Houston native Jia Tolentino made her name as a writer of sharp, feminist cultural criticism at The Hairpin and Jezebel before joining the staff of The New Yorker in 2016. Her reflections on living, working and surviving in the social media age invite readers to ponder the kinds of stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives. At Politics and Prose on Tuesday, she’ll talk about her first book, the essay collection “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion,” in which she examines social media pressures to turn personality into a product, major scams of recent history and the central role deception of self and others plays in American life.
One theme of the book is that the ways we are implicated in internet life get more complicated all the time. On social media, having an opinion about a given subject has come to be seen as a political end unto itself, but it doesn’t actually accomplish anything most of the time. How do you deal with that?
I think of my position in the opinion ecosystem the way I approach putting myself in my writing. I actually don’t say what I think that often; it’s just that when I do, I try to make it worth everyone’s time. And it’s the same with Twitter. I don’t use it that much, but it seems like I do. I don’t always write about myself that much — I just try to use the “I” very strongly when I do.
When I’m trying to figure out what I think about something, I’m doing it for my own clarity and moral compass and sense of being in the world. I try to be responsible audience-wise, but mostly I think the hardest person to be original and surprising and interesting for is myself.
When you write about social media, for example, where representing yourself and your life can sometimes seem like a substitute for actually being yourself in your life, you make sure your participation in social media is visible. Is this an ethical thing for you?
There’s a part of me that takes very naturally to these structures of self-broadcasting without seemingly changing too much or thinking too much about it at all. Basically, I’ve adopted the approach of not trying to think of myself as having a personal brand and just trying to be on the internet the way that I am in real life.
But also I try to live in such a way that everything I do is better to live in than to communicate or photograph. As long as I care more about my life and my work than [how I come across], then I prefer not to think about it at all.
So how do you decide what to hold back?
I think the main [question] is, Am I showing myself for a purpose? Can I use myself to get to the point faster or get to the point clearer or show the sensory, lived experience of what I’m writing about? But also, don’t you find that the really, really good stuff, you forget to take pictures of? I try to keep the really, really good stuff for myself.
You set limits too. You don’t use Instagram Stories, you have apps that limit your use of other apps, and you went off social media for a month to finish a writing project. Were you tempted not to come back?
No, because I actually am pretty good about not using the internet that much. I don’t think it seems like it because when I do tweet I’m usually dramatically exposing something stupid about myself. [But] I’m pretty good about using social media in a way that’s about pleasure rather than about need. Also, my career has depended on my ability to self-promote in a vaguely palatable way. For better or worse, I’ve become someone who writes about the internet constantly, so I use it for material, which feels kind of bad, but it’s gonna be what it is.
I’m thinking about what we have to accept in order to be part of this ecosystem, so how much self-delusion is bad and how much is necessary?
We need some degree of self-delusion — like, we can’t think about how much data is being trapped and resold by all these corporations or we’ll go insane. That being said, ever since I was a teenager, it has seemed to me that there’s some clear benefit in trying to bulls--- yourself as little as you can. We’d be better citizens in the world, I’d go about my life better, with an understanding of how easy it is to bulls--- myself.
Is this situation salvageable?
Yeah, I think it’s possible in the near term. The internet, capitalism, patriarchy — it’s all trying to dehumanize us, and we’re all doing our best. It’s still worthwhile to keep trying and to be alive and to experience things. But in general, it’s agonizing. But it’s kind of appropriate right now to consider that maybe it’s salvageable but it’s not redeemable, and that might be how we have to live.
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Tue., 7 p.m., free.