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.

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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.

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Such a great piece. So much to chew on it's paralyzing so I'll cap it at my first 3 thoughts:

1. I am so going to watch Inside. Probably tonight.

2. There's lots about music here, so I'll plug a favourite song about "the internet"; Influencer by Film School.

3. I would reframe these bewildering aspects of "the internet" as specifically about social media. The internet to middle-aged me is still more like a vast wikipedia page, which I mean in the best possible way. I would argue it's worthwhile to use a different word than "internet" to describe what sounds like various degrees of toxic connectivity.

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"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."


I haven't even watched the Burnham thing but Charlie, your ability to capture the horror of this shit we're all living in is just perfect

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This is a great essay and I can not agree with you more.

My favorite song in the special is All Eyes on Me that comes near the end of the special. One of the opening lines is:

Are you feeling nervous? Are you having fun?

It's almost over, it's just begun

Don't overthink this, look in my eye

Don't be scared, don't be shy

Come on in, the water's fine

I think this whole song can be interpreted in many ways, on dealing with mental illness (which is a huge theme throughout the special), on the existential dread of living in the year 2021, but is also a continuation of his commentary on the internet and meta-ness of his special itself.

He is asking if you are feeling nervous watching his special because it's meant to make you uncomfortable. He has these constant extremely sharp and jarring transitions and cuts throughout the special that leave you uneasy and which he specifically brings your attention to at the beginning of the show.

These cuts often come right at the end of a segment that prevent you from taking that last moment or two to think about and appreciate what your just experienced, but just jumps right into the next bit. I think the cut right into the Jeff Bezos reprisal is one that stands out the most to me.

These jarring cuts and transitions are what the whiplash of the internet can feel like. We often just jump right from one piece of content to another without taking the time for reflection and understanding. This is especially true on places like TikTok where you can be going from funny dances, to social justice discussions, to anything else.

I really loved this special and definitely had a similar feeling that "this is content that was made just for me" as someone who is perpetually online. It was dark, crushing, and really beautiful.

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Do you know what the song is called

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Thanks, this review resonated with Readup readers! https://readup.com/comments/galaxy-brain/bo-burnham-and-the-online-condition. According to them, if you enjoyed this reflection, you're also likely to enjoy Patricia Lockwood's wild and poetic read "The Communal Mind" (https://readup.com/comments/london-review-of-books/the-communal-mind--lrb-21-february-2019), and "My Instagram" by Dayna Tortorici in N+1 (https://readup.com/comments/n-1/my-instagram). PS Charlie: Readup readers also gave you 11.63$ for your articles (this is real! get verified to claim it at https://readup.com/writers/charlie-warzel).

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good piece charlie

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Thoroughly enjoyed this. I think it's telling that, in a way, you can quote excerpts from the special without wrapping them in your own commentary, because Bo is providing so much of the commentary himself... in a way that sort of invites this huge multitude of interpretations but also corners us as the viewers into a position where we can't say anything meaningful that he hasn't already said...

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This was a great read! Even though I didn't like Bo's special as much as I'd hoped (I found it a little unoriginal and repetitive at some points) there were those genius moments and I feel like you really got behind why they are that good!

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