It was a beautiful morning so I logged into my Facebook account and Facebook was happy to see me as always, being all attentive and stuff. “We’ve made a short film about you and John,” said Facebook, “celebrating all your years together here, on Facebook. We did it because we care about you. We care about you so much it hurts. Did you know that? I hope you know that, or we’ll be hurt in a different way.” I had only met John once, nine years ago, hadn’t spoken to him since, and knew very little about him, apart from the fact that he liked raspberries, so the film was just a photo of him staring longingly at a raspberry, and a screenshot of the time he’d written “lol dick” beneath a status update I’d written in 2010 about losing a pen. Moving on, I browsed an old photo album and saw a man I didn’t recognise.
“Who is that?” I asked Facebook.
“That is Bill,” replied Facebook. “He is your lover.”
“I am a bit confused by all this,” I told Facebook. “I might leave for a while.”
“Hannah will miss you,” said Facebook.
“Who’s Hannah?” I asked.
“You rode a camel with her on Valentine’s Day in 1912,” says Facebook.
I tried to recall the week in question. I drew a blank but my memory of that period was admittedly a bit hazy so I gave Facebook the benefit of the doubt.
“Would you like to see your finest photo of 1782 and retro-share it on your timeline, so you can have a public memory of the time you retro-shared it on your timeline, and the time when you retro-shared it before that, plus of course the original time you shared it?” asked Facebook.
“I’d rather not: I had amoebic dysentery that week,” I said.
“Yeah-you-did, and you fucking loved every minute of it,” said Facebook.
It was hard to feel angry with Facebook: Facebook was always so nice, telling me how much I meant to it, but Facebook was busy and popular, and I supposed it couldn’t always pay me the attention I deserved, so I moved over to Twitter for a while, thinking that I’d like to speak to somebody who knew the real me, rather than just what it thought was the real me. I immediately noticed that Twitter had, using its complex algorithms, come up with a selection of fellow users it thought I might enjoy the experience of following. These included an estate agent who once slept with my sister then blanked her calls, and a woman who was arrested for breaking into my garden shed in 2003. Scanning my replies, I noticed The Man Who Gets Angry About My Love Of Trees was angry again, mostly about my love of trees. I had never met The Man Who Gets Angry About My Love Of Trees but he’d been angry about my love of trees for almost a year now, ever since I posted a photo of some trees and declared that I loved them. Sometimes he’d tweet up to seventy times per day about how much he hated the fact that I love trees, the high watermark of this being in January when he rounded up a hate mob of people he’d bonded with over their similar loathing of people who love trees, and started tree-shaming me and sending me photos of people abusing trees by kicking them or pouring a variety of inappropriate liquids on them, including custard, old spit collected in a jar, and budget instant coffee.
Sometimes I’d picture The Man Who Gets Angry About My Love Of Trees on a normal Sunday, wandering about his house, hurting his knuckles on the various wall-hangings and furniture he had punched as a result of being so angry about my love of trees. “AAAAGH, that really hurt,” he would shout, as he made contact with the objects, “but I can’t help it. His love of trees makes me so mad.” I personally viewed his outbursts as an overreaction but I tried to see the other side of the argument, too. When I’d tweeted the photo of the trees, along with my comment about how great trees were, I hadn’t been thinking about others out there, who had had less positive experiences of trees. What if The Man Who Gets Angry About My Love Of Trees had fallen out of a tree when he was young, and really hurt himself, or been staring at a tree when a disturbing psychological event in his youth had happened? This is one of the problems with The Internet: you cannot cater for everyone with your output.
“I wonder what @cox_tom has been up to today,” read the latest tweet by The Man Who Gets Angry About My Love Of Trees. “I bet he climbed a tree, or found an acorn or something, the c***.”
I didn’t reply, but resolved to be more considerate in future, when talking online about about my enthusiasms, and remember that there were those out there who didn’t share them.
I thought it might be nice to relax by listening to some music so I went to a different part of The Internet that sold music, to see if it had any recommendations for me. “We’ve forensically analysed data regarding your recent listening,” said this other part of The Internet. “And what we have gleaned from this is that you would love the following album. In fact, we would go so far as to say it will be your favourite album in the history of the world. You can thank us later.” The album it recommended was 1984’s ‘Get Up And Dance’, by Black Lace, featuring their enormous party hit, ‘Agadoo’. I said that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like the album, and was looking for something more along the lines of some early 1970s folk music, or some jazz or funk, maybe something by Fairport, or Nina Simone. “No,” replied The Internet. “You’ll prefer this. Our collated data has alerted us to the fact that you largely enjoy albums with covers that have lettering in an ornate dark red fonts. As you’ll see, this has lettering in an ornate dark red font. This is the album you will grow to revere above all others.”
