Being Online with Molly Soda

Posting self through the digital ages

Published March 13, 2024
Molly Soda is an internet-based performance artist whose work explores mass media culture, virtual communication patterns,  and the concept of “posting self.”

During our conversation, we talk about online visibility, why we think of past Internet trends as “cringe”, and publicizing the privacy of your desktop.

Listen to our extended conversation on Spotify. Visit Molly’s website or her Substack, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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USURPATOR: So, how long have you been on Tumblr? When did you start?

January of 2009, so right at the beginning of the year.

U: At what point did it turn into something more of a career, or opened up opportunities?

MS: Well, it's never really been a career, to be honest, I think it shaped my trajectory in a lot of ways. I started a Tumblr account when I was 19. I was already in school for art, so I already had these ideas about wanting to make art, or wanting to be an artist, but I didn't know what shape that would take.

I think the attention that I got on Tumblr helped shape some of those ideas, or some of that trajectory. I would say maybe a year or two into it was when I really felt that people were starting to know who I was from this platform, or there was a spike in engagement. In my real life my name is Amalia, and it wasn't until around 2011 when I graduated from college that I started introducing myself as Molly, because people knew me from the Internet. It wasn't intentional, but it started to bleed into all of these other facets of my life.

U: It reminds me of CharliXCX, she got her name from her Myspace handle.

MS: Yeah, totally. I think that was the impetus with starting Molly Soda, I was interested in MySpace names or Scene Queens. I was really into Lydia Lunch at the time, so I liked the playfulness with the stage name. And then these things take on a life of their own.

U: So when you first started, was it an opportunity for you to show your art or create something, or were you initially using the platform as it was originally intended?

MS: Well, I grew up being very online as a teenager, and I already had a very robust practice of blogging and documenting my life. I was on Xanga, I was on LiveJournal, I was on MySpace, I had a brief stint on Blogspot. I was already doing this for a long time, or at least for five years. By the time that Tumblr came around, I was excited by the platform because it functioned quite differently, where you could say as little or as much as you wanted. It could be a full text blog, but could also house all these weird photos I have saved to my desktop. At the same time, I was in school for art and I had never really thought to combine my practice of blogging and being a very online person and documenting my life with my art practice. I mean, you don't really have a robust art practice when you're a sophomore in college, you don't really know what you're doing. So it was really just a place where I was experimenting and I would upload.

When I was in college, I took a web design class in the photo department, and they taught us a little bit about net art. Really, the class was for people to make portfolio websites, but I just didn't make one. I was making weird websites, and so all of this stuff was coalescing at the same time.

Cleaning My Desktop (2018)

U: I wonder if it was a natural progression… what I see in a lot of your work is like, “Girl in Bedroom.” It seemed like a relevant extension of what everyone was doing at the time. To what degree are you performing it, or is this just an extension of what you were already doing?

MS: I mean, I think everything that we do online is performative, if we’re really going there. I have to lay that down as the basis for my thinking, but none of it was performed in a really overt way. I think it all came really naturally to me and that I think it was exciting for me to have this outlet, I was able to try on a lot of things or to be a souped-up version of myself. I don't think I was the most socially adept person in school. I was always very shy. For me, it was just an outlet. Of course there's the performative aspect to that, or it gave me a harder edge in a way that was exciting to me. If I look back at my old Tumblr posts, it's funny how much I was just trolling, just really going there and being so annoying, and I find that quite endearing.

U: The loudest people online, you meet them in person and they're kind of not that way at all.

MS: I mean, my relationship to the Internet's changed so much. It's been 20 years since I started posting myself on the Internet. So obviously it's age, but also it's the way that the Internet has changed. It's all of these things in tandem. I'm so thankful for all the stuff that I did on the Internet in my youth, I’m thankful that I was able to have that as a space and I'm not really embarrassed by it. I think some people maybe would be.

