'We're All Going To The World's Fair' Shows How The Internet Is Making Us All Insane
The algorithms are turning us schizo
By Eric Shorey
[CW: suicide, self harm, mental illness]
[Spoilers for We’re All Going To The World’s Fair throughout.]
You know that thing where you read a sentence, phrase or thought online and then it gets stuck in your head? And you catch yourself saying it to yourself, over and over, for days, weeks, months, and you’re not even sure why? It could be a funny tweet, or a weird meme, or some snippet of a reply plonked deep in a comments section.
I’ve found myself repeating the phrase “The algorithms are turning us schizo,” pretty much every day since I stumbled across the phrase as a reaction to some deeply strange image in a problematic meme group. The comment was in response to a wildly insane post about an individual with Dissociative Identity Disorder volunteering for the Ukrainian military, despite the protestations of their “alters.” Or maybe it was in response to a psychotic screenshot of a right-wing image board, in which some redpilled lunatic injected himself with aged urine to protest the Coronavirus vaccine. Or maybe it was in response to a TikTok of a man threatening to release a jar of live bees in a Taco Bell. I honestly can’t remember.
The algorithms are turning us schizo.
Jean Michel-Charcot, a French neurologist from the late 1800s, examined the problem of “hysteria” and anticipated the psychoanalytic studies of Sigmund Freud only a few decades later. Charcot’s major discovery was that “hysteria” — at one point considered a hereditary condition — was, in fact, psychological in nature.
Back then, wealthy women with conditions like “fragile nerves” would be sent to spas to convalesce, in the hopes that mountain air and relaxation would cure them of their sensitivities. In at least one situation — so the story goes — Charcot noticed these “hysterical” women were having seizures, despite having no prior history of epilepsy. He began to realize that the “hysterical” women’s symptoms mimicked the conditions of those around them — they were “hysterically” copying the sickest women at the spa, who were actually epileptics.
While it would be easy to dismiss these women as attention-seeking drama queens, Freud would eventually assert that there was something very real about their suffering, despite their suffering being psychogenic, not physiological.
(From here on out, I’m going to drop the scare quotes around “hysterical.” It’s true that the term has become un-PC, and for good reason. Hysteria at one point was considered a woman’s disease, caused by a wandering womb, and the diagnosis was used as a tool to oppress, silence, and control women. That being said, even Charcot noted that plenty of men suffered from hysteria. It simply wasn’t recognized as such due to prejudice and bias. The feminist debate surrounding this label is outside the scope of this essay, so you’re just going to have to go with me on this one for now.)
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a 2021 minimalist horror film directed by Jane Schoenberg, tells the story of Casey and her terrible fall down the rabbit hole of creepypastas and alternate reality gaming.
Casey lives in an unnamed, horrible, all-American nowheresville right off a highway somewhere in upstate New York. There’s an AutoZone and an empty Toys ‘R’ Us and a very dismal looking downtown that probably has, like, an Olive Garden at it’s center — or something equally as droll.
Casey introduces herself with the ubiquitous “Hi Guys,” of a wannabe influencer, before telling us that she’s about to take the “World’s Fair Challenge.” She pricks her finger aggressively with a sharp button, smears the blood on her computer screen, and watches some mysterious video that bathes her in multicolored lights. Her eyes are filled with tears and she looks like she hasn’t slept in days. Her voice is only slightly louder than a whisper.
We then watch Casey watching a series of auto-loading videos of people who have also taken the World’s Fair Challenge. One teenager claims he can feel his insides re-arranging like Tetris blocks. A man running on a treadmill strikes himself aggressively claiming he no longer feels pain. A beautiful and buxom blonde woman says she is turning into rubber. It becomes apparent that the World’s Fair Challenge is something analogous to the Slender Man mythos: part urban legend, part Live Action Role-Play (LARP). Casey begins recording herself, claiming that she is undergoing changes, saying that she knows something is happening to her, something is taking her over.
One night, Casey can’t sleep. She slinks off to a shed next to her home. She stares longingly at a rifle (which she later reveals is her dad’s) before soothing herself with an ASMR video. But when the video ends and the next video begins auto-playing, she’s met with a message posted by some other World’s Fair cultist, directed specifically at her. Her own image appears on her screen, monstrously distorted by some amateur photoshopping. The phrases “I NEED TO TALK TO YOU” and “YOU ARE IN DANGER” flash at her.
