Greetings from wild and windy Seattle! We’re back from our road trip and in our familiar digs. When we left town I was so dang sick of staring at the same walls, and out the same window, waiting for the pandemic to end. But my time away has given me fresh eyes and a new perspective. My tiny condo no longer feels like a prison cell. Our couch fits to my back like a comfy catcher’s mitt, worn in all the right places. I’m appreciating all that I have at home, from my ergonomic desk chair and clicky clacky keyboard to the electric tea kettle resting on the counter nearby.
When the sun goes down, the city sparkles. When the sun comes up, my neighborhood stretches and yawns. Shopkeepers flick on their lights, unlock their doors, and carry chairs outside to the shaded sidewalk. Buses roll down the street. Late last night – or was it early this morning? – in the darkness, I half awoke to the sound of a delivery truck idling on the street below, familiar urban music that lulled me right back to sleep.
The city is coming back to life.
Our weather is moody and beautiful today. Clouds roll over us like a thick, dark comforter; it rains and rains. Gaps open in the sky and spread wide, revealing blue sky. Sunlight bursts out and illuminates the steel and glass towers. The wet streets shine. We rushed out to pick up a sandwich during one sun break (do other cities have sun breaks?) and when we left the shop we were hit by a gust of wind so strong it nearly toppled me over. Someone had lost their flowers; a fresh bouquet of pink peonies rolled down the wet sidewalk. Rain blew sideways, like darts, and there wasn’t an umbrella in sight.
Seattle felt like Seattle today. And I feel… normal? Yes. I think this is what normal feels like! I’m not fearful. Not anxious. Not grieving. Not angry. Not impatient. Not stuck!
In his long essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, author David Foster Wallace talked about the problem of ads pretending not to be ads.
An ad that pretends to be art is-at absolute best-like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. it causes despair.
This passage still feels relevant even though Wallace wrote it in the nineties, long before the rise of social media. Perhaps that’s because the trend of ads-pretending-to-be-other-things has only sped up over the years. As a result, we’re living our lives alongside a bizarre set of social norms that I’ve come to think of as influencer culture. Influencer culture is most visible in the world of advertising, but it trickles into our politics, communities, and nearly all internet-mediated communication.
Influencer culture says:
Deceiving others is fine if it gets you more attention.
To succeed, pretend to be offering personal and unbiased recommendations, when in fact you’re getting paid for them.
It’s best to hide ads within thickets of “content” to obscure them, making them appear not to be ads.
Cultivate the illusion of friendship and camaraderie with your customers, for the purpose of earning a sale later.
Like Wallace said, these kinds of behaviors contribute to the lowering of trust and a kind of creeping despair about the world. Does that perky world traveler really like your photo on Instagram or is it their intern trying to create the illusion of admiration? When a self-help author calls you sweetie in a comment, are they expressing familial affection to a total stranger, or are they speaking in language aligned with their carefully branded persona? Oh, and last week when you read that darkly sardonic article on the web, did the author truly mean what she said, and did she believe her words were fair, or did she slant the message to be more controversial because controversial gains 20% more clicks?
We’re surrounded by soft lies, and every time we notice someone’s duped us, we can only become less willing to trust. This is, I suspect, how we’ve arrived at this current moment, in which the overarching headline might be: Everything is Garbage, but No One Cares, so Nothing Will Be Fixed, Ever.
But even if you hate influencer culture it’s difficult to escape it, especially if your livelihood requires selling. A friend of mine recently hired a social media strategist for her business, and they told her to hire an intern to go online and like people for her so people will like her back. Come on! Is this the world we want? My genuine, talented, friend is being told to farm out fake likes so she can have a career. And the worst part? For all I know, the consultant might be right!
I guess my problem with influencers isn’t that they’re trying to sell me something. I’m a fan of capitalism, not to mention living in a world where valuable products and services improve my life. My problem with influencers is that they seem emblematic of a shift in our culture, one that says we can only thrive by exploiting and deceiving one another. This mindset encourages lies at scale, something that’s corrosive to our society and our emotional well-being as individuals. If I’ve gotta walk through the world with my skepticism turned on high, all the freaking time, sure, that’s gonna hurt.
