Social media is built on ambient relationships. You post, you tweet, you share; I read, I listen, I see. Maybe we interact briefly. But I can feel closeness to you without actually having it.
To make things even more complicated, we can exist on both sides—creators and consumers of other people’s thoughts, and each other’s. But so often I see what you’re doing, you see me, but we’re never quite talking to each other.
1. Sarah wrote a lovely, somewhat bittersweet post about finally closing her Photobucket account, which touched on a lot of what I find difficult about maintaining an archive of one’s creative work online as an artist, rather than just a writer:
I’ve never been sentimental about my childhood homes, but I imagine this is how it feels to leave one. I invested a lot more emotion into these drawings and writings than I ever did any actual geography; it was a (virtual) dwelling and a social life and autobiography all rolled into one. My blog archive and my long-defunct website, cosy and reliable home bases for so long, foundational in so many different ways to my identity, will be floating out there in the deep web without their illustrations, like abandoned buildings with hollow windows; it feels like I’ve pressed a button that sent them instantaneously into ruin.
2. Earlier this week, Brendan linked to Wesley’s writing, which led me in turn to their exploration of How Websites Die (which, in turn, referenced Winnie’s writing, whose work I only found recently through strange, roundabout blogging connections—did you know I love this game?). Timely to see that there’s a group of people all wondering about how we can (or if we should) make these spaces more enduring. Are they even built for that?
3. All these things led to thinking about how I do know someone who, out of a sense of love and duty and grief and stewardship, ensures that Chloe Weil’s site remains online, even eight years after her death.
I think the web is full of these silent acts of affection, but they can be hard to see.
Everyone is making so much stuff so well all the time and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else but also I am so tired. I tire myself when I sit down to list my accomplishments with Erika and Danielle during our monthly check-in meetings. There’s surprise and pride, yeah, but also this reflexive sense of embarrassment at how much I’m doing. Knowing that I’d rather be present than productive, but still falling prey to the urge to do make distill grasp learn post share.
I know that social media is a big part of this. I know my own perfectionism is part of it too. And capitalism, that’s in the mix.
There are a lot of ways to do what I do, none of them necessarily right or wrong, but all different, all with their own pros and cons. I’m looking for a space on the web that isn’t shackled to a particular platform, but at the end of the day every avenue for getting paid for my work is owned by somebody.
(This site, at least, is mine.)
What am I asking for when I ask my audience to support me financially? Freedom and permission.
It feels selfish to take that without giving anything in return. (Just two months ago I was yelling lovingly at a comics friend for saying something similar, as if her work isn’t achingly personal and helpful and vulnerable and funny. As if she’s not giving back via her art. I guess I’m guilty of thinking that way, too. Worrying I’m a mooch.)
I’m tired of packaging myself and I know I need to share what’s going on under the hood in order to welcome people into the tribe that makes my life and my work possible. I know I am braver creatively when I have that community around me.
I know the way we’ve built an industry around producing graphic novels burns people out fast fast fast.
[Apparently I drafted this in April of 2021 and never posted it? Found it this morning while searching for something connected to the introduction to my 100 Day Project, which I’m planning to launch sometime in the next couple weeks.]
I gave a lot of talks in 2016, and the one I usually point to is the Big One at XOXO in September, but much earlier in the year I was in Viborg, Denmark for my second stint of teaching at The Animation Workshop. At the time I was feeling very much in love with having an online community, as evidenced by this screenshot from the talk:
I find myself wondering if this is some kind of cicada-esque situation. Six years of being a dedicated luddite, six years of being a massively social and enthusiastic online extrovert, six more years of burying myself in a nice, quiet, mud flat and then emerging to abandon my chitinous shell and begin the cycle anew.
But I think it’s more complicated than that.
All these thoughts I’ve been having lately about social media and going away from it and coming back to it and then hating that I’ve come back to it but also wondering if I can sustain my career without it has me reflecting on this conversation I had with doreen in May of 2020.
The talk wasn’t actually about the experience of being a creator on social media, but when I was reading doreen’s book Deviced, a concept that really leapt out at me was the idea of having an internal vs. external locus of control. Turns out I’ve been remembering the definition incorrectly. The term technically applies to the degree of control we feel we have over the outcomes of our actions. Having an internal locus of control translates to a sense of personal agency, feeling like your efforts matter, that kind of thing. Having an external locus of control generally means you feel like the universe is largely random and all your efforts will come to naught, regardless of what you try.
