The tyranny of content

An unoriginal observation: the “attention economy” encourages us to become weird versions of ourselves.

If you’re just a regular slob with a social media account, what do you post when your audience includes basically everyone you’ve ever known? Jenny Odell said it well: you imagine what you would say if you walked into a party where the attendees included everyone in your high-school class, plus a few hundred randos you met in college and after, plus your family members across all generations, plus strangers you met through common interests.* And, by the way, all of them will hear whatever you say to some of them, because for some reason you’re miked up.

You probably say something pretty boring.

It’s natural, it’s human, for us to calibrate our conversation to suit who we’re speaking to. But social media asks us to turn this impulse off, and just say “it”—whatever it might be—to everyone at once. This can’t help but change what we say. It tends to make us second-guess our spiciest opinions, which we’d feel comfortable exploring with this group but certainly not if that one is listening in. And then there is a concrete system of reward (likes) and punishment (crickets) that cannot but encourage us to mold all of our expression into whatever the crowd enjoys most loudly.

Related to this, popular “content creators” tend to be people who have a very narrow niche. Sometimes this niche is simply being hot. Other times, it’s posting about one’s idiosyncratic and lovable dog, or illustrating graphics about the Enneagram or something.** But if you have a thing, there is a lot of gravity pulling you towards only posting about that thing.

So, it seems, the attention economy makes most of us bland, and rewards those of us who choose one little aspect of ourselves and go absolutely nuts about it and only it.

This gives me occasional (daily) pause: what, exactly, am I doing here?

Most days I get that I’m writing for fun, for practice, because life is short and I feel like it. There are a small number of loyal readers, and a small contingent of complimentary strangers. That’s it, and that’s fine.

But other times I think: am I wasting my time? Stuff I write here takes time away from writing books I could potentially maybe get published someday. More importantly, it takes time away from other pursuits, such as napping and binge-watching and staring out the window and eating sour candy.

Still other times I think: maybe I should just go all in and try to get lots of followers and become a Brand. Sell stuff. Deploy the internet to my advantage. 

But that would mean I’d have to ossify into a single version of myself, one with a narrower field of interests. Become That Account Posting About X. I’d have to commit to something. Because that’s how online brands work, as far as I can tell: they are a single thing. Accounts that do a single thing are comprehensible to engage with. “This account will tell me how to date. This one will show me funny pictures of bees.”

The problem is, I can’t, or won’t, focus. I want to do it all: confessional journaling, book reviews, parody pieces, personality typing stuff, nature feelings, short stories, and who knows what else. I can’t think of a single topic I want to become a brand about. 

I am large! I contain multitudes!

Trying to put all those multitudes in one place is sort of akin to screaming into a very large room full of quite a lot of people, some of whom I know and some of whom I don’t. And a lot of other people are screaming at the same time. And if anyone comes over to my corner and asks, “What are you screaming about? Perhaps I’d like to stay and hear your screaming,” my only reply is, “I’m not sure yet. I scream about something new each day.”

It’s a pickle.

*This might not be the case in the 2010s/2020s, but I came up in the heady early Facebook days when we added every person we’d ever so much as passed in a hallway. And then, eventually, our parents and grandparents got on too.

**Your mileage may vary.

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