Bo Burnham And The Online Condition
"A little bit of everything, all of the time."
There’s a moment thirty minutes into Bo Burnham’s Netflix special, Inside, where, out of nowhere, the comedian launches into a 59-second satirical synth-pop song about Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos. Just before a ripping keyboard solo he shouts the lines, “Zuckerberg and Gates and Buffet / Amateurs, can fucking suck it / Fuck their wives, drink their blood / Come on Jeff, get ‘em!”
This was when I turned to my partner and said, “Until now, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like a piece of art was made, specifically, for just me.”
I was referring to the sheer randomness, fleeting intensity and ridiculousness of the song, which bursts through the walls of your skull, tap dances on your brain for less than a minute, and then exits through the other wall, leaving only settling dust and silence. The randomness serves a comedic purpose, but I also found it eerily relatable.
I’ll give you a preposterous example from my life.
There’s a television show called Dog With A Blog that ran on the Disney Channel from 2012 to 2015. I’ve never seen this show, nor have I even watched clip of it online. But, for a time when I worked at BuzzFeed, people used to make jokes about it and now, without fail, this TV show pops into my head at least once every two weeks. The phrase “dog with a blog” echoes in my head for hours. Sometimes, I sing it to the tune of the old Kid Rock song “Bawitdaba.”
Dog with a blog, da bang, da dang diggy diggy, diggy, said the boogie, said up jump the boogie
My name is kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid
I hate my brain for this. But it is the brain I have.
The Bezos interlude feels similar: the product of a overstimulated mind — one that’s so used to processing endless random morsels of tantalizingly packaged information that one’s synaptic connections start to scramble. To live in this state is to feel like your neurons are firing indiscriminately, constantly cycling both extremely important and totally worthless shit into your consciousness. Some of these thoughts are connected, but many are not. A terrifying headline about people suffering from long Covid is followed by a friend texting you a YouTube video from eight years ago of a brick bouncing inside a washing machine (7.2 million views!). Then, you remember you forgot to use the Cash App to pay your therapist for your May sessions. Hey! Jeff Bezos is going to space! Also, it seems like not enough people liked that Instagram of your beach trip this weekend. All of it blurs into some kind of exhausting cognitive slurry. This is all happening inside your head but it somehow feels beyond your control.
This overstimulation, for better or worse, is what it feels like to live in a world mediated by constant connectivity to everyone else. The experience is disorienting and, thanks to personalization algorithms, different for everyone. That makes the task of presenting a subjective emotional description of the internet almost impossible. But Burnham’s Inside gets about as close as one can get for a specific kind of Western online culture. I think it’s a masterpiece and an unvarnished portrait of the online condition.
Inside understands that the only real way to define the online condition is to resist any single definition. That sentence may sound pretentious or vapid, but Burnham manages to show how being connected to most everyone and everything at once is often deeply contradictory. One-click access to every opinion ever might just solidify your beliefs — but it might also cause you to doubt your previously held bedrock notions about the world. You might join a Facebook group about Weber Grills and then join a few more at the social network’s suggestion and, three years later, storm the Capitol building. Or maybe you just reconnect with an old friend, swipe right, fall in love, get married, grill a lot, and incognito browse for increasingly niche streaming porn between setting price alerts for flights to Miami and making sure Amazon auto-renews your diaper order. There is no universal experience other than the fact that you’re having a deeply consuming experience of information overload that feels universal.
That information overload repeats throughout Inside like a chorus. It reaches its immaculate form when Burnham sings, ‘Welcome To The Internet,’ a carnival song tour of the endless options of cyberspace. “Can I interest you in everything, all of the time,” the hook repeats. Each verse of the song gets faster as Burnham lays out the cornucopia of options afforded to the humble browser. Most are rhyming non-sequiturs, veering between the silly and the horrifying:
See a man beheaded, get offended, see a shrink
Show us pictures of your children, tell us every thought you think
Start a rumor, buy a broom, or send a death threat to a boomer
Or DM a girl and groom her; do a Zoom or find a tumor in your—
Here's a healthy breakfast option, you should kill your mom
Here's why women never fuck you, here's how you can build a bomb
Which Power Ranger are you? Take this quirky quiz
Obama sent the immigrants to vaccinate your kids
It’s funny and clever and disturbing and representative of what it’s like to dip into a social feed at any moment. It feels a bit like channel surfing every single human emotion at random.
