The older I get, the more I see myself in context. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Internet fifteen years ago, before it became a thing that everyone did, back when I was a strange kid because I spent all my time glued to a screen. What I remember most is the anonymity — the easy, expected, natural anonymity — and the ability to play with identity, both around the general Internet and in online games.
You still have some of that anonymous identity-playing, especially in gaming, but it’s not the norm anymore. Using a fake name on Facebook or Google+ actually violates their Terms of Service. People increasingly tell me that it’s “weird” for me not to post a photograph of myself on my blog. The Real Name Standard is even starting to encroach on gaming: one of the biggest game companies, Blizzard, attempted to require forum users to go by real names in 2010. The backlash forced Blizzard to back down, but a writer in The Guardian suggested that real names on online fora are becoming “necessary.”
Necessary? Really? It’s all so bizarre to me.
Maybe it was inevitable. In “real life,” subcultures where people often go by fake names are considered marginal or at least “weird” — even the relatively non-oppressed and upper-class subcultures like BDSM and Burning Man. When I was younger, I was positive that certain types of stigma would die as the Internet became more popular, because it has become so hard to control the flow of information and there are so many nigh-permanent records of what we do. I thought Internet culture would inevitably influence “real world” culture towards itself. Some of that is happening, but what’s also happening is that “real life” is bringing itself onto the Internet and demanding that Internet denizens behave by “real life” standards.
And little by little, we are.
This has not been un-profitable for people like me. I’ve sold thousands of copies of my books, and I don’t even have a “real” publisher (yet). Social media is birthing jobs that didn’t exist five years ago, and I’m starting to occasionally get paid actual money for consulting. (Shameless self-promotional parenthesis: if you want to hire me for social media, feel free to get in touch. Plus, you can read my free guide to self-publishing here. Part 2 is on its way!)
It’s nice, of course. But it’s an odd feeling. Partly, it’s odd because I’ve always felt uneasy about my knack for marketing, like it makes me somehow impure. I think that unease is shared by a lot of people in my demographic, which is why hip startups always come wrapped in a save-the-world message, and Facebook keeps trying to convince us they’re all about social justice.
(Though we seem to be “growing out of” that, for better or for worse. Google — our cult leader — has long since dropped the “Don’t Be Evil” slogan. Businesspeople want us to believe that information should not be free, that such an idea is irrational, that data is just “an asset like everything else.” And of course I don’t deny that data can be an asset; yet I get so creeped out by aggressively “rational” economists who insist that their paradigm is the truth rather than a truth. I guess everyone does this. A lot of hard-line feminists, my own tribal leaders, demand paradigm dominance too. Could it be that philosophical bright lines are more important in the Internet age? When information is the ascendant currency, paradigms are kingmakers.)
It’s also odd to see us hone social media’s psychological exploitations and profitable feedback loops. When you work in social media, you get used to the new economy of people who are paid to create viral content, who are then paid to distribute it, and sometimes even paid to read it before they go back to the drawing board to create yet another top-5 list. I recently discovered a Facebook app that allows you to automatically “Like” every status a given person posts. (“There is always someone special, who’s status we don’t want to miss to like, and moreover, we want to be the first to like that status.” Grammar errors in original.)
There are so many online games these days that aren’t about narrative or strategy; they’re just snakes eating their own tails. Their parent companies are constantly fine-tuning the program’s psychological tricks to keep people clicking endlessly on shiny buttons. One of my acquaintances in game design calls players of these games “victims.” Another friend is making a webseries based on the time she was paid to write fake blogs. And another friend recently told me: “I always wanted to throw a protest with no cause. Just have a bunch of people holding signs that say ‘no’ standing outside buildings, and then build a campaign around it.”
“I wonder how long it would take the audience to figure out that there was no issue,” I said. “I bet we could get a good 10k Twitter followers before they noticed. You wouldn’t even need the people standing outside the buildings with the signs.”
That’s not the oddest thing, though. (I wasn’t there to see other media revolutions, but I know all media has always been similarly co-opted. Plus, it’s not like the data revolution is limited to the Internet; Target now knows you’re pregnant before you do, so as to better sell you things for babykins.)
For me, personally, the oddest thing is how the ascendance of geek culture makes me feel like a stranger in a strange land.
I actually meet people in the “real world” nowadays who insist on proving their knowledge about Dungeons and Dragons, or who accuse me of overplaying my geek cred, like I have great incentive to fake a history of being miserably awkward in public school. When did the leaders of software companies become international celebrities, panted after by the paparazzi? When did geek culture start regularly getting multimillion-dollar film deals, and regularly dominating the Oscars?
The other day, I went to the park with some friends and noticed a clean brushed-steel sculpture of pi, which I swear wasn’t there a year ago. A quick search revealed that there’s been a surprising number of awesome pi sculptures created in the last decade or so. It reminds me of the techier Burning Man art, the engineered stainless-steel feel of it: this mathematical programmer-influenced geek art that is becoming High Culture as we watch. One of my many friends at San Francisco startups told me recently that his boss met the head curator of the Museum of Modern Art on vacation, and she wants to make an exhibit about his website’s design.
