Digital dysmorphia

The internet has gone from the marketplace of ideas, to a marketplace in bodies

Artillery Row

Journalist and author Mandy Stadtmiller shared a new article last week on her excellent Substack series Rabbitholed entitled: “Why is Jeff Bezos Allowing Millions of Teenage Girls to Watch the Severely Anorexic Influencer Eugenia Cooney Slowly Kill Herself On Stream?”

The article itself received widespread attention for its harrowing coverage of the story of Eugenia Cooney, a 20-something Twitch streamer and YouTuber, who has built a global fanbase off vlogs featuring her cosplaying, and giving makeup and beauty tips amongst other things, as well as her distinctive early 2000s emo aesthetic. 

Cooney is also severely anorexic. As Stadtmiller’s article succinctly explains: 

Cooney’s horrific skeletal appearance is documented lavishly by her sick and enabling mother, Debra Cooney, who is seemingly keeping her daughter trapped and isolated at home with almost no contact with the outside world outside of the online predatory men who pay her daughter tips to spin around, crawl around on the floor, act like a cat and show how weak she is when trying to lift things.

Whilst Cooney’s story warrants attention, that isn’t the purpose of this article. In order to understand fully the social apparatus that allows and encourages Cooney’s mother to disturbingly parade her young daughter around for tens of thousands of digital voyeurs, no better explanation can be found than the one that actually answers Stadtmiller’s original question: Just why is Jeff Bezos allowing millions of teenage girls to watch Eugenia Cooney slowly kill herself on stream?  

Whilst Jeff Bezos could and should be skewered for his role in amassing grotesque, Scrooge McDuck levels of wealth at the expense of anyone with the temerity to want to use the toilet during their working hours, in this instance he is merely a symptom of a deeper rot that has taken hold of our society, aided in part by the explosion of the internet in the late 90s. 

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, once said: “When something is such a creative medium as the web, the limits to it are our imagination.” Berners-Lee was not wrong, but it would be unfair to stick him with the responsibility for what the depraved depths of some individuals’ “imagination” have conjured up in the subsequent decades since the web’s mass adoption. 

“Rule #34 There is porn of it. No exceptions”

Those of us who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s — ostensibly the first generation to be exposed from an early age to the internet in its more rudimentary form – will surely remember the sporadic emergence of individual “shock videos”: from the fairly benign (“Meatspin”, anyone?) to videos of murder (“Three Guys One Hammer”), the internet was a developing digital territory that its early adopters were still testing the limits of. These videos were occasionally linked to entire websites that would host videos depicting varying degrees of degeneracy, but they operated mainly in the darker corners of the web, reliant on people sending links to each other on MSN with a description that would lull the recipient into a false sense of security in order to get them to click on it. 

Such content ran, if not explicitly then certainly conceptually, parallel to another early-2000s meme: Rule 34. In short, Rule 34 stated: “Rule #34 There is porn of it. No exceptions.” It doesn’t really require Einstein’s intellect to parse what was meant by this aphorism: as the porn industry was finding its footing in the new digital age, the type of pornographic content that was readily available was also breaking new ground. Initially, those shock videos existed in a slightly separate orbit to that of more mainstream pornography, but their intersection was by no means a rarity, even in those early days. This somewhat grimly operates as the perfect example of Berners-Lee’s observation that the creativity fostered by the internet is only constrained by our collective imaginations. 

But what do examples such as Rule 34, shock videos of the early 2000s, and Eugenia Cooney have in common? The root of the thread that links the existence of these disparate digital artefacts can be found in what the internet has grown into, namely, an unconstrained and borderless marketplace. 

Marketplaces come in all shapes and sizes, but the most pertinent here is the consequence of what happens when a conceptual “marketplace of ideas” — which in essence is what the internet exists to disseminate – intersects with platforms that can introduce and profit from the aforementioned dissemination (such as Amazon’s Twitch).

The term “marketplace of ideas” was coined by US Supreme Court Justice William Douglas in United States v. Rumely, with Douglas stating: “Like the publishers of newspapers, magazines, or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the market place of ideas.” In essence, Douglas was referring to the idea that unshackled of any interference, the free hand of the market would raise up those ideas most deserving of attention, and consign to the dustbin those not worthy of recognition. 

Those with any familiarity with political philosophy will recognise this as a crystallisation of sorts of laissez-faire economics, mirroring Adam Smith’s idea in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and, later, Wealth of Nations that the Invisible Hand will guide and constrain the market depending on supply and demand. 

The marketplace is unconstrained by morals or a sense of ethics

But it was surely unforeseen by Berners-Lee, and perhaps everybody else in the 90s and early 2000s, that the internet would simultaneously operate not only as an unconstrained free market, but as a technological State of Nature (if we are to allow the political philosophy metaphors to outstay their welcome). For those unfamiliar, the State of Nature refers to what Thomas Hobbes described as an environment in which every man looked out for himself, characterised by its “nasty, brutish, and short” conditions; a miserable existence in which no basic human needs other than survival are met. 

Which brings us back to the case of Eugenia Cooney: stark proof of the nightmarish laissez-faire State of Nature of the online world today. 

The marketplace of ideas has become a marketplace of bodies, one in which the darkest and most twisted fantasies of faceless consumers can be met with the paid subscription to a Twitch stream platforming a severely ill young woman, paraded by her exploitative mother who yearns to profit from her daughter’s misery. The marketplace is unconstrained by morals or a sense of ethics; but the Invisible Hand is, ironically, nowhere to be seen.

As the boundaries of how wealth and profit can be amassed by exploiters are constantly pushed, there is no end in sight to the sadism to which those who can pay will subject those who must be paid. 

The shock videos and Rule 34 have moved from meme status to become the new paradigm, where they exist as examples of new and depraved ways in which the tendrils of capitalist exploitation can unfurl and subsume the most vulnerable. From the enforced deprivation of a fulfilling existence that has been imposed onto Eugenia Cooney, to the paraded profligacy of the morbidly obese YouTuber Amber Lynn Reid, they exist as two sides of the same coin: voyeuristic misery commodified for profit. 

The list is truly endless: victims of trafficking sexually abused for profit; children bought and sold as if items on a shelf; cannibalism filmed and disseminated for sexual gratification. There is no conceivable limit to what those who wish to monetarily gain will stop at in order to amass further wealth.

This is the modern world, and what a sight to see; in all its over-stimulating glory, it truly is a pornography of excess, exploitation, and gluttony. Is Eugenia Cooney the worst we will see, or is she simply a stop along the way? Only time will tell whether this trend can ever be reversed, or whether the destructive course we’ve set is irreparable and inevitable.

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