Wallace saw the rise of cynicism and detached irony in American culture and suggested that we needed a new sincerity combat it. I like that idea! At a basic level, sincerity might be as simple as: Say what you mean, and mean what you say. I’d argue that a sincere marketer wouldn’t be ashamed to share an advertisement, but they wouldn’t deceive their audience either. A sincere publisher wouldn’t put a fake-controversial title on an article to get clicks, right? And a sincere customer would respond to any obvious deception with a frown and a remark that “This isn’t cool, and I’ll do my business elsewhere if that’s how you’re going to treat me.” That all seems pretty reasonable to me.
At the risk of sounding corny, I suggest we combat the evils of influencer culture by choosing to be sincere in our dealings with one another, and by (sincerely) sharing our disappointment when others try to deceive or manipulate us.
Sincerity likely won’t fix all of society’s problems, but it seems as good a place as any to begin. You be straight with me, and I’ll be straight with you. Let’s start there, and see where it takes us.
Note: This blog post was influenced by the following sources:
Last week, the New Yorker published an essay entitled Can Indie Social Media Save Us? and I was delighted to see Micro blog
mentioned, as I’ve been a microblogger for over a year now. Services like Micro blog are making it easier than ever to create a more humane, diverse, and human internet. The kind of internet I believe we need today.
I miss the days when my friends had blogs; they wrote about their hobbies and projects and hikes, and each of those sites were as unique as the individual. Websites were clunky back then, yes, but they were far more interesting than the sterile corporate web we live with today. The web was actually a web back then, full of serendipitous links and surprising points of discovery. It could also be bizarre. Does anyone else remember Gonads and Strife
The Great Flattening
Our internet changed significantly in the early 2000s, starting with the dominance of search engines. Why should sites build links to one another, talk to one another, if you could enter what you wanted in a search box? Organic cross-linking between sites diminished, and everyone began gaming the system to get more attention from the search engine algorithms.
Soon after, Facebook changed everything again. Why put your words, photos, and hobbies on a website when you could throw it into a single social feed for your friends to see? Social media was convenient and seemed to come with few downsides. Why blog when you could throw a quick update online from your phone? And thus Facebook ate the blogosphere, capturing us all within their walled gardens.
The conveniences provided by search and social media consumed much of the early web. We all started visiting the same few sites, and reading what they chose to prioritize. Later, these websites sought to control our behavior and take psuedo-ownership of our content, using it to drive their own agendas. Thus began the malignant onset of fucked-up terms of service contracts and manipulative algorithms. Over the course of five years, the original internet all but disappeared, replaced with corporate-owned surveillance boxes, designed to profile you based upon what photos you upload, what you like, what you hate, what you read, and what you say. Thus our humanity became distilled down to a set of characteristics third parties could use to manipulate our behavior, and our thinking.
Buy this thing.
Vote this way.
Fear this group.
Believe this lie.
There’s no use in blaming ourselves. It’s only recently that we’ve begun to see the trade offs, the deep and abiding damage to our institutions, and the ways we’ve been mislead.
And I doubt that (most of) the programmers building these systems set out to create these social monstrosities. Company leaders chased the money, made bad choices, and minimized them. “It’s just ads,” they seemed to say. “We’ve always had ads.” But we all know there’s a difference between an ad and psychological profiling. And we understand that showing women ads for women’s shoes is very different than using racial data and misinformation campaigns to manipulate elections. But the tools of big social media don’t discriminate between good and evil; they’re unsafe tools in irresponsible hands.
“The Internet” is Bigger Than We Think
Because the online world has consolidated so much, when you think about “the Internet” today, you’re probably thinking about a small number of sites run by powerful corporations. As different as they are, they operate under a similar set of rules, the most sacrosanct being that your online communications must go through their surveillance box, and that you will be targeted by those who are willing to pay, based upon what you’ve said, uploaded, or clicked. Even based upon who you associate with!
If you’ve followed me this far, let me ask you a few questions: Does this limited view of “the internet” sound like the internet you wanted? And is this type of internet supportive of the world you want? Are free services worth the trade-offs? And were you fully informed of the costs when you signed up?
Writing about the corruption of online culture makes me sad. But instead of staying sad, let’s consider an alternative world, one not too different from the internet that had begun to emerge before we walked away. Let’s talk about the possibility of the internet working for us, instead of the other way around. Really, what I want to know is this: Can we make the internet fun again?
