Here is an experiment. If you know a child under 14, ask them if they know what skibidi toilet is

Catherine Prasifka: Talking to someone who isn’t online about the internet is like talking to an alien. Or worse, it’s like realising you are the alien

You might be reading this on your phone, banners flicking across the top of the screen, messages coming in: have you taken the bins out? Or, you might have your phone on the table next to you. News alerts momentarily diverting your attention, lighting up the screen, reminding you of everything going on in the world. When you use a smartphone, it is almost impossible to focus your attention on just one thing. And we use our smartphones for almost everything now.

At some point, impossible to pin down, apparent only in recollection, the world became this fractured network of information. A world of constant content, a flattened ecosystem where the personal and the public meld, and we are at once in control of what we put online, and entirely at sea when it comes to ensuring that we are understood. It is a new landscape for communication (and miscommunication) that we are all navigating, and one that I grew up alongside.

The internet used to be a place, one I visited when I sat down at the family desktop, or turned my ever-precious phone data on. Gone when not in use. Growing up with the internet as it evolved felt a bit like being the metaphorical frog in the slowly boiling water. We got to come of age together. I remember a time when it felt unnatural, cringe even, to broadcast the minutia of my day to people. A time when taking a selfie was an act of vanity. The internet of my childhood is gone. It was a slow and pervasive process, turning our lives into content. At one point in time, every thought I had, profound, quotidian, or otherwise, found its way to Twitter, to the point where I would follow thoughts up with “that would make a good tweet”.

I hate the word content, but more and more I think that is what we produce in an online world. Content is impersonal, it strips away all notions of artistry, all emotion, all thought, and leaves us with just the gooey dopamine centre. We are consumers, not people. Everything is perfectly digestible, existing on the same level, coming to us all at once. It can be difficult to appropriately react to a shocking headline or a friend’s cry for help when they come to you on the same platform as a dog video.


Don’t get me wrong, I love posting inane things online, photos of myself, two magpies, little jokes that I think are amusing. But, what was once private and anonymous has become interconnected and targeted, a handful of companies fighting for a monopoly on our browsing history. When they realised that there was money to be made, everything changed. The economy of the online world runs on attention, your attention, and the moment you put your phone down you cease contributing to it. So, apps are designed to keep you on them, to keep you posting, flicking, watching. Now, the internet is a state of being.

This is frightening. It is frightening because it is difficult to put into words and because it is hard to realise what’s happening. My habits were carefully cultivated by corporations in countries I have never been to. They were taught to me by apps that profited off my addiction, that shaped me as I was shaping them. I am from a guinea pig generation, the first to learn who we were online. To have apps respond to our needs and offer us things we didn’t know we needed and now suddenly cannot live without. The internet has seeped into everything, changing how we see ourselves and communicate with each other.

My internet is different to your internet. Algorithms show me what I want. I don’t dictate my interests to the internet anymore, the internet tells me what I want to see. And it is almost always correct. You and I could be looking at the exact same app or website, yet we would be looking into different worlds. This dislocates meaning, leaving it floating somewhere in the cloud, because the context we use to interpret someone’s meaning is highly individual. It makes common ground all the harder to find.

Talking to someone who isn’t online about the internet is like talking to an alien. Or worse, it’s like realising you are the alien. Sometimes, a friend will ask me to explain why I am laughing at my phone, and I have to tell them that I can’t, the humour is unexplainable and doesn’t translate off the screen. Nothing ends a conversation faster than a meme reference that doesn’t land and leaves the other person saying, “I don’t get it”.

The internet is a kind of third space: neither here nor there. I am in one place, you are in another, and we will use our own context as a guide to understand what the other person is saying, and inevitably get some things wrong. References used to be community based, and maybe they still are, but the concept of community has become globalised, and it is possible that someone living in your house interacts with a very different online reality than you do.