Eventually, Casey reaches out to the poster of this ominous video. In a Skype call, a mysterious man named JLB warns her that the World’s Fair Challenge really does change people, that he’s been researching the phenomenon for a while, and that he wants her to report back to her with everything that’s happening. JLB asks her if she’s lying about her experiences. She says no. Then JLB asks her “How do you know you aren’t lying?”
Anyway, Casey dutifully obliges, sending JLB videos of herself sleeping, which he analyzes frame by frame to show her that she’s being overtaken by some monstrous, otherworldly being. Casey and JLB communicate back and forth in Skype calls and YouTube videos.
Casey continues filming herself while she disintegrates. She’s overcome with unexpected fits of screaming. She talks about how one day she will disappear and no one will notice. She says she no longer has control of her own body. She muses about her father’s gun. In the thrall of some kind of dissociative fugue, she tears apart her favorite childhood stuffed animal, and then, moments later, weeps openly, wondering how she could have done such a thing.
Eventually, JLB (revealed to be a mid-40’s adult male living alone in a sprawling Long Island mansion) calls her and expresses concern. He asks Casey to step outside the game so they could have a real talk. Casey is appalled, and it’s not clear if she had just realized she was playing a game all along, or if she’s offended she was asked to stop. Casey ends the call, accuses JLB of being a pedophile, and blocks him.
In a spoken word epilogue, JLB reveals that years later he met up with Casey. That shortly after that call, she had been hospitalized. That he felt touched to see that she survived, but guilty that he might have played some role in her breakdown.
The algorithms are turning us schizo.
Casey might be considered a hysteric, in that her symptoms mimicked those of the mentally ill she’d observed online. In Lacanian parlance, her desires were interpolated through the desires of the Other.
Or perhaps Casey was LARPing as a hysteric, pretending to be mentally ill and/or demonically possessed as part of an ever-evolving game played between her, JLB and the thirty or so followers who watched her lonely videos.
Or maybe both.
The digital age has created a whole new set of epistemological and etiological paradoxes when it comes to mental illness: is pretending to have a mental illness any different from actually having a mental illness? To what extent does Casey herself know she is playing a game, and does it matter, in terms of her sanity, whether she does or doesn’t know?
In some ways, this has always been the quandary at the heart of hysteria: does it matter if Charcot’s hysterical women were “faking” their seizures? Were the seizures some desperate grab for attention or were they a symptomatic expression of unconscious psychological turmoil? Or are those two things actually the same thing?
One of the most revolutionary aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis was that Freud suggested we take that kind of suffering — that is, psychological suffering, not just physiological suffering — seriously as suffering, seriously as illness.
But Freud could have never anticipated the debilitating impact of social media on the human psyche, and a major difference between the hysterical women of Freud’s era and the hysterical posters of today is that nowadays, hysteria is incentivized by the algorithms.
One can amass a significant following by pretending to be mentally ill. One can even monetize mental illness.
The algorithms are turning us schizo.
The so-called “Dissociative Identity Disorder Community” has become somewhat of a hot button issue in the world of the extremely-online. Plenty of articles have been written about this situation, in which usually teenage or young adult posters will share intimate details about their “systems” and their “alters” — with many of these posters racking up views in the hundreds of thousands, as their lives spiral out of control. These posters often claim they are raising awareness of a rare psychological condition, using TikTok or YouTube as a kind of psychotic diary in which they document the trials and tribulations of having what at one point was called Multiple Personality Disorder. In any other circumstances, these people would be immediately hospitalized, but instead they are cheered on by thousands.
Of course, the “Dissociative Identity Disorder” of the Internet is so far from the actual diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that the two barely resemble each other at all. Academic writer Freddie deBoer breaks down the differences between the two, and ultimately asserts that DID isn’t real and that the people who say they have it online are liars and fakers. deBoer condescendingly (but not incorrectly) calls DID a “boutique identity” and intimates that this kind of content delegitimizes actual marginalized identities and downplays the severity of real mental illness.
While I don’t entirely disagree with deBoer — and he’s absolutely correct in noting that DID was always a problematic diagnosis that perhaps no one actually ever really had — perhaps a better way to phrase it would be that DID is a LARP: but like Casey, the players may or may not know they’re playing a game at all.
And the players of this game have very good reasons to want to stay in the game: they get endless pity, thousands of supporters who “affirm” them daily, lots of attention, a perverse kind of fame. We might in other circumstances have called these perks secondary gains — a psychological term that refers to the advantages that occur secondary to stated or real illness. But the secondary gains of the extremely online mentally ill can outweigh the downsides of the “illness” itself.