It was getting late and I felt I ought to do some work, so I decided it was time to update my biog on my website. When I went in to edit my biog, I was surprised to find some stuff in there that I had no recollection of writing. “Tom Cox was educated at King’s College, Cambridge,” said my biog, “and is the author of four books, all of which are only about tarmac, and absolutely nothing else.” I found this very confusing on a couple of counts. Firstly, my education had stopped at BTEC National diploma level, and I didn’t even have any A-levels, let alone a degree from a famous university. Secondly, although I had written four books about tarmac, the truth was more that I was writing around tarmac, and the books covered many different other parts of human existence and road surfaces. I’d also written five additional books, including 2007’s Baby In Face, my memoir about often being unable to have full conversations with friends due to babies being shoved in people’s faces. Though not a commercial success, I viewed this as my most artistically satisfying work. Yet it had been totally omitted from my oeuvre. I corrected the errors eventually but before I did, I had a few more problems. When I typed words, The Internet would change them, usually to terms from the Urban Dictionary, or the name of a vast corporation. “Influenced by mid 20th Century Irish miserablism,” I typed, for example, but what appeared on screen in front of me was “Eyebrows on fleek”. “Sometimes known to collect shells in his spare time” I typed. “Trump Tower be like so peng,” wrote The Internet. I had heard about the wonders of autocorrect and how it was supposed to change all of our lives for the better but this wasn’t helping anyone. When the doorbell rang a minute or two later, I was relieved to escape from my predicament by going to see who was there.
I answered the door and was surprised to find that waiting on the other side of the door was The Internet. I was a little displeased, if I was totally honest, that the Internet hadn’t called or messaged ahead – it, of all people, had the appropriate technology available to it and was well aware that the year was no longer 1988. But I invited The Internet in and put the kettle on, which turned out to be entirely unnecessary, as The Internet already had its head in the cupboard under my sink and was drinking a bottle of dishwasher rinse aid. It was the first time I’d met The Internet in person and the first thing I noticed about The Internet was how much shorter it was compared to my mental image of it. Still kind of big, but in a wide, squat sort of way, where you sensed there were lots of faulty wires and ugly bits but they had been covered up hastily with plastic panels. The second thing I noticed was The Internet’s odour. I’d always expected The Internet to be odourless, but it had a definite smell. It was hard to describe: kind of like that smell you get when someone has hastily tried to cover up another much worse smell with pine-scented air freshener and detergent but with a sense that the initial bad smell is still there, pushing against the thin partition wall of the smell masking it. But there was a better smell on top of that too, like fresh coffee and homebaked bread. The kind of smell you are supposed to create in a house when you are selling a house.
After we’d made small talk for a bit and The Internet had located my reserve bottle of dishwasher rinse aid and downed that too, I asked The Internet what brought it to these parts.
“Oh, I’m here to help, in innumerable ways,” said The Internet. I noticed that it had picked up a framed photo of my granddad from on top of a cupboard with one of its hundreds of metal limbs and put it in a pocket in one of the plastic panels on its back.
“What are you doing with that?” I asked.
“This is the first part of the helping,” said The Internet. “I was looking at your granddad and brainstorming. Doing a bit of blue sky thinking, y’know? So just hear me out on this, right. He was bald, was he not? Lost all his hair by the time he was about 27?”
“Well, that’s ok, I suppose. Some men can’t help that. But I was thinking: it doesn’t really fit all that well with your branding, having a bald granddad. A lot of people inside me have said so. I don’t like to say so, but… there is… gossip. People are talking about your bald granddad. They’re saying he was bald.”
The Internet pulled another framed photo from another of the plastic panels on its back and placed it on top of the cupboard where the photo of my granddad had previously been. In this new photo was a confident-looking man, with a head of thick grey curls.
“Meet your new granddad. Eighty years old and barely lost a strand. Very well-read and eloquent.”
“That’s a photo of the Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard.”
“We can worry about the smallprint later. First it’s time for a spring clean!”
I followed The Internet through the house, as it inspected the walls and my furniture, with a critical eye. I noticed that as The Internet walked off, it tossed both empty rinse aid containers into the main bin, rather than putting them in the bag specifically reserved for recycled plastic containers, which was a surprise, because I’d always imagined that The Internet would be conscientious about recycling, since lots of its most famous employees talk a lot about saving the planet. I transferred them back to the appropriate bag, then caught up with The Internet, where it had already reached the bathroom. “Okay,” it said, pointing to three cobwebs on the walls, and a small magpie moth asleep on the door. “These will have to go.”
“I’d really rather if you left them,” I said. “I think they’re really nice.”
“Thanks for reaching out, and it’s always good to get your feedback,” said The Internet, incinerating the moth with a pop-up flame thrower hidden in one of its smaller arms. “But please understand that I’m here to help. I love nature just as much as the next dude. You ask anyone. I fucking AM nature. I, like, go to zoos all the time. But we’re trying to make you the best possible you you can be, every day.”
As The Internet continued to traverse the house, rearranging furniture and squirting various noxious substances from its metal arms onto walls, it peppered our conversation with insipid motivational phrases. “Everything happens for a reason,” it said, propelling my favourite thirty year-old sofa out onto the lawn with a powerful electronic limb. “We are all stars,” it said, setting alight a drawing I did when I was eight. “We just need to find our correct galaxy.” I noticed that as The Internet had finished with each room, every wall was the same colour: shiny, like walls I’d seen in photos that were particularly popular online. Except it wasn’t a colour at all – certainly not one there was a name for. At the bottom of the walls, The Internet graffitied the phrase “#nofilter”. By the time we had finished, most of my furniture was outside, in heaps, on the lawn and in the flowerbeds.
