Ghost Notes

The internet has no scent. Do we miss it?

What would the internet smell like, if it had a scent? I think of burning wires or the sugary smell of energy drinks — aggressive green. Then again, the internet, like the ocean, is coursing with debris; perhaps it would smell as musky as the sea, or like everything on earth, depending on where you are.

Scent can seem like a direct line to the unconscious; like an errant thought or a perverse longing, the roots go deeper than reason. Smell has a creeping, inconspicuous quality, like the legs of an insect. Sacred spaces are often doused in smells, censers bubbling over like dry ice or fumes suffusing the Delphic Oracles. Imagine trying to translate this physical, intimate sense to an online platform, distilling scent down to an olfactory message, or enhancing social media feeds in the same way. But the internet, I’m sure you’ve noticed, has no smell. The majority of daily communication, for many of us, occurs in a sphere that excludes a major sense.

The subtleties of scent must be conveyed in a miasma of other senses, a soupy conglomeration of fantasy and association

Scents add an undercurrent to daily life. They permeate the atmosphere, subtly influencing our moods. Online, there is no such pull. Instead, we enter a medium that emphasizes sound and visuals — nothing we encounter here emits a concrete smell. But, that doesn’t mean something as evocative and strange as a smell cannot also occur online.

One of the most poignant things about the internet’s trajectory is how we strive to imbue it with the things it seems to negate. The ASMR genre, for instance, seems rooted in creating pleasurable, prickling physical responses, expressing a precise sensory response online, where physical touch would seem to be impossible. The sounds touch.

Something similar happens with scent. In an environment that omits the sense of smell, the burden seems to shift to other senses, forcing scent into new translations. Online, we don’t smell smells, we see and hear and read smells. Synesthesia was once a rare phenomenon, a poetic gift, today it is a modern dialect. Synesthesia is the language of the internet.

Much has been said and researched about the links between memory and scent, how a whiff of a particular liquor can take you back to a college ski trip or a laundry detergent can evoke a lover. But I’m curious about what it means to make memories online where no corresponding smell can deepen our recollections. Smell does two things well: It marks the passage of time (smells can never really last) and physically invades the body (a smell is a cluster of wayward molecules that have made their way into the nose). Without a corresponding smell, all we encounter online is literally at a distance, strangely removed — even more than a book or a film might be. The internet is ever present, and it somehow feels wrong that it does not produce for itself all the senses of daily life.

At times, using the internet can feel like falling through one trap door after another. The experience of losing time, being sucked into a scrolling spree or getting lost in an online wormhole, is aided by the fact that there is no scent to make that time feel grounded or physical. Like a dream, online temporality is unmoored, morphing again and again into nebulous shapes.

Scent seems to rely on physical engagement, a type of invasiveness that refutes all the distance and mediation that characterizes most of our day-to-day interaction with the internet. Scent, in its most literal description, is a type of touch, an involuntary, microscopic mingling. Creating an equivalent sensation online requires other senses to work in new configurations, approximating that ineffable reality of smell.

Even in strictly “offline” communication — in writing, talking, broadcasting — scent presents a translation problem. It has been marginalized, reduced to a byword for intimacy. Expressing its complexities in terms other than itself can seem impossible. The traditional language for describing and taxonomizing scents is steeped in metaphor: Perfumes belong to “families” and leave wakes known as sillage, a reference to the frothy trails ships leave in their path. Fragrance has “notes,” like music, and a “head” and “heart,” like most human beings.

The subtleties of scent must be conveyed in a miasma of other senses, a soupy conglomeration of fantasy and association. Perfume ads rely on certain tropes to communicate scent: billowing gowns, women slipping barefoot through colonnades, glistening skin, petals strewn across marble, whispers at the nape.

Advertisers, well aware of the difficulties of communicating smell with any precision (when it comes to scent, one person’s rhapsody is another’s reek), have always relied on evoking general fantasies. Frederic Malle describes a $95 scented candle like this:

A long fur coat slinks through a half-open door on Paris’ rive gauche. A man approaches     to gently lift the fur off her shoulders, careful to avoid touching her skin, while a waiter offers her a glass of champagne. Following the music, she steps into the library where friends and lovers whisper in dark corners and lie draped over one another in sensuous heaps on velvet cushions.

This, according to the brand, is what a combination of lavender, amber, and patchouli smells like. It’s much easier to imagine a fur coat. When advertisers abandon this strategy and aim for the literal, incorporating flaps of fragrance samples in magazines, the results never feel complete in themselves. The samples all smell more or less the same, like alcohol, paper, and something akin to vanilla, but more importantly, the scent is flattened, emotionally speaking. Scent is powerful and enigmatic because it operates on a level apart from itself — a smell is a smell but also a network of emotions, memories, and aspirations. At times, it can feel more accurate to represent a smell as luxury on the Rive Gauche than a particular mixture of flowering plants.