I've been thinking about how people will archive their Instagram posts. I've never done that. It would be so easy for me to just have a more updated resumé or vibe to my Instagram. But I've just left everything up.

U: I think that you're either one of those two people. You either leave everything up, or curate quite heavily. I talk to my friends a lot about the practice of looking at your own profile through someone else's perspective. Do you ever do that? How do you interact with your previous work?

MS: I go back to it occasionally, when it feels relevant or when it feels connected to more recent stuff that I'm doing. I think there's a thread throughout everything. Sometimes I really enjoy forcing myself to look at things that I find a little bit embarrassing, to go back and reckon with that and be like, “Okay, what was I actually trying to do here?”

It's also quite interesting because there's been a rise in the use of early 2000’s digital cameras. Like, Bella Hadid is shooting with an old Canon or something. Seeing that come back around, or those aesthetics, gives these photos a new sheen. I think it can be tricky to work with old stuff, because after a while it falls into this nostalgia trap, which I always want to avoid, even though my work often dives in there. I never want someone to just look at something and be like, “I remember when that happened.” I don't want that to be the takeaway, I want there to be more.

Also, in my video work, for example, I really want to use consumer-grade cameras, or period appropriate equipment. So if all the girls are using a Sony ZV1 to vlog, I'm going to buy that camera, right? I'm going to have the ring light. Even though it might look kind of boring or look like everything else on YouTube, I'm always thinking how it'll read so well 20 years from now. I'm always thinking about the future.

U: This reminds me of something that I think about when I look at your work, how it highlights the absurdity, but also the total mundanity of being online in that era. At the time, you're doing something really normal, or that other people would think is really normal. But then looking back on it two years later, even sometimes six months later, it’s like, what the fuck was that? Girls used to be sitting in their room singing in front of their cameras with a YouTube karaoke song on, then upload it to the Internet.

MS: Absolutely. But that impulse will always remain. It's just that the packaging will change. We saw that on which became TikTok, but at first it was just girls lip synching to viral tracks. It's the same thing as when we were putting song lyrics as our AOL away message. There's all these threads, and I'm interested in tracking all of that. I think that we're really flippant about what's happening right now… actually, I want to take that back because we're in a weird era where everyone needs to dissect everything and everyone has a PhD for some reason. This weird thinkpiece-ification of content is bizarre to me. It feels like the snake eating its own tail. But for the most part, culturally, we're very flippant about what is popular on the Internet, especially when girls do it.

U: Yes, like the actual practices or habits that we have and how we interact online. What are some of these virtual habits that have changed that you miss or thought were constructive?

MS: I mean, I think that a lot of stuff just keeps getting repackaged for me. I really miss long form content. People are still doing it, but it's not the same. I'm glad that blogging is becoming popular again, or that I'm able to read more of that. I wonder if that feels tied to the discourse-ification of it all. I don't know that anyone's earnestly just writing about life anymore, I think we've all grown too self-conscious. I miss when things felt more exploratory, like you could get lost. I've talked about this quite a bit, a website/platform/app's objective is to keep you on it as long as possible. And it's quite hard to leave, it’s a muscle or a practice that you have to work harder at.

U: I think a lot about trends or online habits, and how we inevitably look back at them as “cringe.”

MS: Everything is always going to be seen as cringe if enough time passes. I think it's just a natural reaction to a somewhat recent past self, eventually it enters into nostalgia. Everything that is cool right now is going to become uncool, and then it will become cool again after enough time has passed. This could be micro things to really macro things, the 20 year cycles in fashion or whatever. I think the Internet has complicated some of that, because things move really quickly and people can sometimes be on different timelines. But ultimately, it's a really normal reaction to a recent past self because maybe we feel like we should have known better. You learn, you get older, you learn how to behave in the world, or you get better at refining your performance, or however you want to be perceived. You get interested in new things or you become smarter, and I think that's why it's really painful. We are very cringe or awkward or embarrassing—for me, when I think about 2017, I'm like, “What was she doing?” And I force myself to interface with that sometimes, or to look at the art I made in that 2015- 2017 era. Like, I cannot stand reading an interview that I did back then.

