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.

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.

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?

Where to Put the Work

It’s been three weeks since Tansy was killed. I Rambled about it a little, but I haven’t really written about it. I didn’t write much of anything for a while there. I logged out of every online account I could think of the day it happened and told myself I would take a week at least to do whatever I needed to do to be okay.

That was new. Time was I wouldn’t have been able to give myself permission to disappear.

For the first few days I needed to tell people. I needed them to validate my experience, to affirm that it was horrific—as if every person I told might take some piece of it away with them, until I was left holding something I could bear. But I couldn’t stand the thought of the wider internet. I had to call my friends.

That, too, was new. It sounds like such a simple sentence. Of course you call your friends when something traumatic happens to you. But I didn’t used to be that kind of person.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to write about my cat or my friends. I was trying to talk about the fact that I haven’t been on Instagram or Twitter for the last few weeks, and that when I finally peeked today, this pair of tweets from Shing was at the top of my feed:

I read them, and faved them, and then I left.

Shing often says things I’ve been thinking with such clarity that I check behind my ears to make sure my brain hasn’t been bugged. The choice of language here—this idea of alignment—encapsulates so much of what I’ve been thinking about lately. Values and how we enact them. The moments when carving away is actually carving towards. It’s also present in Ashon Crawley saying “abolition is performative, it only happens when you do it” as part of a beautiful thread from December 15th, 2020.1

Critical Resistance Portland, the organization I’ve been writing letters with, are currently helping to get information about Economic Impact Payments into the hands of people in prison. Today I printed 25 info packets. Tomorrow I’ll address 25 envelopes, a couple at a time, here and there, and put the packets in the envelopes and then mail the envelopes to people imprisoned in Oregon. Maybe some of those people will be able to get their stimulus checks as a result. It isn’t complicated or particularly glamorous work, but it is important.2

And the thing is…it doesn’t take place on Twitter. All of the people I speak to on Twitter are privileged enough to have access to Twitter, for starters.

Having been off of Twitter for a few weeks, I do realize that I am, in many respects, less informed.

But I’ve also used the time I would’ve spent absorbing that deluge of information (much of it horrific) to distill and illustrate hours of interviews with voting rights activists about felony disenfranchisement and lowering the voting age in Oregon. I’ve reclaimed enough of my brain to align my skillset with my politics—something that is much, much harder to do when I’m caught in the mental landscape of social media, the one that screams “If you’re going to make art about this, it has to be done NOW.

I have so little time these days.

I mean, time is stretching, in the strange way it often does in Ojai, but there is relatively little of it that is mine and mine alone. I don’t have room to drink from the misery firehose. Instead, I am carving away everything that isn’t aligned. I am dedicating myself to the slow accumulation of calcium carbonate on stone. The drip, drip, drip of incremental progress.

Shing says “my hope in change lies there” and I know, immediately and without question, what they’re talking about.

It’s here, in the practice.

1. It’s been three months and I’m still thinking about it. I could write so many blog posts about the positive use of “performative” alone. He’s a gem.

2. If you’re the kind of person who wants to help with that work, you can sign up to get your own list of names and addresses here.

Important Bird News

This is an excellent thread that made me laugh uncontrollably for many, many minutes. I share it with you as a gesture of goodwill.

Yours sincerely,

Tiny Sky-Tyrant

P.S. I’ve been working on my marsupial impressions, too.

Higher Education

I’m a hindsight junky. I’m always flipping through old journals and sketchbooks, trying to find a narrative through-line that I can string up and hang insights on like so much laundry. The weird contemplative timelessness of Quarantine—not to mention the exhaustive self-reflection that tends to accompany a breakup—has only encouraged this behavior. But it’s not recriminatory! I love making sense of my life this way; seeing how the seeds of everything dear to me took root far earlier than I could’ve known.

2016 to 2020: a period bookended by two formative talks. The first wrestling with the paradox of gaining professional recognition faster than my financial situation was improving, the second realizing what I wanted to do with my time once that discrepancy had evened out.

Those four years also held a presidential term of unprecedented dreadfulness, a deeply formative relationship, profound shifts in my creative practice, and the growing realization that the systems underpinning this country are deeply broken. My undergraduate degree also took this amount of time, albeit from 2009-2012, which has had me thinking about the last four years as an education of its own. What do I hold a degree in now?

I asked people this question on Twitter, and the responses were predictably fascinating and funny in equal measure, but I wasn’t sure how to bring the conversation to this venue. And THEN the other day I saw Robin Sloan playing with inline response forms via his newsletter/blog and everything clicked into place. The invitation to contribute creates a bit of interactive magic without the bloat of a comments section—just a quick way to remind the reader that this is a collaborative experiment.1 I thought implementing something like this was out of my technical reach, but it turns out I have a plugin for contact forms already installed, so LET’S TRY:

    (If you’re reading this via RSS, the contact form doesn’t carry over. Beyond my skill to heal, I’m afraid, so just open this post in your browser if you’re dying to play.)

    Maybe I’ll update this post with some of your impressive new diploma titles? But then again, maybe not.

    1. I know I’ve said that I like how private this space feels right now, and this could break that illusion by inviting people to get in touch, but I also really like tiny emails as a form of call and response—and I’m not asking for anyone’s name or email address, so I literally can’t respond.

    Selves

    Tonight I opened Twitter, exhausted from another long day of menial tasks laden with outsized emotional significance because they all have to do with moving, to find this tweet from Beck Tench.1

    The thread that follows? I love it more than words can express.

    This is one of those moments where I wish there was a better way to share these little…presentations? Mini keynotes? What are Twitter threads, really? Especially with Beck’s delightful illustrations, this collection of thoughts cries out for something bespoke like Robin’s scroll-snap essay on newsletters or Other Robin’s tap essay on fish. Twitter doesn’t do it justice—jumbles the order, messes with the pace. The best I can offer is this version on Thread Reader which, y’know? It’s actually all right.

    I appreciate you, Thread Reader. You’re doing a decent job.

    A N Y W A Y:

    I came to wonder if the sharks swimming in the waters aren’t fears or doubts, but rather they are actually selves. And if, in times of stress, it’s those selves we must stay true to.

    Yes.

    1. Do you have those people in your circles who just consistently say and think and share the most lovely, considered, thought-provoking things? Beck is one of those people for me. I love her tweets. And blog posts. And just…her whole deal.

    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.