Switching off is not as simple as turning off your phone, not now that the world has adapted to constant connectivity

Here is an experiment. If you know a child under the age of 14, ask them if they know what “skibidi toilet” is. I guarantee that they will, and you won’t. It is a meme popular with Generation Alpha (those born after 2010). A quick search on YouTube will bring up hundreds of videos with tens of millions of views. Relatively harmless, it’s a video of a man’s head singing in a toilet. What is more worrying, however, is the fact that algorithms have divided the internet so thoroughly that I have never organically stumbled across one of these trending videos.

Communication functions differently online than it does in person, although it’s not always apparent, and it doesn’t always stay online. There is a particular language to the internet, it has its own syntax and vocabulary. It’s much more sophisticated than the days of character-saving text speak, burdened with the weight of conveying complex thoughts at lightning speed. We are all engaged in the never-before-seen mass production of informal writing, pinning down every experience we have with the written word. In the process, we have bent and broken language to our will. I sometimes catch myself saying “lol” out loud, something I’m sure puts a shudder up the spine of some pedants. However, online, “lol” no longer signals laughter, but rather functions as a tonal marker in messaging denoting something like an acknowledgment of irony. It doesn’t have an adequate translation, so it fills a linguistic gap.

It is easy to dismiss the importance of emojis for communication, until someone accidentally sends the wrong one into the family WhatsApp chat and never gets to live it down. Those unfamiliar with the language of the internet may feel like they’re just illustrating their usual vegetable shop, or letting the family know it’s raining outside, but to those who are perhaps too online, the messages take on different meanings.

Some online experiences are capable of communicating very subtle social cues. Take the all-important move from messaging someone on a dating app to using WhatsApp. It’s even more serious if you follow each other on Instagram. Words have infiltrated the modern dating scene that might not make much sense if you are outside of it: “talking stage”, “situationship”. These words are needed when we are all in touch constantly and navigating this strange social landscape.

The internet opens up new avenues for communication that cannot exist offline. It is possible to have three separate conversations with the same person at the same time over different apps, because different apps have different feelings. And consider the sharing of screenshots from someone’s private messages. You could argue it’s the modern equivalent of recounting a conversation you’ve had. Or, feel it’s like inviting someone to eavesdrop. The context of the interaction changes when you can view someone’s words for yourself. With a screenshot, you have an exact record of a conversation. It is possible to read into every detail, from the punctuation, to the time they took to reply, to the number of messages. Online, everything is fair game for interpretation.

At any moment in time, you could be the star of someone else’s TikTok. Every day, we carry recording devices with us. And we have been trained to record. To post

Switching off is not as simple as turning off your phone, not now that the world has adapted to constant connectivity. I’ve been thinking about the money I spend taking myself to places where I cannot use my phone: it’s like a bonus, some extra service I am paying for. Going to the cinema is a bizarre experience, because there is only one screen. Sometimes I will be at dinner with my friends, everyone I talk to will be there. But, I still reach for my phone, for some hit from the digital space where everything is entertaining and tailored to me. From the moment the first smartphone was placed in my hands (or rather, finally given to me after months of begging), the barrier between myself and the internet fell away. I became part of the hive. I am always on my phone, and if I am not on my phone then I am on my laptop, and if I am not on my laptop then I am probably dead.

I am all too aware of the ways that people speak about women who use their phones too much: I grew up seeing them on TV and in movies, as cautionary tales in school. Why doesn’t she just turn it off? It is not as simple as taking your phone and throwing it into a lake. Even if you did, and suffered the social isolation that came as a result, it’s too late. The internet is everywhere, churning reality through its gears, inescapable. We are always performing as background characters in each other’s social media presences. Doing your weekly shop, going for a run, it doesn’t matter. At any moment in time, you could be the star of someone else’s TikTok. Every day, we carry recording devices with us. And we have been trained to record. To post.

This is something we all need to think about. Think about your own phone use, your own screen time. Think about who buys phones for children, and who creates software that profits off of their addiction. Think about the money that is made every time someone posts and who gets it. Think about the posts that get engagement, that go viral. Think about who is suffering, who is the main character of the internet today. Think about who is to blame. Think about who has shaped the world this way, and although it’s become normal, should it be?

Catherine Prasifka is the author of None Of This Is Serious. Her new novel, This Is How You Remember It, is published on May 2nd (Canongate)