U: Why? What is it about that time?

MS: I think that for me, specifically, that was a time where I was getting a lot of attention and I didn't know what to do with it. Visibility is very difficult. Like, you're visible, and you’re also a dumbass. You have to be okay with people having opinions or ideas about you. A lot of people, especially online people, aren’t protected by a certain level of celebrity. Now that we’re all micro-celebrities in our own right, we have to experience that, and that was a particularly hard time for me. I was really excited to be getting attention, so I was like, “Yeah, I'll do that interview.” But then, why did they write that title? Or, why are they getting the work wrong? But also, you're still figuring out what your work is.

U: I mean, visibility fundamentally changes the way that you act. That's a defined principle of being a human. It’s very Sartrean. The point that you made about performativity and how everyone's performing online, how do you feel about the title of performance artist?

MS: I mean, I’m down! Right now, I feel an aversion to saying I'm a digital artist, just because of the connection to NFTs, which I feel really changed things. I can see a lot of artists that didn't go into that route, which I also didn’t venture into too deeply for my own reasons, mostly because I'm not aesthetically or conceptually that excited by it. I've noticed that a lot of people really don't want to be making art about the Internet or talking about the Internet right now. I can even feel myself being like, “I'm not like those other Internet artists. No, no, I'm cool.” I'm trying to understand that impulse in me and not run away from it. You have to understand that these things go in and out of style and you have to just go toward what you find interesting.

So, for me, the term performance artist feels more grounded in a longer legacy, even though I'm sure we all have notions or caricatures of what bad performance art is. But ultimately, I'm interested in that, and also conceptual art.

U: I mean, the Internet is probably the best place to perform.

MS: Yeah, the Internet has given us that ability to have an extension of ourselves that I think has been exciting and also oppressive in some ways.

U: You mentioned trying to get away from the meta self-referential, like Internet work about the Internet. What other things are you trying to draw from?

MS: I'm interested in the circulation of content/trends, performance, desire, memory, and also just in human nature, because it's being expanded upon via the tools that we're given. It's still firmly grounded in the Internet, but if the Internet didn't exist, I would still be making work and I'm sure it would be concerned with similar ideas. Right now, I've been trying to find ways to round out some of my thinking by consuming pre-Internet media or content that feels outside of it, while not neglecting the Internet.

U: What you said is right, there's always this continuum of things coming in and out. It’s obviously hyper-accelerated on the Internet. Maybe that’s such a crazy thing that it totally warrants all these people writing and talking about it.

MS: A lot of this stuff is quite young. Maybe I'm a curmudgeon, but I'm not interested in VR, I'm not interested in NFTs. I'm actually quite low tech. I'm interested in the tools that most of us know how to use.

U: I think that's probably what makes your work so, I don't want to say accessible, but relevant.

MS: I feel like I have one foot out the door in every scene, in that way. Sometimes that’s harder because it makes you less legible, less packageable and consumable. But what's exciting about that for me, and maybe I've shot myself in the foot because of it, is that I love how people are able to have different access points, different ways of relating to my work.

What's exciting about posting on a platform like YouTube, for example, is I'm talking in the language of YouTube, anyone can find it if they search for the right terms, or if YouTube recommends me. One of my most viewed videos on YouTube is an earwax removal video from 2016. It isn't a gratifying or an “oddly satisfying” video, it's just me after I woke up one day and filmed it in the style of a vlog. Sometimes I’m approaching a style a little bit wrong, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not intentionally, and people let me know that I did it wrong. To me, that's exciting. Everything that I do in that realm feels experimental, in this way where I'm not sure exactly how it'll be received. That's what's exciting about it for me, I'm getting feedback, but not just from the art world. How is it being received by the random person that stumbles upon it? How does this reflect how we all fail at performing or aspiring to certain levels of beauty or aesthetically pleasing lives? It goes deeper than that.