The way it had lodged in my brain was more to do with feeling like I could validate my own efforts, which is what I was writing about yesterday. I talked about not wanting to “give away that kind of power.” What am I talking about there?
I’m good at social media. I mean, not in the growth-hacking sense, but in the “sharing enthusiastically and consistently over time in order to welcome people into my process and build meaningful connections” sense. So far it has served me extremely well. I’ve built a career that’s largely self-determined, raised a lot of money to make things I’m proud of, and gotten to go on amazing expeditions and meet incredible people all around the world.
The danger is figuring out where to draw the line. Historically I haven’t been “good at social media” because I’ve gotten a degree in digital marketing or taken endless online workshops or adhered to a rigorous schedule. I’ve been good at it because my goals and behaviors and socio-physical traits have happened to align with the ways these platforms work.
The two words I’ve kept coming back over the past year are reminders and permission. Social feedback reflects the self back to the self. I need reminding of who I am, and I need permission to take the next step. To feel brave or foolish enough. And, ideally, I would like to be able to give those things to myself. Throughout Deviced, doreen is really diving into that concept: how we seek the type of self-soothing we’d usually learn to cultivate in ourselves on the external playing field of social media, and how that can create a distorted sense of self.
I don’t find myself drawn into the manic cycle of posting and scheduling and refreshing and responding because I think my efforts don’t matter. Far from it. I fall into that hole because I come to feel like they’re the only thing that matters. That the only thing standing between me and building the crowdsourced career of my dreams is effort. (But, crucially, it has to be effort expended by me. There is no room in this mental model for the idea that other people might champion my work when I’m not in the room. This is why hearing anyone say “Oh, I told my friend about your book” or “I was just thinking about this thing you wrote/said a few years ago…” is so deeply meaningful. I genuinely struggle to understand that any of this endures.)
“[…] we must tell ourselves the truth about how our interactions in digital space may shape our unconscious assumptions about communication in general and how they might lead us to act in ways that don’t get us what we need or want.”
I was trusting the process, rolling along with the understanding that as long as I kept sharing what caught my eye, things would work out. It felt like being a toddler learning to run away from my parents, looking back over my shoulder less and less, but whenever I did look it was because I was worrying that they might not be there the next time I turned around, because I could only keep running if there were still people standing behind me.
Social media asks the toddler to become owl-like, constantly cranking her own head around 180º, permanently craning towards her source of validation, unable to orient herself towards her own goals because she can never let the audience out of her sight.
When is it going to be enough?
I think a lot of what I’m testing with the harebrained scheme I have for sharing my Very Private 100 Day Project from 2020 is the idea that I actually do have enough people in my corner who will trust me to make…whatever I wanna make. Small, weird things.
It feels redundant to keep pointing wildly at everyone who’s coming to similar conclusions about the instability of this online ecosystem right now—BUT—every time I find another person doing it I start yelling “YES. YES!” and do want to catalogue them in some way because these conversations are unfolding in many different spaces concurrently. It’s not just cartoonists writing about being cartoonists. It’s dancers and authors and comedians and zinesters and activists and journalists and musicians all pausing to look around and say, collectively, “What the fuck am I doing here?”
Robin called the other day and mentioned that I seemed to have stopped blogging, to which I say: it’s a fair cop. I was in Portland being consumed by my newfound ability to be close to other people and then I was moving and for the past ten days I’ve still been moving, but it’s the shitty back-end part of moving that we don’t talk about as much where you have to actually unpack and (in the case of this particular move) jettison decades of childhood ephemera from your tiny bedroom in order to make it a livable space for yourself as an adult.
