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.
The joyous surge of personal website action happening on Neocities
I don’t even know that this 90s revival aesthetic is my aesthetic (at least on this go around), but I still love seeing it come back because of what it stands for. It’s reminding me of how much I thought about anonymity as a feature of my early web experiences while reading Better Than IRL. Post-Facebook, it felt as if anonymity became synonymous with cruelty, trolling, and lack of accountability. The real move was to be Extremely Online under one’s own name—especially if one hoped to make a career out of making creative work on the web.
But that stifling trajectory has also led to a culture of fear. Fear of imperfection, fear of unprofessionalism, fear of everything and everyone. I’d forgotten all about the freedom and exuberance of being anonymous. The weirdness. Now it feels like a liberation.
And maybe that’s the root of the fear: if you’re someone who believes people are inherently shitty, then a liberation looks like a return to one’s worst impulses. If you believe in altruism and basic goodness, maybe it’s something better. A weirder web, yes, but also a kinder one.
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.
I’m wrestling with the letter I want to write to introduce my 2020 100 Day Project when I release it later this month. I’m feeling the pressure to get it just right. To say it just so. (Sound familiar? I keep finding different elements of this project to obsess over as a way to avoid sharing it. Go figure. Just share it, Lucy.)
I poked my head into Instagram briefly this morning and found Anis sharing a project that has its roots in a much older project and is now reemerging:
Back in 2014/2015 I was in a place of heavy loss, a place of relearning, rewiring, reforming my self, & began writing down & sharing online these monthly wisdoms/lessons for my self to learn, think on, & try to remember. Have wanted to return to this for years now, & being now in some months of heavy reflection seemed a good time for this returning. Here’s things I put down last month for me to hold & turn over & try to remember.
This subtitle sings to me.
It’s a funny thing how we all begin turning toward the same subjects at the same times (or have already been turning for several years). Reminders. Permission. Speaking to the self as the self, but at a removal from the self. This is the energy of the thing I’m about to release, too. Seeing it reflected in these words from my brilliant friend fills me with compassion and energy and, okay, a little envy, too. I have to elbow myself in the psychic ribs as if to say “Hey. Cut it out. There’s no race here, ya dingbat.”
On another slide, Anis writes:
I sometimes use vulnerability w/self to avoid vulnerability w/others. I wear my heart, but wearing can be a costume.
This is one of the things that drives me away from sharing such a personal thing in public. I want it to be known (I want to be known), but not in a space where I’ve traditionally used perceived vulnerability to mask real connection.
The greatest pleasure I’ve gotten from this project has been pressing the physical prototype (or the Dropbox folder of images) into the hands of trusted friends, and then talking about it with them. That’s energy I want to preserve moving forward. This connection. This depth.
This one (my 30th since I started this practice in June of 2019!) is about stuff I lost track of in 2021, things I’m thinking about in the new year, trying to abandon perfectionism, what to share and what not to share, the topography of the Ojai Valley, and various other things.
Also: looked at a bunny, found some owls.
You can read the transcript or browse all the notes and associated ephemera over on Patreon for free, or just listen directly below.
[Rambles are typically 20-minute freeform audio updates recorded outside every couple of weeks. You can listen to previous Rambles here or subscribe directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.]
Sometimes, when I haven’t been on Twitter in a while, I go look at my friends’ Likes instead of drinking from the timeline firehose. It feels slightly creepy (sorry, Robin), but often yields real gems outside the wind tunnel of my own circles. Sometimes it’s a whole new person to follow, sometimes it’s just a phrase. Today it was this:
our ever-present mutual responsibilities are more visible when we’re at sea […] seafaring makes obvious something that is always true.
Just a Shower Thought Addendum: I know we feel compelled to check in on people when they haven’t posted on social media in a while—as if that’s the best external marker of mental health—but what if being absent from social media was the healthy norm and anyone posting a great deal got showered with direct contact from their friends to find out if they were okay?
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. ↩
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.