That question has been tickling the back of my brain for a long time, and indie social media sites like Micro blog are indeed part of the answer. But no single service or method can bring us a better internet. In reality, we’ve got lots of things we can do.
So far, I’ve found three options for making a happier internet. I’ll outline them here, and I’m curious what you’d add to my list.
Option One: Minimizing Internet Use
Some people are choosing to minimize their exposure to the internet, because it’s become dominated by manipulative corporate interests and bad behavior. For example, they might quit Facebook and Instagram but they still use the internet for texting, television streaming, and research. The book Digital Minimalism
is a good entry point into this line of thinking.
My problem with this option is that abstaining from the web isn’t the same thing as fixing it or enjoying it. You might enjoy sharing photos and ideas online, like I do. You might have friends who aren’t near you physically, making the internet a good way to interact with them. Being “mostly” offline can shrink your world, a little, and not everyone wants that. But I’ve tried the minimizing thing, on and off, and it isn’t bad.
Time away from the online world is restorative, but I want a better internet, too.
Option Two: Paying for the Services You Use
In a simplistic sense, the big internet companies monetize us and sell us out because they have bills to pay and investors to please. Servers, employees, and electricity all cost money, right? We shouldn’t expect free services to come without a catch.
Therefore, a good alternative to surveillance capitalism is paying a small fee for the services you want to use. In doing so, you become the customer, and not the product. And instead of trying to manipulate you ever-harder for more money, the right kind of service provider will focus on your satisfaction.
For example, you can run a hosted Micro blog
for $5 per month, posting your status updates, ideas, and photos there so your family can see them and enjoy them. There are apps for your phone to make uploading photos easy, and anyone with a web browser can see your posts, without needing an account.
Or, for the same price, you can run a blog on WordPress.com
with your own domain name and no ads. Post photos, updates, essays, videos; anything you like, really. And if your Mom complains that she doesn’t want to go to your site directly, she can get your blog posts by email!
Privately run, advertisement free, and reasonably priced services exist for all sorts of internet activities. I use Pinboard
($11/yr) for saving and archiving online reading material. Hobby photographers might enjoy a SmugMug
account with private links for friends and family. Letterboxd
is a service specifically for movie lovers! Chances are, whatever your “thing” is, there’s a programmer who has started a small and scrappy business to offer you an option that respects you and gets the job done.
And for anyone feeling like “This sounds great, BUT NONE OF MY FRIENDS ARE ON THOSE SITES” take a slow breath and think for a second. This isn’t actually a problem, but the big companies want you to believe it is. As long as you feel locked in, they profit.
Paid services like WordPress
and Micro blog
make it easy to cross-post. You can host your stuff on your own site, and cross-post links Facebook or Twitter so people still trapped in the corporate web can find your newest stuff with little effort. Also, no one is forcing you to quit anything.
At risk of sounding snarky, let me remind you that your friends don’t actually “exist” on Facebook or Instagram. They’re flesh and blood people with a miraculous web browser in their pocket. If clicking a link to see your latest photos (or calling you, or texting you, or hanging out) is too much work for them to bear, are they really your friends?
As a side benefit, some of these services don’t use “likes” because the whole sharing things only to get likes back is a stressful and crummy dynamic. Breaking that cycle can feel pretty good, after an initial adjustment period where it feels weird.
Option Three: Run a Personal Website
Here’s where things get exciting for me. If you’d like to take your internet expression one step further, you might consider running your own website. Post something that goes deeper than status updates, give your site a slant or a theme, perhaps even customize the design. In doing so, you’re not only giving your friends and family a place to see your stuff, you’re helping to build a more diverse and interesting internet.
Back in the early aughts, the human web used to be full of people, not bots and targeted ads. And it can be that way again, if we’d like it to be. I believe we all benefit from authentic balls-to-the-wall human expression and the creation of sovereign spaces to be ourselves without manipulation by third parties. By making your “online home” your own, and controlling what goes there, and being yourself, you’re making the internet a more human place.