The last piece of furniture I needed to move in was my bed frame, which I’d decided to stain and refinish because “Imperfect DIY Projects” was in my “More” column for this year. Now that I can sleep in a space with visible floor area and a desk I can actually sit at (though I am, in fact, writing this on the bed), it turns out my brain is far more capable of turning to the digital spaces I’ve been neglecting for the past six weeks. By returning to writing, I’m breathing a habitual sigh of relief—the kind that turns into a stream of words about shit I didn’t know I was even processing in the background of whatever I was busy doing while I was thinking that I’d never write another word ever again.1
So, after all that preamble:
Nicole Brinkley wrote this essay called Did Twitter Break YA? as part of her Misshelved series on Patreon and it’s fucking great. YA isn’t my community, but it’s adjacent to my community. And booksellers (the community Nicole talks about most frequently in her writing) are absolutely within my community. The patterns she describes in this piece—of context collapse and “morally motivated networked harassment” and parasocial relationships and burnout—are patterns I know like the back of my hand.
There are so many nod-inducing moments, but this was the one that really made my blood run cold:
After all, access to authors is the real product—and if an author missteps, they’re just a failed product. There are always more authors to fill that spot on the shelf.
Bluergh. Hurk. Ek. How often have I slipped into thinking of myself as a failed product on a shelf? Certainly every time I’ve stopped posting as often on Patreon, or expressed enthusiasm about doing a drawing challenge and then failed to follow through. Definitely in those moments when I think that if I just had a bit more energy and time I could start making content that would grow my following “in earnest”. When I take two years to send a new installment of my newsletter. When I disappear.
But it’s not just the disappearance. It’s feeling of one’s absence being invisible within the onrushing tide of Other People’s Output. Remember that Drew Austin essay I linked a couple posts ago? He gets into it there, noting that “Every social media feed is an endless parade of these fragmentary identities, disaggregated into units of content and passing by quickly enough to evade the scrutiny that would detect their incompleteness.” The incompleteness being that we are all also doing and contending with other things. We have to be. We’re not just on Twitter 24/7—even people who seem as if they are.
This is the price of trying to succeed within the ecosystem of capitalism, and maybe it’s also why I want to keep sharing here and here alone: I haven’t contaminated this container yet. It gets to sit apart from everything else, just me and my thoughts.2
Earlier in the Pandemic Mara made a rare Instagram appearance, posting a series of text-based stories from her new home in Winthrop, Washington. I transcribed them immediately because, as with most things she writes and shares and speaks about, it sparked something in me that I needed to sit with for a long time.
I have so enjoyed every story and post by you all, dear friends. How does it work when I just observe you, and when to like/comment on what you make here is to feed an algorithm that watches and profits off of our affection? I don’t do it because it feels…violent?…to us. This platform is very hard for me. Thank you for understanding. It pales in comparison to being near you. The simulacrum of closeness feels nauseating. I know we are killing something important in the process of creating connection. I want you to walk through the door, for us to play. You’re all here always.
This is it—the heart of the thing. We chase engagement as if it’s the Holy Grail, and yet to play the game on any level means we’ve already lost. There are so many people I can think of who I’ve finally been able to see and embrace and laugh with over the past month and attempting to get that through social media does pale in comparison. The simulacrum is nauseating.
This handful of broken online platforms can’t be everything.
Past a certain point I don’t want to spend my time cataloguing people’s writing about this—or generating my own—because (and this is the curse of the over-informed over-thinker) I know it all already. I know it in my bones. I may not have the right terminology for it, but I can feel it. I fear I am admiring the problem, thrilling to ever more accurate descriptors that tell me precisely how and why I’m locked in this unfulfilling spiral, rather than taking steps to change my behavior.3
As Tolentino points out, “The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”
But Nicole is ready for that.
[…] I do not want to wear the armor of cynicism. I do not want to be trapped in the ouroboros of perfection just because the community I interact with demands it.
So here is what I will say to you, dear reader: You do not have to participate in this cycle.
The system is broken, but the system can be abandoned.
In addressing this head-on, she wins my heart.4 She admits that the piece started out as one thing and then turned into another. She describes the trajectory it might have taken had she chosen to focus solely on the issue of where actual teenage readers sit in the modern YA landscape, and then she recognizes that this is really a conversation about so much more. (I will never stop loving this pattern, wherever I encounter it.)
The Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It School, the Grit School, the Capitalism School—they all urge us to keep producing and grinding and persevering, trusting that clarity will come from more work (even if that work, at its core, is purposeless, unfulfilling, or even actively harmful). With no time to reflect or catch our breath, we feel we have no choice but to trust the systems we’re given, to push and push and push until we “break into” the spaces that are communally regarded as desirable, and then fight like hell to keep that power safe because don’t you know this is a landscape of scarcity? There’s only so much to go around.
