Population: Us

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?”

I’m thinking about comedian Bo Burnham’s remarkable special Inside. About choreographer and quilter Marlee Grace’s latest newsletter. Jia Tolentino’s “The I in the Internet“. Rain’s documentary The Shopkeeper. Mara’s “Sex, Husbandry, and the Infinite Scroll“. How to Do Nothing. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. I could go on.

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.

A POV photo from Lucy's bed. Her laptop is open in the forground with this blog post on it. There are wooden cabinets and a lot of books and orange walls and houseplants. It's cozy and warm.

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.

- Well, there's nothing going on, is there? - There is always something going on.

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 Half-Remembered Bakery

The other day I was wondering:

A Google search bar containing the words "are there glasses that make everything black and white"

The featured snippet that came back at the top of the results rattled my brain for reasons I couldn’t immediately identify.

A screenshot of a Google Featured Snippet. It reads "The glasses that turn your world black and white. May 8, 2008 from www.halfbakery.com Monochromatic Glasses - Halfbakery"

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.

A screenshot of the front page of halfbakery.com

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.

A screenshot of a profile page from Halfbakery for user "Yarr". It reads: 	

Yarr 

Welcome To Sparknotes!
Plot Summary: Piratical intellectual located under English heritage in Southern California seeks fellow eccentrics for witty banter and theatrical/literary madness.
Central Themes: British humor, Technical theatre, Acting, Pirates, Literature, Silly hats, Silly socks, Silly anything, Good food, Drawing, Insanity, Correct use of punctuation, Triple cream 62% Brie Cheese.
Character Analysis: ... 

[Dec 21 2005, last modified Jan 01 2006]
(This self description, much like my first illustrated ID card on DeviantArt, is somewhat mortifying, but I’m sharing it anyway because it makes me laugh.)

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.

Stumbling

“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.

The Trap

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.

I’m afraid.

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.

Dramatic, too.

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.

Cartozia! Rose City! New Comics! I’M BACK.

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.

IMG_2065

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:

Rose-City-Comic-Con

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:

BS15w1fIcAAATd8.jpg-large

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!

KickstarterEventHeader2. 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.

kevinstory

If you’d like to learn more about Cartozia and the campaign, check out this interview with publisher Isaac Cates over on Comics Bulletin.

PHEW. OKAY. ENOUGH NEWS.

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!