I just uploaded a video where I was doing a “What's in My Bag”, which are a super common style of video—we've been doing What's in My Bag since the dawn of the social Internet. But instead of actually pulling the actual items out of my purse, I'm pulling images of items printed onto pieces of paper. They’re all in their own plastic sheet.

What’s In My Bag (2024)

Obviously it's absurd that I'm pulling these products out of my bag that are just pictures. But at the same time, I'm commenting on them with authority. If I say that I think this blush is bad, do I actually own that blush or not? Do I actually use wired headphones? I don't, but I have them in my bag. I'm interested in these subtle ways of breaking the format.

U: I mean, people have a hard time with content that isn't explained to them. People love explaining things for other people now. I don't know exactly what it is about being online that people either expect that, or feel the need to explain things to other people if it hasn't been provided for them already. I equate it to when I watch a surreal film. I hate when someone is asking me “Who is he? What’s he doing? What just happened?” Just let it wash over you.

MS: We, as people, have a real discomfort of sitting in any form of unknown. It's why we ruin our own lives. Not being able to neatly understand something or dissect something—I also wonder how much I want to explain my own work, because for a long time, I didn’t want to explain it. I think a lot of the excitement for me is how it's recontextualized and seeing where it ends up. Is this anything or nothing? Most of the time, it's nothing.

We have to remember that as artists, we don't know what work is going to stick. It's never what you think it's going to be. I’m always excited about throwing it out there and seeing how it's received, or if anything comes from it.

U: I mean, it's funny that you talk about it that way. Working with the algorithm is a part of the piece.

MS: Yeah, people are really into generative art and I’m always saying that a platform like YouTube is generative.

U: There’s an element of virality, the assumption that a good piece will have a lot of eyes on it. But the majority of Internet content, no one or very few people are looking at.

MS: And that's thrilling to me. You look at a platform like TikTok, and the purpose of that platform is for you to go viral, right? We're all hoping that we go viral, but then we see what happens to people when they go viral. But maybe we want some mid-range success, especially seeing the way that we turn against people once they get a certain amount of success online, Reaching the top is inherently volatile. It's not sustainable.

Also, it’s horrifying to me to build your career or your livelihood off of whether or not people like you or think you're cool because they will never think you're cool forever. Especially if you have attention from teenagers, they're going to grow out of that.

When you're making art on the Internet, you need that viral component in order to keep doing it, I think. But at the same time, I think people don't take you seriously if you're famous online. Sometimes I feel really jealous of artists that didn't have all that visibility at a really young age, because it's all so wrapped up in being “of the times.”

U: Do you ever feel pigeonholed, or like you're too closely tied with that era?

MS: No, I think I've come to terms with a lot of this stuff. I've realized that this is what's exciting about the work that I make, for me. It's given me a unique perspective into making the work that I do. If anything, it's kind of fun. There have been so many eras of me, it's funny to figure out who knows you from what time, or from what access point.

U: Another part of your work is the archive of it. You have that one piece, I forget what it's called because it's a huge number, like 9 million. A lot of your work seems inherently wrapped up with your development as a person, but then also this archival aspect about it that is extremely computer-centered.

97,612,436,291 bytes (98.43 GB on disk) for 15,108 items (2021)

Then you also do those desktop dumps. How did you start doing that? Are you actively saving things on your desktop so you can create this? It goes back to the performative What's in My Bag—people are very obviously curating their bags.

MS: Yeah, I'm wondering, why not have more fun with it? Why not lean into it, and make it more silly as well? It's because the way that we curate is so subtle. It has to be believable. Even if it's curated, it has to be relatable, but it has to be aspirational. It has to rest somewhere where the people that watch this, want what you have, or aspire to it in some way so that they keep watching you. But they have to relate to you enough that you're not totally out of their reach, right? They have to see themselves in you.