When I think about the last year, I don’t think about pushing. I think about waiting.
I had to wait. I had to wait a long, long time. In some ways I’m still waiting.
So when Nicole says:
These days it’s okay to not be sure what Twitter is for. We can stop going there until we figure it out.
It feels like permission.
It makes my soul exhale.
“I don’t feel good when I’m here” is enough of a reason to leave. Even if the places I wish I could stay—or the people I wish I could stay with—sometimes bring me connection and joy and validation and money and, yes, even love. If my gut tells me that I am not, at baseline, nourished the way I need to be: I can walk.
That’s the new rule.
Thank you, Nicole.
1. I’m also kind of glossing over the fact that my obsessive nesting has masked a deeper discomfort with having to face the true emotional cost of this transition. That’s a conversation for another time. But, as my therapist reminded me: this grief is chronic, not acute. Avoidance is a tactic we use to survive ongoing adversity. It’s not inherently evil. ↩
2. Also, just a general side note in relation to all this: how often have I shared something like Nicole’s essay on Twitter or Instagram with the caveat “I’m fully aware of the irony of sharing this here, but…”? I want to stop doing that. If I’m reading something about how fucked it feels to still be on a certain platform and it resonates with me, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT SOMEWHERE OTHER THAN THAT PLATFORM. (I am yelling at myself here because this is a footnote and that’s what they’re for, I think.) ↩
3. Whoops this is the moment I realized that this essay is also about my historical approach to relationships. Surprise! ↩
4. She also reminds me of this stunning essay from adrienne maree brown about disrupting patterns of harm that specifically target Black women within movement work. I’m due a re-read because I haven’t stopped thinking about it for months. ↩
The featured snippet that came back at the top of the results rattled my brain for reasons I couldn’t immediately identify.
When I clicked through to the site, long-dormant gears began shifting. It was clearly one of those Internet places that felt unchanged from the early 2000s—the kind of site Robin and I have been yelling enthusiastically at each other about of late—but there was something else. This place was familiar. I’d been here before.
And then it started to come back to me.
I was a member of Halfbakery. Years ago. When? College? High school? If it was high school I was probably using my typical handle. I plugged it into the site’s search bar.
My profile was still there.
I was 15. A baby, all things considered, and one hungry for people who would challenge and excite me. The site was one of those insular places full of smart, sharp users who had developed their own language and culture. Some parts of it, in hindsight, were a bit harsh, others erudite and thrilling. I’d posted two ideas which were roundly downvoted by the community at large, but I kept up as a reader. I won’t pretend I went on to become a cornerstone of the community—because I didn’t—but the site clearly stuck in my memory enough to feel familiar when I found it again.
The kicker isn’t just that it’s still going, but that there’s been relatively little (if any) alteration to the interface since I first encountered it in 2005. I barely recognize Facebook if I log in after an absence of three months, let alone sixteen years. This felt like walking into my childhood bedroom and finding things exactly as I left them.
I poked around for a while, seeing ideas from 2006 and 2021 jostling shoulder to shoulder. Eventually I stumbled down a rabbit hole of in memoriam posts for members who had passed away.
Because that’s what happens when you run a community for 22 years. Some of your users will probably die. And if you’ve built a sense of camaraderie and mutual regard, their absence will be felt keenly by a collection of strangers who never knew them anywhere other than this niche, textual space.
A little family in the wilderness. What an odd gem of a thing.
“If everyone’s social media experience looked like your social media experience I think people would want to be on social media a lot more.”
I’m in therapy. I mean, I’m in my house, same as every other day, but I’m looking at the particular video call window that corresponds to “being in therapy” and my therapist is saying these nice things to me and I’m laughing because my feeds are full of just as much chaos and anxiety as anyone else’s, but she presses on.
“Every time you tell me about some new community or project you found or someone you met online, it sounds fascinating and beautiful and hopeful. That’s…well. That’s not my experience of being online. I had to quit.”
I stop laughing and try to hear what she’s saying—turning it over, weighing it against my experience. Is it true? So many days I feel like I’m purposefully recoiling from the internet at large, erecting sandcastle barricades against an inrushing tide.
But it is true.
I’ve been changing my relationship to being online.