Burnham revisits this information blitz later in the special with an acoustic song about creeping existential feelings. Many of the lyrics are just strings of proper nouns and absurd and uncomfortable modern events, a bit like if Sufjan Stevens wrote a 2021 version of ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’: “Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul / A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall,” he sings. It was always burning, since the world's been turning…but the internet has, uh, accelerated it. This song feels a like the other side of ‘Welcome To The Internet,” where we get to hear from the perspective of the consumer, not the carnival barker. It’s dark.
What’s the effect of “a little bit of everything, all of the time?” Last week, I wrote about the way that the internet flattens time and collapses context, and I’d argue there’s some of that at play in Inside. In Burnham’s songs, I don’t get the sense that he’s talking about the internet flattening life so much as paralyzing and cheapening it.
A lot of Burnham’s descriptions of the internet remind me a bit of a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, which is when malicious actors overwhelm a web server with fake traffic, sometimes crashing the website completely. Online, we’re all constantly bombarded by people, emotions, brands, ideas, arguments, and stimuli. While the content might not be malicious or fake, the delivery systems are often artificial. Over time, this overload becomes debilitating, and can cause anything from fatigue to chronic cynicism to, as Burnham gestures frequently in the special, serious mental health issues. “The whole world at your finger tips, the ocean at your door,” Burnham sings at one point, driving home how being online can often produce the dual feeling of expansive, endless possibility and encroaching, walls-closing-in doom.
Burnham presents the duality of the online condition — but also the fact that we have no real choice but to live with it. Inside is, first and foremost, a reference to the pandemic and being trapped indoors and physically isolated as the most privileged among us were for the last 16 months. Watching the special for a second time, I began to think of the word “inside” as a reference to the way that we’re all trapped inside these digital spaces and subject to their physics. At one point, he ironically quips that “the non-digital world is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space.” The line is meant to sound ridiculous…until you realize that for a lot of us, it’s also kind of true.
You may have seen this dynamic manifest in your life at a concert or gathering where people around you are spending more time capturing the event through their camera’s lens than ‘living in the moment.’ There are other examples, of course, like people who book vacation destinations based on their Instagramability. These behaviors inevitably lead to handwringing about our current dystopia, but I’d argue they’re just the beginning of the ‘life lived as a content opportunity’ phenomenon. As my former Times colleague Taylor Lorenz details in a number of her excellent stories, it’s not uncommon for younger, influencer raised internet citizens to see IRL events primarily as opportunities to make content.
To say whether this behavior is ultimately good or bad obscures the fact that it is where swaths of popular culture and modern life are inevitably headed. It’s why Burnham himself does little in terms of overt moralizing and, instead, focuses on trying to convey how it feels to both live your life and also perform it for audiences of constantly shifting size.
In a 2018 interview for his excellent film Eighth Grade (which, in part, explores the ways that social media shapes the experience of young kids) Burnham evokes this performance. “It’s the feeling of…being a viewer of your own life, living an experience and at the same time hovering behind yourself and watching yourself live that experience,” he said. In the clip, Burnham exudes empathy for a group of young adults whose complicated social dynamics are poorly understood by the olds, describing their lives as “being nostalgic for moments that haven’t happened yet.” It’s a life lived on multiple time scales, he argues, where kids are “planning [their] future to look back at it.”