Does making a website or blog seem intimidating? Or like too much work? Don’t stress! Instead, read this fine post by Alex Guzey
who reminds us all that doesn’t matter if you have an audience, or if what you are posting is original. Having your own site or blog can help you clarify your own thinking, explore your creativity, and have fun. You might build something that helps someone else, but that isn’t the point. Do it for the joy of it. Make something only you could make.
If it helps you to get started, imagine me and the other residents of the IndieWeb standing on the other side of a low fence. We’re jumping up and down, smiling, and waving our arms. Join us! Come on over and play! We wanna see your new website or blog!
And by making a personal website, blog, or project-site, you can proclaim your freedom from the crummy surveillance sites. You can leave the unethical tech companies wallowing in their own stinky algorithms while we create something better. Not one website to fix this mess, or even a dozen, but hundreds of thousands, each different, like stars in the sky, each one representing a unique human mind.
What a beautiful thought!
Let’s Make the Internet Fun Again
Are you ready to make your own site? Getting started goes something like this:
Claim a little plot of land online. It could be a blog, a micro blog, a website, a photo album, a page that lists music you like, anything, really! Pay for it. Choose a service provider you like, one whose terms of service wasn’t written by Satan’s own lawyer.
Ideally, connect your site to a domain name that you own. This makes it easier for people to find you, and you can keep your domain the same even if the underlying website changes. But if you’re feeling intimidated by the domain thing, skip it for now.
Use your site however you’d like! Share or create something you find interesting. Write, or post photos, or share whatever you like. Cool! Now you’ve got an online playground.
When you’re ready, link your sites to other sites. Learn about using comments or webmentions to create conversations, friendships, and to spark new ideas.
If there’s one thing that my forty years on this planet has taught me, it’s that humanity is bizarre, wonderful, diverse, and creative. By bringing your creativity and humanity to the internet, you’ll be making the online world more human, more lively, and better for everyone.
Eight months ago, I deactivated my Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp accounts. Four months ago, I deleted those accounts entirely. And now that I’m outside the Facebook bubble, I wanted to describe what that’s been like, for anyone curious about the other side.
Let’s start with a quick summary of the main points, and I’ll elaborate on a few things below.
I quit because social media was stressing me out. I hated the way I kept compulsively checking it, and I was concerned about the Facebook company’s use of my personal data.
Quitting gave me twitchy fingers. I felt like an ex-smoker reaching for the pack of cigarettes that were no longer there. And I felt guilty about inconveniencing my friends and family.
I felt disconnected and lonely for a while after quitting. But as I’ve been more proactive with my friends (and they’ve returned the favor) my quality of life has gone up.
Some relationships have faded away. Mostly those were acquaintances, or “friends” that I rarely saw in real life. I’ve come to see this as an acceptable trade-off.
Eight Months Without Facebook
Do you know what the best part of being off Facebook is? I thought it would be having more privacy, or feeling less addicted to checking social media, but what I love most is something else entirely. Now that I’m off Facebook, when I’m with my friends, I’m actually with my friends.
Have you ever had conversations like this one?
I see you went to Aruba, Bob.
Yes, it was a nice vacation. How are the kids? It looks like Billy is playing soccer this year?
He is. Thanks for asking.
Want some punch?
I don’t miss that bullshit! When we allow sites like Facebook to do the heavy lifting in our relationships, it seems that we turn into cardboard cutouts, even when hanging out in person. I always hated that dynamic, and now it’s over.
Being off Facebook has also eliminated the accidental irritations that occur from oversharing. Have you ever had thoughts like these?
I hate (that politician) too, but do you have to rant about it every day? Yup. Your children/pets are cute. I get it. Thank you for the fifth workout photo this week. Yes, we all know you’re swole. Why wasn’t I invited to that party?
When I spent a lot of time on sites like FB and Insta, I developed the habit of stereotyping people based on what they shared. I’d unconsciously tell myself that so-and-so is all about being a parent, and my other friend is super career-minded, and yet another friend is a world traveler. Our digital projections can become so strong that we don’t really see our friends (in all their complexity) any longer. And when that happens, it seems difficult to get beneath the surface.
I believe relationships take time. Conversations. Support. An investment in one another. And in that regard, getting off Facebook acted as a sorting mechanism. I found the answer to: Who will make time to hang out? For me that’s a small group but a treasured one. And sure, it can feel lonely while you look for your people in the flesh-and-blood world. But it gets easier the more you invest in your relationships.
