These are strange times for anyone whose chosen profession forces them to be online.
Journalists, authors, filmmakers, musicians, milk men… we’re all being pulled toward building some kind of a following in order to help sell the thing we really care about.
And you’ll often see advice that the key to being a Good Engaging Online Person is to be… Authentic! Your Real Self! Bravely putting yourself out there! Just be you!
Back in the day there was even a term called “naked blogging” for the people who posted brutally honest posts about things that most of us wouldn’t have had the courage to even mention aloud.
But… what does it even mean to be your “real self” online? And what is the internet doing to the way we think of ourselves entirely?
I worry a lot about what being “very online” is doing to me. And to all of us.
Far from channeling our real selves, I worry the internet is warping our real selves.
The tyranny of engagement
Here’s the trap we all fall into.
You’re supposed to grow a following on social media so you can promote the thing you really care about. That means you have to pay attention to what works on any given platform.
So! Hard working, diligent person that you are, you follow the numbers. You experiment and lean into the things that seem to be rewarded by the masses.
Only… the things that tend to be rewarded by the platforms kind of suck.
On Twitter: It often means being hyperbolic, vindictive (dunks!), simplistic, emotional, provocative, and galaxy brain. It’s hard to fit nuance into 280 characters, so people tend to just dispense with that whole shade of gray thing entirely.
On Instagram: It often means being vain, artificial, materialistic, and show-offy. Instagram tends to be aspirational and aesthetically driven, so it tends to reward people who are beautiful and rich.
Emotion over reason. Black and white over nuance. Conflict over discussion. Purity tests over common cause.
Engagement! Engagement! Engagement!
Sure. There are some positive things out there that gain traction. There’s humor. There are cute animals. There’s art and memes. There are links off those platforms to very useful things.
And don’t get me wrong. On the whole I think the existence of social media makes the world a better place by giving a voice to people who didn’t have one before.
But what I’m talking about are the incentive structures that are baked into the platforms. How many retweets do you see people get for like… just being compassionate? Just being a good person with no expectation of reward?
What are these platforms optimized for?
What do these platforms steer you to become?
Bending toward what works
There’s a reason why nefarious actors have invested such massive resources in bot armies that mimic real people and shape the discourse.
We are absolutely influenced by everything we see online. We internalize the numbers. We are scared of being chased by a small army of avatars. We try to mimic what’s successful. We all start tweeting about the same damn things.
And all those conflicts, all those fights, all those outrages… it gets into you.
It’s hard! You want to pay attention to the outrages. You want the world to be a better place. It feels complacent to look away.
But even setting aside the anger and anxiety of having the world’s ills thrust straight into your face all the time, think about the way you make those little adjustments in the face of those warped incentives.
You start posting about politics a bit more, or whatever the zeitgeist may be at the moment. You become a bit more brazen with your feelings. You become a bit more provocative. A bit more abrasive. A bit less likely to find points of commonality with people you disagree with. A bit less calm and magnanimous.
Maybe you travel a bit more because you see the Instagram stories. Maybe you work harder to get in shape and “optimize” your physical features. Maybe you seek out the relative comfort of things you already agree with just a bit more.
Is that still you? Sure! It’s still you.
But you’re gradually being shaped. You’re being molded by those bizarre incentive structures.
What did it mean, I wondered, that I have spent so much of my life attempting to perform well in circumstances where an unaltered female face is aberrant? How had I been changed by an era in which ordinary humans receive daily metrics that appear to quantify how our personalities and our physical selves are performing on the market? What was the logical end of this escalating back-and-forth between digital and physical improvement?
What does being online do to you?
Your followers don’t want the real you
Every now and then I’ll post something about politics or sports even though I know it’s not really why people come to this blog or follow me on social media.
Here’s the thing. The real me is very fascinated by these things! Reading about politics and foreign affairs, watching soccer, and hanging out with friends are seriously my only non-writing hobbies. They’re big parts of my life.
So if I were being my “real self” online? I’d post about them!
But let me tell you: people get mad when I post about politics. And this was as true in 2008 as it is in 2020. (They just ignore my sports posts lol).
Look. I get it! It’s not why these people subscribed. Politics is not what this blog is supposed to be about. I’m not an expert. There’s plenty of politics literally everywhere. I get it.
But I started thinking a lot about what it means for people to get so angry about those posts. And here’s what I realized:
People push you to give them the thing they want from you. They push you to be the thing they want you to be. And some people will lash out at you if you stray from what they want you to be and what they find useful.
Even if that thing they want you to be is not really you. Even if it’s not your whole, authentic self.
Sure. This happens in real life to an extent. But online, we exist to people as a tiny slice of usefulness. You become a utility company, like a small railroad. And once you’ve established a following it starts feeling pretty hard to step out of that.
It’s another way we are shaped by our online lives. The boundaries of what you are “supposed” to be grow to be pretty rigidly enforced.
You keep getting pushed to give more of what people want from you even when the rewards for doing so start feeling uncertain.
Where this leaves us
The thing that’s most confusing to me is trying to sort through what to do about it all.
I might not like what social media is doing to me, but I depend on it. My livelihood is bound up in these bizarre incentive structures.
In a weird way I almost worry that resisting social media will leave me out of step with the rest of society. Everyone’s getting warped, so if I don’t get warped right along with them I’m going to end up being the “crazy” one!
But I definitely find myself spending less and less time on social media. I try to think twice before I let myself get angry. I try to make sure I can still concentrate.
Most importantly, I try to remember that my real life isn’t online.
There’s no such thing.
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Art: Detail of Woman at a Window by Caspar David Friedrich