainstream, but it will be in mimetic microdoses.

Baring it all in op-eds and Instagram captions didn’t save anyone, but maybe communing with God through 0s and 1s makes our internet addictions feel a little more meaningful.

While writing this piece, I searched up “online confessionalism,” thinking I would find some opinion pieces on the trend of writing about bad things that have happened to you. I didn’t find much like that, but I also didn’t look very hard. I was distracted by the top results for “online confessionalism”—a bunch of clunky, perfect early-web sites that act as virtual confession booths, where you can select the sins you’ve committed from a menu and receive instructions for absolution. The experience of bumping into these e-confessionals instead of the reflections on reflections on trauma I was looking for felt like a scroll straight into why things have changed. Baring it all in op-eds and Instagram captions didn’t save anyone, but maybe communing with God through 0s and 1s makes our internet addictions feel a little more meaningful.

Anyways, back to the unmade bed and the internet being a demon manifesting itself from the future. In the same essay for Talk Magazine, Sam Cummins (also my friend and colleague) writes, “Subculture is a computer virus that lives inside your head.” The internet moves so fast that coolness, the shell of subculture, is being hacked, corrupted, and sold back to us quicker than ever before. Godposting, in its buggy, abstract elegance, started out hacked and corrupted, which provides a buffer to its recuperation. It’ll keep getting buggier, but it’ll still eventually flatten out into souvenirs—trucker hats that say God’s Favorite in Times New Roman and screenshot memories of when what’s no longer transgressive still was. But for now, everything is half-true, full-real poetry about God and computers, in the gleaming voice of a chittering demon.

Column