Text people. Set up a coffee date. Schedule a movie night, or a game day, or happy hour. Join a book club. Get your ass out there. I’ve gotten pretty introverted these last few years, so it takes effort, but in the end, it’s worth it.
Thoughts about the Digital Future
Slowly, I’ve been backing away from the technologies that make me uneasy. In the past, I had a bias that said “if it’s a new technology, it must be good!” and I jumped in with both feet, eager to explore. But these days, I believe technology isn’t good or bad, any more than a hammer is good or bad. Better to ask yourself what you’re building with it. Are you making something beneficial, or harmful?
Modern as I am, I think the Amish have this figured out. They ask themselves what impact technology will have on their lives, families, and community, and only if they agree that it is beneficial will they adopt it. Naturally, I draw my lines in the sand very differently than they do (huzzah for electricity and my dishwasher!) but I admire their efforts to protect their way of life.
What “way of life” do I want to have? And how can I protect it? Those are questions I keep coming back to.
I’ll close this post with a few things I’ve learned since leaving Facebook.
Making something easier doesn’t always make it better. (Human connection is one example.)
Before using a technology, I want to consider the secondary consequences.
It’s okay to opt-out!
It’s okay to say “not yet!”
Friends don’t disappear because you’re not on a website. Acquaintances might, and that’s okay.
I don’t believe quitting Facebook will “make you happy,” but if being there makes you feel unhappy, leaving might encourage you to connect with people at a deeper level. But doing so does take effort, and it’s lonely at first, and not everyone on your friend list will make time to connect in the flesh-and-blood world.
For Facebook skeptics like me, it’s important to remember that being against Facebook isn’t particularly interesting once you’ve extracted yourself. It’s more fun to be for things, and to bring more of what you value into your life. For me that includes:
More writing. More walks. More movies with friends. More writing/books. More coffee. More conversation. More philosophy.
Now, having banished some “unwanted tech” from my life, it’s time for me to take the final step and banish it from my mind too. I’m not here to tell you you should quit Facebook. But if being there is making you stressed and unhappy, I can confirm that life is pretty great on the other side of deactivation.
Here’s something I’m curious about: Does social media change how we think, feel, and behave, when we’re not online?
Have you ever shared a photo because it projects an image you like, not of the thing photographed, but of yourself? I catch myself reaching for my phone when I see something amusing or pretty. That would be good to share, I think.
This will be funny.
This will be impressive.
This will be cool.
Social sharing nudges us towards performance. And while performing isn’t bad, and it’s often fun, it’s not the same thing as living my best life. Sometimes, social sharing trips me up, and gets me to focused on the wrong things.
Take reading, for example. I used to set goals for how many books I’d read each year, on Goodreads. Then I’d track my books in pursuit of that goal, keeping up my pace. There’s a handy progress bar on the website, and you can log everything you read with a few clicks. And because it’s all public, it made me feel more accountable.
But gradually, sharing my reading habits became a problem:
I was setting reading goals that I hoped were impressive. (hello ego!)
I was finishing books I didn’t like, just so I could log them.
I felt pressured to review every book I logged, and anxious about reviewing books I didn’t enjoy.
I didn’t think that comic books counted as a book (too short) so I didn’t log them. This created a divide between books that counted and books that didn’t.
I quit the reading challenge earlier this year, because I wasn’t having fun. But then something interesting happened. The moment I stopped caring about the invisible audience on Goodreads, reading became a pleasure instead of a chore. My whole attitude shifted.
A book hasn’t hooked me by page eighty? Stop reading. What a relief!
Want to write a review? Do so! If not. That’s fine too.
In the mood for comics tonight? Comics it is!
Who cares how many books I’ll read this year? Why keep score?
These days, I’m reading like I did as a teenager, voraciously and privately_._ And I love it! All because I took the invisible audience away. One that probably wasn’t watching, anyway.
Friends, if you track your books publicly, I invite you to try something new. Swing through a bookstore or library and pick up something fun, no matter how respectable or popular it is. Choose something that makes you curious. Read that book in secret, hold it in your heart, and tell no one.
Enjoy something, without the need to share it. See how it feels.
Whee! I hope it’s fun for you, like it was for me.