Well before the internet, movies were attempting to incorporate scent into their strictly audio-visual world. A few retro films, notably a 1960 mystery-comedy called Scent of Mystery featuring Elizabeth Taylor, employed hugely expensive and ineffective scent-generating apparatuses — one of the few extant examples of “Smell-o-Vision.” Today, scent-film pairings pop up rarely, either as a comedic gimmick employing scratch-and-sniff cards, as in John Waters’s Polyester, or as an aspect of Disney World attractions.

Scent has also recently entered the museum space too, notably in last year’s Eckhaus Latta show at the Whitney, where a scent from Régime des Fleurs lingered in the air.

Synesthesia was once a rare phenomenon, a poetic gift, today it is a modern dialect

Researchers in Malaysia have made very preliminary forays into simulating scent by using electrodes to stimulate nerves inside the nose — a method termed “exploratory” rather than retail applicable. This could be a harbinger of virtual smell. In the internet era, the desire to inject visual or auditory experiences with a whiff of something more has resulted in the creation of digital scent machines, often little more than USB-enabled air fresheners. The best known of these, Cyrano, launched in 2016, is a digital scent “speaker” that allows users to “play” fragrances — essentially small puffs of scent cued by an “olfactory playlist.” The Cyrano was invented by Harvard professor David Edwards. “Right now, nobody’s waking up at 3 a.m. saying, ‘I really want to send a scent message,’” he told the New Yorker in 2016, “but one day they will.”

Edwards’s optimism is debatable. But more than that, his approach to digital scent is staunchly literal. Experiencing scent is more diffuse and strange than simply inhaling something odorous, and we have already begun to explore alternative ways to evoke this rebellious sense online. Perfume, incense, candles and so on attempt to control how people and their environments smell. But part of scent’s mysterious allure is the way it can feel ephemeral and fated, like catching someone’s eye on a crowded bus. Scent, by its usual definition, wafts in and out of our experience. To have a scent directed at you — from a bottle or, hypothetically, from your screen — reframes its ineffable, billowing quality. Scent, in this form, becomes something more pointed, a jab or a caress rather than a random by-product of the environment.

So much online imagery has developed in such a way that it almost approximates scent. Social media visuals, in particular, aim for sensory provocation. If the internet continues to lack literal scent, the visual landscape of the internet will likely develop into more and more evocative, sensorial shapes. Vaseline, at one time, was smeared on camera lenses to make close-ups dreamier and more delicious. Today, gloss and glow still equal glamour. Idealized selfies often evoke the dew-covered imagery that is common in fragrance advertising, images that are meant to represent alluring taste and scent and do so by making things look wet, succulent. With makeup designed to catch the light, the face can seem uncannily tangible. The point is to be ripe, as in pungent, like a piece of stone fruit in the summer. Matteness, which can appear impressively surreal in person, has little power on a screen. Even the dazzled, floating lines of text in an Instagram story attempt to be more than they are. The same is true of looping, jittery gifs, the visual equivalent of a quivering muscle, these mini-movies gesticulate within the confines of a screen, creating cyclical motion in a world that is defined by linear scrolling.

Social media isn’t just hosted by, but responds to its scentless environment: The more visual our principle medium is, the more weight images are meant to carry as impressionistic shorthand. While genres like ASMR use one sense to induce another, well-placed or -paired emojis can achieve something similar. How might this look in years to come? It’s safe to assume that the more immersive our experience of the internet becomes, with VR and AR, the more accurately it might evoke something akin to scent.

What would we gain from a digital world that was suddenly scented? That the internet might then begin to feel more lifelike is perhaps naïve. The appeal of the internet is that it is not “like life”; in some cases it allows for idealization or simplification of life away from the screen. Rarely is there a one to one translation from online to off.

If literal scent could somehow be experienced online, it would no more reflect “reality” than an emoji or a well-lit selfie. Scent, online, would be used to add another layer to the haze we use the internet to build around ourselves.

Scent is enigmatic because it operates on a level apart from itself — a smell is a smell but also a network of emotions, memories, and aspirations

The internet is joyous and unsettling because it allows for omission and simplification as well as amplification and augmentation. It is malleable in a way that “reality” is not. There are sensory gaps online that become part of its power. The absence of scent produces a whole vocabulary of imagery and sound that is designed to be sensorial and evocative. If we could really smell it, the internet might look and sound entirely different than it does today.

Disengaging with the internet often feels like waking from a dream (at times more of a nightmare) — full of feverish activity but, suddenly, gone and difficult to remember. The lack of scent is part of what makes the internet feel like a different dimension, even though it’s where we conduct much (or most) of our “real,” quotidian interactions. Certain key things are missing, but their absence is not always clear. Instead, we are left grasping at equivalencies, communicating scent and the realm it comes from in unacknowledged ways.

Meredyth Cole is a writer from Vancouver, Canada.