Some of it is keeping in touch with friends who are fascinated by the same sorts of hybrid creations I am. Friends who build things. Friends in different professional communities. Paying attention when they mention some new discovery or avenue of interest.
Some of it is using an RSS reader to change the cadence and depth of my consumption—pulling away from the quick-hit likes of social media in favor of a space where I can run my thoughts to their logical conclusion (and then sit on them long enough to consider whether or not they’re true).
Some of it is joining small communities who meet regularly to write letters or discuss abolition or cheer each other on throughout the work day.
Some of it is just letting myself wander, link to link, through people’s personal websites and passion projects, seeing what comes up.1
Most people (myself included) stopped using the internet this way years ago. Our footpaths converged around the same 5-10 platforms, each with its own particular manner of communication. I have learned, unintentionally, to code switch every time I craft a new post. It’s exhausting, trying to keep track of all those unspoken rules shaped by years of use.
But I don’t have rules like that on my blog. I turned off stats. There are no comments. No likes. It’s been long enough since I wrote regularly here that I’m not bringing any tonal baggage with me.
Hell, the last time I had a regular personal writing practice online I was eighteen.
A theme of the past year has been trying to disengage from my attachment to what I think other people want or need from me, and to rekindle my working relationship with myself. Changing my relationship to being online hasn’t been linear. I still go on social media. It’s not like it’s become obsolete in my world overnight. But my therapist (as usual) is right.
Something’s on the move.
1. I spent an afternoon last week dredging up memories of StumbleUpon, a service that flung users around to random sites with the click of a button between 2002 and 2018. It was great! The closest thing I’ve experienced recently was Jenny Odell asking folks on Twitter to share their favorite single serving websites. (LEAF.COM!!!) Not a full replacement for the service, but a delight nonetheless. ↩
Sometimes being a person on the internet feels like tap dancing.
I love to dance. I’ve trained in it, I take joy and pleasure in it, and I like doing it where other people can see me.
But the more of a following I amass making a living from my selfhood online, the more it feels like I’m still dancing, but someone is erecting…walls. Like theatrical flats around a stage. They don’t start out so bad—just the odd two dimensional shrub or trompe l’oeil archway to work around here and there—but over time they get taller and more crowded and suddenly they’ve got big honking metal spikes all over them and come to think of it they’re rather tenuously balanced and the spikes do look terribly sharp and here I am, in the middle of the it all, stomping on the floor.
So I take smaller steps. I’m not leaping and spinning and pounding and whirling anymore. I’m tiptoeing.
You might not know it to look at me. I’m resolutely sharing things I find meaningful or beautiful or proactive. I’m staying engaged. I’m trying to make art and support the people I love and encourage everyone around me because I struggle to see the value in sharing the ugly, hopeless stuff and I want, more than anything, to be of use.
But this behavior is, in and of itself, a kind of restriction. The act of sharing these days feels different. There’s no “FUCK IT, WE’LL DO IT LIVE” energy in my public online spaces, or if there is it emerges in manic fits and starts, tinged with an undercurrent of desperation and anxiety. The dancer I have pared myself back to doesn’t feel like me.
And of course she doesn’t. This year is a nightmare—for all the collective reasons and a host of personal ones as well. My partner and I split up six months ago and no matter how sound a decision it was I’m still torn up about it. I’ve signed a contract for three graphic novels that will take up the next six years of my life and I’m terrified I’m not up to the task. My dad is 81 and has dementia and I’m trying to figure out when The Correct Moment will come to move home and help look after him. It is utterly unreasonable to expect that anything could feel normal or okay right now.
And yes, maybe the tenor of this post has something to do with the fact that I’ve been housesitting alone in a three-story building with four cats and a deaf, flatulent dog who probably weighs more than I do for the past week. My internet blocker also failed to activate this evening so I got to engage in a rare bout of Nighttime Twitter Yelling—something I’ve effectively prevented myself from doing for months. All of this is to say: it’s 1:15 in the morning and my filter is MIA. As someone said to me over email recently “just…being very blunt right now because, and i cannot emphasize this enough, it’s 2020.”