As one of the earliest online creator success stories, it makes complete sense that Burnham would identify with the pressures of living one’s life as an online performance. In many ways, his online experience was a test flight of sorts for the online experience and fame that millions are now trying to replicate. But it’s also somewhat remarkable that he’s willing to interrogate these dynamics, with a sort of honesty that verges on paralyzing, in front of an audience.
Burnham’s internal dialogue is at its most illuminating when he talks about atoning for problematic parts of his past or trying to navigate his privilege as a famous white guy. There’s a hall of mirrors quality: he’s trying to earnestly reckon with himself and his actions, but he’s also mocking the self-serving reality of doing that reckoning via a Netflix comedy special. He’s making the joke and trying to get ahead of the joke and trying to get ahead of the backlash to him getting ahead of the joke. But this, too, is an honest depiction of a peculiar public performance of personal growth and reflection in an online era. Nothing is simple and every act is some mix of earnestness and posturing and it’s all subject to one billion interpretations. His behavior is vulnerable but it’s also defensive. It’s admirably self aware but…maybe too much so? What’s he hiding?
There are dozens of ways that Burnham’s special could have gone horribly awry, but perhaps the biggest way would’ve been if he had held his past fame up as a cautionary tale. Take it from me kids, I got famous riding the algorithmic waves and you don’t want this!
But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he realizes something more profound: his experience, while perhaps once un-relatable, is now more universal. Whether we want to or not, most of us are living some kind of semi-public life, intermediated by dozens of complex platforms. We’re assaulted by a barrage of content while at the same time making our own. We’re victims of the online condition and we’re also somehow complicit. Living this way is disorienting and can feel contradictory. It can make you quite depressed. Go on TikTok and you’ll see people posting that having Inside clips on your ‘For You’ page is a sign that you might be in a bad place.
It’s clear that Burnham — who wrote, shot, and edited the special by himself — is a genius of sorts. But what makes Inside such a valuable piece of art isn’t just the content, but the fact that he is the messenger. He’s learned what we’re all learning everyday online: A little bit of everything all of the time can feel joyous and life affirming or like a “big ‘ol motherfucking Duffel bag of shit.” Or, perhaps most damning, it can feel a lot like nothing at all.
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Shortly before reading this fascinating essay, I was reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's 1990 classic FLOW, and I was stuck on this passage:
"Some individuals might be constitutionally incapable of experiencing flow. Psychiatrists describe schizophrenics as suffering from anhedonia, which literally means 'lack of pleasure.' This symptom appears to be related to 'stimulus overinclusion,' which refers to the fact that schizophrenics are condemned to notice irrelevant stimuli, to process information whether they like it or not. The schizophrenic's tragic inability to keep things in or out of consciousness is vividly described by some patients: 'Things just happen to me now, and I have no control over them. I don't seem to have the same say in things anymore. At times I can't even control what I think about.' Or: 'Things are coming in too fast. I lose my grip of it and get lost. I am attending to everything at once and as a result I do not really attend to anything.'
He is describing how one mental state denies us access to the most desirable mental state, which he dubbed "flow." What's interesting, now that interaction designers have in recent years used his idea of "flow" to hack attention at scale using apps, is that the resultant experience for a lot of "users" is close to anhedonic schizophrenia -- the exact mental state he cites as preventing access to flow.
So it's like "the internet" has hacked us into a fake flow state that makes attaining a real flow state impossible. Like a drug that makes you feel good at first, and as its powers decline over time to making you feel just ok, it nonetheless dams off every other source of good feelings.
Social media can be compared to a drug, and drugs often induce mental states that are possible without drugs but difficult to achieve, like ecstasy or complete calm. If social media is similar to a drug, it's a drug that induces a mental state that otherwise few of us would ever experience: schizophrenia.
Bo worked for one entire-ass year to create an 87 minute-long piece of work that explains with surgeon-like accuracy what we feel with every waking moment. It's phenomenal. Additionally, if the songs are like, 5% less good, the whole thing falls apart. What a thing.