(The right-wing analogue of the DID community is QAnon, a movement whose similarly delusional and schizophrenic beliefs and behaviors are encouraged by the very same algorithms and which also functions as a kind of ARG or LARP in which players may or may not know they are playing. Like with DID, a person espousing QAnon beliefs would in any other circumstance likely be hospitalized.)
The algorithms are turning us schizo.
If Casey hadn’t discovered the World’s Fair Challenge, she might have developed some other symptom. She appears to have no friends. Her father (who never actually appears on camera and is the only other character in the film aside from JLB and Casey) chides her for staying up so late: the kind of “reversal of night and day” seen in extreme cases of social withdrawal, AKA hikikomori as described by Japanese psychiatrist Saitō Tamaki. Her affect is lachrymose, flattened, downtrodden.
Although we know almost nothing of her life outside her online endeavors, Casey appears to be in a psychologically vulnerable place. The World’s Fair Challenge gives her meaning and purpose, and at least one friend (who some reviewers have interpreted as a groomer).
The algorithm — which I repeatedly refer to in this essay as if it were some kind of sentient, malevolent evil — zoned in on Casey’s vulnerability. It saw she was watching videos about the World’s Fair and fed her more videos about the World’s Fair.
So, yes, Casey might have found some other mental illness to latch onto all on her own, some other behavior or symptom which would have allowed her to express unconscious emotional turmoil that she likely could not have named or may not have even been aware of. But in her case, the algorithm induced a disintegration. It showed her how to be a hysteric. And it rewarded her hysteria by introducing her to someone else with a similar hysterical manifestation, a hysterical compatriot who encouraged her hysteria. Whether the World’s Fair is a LARP or not is essentially irrelevant.
The algorithm turned her schizo.
Young people are lonelier than ever. Perhaps our generation’s ubiquitous addiction to social media is actually, well, kind of anti-social. Perhaps withdrawal into social media is more solipsistic and isolationist than it appears; perhaps social media functions more akin to a one-player game compared to actual, IRL socialization. In our minds, our online friends are maybe closer to NPCs than real people. Certainly competition over likes, shares, and views gamifies otherwise banal, casual interactions. Because despite our constant online socializing, there’s an epidemic of loneliness.
The true impact of social media on the psychology of our generation and the generation that comes after us is impossible to quantify, and scientific or empirical studies on the deleterious effects of social media seem to come to wildly different conclusions. What’s clear is that social media is changing the ways we think about each other and ourselves.
One of the most pernicious aspects of social media, at least from the analyst’s chair, is the mental health-ization of everything. Aside from the fact that lots of the mental health information on the Internet is wildly inaccurate — it’s often either massively oversimplified, outright wrong, or grossly misinterpreted by laypeople and non-experts — the Internet’s collective obsession with “mental health” leads to the crystallization of pathological identities that become impossible to treat, because they are experienced by the sufferer as endemic to their personality or very being. And the algorithms will feed the most psychologically vulnerable content that explicitly tells them precisely that.
The algorithm is doing this because it is designed to keep us online, it is designed to keep us watching, and it is designed to make money for the companies that profit from our attention.
The algorithm wants to provide you with a sick community, because then you won’t want to leave.
A person invested in this network will abandon the hope of alleviating their suffering because the algorithm has led them to believe, through a constant stream of individually curated misinformation, that this is part of who they are. Never mind the fact that many of the behaviors or experiences or feelings deemed pathological by the social media over-mind are in reality totally normal. Meanwhile, some people in these worlds have garnered thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of followers “affirming” them, telling they do not need to change, telling them that they are “valid” just the way they are. But they are suffering nonetheless. (And if they get better, they might be abandoned by this perverse support network.)
The algorithms have learned to hone in on these people and deliver them personalized content that “affirms” this aberrant world view. TikTok specifically has siloed each mental illness into its own little community, where posters discuss outright incorrect interpretations of medical and psychological information — or sometimes even make up outrageous or provocative data and factoids simply to get clicks. People flock to these communities because, like Casey, they are very, very lonely. But this kind of socializing is not really socializing — it’s more like the inverse of socializing, the shadow of socializing, anti-socializing.
Never before have humans been exposed to a constant bombardment of mental illness on such a massive scale, and never before has mental illness been incentivized to such a massive degree: we now have mental illness influencers, mental illness celebrities, mental illness LARPing. The World’s Fair is the Internet itself, a festival of mass hysterical psychosis.
The algorithms turned us all schizo.
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