For me, the curatorial aspect is happening there, but I'm sometimes really leaning into it. It’s just so absurd, we can do anything we want and yet we still live within these parameters because really we just want power.

U: It reminds me of Lou Reed and the interviews that he used to give where he was just firmly lying the whole time. We're all lying anyway. If you're sitting down with someone and they're asking you a bunch of questions about your personal life, you're going to bend the truth and stretch information. Why not just fucking lie?

MS: For a long time, I was focused on being as honest as possible. I went from trolling and shit-posting to being radically honest. Now I've gone back and I'm somewhere in between. Because even that weird, radical honesty approach is still performing. You can't escape it. It's just another aesthetic decision, essentially.

When it comes to the desktop dumps, which is where I upload the contents of my desktop to the Internet before I go and clean it. You just start to subconsciously curate this space that is quite private for most people. I find it’s one of the last private spaces. I think the pandemic really popularized the curation of our homes. The desktop felt like one of these last spaces that was sort of untouched. I noticed that suddenly I would start to perform for it. I would know that something was going to go up so I wouldn't save it there. Or sometimes, I would be responsible and actually save something to the right folder and be like, but it would look so good on the desktop. It’s always negotiating that.

For me, they almost act as documentation of what I was working on at the time. Often, I'll just be saving whatever projects I'm doing, or fragments of things. They feel like these weird little time capsules.

U: I guess there's certain elements or functions of curating your self-image that are seen as very normal, like choosing your clothes. But when you curate other parts, it comes off as very self-obsessed or navel-gazing. Someone who's very obviously trying to curate their online persona—it’s like, maybe you're thinking about yourself a little bit too much.

MS: Yeah, but isn't everyone? This is pretty gendered too. Who are the majority of the people taking photos of themselves, making mood boards, vision boards, sharing What's in My Bag videos? It’s girls. We love telling them that they're narcissists, but we also expect them to perform a certain level of beauty and femininity and authenticity. I think that we just love that word [authenticity] and we're always trying to sniff out who is authentic and who is not.

U: I don't know to what degree it even exists.

MS: It doesn't exist. It's fully a marketing term.

U: I talk about this a lot, the self-image that people are trying to put out into the world and how we try to align it as closely as we can to our most authentic self. But you will never have an accurate image of yourself, you will never be able to understand how someone else sees you. It’s a totally fruitless, navel-gazing attempt for you to try to understand this, but we're all constantly wrapped up in doing it all the time.

MS: Exactly, and I don't think anyone should be shamed for it, especially in a culture that encourages it. I'm speaking of Western culture, but it's individualistic.

U: Do you have any shows or new projects coming up? What have you been doing lately?

MS: The What's in My Bag video that I posted is actually a sketch for a larger piece that I'm working on, it’s a play that I can't give too much detail about yet, because it will be a little while before it is performed. But what I can tell you is that it's about three girls at a vision boarding party. It's also written in a way where the dialogue is different depending on what images are picked up, so it's always in flux; partially fixed, partially improvised. I'm writing that right now, and hoping to start rehearsing next month. I'm also not performing in it, and I'm excited to make something that I don't have to be in.

U: It’s great when you can afford to take a step back from being the total focal point.

Do you try to cultivate an active art practice, or do you find that it just comes out of you?

MS: I feel really lucky that I have no shortage of ideas, but it still takes honing. Even with this play that I'm working on now, it took a while to really hone in exactly what the details of it were, working off of a vague idea. A lot of my practice works by getting fixated on a concept or an idea, and I'll keep making work about it until it finally clicks. Sometimes there's a lot of mess along the way, or things that don't fully feel right, but I like the process of feeling it out. Sometimes it takes a good decade for it to click. It just depends.

U: Where are you publishing your stuff right now? Where do people find you?

MS: My website is, and I have a Substack if people want more context for what I'm doing. I don't do myself any service, because my website is just hidden links everywhere.

U: It’s an ambient interactive experience. Thank you so much for coming on.

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