Technology can deliver Eveleth to me through a serendipitous Google Alert, and it can lead me through the town piece by piece, but it still can’t quite let me feel what it’s like to live in a place that’s being left behind.
— Rose Eveleth, “My Internet Hometown”
Jake, a former resident of Eveleth, Minnesota, set up a Google alert for “Eveleth” to receive news about his hometown. But all he got was updates about Rose Eveleth. They connect, and Jake introduces her to the town, which becomes her obsession. While she now knows everything about it from searching on the internet, she has never physically visited.
The fact that a young journalist’s Internet footprint was bigger than that of an entire mining town is a testament to our time, and shows just how little is going on in Eveleth. But that smallness has a way of surfacing gorgeous, intimate details about the place.
I really enjoyed this piece, which reminded me in some ways of two posts from 2013: Joanna Walsh’s “In Cyberspace: A Love Letter” in Granta and Kelli Korducki’s “Autofill Mythologies” in The New Inquiry. Walsh’s love letter to cyberspace, one of my favorite pieces from last year, muses on the internet, space, place, and the strange yet comforting intersections in our digital age.
In Internet city, some streets are public (forums), others private (email), and some are in-between places where we meet but where we are also on show (Facebook, Twitter) like a cafe terrace, like the street. I keep thinking I’ll see you round the next corner.
How will I find you? By following your Internet footprint, by searching for words, yours or someone else’s, by typing your name, though it is such a usual name that I have already found it attached to several other people, who have all, somehow, become tangential to my idea of you.
Walsh captures well this space in which many of us now live — some comfortably, others reluctantly — and recreates the eerie blend of both worlds, that daily mix of real and pixelated, and the ability to travel so far and wide without even moving:
I flip open my computer. I show the waiter my screen. The cursor flickers in the box. He understands. He types in the code.
And I am connected.
I open my email. There is a moment – awful, wonderful – while the page loads: microseconds spent waiting. However quick, it’s never quick enough.
Is there anybody there?
You are here. Or I am. Or, more rarely, we are here, together.
I am not at this cafe table, not in this street, not in Athens or Sofia or Budapest or Belgrade.
This is where I am.
I’m in the place we all live now – that overcrowded tenement where each one of us knows a little of the other’s business – in Cyberspace, which is an old-fashioned word for the Net, which has evaporated into the Cloud.
In the second post, “Autofill Mythologies,” Kelli Korducki talks about the amalgated version of a city as experienced through Google autofill — how the legends and myths of a place are compiled right there in your search bar, amid the detritus left from both residents and tourists.
Want to know what people really think of your hometown? Milwaukee, where I lived my first 18 years, is, according to Google’s autofill suggestions, a “ghetto,” “a dump,” and located in a state many Google users apparently can’t place. (Type “Milwaukee is…” and up pops “in what country?”).
Focused on Detroit, Korducki finds that Google autofill reveals two versions: “an emblem of splendor gone awry and the living habitat of some 700,000 actual human beings.”
Which version of a city—the way it sees itself or how it’s viewed by others—is closer to being true? As it turns out just asking is messy; it forces us to distinguish between who is and isn’t a denizen, to assign or withhold belonging. Single truths aren’t available most places, but definitely not here.
Korducki also writes:
The experience of any place, but especially one we don’t belong to, is mediated by the fragments we collect through our wanderings, bits and bobs from the news and pop music and cinema and that infant-size pizza slice you once ate because someone told you it was “Chicago-style.” Lewis Lapham once argued that the imagined city, the one of our collective making, is realer than what we’re fed by maps and demographics, buildings and structures.
I thought of this part in particular when Rose Eveleth describes going through the Yelp reviews of Eveleth’s most prolific reviewer, Inga.
Combined, our imaginations shape and create these places, now more than ever.