“Phew! That was tiring work,” said The Internet, slumping in the one remaining armchair in the house – a chair I’d never liked much, but which had the redeeming features of being blemish-free, and very easy to clean. “Be a love,” The Internet continued, handing me a folded piece of paper, “and nip down to the supermarket for me, would you? We need a few more supplies.” I noticed that when asking you to do tasks The Internet was very persuasive, like even if you didn’t much want to do them you’d feel really bad refusing it, so you’d do them anyway. It was only when I actually arrived at the supermarket that I realised The Internet had forgotten to give me any money, and that I looked at the folded piece of paper for the first time. On it were scrawled the words “rinse aid x 13” and nothing else.
It was almost dark when I got back and my house was glowing like in a photo of a house you might get in a high end magazine illustrating how people are supposed to live when they have won and got rid of the nonsense. It had never looked as warm and welcoming and the warmth was enhanced by the fact that I could hear chuckling voices from inside. I stepped inside and found The Internet laughing and indulging in banter with three people aged around 30, all of whom were astonishingly good-looking. Also present were a couple in their sixties, who were also astonishingly good-looking. I had never previously seen any of them.
“Oh, you’re back!” said The Internet, roughly snatching the rinse aid out of my hands. “Meet Jill and Bob. They are your parents. And Dave, your brother, and Angela, your sister-in-law. And last but not least… Candida, your new girlfriend! They’ll all be on hand if you need them in your background, to add an ambience of domestic success to your Instagram photos.”
“Hi,” said Candida. “We can’t actually kiss or have sex, but we can WhatsApp from separate rooms sometimes if you like. Late on a Thursday tends to be my preferred window.”
“As Dave and Angela will be the only practicing couple in the house, I’m sure you’ll understand that they’ll be taking your bedroom. Candida will be next-door in the guest room. I have taken the liberty of replacing both mattresses, which had been aesthetically undermined by large coffee stains. Jill and Bob will fly in from California at alternate weekends. It is Dave and Angela’s wedding in Costa Rica in seven weeks. Full of inspiration and still on a high a week after that, Candida will cross-post a photo of herself wearing the engagement ring you’ve bought her, with the caption ‘The boy done good’. It might be an idea to alert your followers to her social accounts, just so they can track your success story together from the start.” I noticed, for the first time, another stranger, crouched in the corner of the living room, touching up the background of an old photo of my nan in front of her house in Liverpool. He was less good-looking and clad in a designer boiler suit. The house in the photo was no longer a post-war council terrace, but a large wood clad ranch home, backing onto a lake.
“That’s Stan,” said The Internet. “He’ll be the Brand Consultant for all of you. He’s a technical whizz, so anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask. I’m sure you’ll all get on like a house on fire!”
The first days living in my redone Internet House with my Internet Family were kind of ok. Angela made everyone elaborate, brightly coloured meals every evening which, after Dave had photographed them from three or four different angles, we all tucked into with gusto. My house had never been cleaner and it was nice to have company in the house. Candida, if she was feeling generous, would sometimes text me photos of her hair from upstairs, as a thank you for my acting as a hand model for her range of inspirational mood rings. But pretty soon the novelty started to wear off. Angela and Dave argued a lot then had very noisy, violent sex, directly above the living room, where I slept on the new sofa the Internet had installed which, while photogenic, was hell on my back. I missed my books, and my records, and my cats, all of which the Internet had donated to charity in a very public way, using all the channels available to it. Angela began to bring guys over and ask me to vacate the living room while she selfied with them. After they’d selfied, she’d argue with the guys about who looked best in the selfies, and whether the selfies were on brand, then they’d angrily have sex or angrily not have sex. I began to spend more and more time outdoors, sleeping in hedges and ravines, eating nuts and berries and drinking from streams. One day, after an especially tiring four day hike through ancient forest and moorland I decided I’d like to return home and use the shower, but when I tried my key in the door it didn’t work. I saw Candida’s silhouette pass the upstairs window, followed by a silhouette that looked a little like mine. I knocked and shouted, but nobody could hear me over the music and the sound of Dave and Angela arguing then having sex. After half an hour I walked away, disconsolate and lonely, but as I got further down the path, and glanced back at the house, I began to question what I was really leaving behind. That was about a month ago and life hasn’t been easy since, but I don’t think it ever fully is. I mostly live in the long grass and the bushes now – and the trees, of course. I still love trees just as much as ever, probably even more, but I don’t go shouting about it in public. I’ve learned that it’s best to keep that kind of stuff to yourself.
My new book 21st Century Yokel is published in a few weeks. You can order a deluxe hardback from Unbound here for October. The trade hardback will be available in all the usual offline and online shops on November 16th. I would prefer if you ordered it from an independent bookshop to support authors and small businesses but I understand that isn’t always convenient or easily possible.
I don’t work for any national media publications any more so all my writing now appears on this site or in my book. The site is free, but if you enjoy the writing on here you can take out a small voluntary monthly subscription.