The Owl Neck Problem

[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:

Lucy giving a lecture in front of a projection screen that says "I used to loathe the very notion of social media, but I've grown to love it."
hollow laughter

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.)

doreen says:

“[…] 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.

A vote of confidence in financial form.

An ever-increasing spiral of enoughness.

A moving target.

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.

Authenticity: Interintellect Salon Notes

A good thing: I’ve started wandering into more and stranger corners of the internet in the past year. Weird legacy sites documenting English heirloom potatoes. Minimalist archives of Japanese woodworking techniques. A blog in the form of a text-based game. So it doesn’t surprise me that much (except it kind of does) to have stumbled onto The Interintellect (often rendered as “ii”) via something Brendan shared in relation to Hyperlink Academy a couple weeks ago.

I attended my first Salon of theirs this past weekend—a three-hour freeform discussion called “Just Be Yourself: Questioning the Value of Authenticity” facilitated by Linus Lu. Twenty-odd folks called in from around the globe to share perspectives on authenticity, vulnerability, compassion, and selfhood. I didn’t intend to share these notes, but by the time we’d finished talking I thought “What the hell, this could be blog fodder,” so here we are!

(A note on alt text: the gallery plugin I’m running on this site is behaving abominably, so for now I’ve just linked the alt text for all these images here.)

As always, I’m increasingly hung up on who has the privilege—time and money, mostly—to engage in these kinds of discussions. High-level overviews of culture and selfhood absolutely get me going, but I also know that I don’t have the bandwidth for them when I’m scrambling to put food on the table or make sure I can pay my rent.

How can we make more room for folks outside academia and well-paid industries (and the odd self-employed interloper like myself) to interrogate this stuff?

Strange, Familiar Seas

Not every night, but most nights, the English writer Philip Hoare gets into the sea.

I know this because he tweets about it. Not every night, but most nights. A brief, poetic, timestamped dispatch from the waves.

I read Hoare’s book Risingtidefallingstar toward the end of 2018 and fell hopelessly in love. It’s a sweeping voyage through various coastal regions, literary lives, and strange creatures of the sea. It defies categorization—feels tidal rather than textual. (Just describing the book makes me realize that it shares many qualities with Always Coming Home, which should hardly come as a surprise at this point.)

When I followed Hoare on Twitter, I started seeing these fleeting messages in my feed. The nature of the platform meant that it took me a while to realize how consistently they cropped up, but when I noticed, it shifted something.

In 2019, I made a pact with myself after a week by a lake on an island in Canada: if I find myself near a body of water and it is even remotely possible for me to get into it, I must get into it.1 I’ve since plunged into frigid waves on the Oregon coast, silky river waters of the Columbia Gorge, and the hidden shock of a creek in my hometown of Ojai, California.

Often, as I’m sprinting, screaming across the wide expanse of sand toward the breakers, or furtively scrambling out of my clothes in the underbrush, I think of Hoare’s constant devotion to being where he feels most alive. Most held.

It’s not even about whether or not he swims every night, or what time he goes (does the man ever sleep? Unclear), or what the sky is doing on that particular Tuesday. It’s just a reminder that there is a person who embodies his affection for the sea so fully and faithfully that he’s out there, in the water, baptized night after night.

Whatever Hoare writes next, I’ll probably love it. But my primary interest isn’t his creative output. The thing I want to know is whether he is still himself, and as far as I can tell plunging bodily into the ocean on a near-nightly basis is the backbone of his existence.

I’ve chewed on the idea of object permanence a lot this year—dug into my mistrust of fleeting social media feedback, questioned how online creators can feel secure in taking leaves of absence, and wondered at what it is about our work that truly endures. Hoare makes me consider relocating the idea of permanence from deliverables like books and art and films to the substrates of our creative practices; these undercurrents of selfhood.

That is the thing I want to celebrate and support.

1. Even having trod on a stingray and endured unimaginable agony two months after taking said vow, I still believe it to be sound.

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.

In the Beginning

“I miss possibility,” she says.

It’s March 29th and we’re walking home through falling blossoms, couples edging off the sidewalk to avoid coming within contagion distance as we pass. We point at the rippling edges of tulips, paint jobs on houses we’ve never seen before. I look for sequences of color in the world—a car (orange) parked in front of a stop sign (red), and behind them both: a glass recycling bin (yellow).

This is one of my favorite games.

“I could take a dance class, I could go to a coffee shop, I could go out with friends and buy flowers and try things on at Goodwill.” We sidestep a Russian family gathered around a call on speakerphone.

God I miss Goodwill.”

I keep my mouth shut, feeling traitorous because this absence of choice is precisely the thing that’s granted me a giddy sense of freedom over the past week. I am no longer paralyzed by lost opportunities, choosing incorrectly, disappointing those around me. Something is coming to the fore that hasn’t previously been heard over the din of expectation and activity.

Maybe the thing that’s emerging in this space is me.