Anyway, remember the spiky theatrical flats? The trick, in these moments, is to get proactive; go for catharsis. The longer I wait for a perfect solution, the more trapped I’m going to feel. I can’t explain this in any kind of rational or systematic way, and I certainly can’t win playing by the rules. Better to just heave it all out into the open—get on a stage somewhere and yell about the paradox of it to a room full of relative strangers. Kick the flats down from the inside and they’ll fall away like dominoes; harmless.
People will probably even think it’s part of the show. 1
Maybe this is my brand. Not the part where I yell about boats and post goofy bespoke GIFs and write a zillion letters to voters and keep my chin up no matter the cost, but the part where I crack and articulate all the other garbage in an eloquent torrent.
Or maybe, more likely, it’s both.
1. Once, in the summer of 2006, I watched five different cast members desperately try to reason with an audience who refused to leave their seats during an active fire alarm because they were convinced it was part of the play. It took ages to get them out of the theater. In their defense the show was set on a space ship and featured many other blaring alarms, but STILL. ↩
What ho, faithful followers! I’m finally back in the land of civilization after 21 days of hiking, climbing, rowing, and getting dunked repeatedly in very cold water-ing. I don’t have adequate words to explain what an extraordinary time I had, but here’s a picture from Day 5.
I know. It’s ridiculous.
Despite my near-constant sogginess, I did manage to draw a page(ish) of diary comics every day during the trip as a sort of personal experiment. They’re a little grubby in places since my sketchbook was subjected to many indignities (most of them involving water, sand, or some silty combination of the two), but I hope they capture a small slice of what things were like. I’ll be putting that up for download tomorrow once I get within reach of a scanner.
In the meantime, here’s some exciting stuff that’s worthy of note:
1. I’ll be tabling at Rose City Comic Con THIS WEEKEND! Come by Table G-03 to marvel at my fabulous sunburn and get your hands on some thrilling new comics. The show takes place at the Oregon Convention Center and runs 10am-7pm on Saturday and 10am-5pm on Sunday. I’ll have several standard titles on the table, including Baggywrinkles 1-4, True Believer, and the last, rare copies of Tales from the Fragment, but I will ALSO be debuting the following new n’ shiny books:
WATERLOGGED: TALES FROM THE SEVENTH SEA features 200+ pages of two-color nautical comics in a gorgeous hardcover package. I’ll be seeing the book in person for the first time on Saturday, so if you come by for a copy don’t be surprised if I’m clutching one to my breast and weeping tears of joy. Inside you’ll find stories by many fantastic Canadian creators, as well as my piece with Shannon Campbell: Navy Ink. By all reports this thing is gorgeous. It’ll be going for $25.
Meanwhile, CARTOZIA TALES is now on its second issue and I absolutely cannot wait to show both of them to everyone who stops by. I’ll even have the paper doll postcards I designed on hand, so you can take a couple and create your own Cartozian Battle Contingient. Or Peaceful Hunter-Gatherer Tribe. Whatever floats your boat.
Each Issue is $6 and includes 40-pages of all-ages fantasy and adventure. (You can find the wardrobes I designed for our two paper figures in Issue 2.) If you really like what you see, I’ll have flyers with rewards and a QR code for our very-close-to-finished Kickstarter Campaign, so you can be sure to sign up for a full subscription and guarantee an issue in your mailbox every five weeks!
2. Speaking of the Cartozia Kickstarter, the campaign is roaring forward and we’re entering the final 5-day push. We have about $14k left to raise, so it’s down to the wire! If you haven’t yet pledged some bucks, now’s the time. Remember: any pledge gets you access to PDFs of Issues 1 and 2, so you can get a sense of what we’re about before you subscribe.
We’ve added some stellar new rewards over the past weeks, including a special package for retailers. If you’re affiliated with a local comic shop, or would like to see Cartozia at a store near you, do check out the $122 Retailer Special tier.
Additionally, one of my absolute favorite creators, Kevin Cannon, has been hard at work on his story for Cartozia Issue 3. The previews he’s posting are making me weep with envy and excitement (THE LETTERING! THE HATCHING! THE PIRATES!), and you can purchase the entire set of original pages through the Kickstarter. The reward even includes a full subscription! Just be careful I don’t save up enough to pledge for it first. I’m sorely tempted.
Thanks to all of you who were patient with orders and emails while I’ve been gone. I promise I’ll be catching up on all that in the next few days. For those of you in Portland area, I hope to see you this weekend at Rose City!