Coherence

Something I frequently joke about—a dark truth that begs for humor—is how social media requires continuous posting just to remind everyone else you exist. I once said that if Twitter was real life our bodies would always be slowly shrinking, and tweeting more would be the only way to make ourselves bigger again. We can always opt out of this arrangement, of course, and live happily in meatspace, but that is precisely the point: Offline we exist by default; online we have to post our way into selfhood.

I’d never read anything by Drew Austin before today but boy howdy this got me right in the brain stem. Where and who and what am I these days, when I’m not sharing nearly so much of my life online? Am I coming into a season where my online persona is failing to cohere? Is that coherence even required on a personal blog in the same way it might be on social media? I have a lot of selves, and the task of reconciling them in the real world is daunting enough—let alone attempting to reflect them all equally in the weird hall of mirrors that constitutes online living.

Absentee

Even before the Pandemic, I spent a great deal of time finding connection through machines. It was part and parcel of my work, the backbone of my audience and my ability to make a living. But having spent the past year being forced to mediate all my relationships through the internet or the telephone has left me hungry for connection in space in ways I can’t fully articulate.

Don’t get me wrong: I learned so much over the past year. From Kat. From Rachel. From Erika and Danielle and Robin and James and Sarah and Zina and Jez and Tess and Kristen and Vivian and RSS and Wayward and Hyperlink and everyone. I deepened and renewed and began so many friendships. So it’s a little surprising to me that I’ve had barely any interest in opening my laptop or getting on social media in weeks.

The obvious reason is that I’m currently moving out of my home in Portland for good. My days are full of boxes and warehouses and logistics and flaky Craigslist randos. But beyond the chaos of the move, there’s also the fact that in this post-vaccine, pre-moving-to-Ojai-for-the-long-haul moment, I’m being given the chance to reengage with the physical world—with my flesh-and-blood Portland humans who can give each other hugs and cook together and dance and laugh and cry in the same space. It’s commanding absolutely all of my attention.

I don’t even miss the internet. It feels so strange after a year of feeling like it was my lifeline.

Kicking Snakes

I sent a couple tweets into the aether yesterday after not putting anything out on Twitter for about a month. Maybe it was because I’d just worked out and endorphins were careening through my central nervous system and my blood sugar was about to crash, but when I hit the button and sent them off my pulse went through the roof. My palms were sweating. It felt like I was having a panic response to something I used to do three, five, ten times a day.

I caught myself wondering: What is wrong with me?

By and large, I’ve been blessed with a kind, curious audience in the decade I’ve spent on Twitter. There’s about 10,800 people following me these days and I still feel like most of my interactions with them are positive.

I realize this makes me an outlier—especially as a woman.

I’ve never had a tweet go monstrously viral, never been dog-piled by a group of bad actors, never been the target of death threats or widespread abuse. Sometimes I wonder if this is because I am not doing anything truly important with my life, because it seems as if all the people I know who have suffered these indignities are engaged in vital work. If I’m not a target, I must not be taking any risks. If I’m not taking any risks, I must not be making a difference.

(Is this toxic martyrdom? Or just a truth about the world we live in? I’m still not sure. I’m certain there are plenty of people who engage in important change-making quietly, behind the scenes, but I’m still questioning the balance in my own life.)

Over the past month, I’ve only heard about Twitter secondhand, and everything I’ve heard has been negative. I’m not reminded of the occasional jokes or moments of connection with friends around the globe. Instead I hear about having one’s attention hijacked by traumatic media. I hear about the misunderstandings, the feuds, and the constant, deafening noise of millions of people clamoring to be heard. It makes me wonder what I have been doing, generating a feed of thoughts there. Am I truly attempting to provide some kind of service? Or am I feeding tokens into a machine in order to keep a tiny, arbitrary bubble of numbers going up?

I’d only logged on because I wanted to respond to a friend’s request for help promoting her latest project. I love helping my friends, and I try to use whatever weird, relatively minimal clout I’ve amassed online for good, but I also felt strangely resistant. I realized I’d cultivated a perverse sense of pride in seeing the days stack up since my last tweet—like I’d be given a challenge coin for every month I stayed clean.

“It’s just one tweet,” my brain reasoned. “It’s not like you’re going back to using the site all day.” But the fact is: I don’t know how to use Twitter by half measures. I need enough time away to get my brain to release its desperate, grasping attachment to all that activity, to the pressure to keep up and stay in the loop.

Thinking about these questions always brings me back to my friend doreen dodgen-magee and her very good book Deviced. She writes:

What happens when we offload our regulation to internet-enabled devices is, basically, a bait and switch. We need soothing, but we substitute stimulation. We need to get calm and centered; instead we gather more data, input, and dazzling digital experiences. This leaves us dependent on stimulation to distract us and make us think we are actually being soothed. On the contrary, being soothed results in calming and working through the feelings related to dysregulation. When we substitute simple distraction and stimulation for this developed ability, we end up amplifying the dysregulation we are already experiencing and rob ourselves of practice in the important work of bringing ourselves back to a regulated state.

Feeling that panic response tear through my body after so many weeks of calm scared me. It made me realize I’d been engaging in an ecosystem that hadn’t wounded me directly, but still came paired with a constant threat of attack. On a platform of that scale and volatility, every passing thought carries within it the potential for mass distribution, misunderstanding, and destruction.

This isn’t what I want in a channel of communion.

My palms don’t sweat when I write things for Patreon. My pulse doesn’t climb when I record a Ramble. I don’t want to crawl out of my own skin when I blog.

In these quieter spaces, sharing doesn’t come attached to the instinctual certainty that I’ve just kicked a furious ball of snakes.

As Michael Harris writes:

Beyond the sharing, the commenting, the constant thumbs-upping, beyond all that distracting gilt, there are stranger things waiting to be loved.

What stranger things am I loving now?

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.

Live Q&A Hangout at Sea this Friday

Greetings, friends! It’s me again, your friendly neighborhood Artist-at-Sea-on-a-Research-Ship-with-WiFi-in-the-Middle-of-the-Pacific.

wave

This week we’re doing something really fun: a live Q&A on Google Hangouts! I’ll be sharing illustration work from the voyage so far on R/V Falkor, talking about the joys and challenges of drawing comics at sea, and answering YOUR questions! If you want to ask something, fire away in the comments on this post, on the Facebook event page, or on Twitter. I’m collecting questions all week.

You can also hop in the chat box during the call to ask questions in the moment, but the more I know about ahead of time, the more I can prepare to show you, like my mobile drawing setup:

progress-desk-1

It’s all happening this Friday, January 13th at 11am HST/1pm PST/4pm EST. You can RSVP on Facebook here, or just join the call directly by clicking this link when the time comes.

See you on Friday!