When my friends and I got back from the pi sculpture and the park, we walked into my living room and found a gentleman who’s getting his Masters from divinity school. He was declaiming about the lives of the saints. Historically, saints have often been individuals who created their own “brand identities” and built followings among the populace. Locals had the choice between seeking guidance from a person who had local holy status or a representative of the official Church. If a holy individual had personality and ideas that fit with the Church, then they stood a good chance of being canonized (often only after they died, since death converted them from a potentially-unruly live human into an easy-to-control icon).
“Saints were like startups,” said this gentleman. “They got acquired, and the Church was like Google.”
These are our ideals and our metaphors. We’re making a whole new religion.
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I’ve never had much patience for doomsaying about how the Internet Will Warp Our Brains. People have always liked to make up reasons why new media forms are bad for you; they said it about novels in the 1800s, and about TV in the 1900s. In my teens, my mother would scream at me about the time I spent online, and say she was worried. It took years to convince her that online communities were helping me stay sane. I don’t think she calmed down fully until I got my first job in new media. (P.S.: I’m pretty sure she now spends more time on Facebook than I do.)
I still think people are usually wrong when they speak of the Horrors of New Media. But not always. I’m far more open to the critiques when they come from my siblings of the Internet tribe, people who can talk with reasonable nuance about both positives and negatives of “virtual” culture — such as this guy, who compared Twitter to an “intellectual auto-immune disorder” and thereby cracked me up.
I’m trying to write this, now, less as a critique or diatribe, and more as a description of the slight bemusement I feel about this cultural moment. (I don’t like writing diatribes. They make me feel a little sick the morning after, like I ate too many low-quality sweets. I can’t help knowing that my distaste for them makes me less marketable.)
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with new media, exactly. It’s just strange, that’s all: strange that an age of the imaginary could yet be hard on dreamers.
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I admit that I’ve been sucked into the Geek Ascendance. My geek chic is real, I swear — but sometimes I’m sure I overplay it. And there is something so compelling about all these shiny buttons, the get-rich-quick fool’s gold that we’re seeing more and more often around social media spheres.
Two years ago, a friend asked if I was going to the South By Southwest Interactive media convention. I said no, and added (somewhat arrogantly) that I didn’t see much point in a “social media strategy” (I emphasized the air quotes). I said I was doing just fine writing awesomely and getting readers through my awesomeness. Then the next year I was invited to be on a panel at SXSWi 2012, and I went, and spoke, and met lots of people in social media, and realized that I was already better at social media strategy than many people I was meeting.
Somehow this knowledge was not enough to protect me from getting drawn into the vapid vortex of 10-step “how to do social media” articles; feeling epically anxious about my marketability. I started worrying about my Twitter followers and stressing about traffic numbers in ways that I never have before. Some say that social media usage correlates both with narcissism and social anxiety. The scholarly evidence is flimsy enough that I won’t bother linking, but I suspect they did those studies because they make such intuitive sense.
For a while I felt the need to keep writing even though I wasn’t sure what I was writing for. Yet I’ve been snapping out of that anxiety recently, especially as I look more at marketing-for-pay. Snapping out of it because I’ve been snapping into an awareness of why I did it in the first place.
Of course my writing is partly sheer narcissism. Of course. We’re in the age of ultimate self-consciousness, perfectly-calibrated personal brands. Designing ourselves for consumption. Besides, show me a semi-successful writer who is not narcissistic, and I will show you a rare spotted owl. On the other hand, as much as I know these things are true, even I am kind of over myself at this point.
Anyway, the real reason I wrote here was to explore ideas, some about social justice and some about myself. In 2008, in a navel-gazing age, a social media age, as a gamer and science fiction reader, using a medium that once assumed anonymity — I created a character to explore sexuality and sex-positive culture; and she does it by telling the audience about herself. I’ve made characters-as-exploration many times before. I daresay I will do it again. I don’t quite think of Clarisse Thorn as different from me, but she is — she has to be — if only because I’ve offered such particular moments and left so many out. (In general, I’m uncertain whether I’m more enraptured by concealment or revelation.)
A person who didn’t like my book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser recently wrote, “I could get passed the author’s personality if she only had some good content,” (grammar error in original). I had to laugh when I read that, because if I hadn’t written Confessions myself, I’d probably hate the main character too. I created her, but I couldn’t always choose who she is.
Miss Clarisse really is a bit of an airhead self-centered child, isn’t she? And her ramblings are so half-baked. Who does she think she’s fooling?
(Sometimes I suspect that I hate my writing the most shortly after I produce it. Perhaps that’s when I’m far enough that I’m no longer the person who wrote it anymore, yet close enough to feel a violent need to differentiate myself.)
In my best writing, I see a glint and elegance of inspiration that has become less common, of late. Bloggers have a life cycle, I’ve noticed. Some never get off the ground. Those of us who gather an audience or community often last about three to five years. Those who last longer tend to reinvent themselves.
I need some time off to figure out how to do that. I’m not sure what place Miss Thorn occupies in who I’d like to be. But I’m not done. I’m just deciding what’s next.
I continue to be available for speaking engagements, if you want to bring me in. You are welcome to get in touch if you want to interview me or ask any particular questions. Of course, I would be really excited if you bought any of my books. (You can even buy signed copies sealed with a kiss!)
I’ve got some projects in progress. I’ll announce those, most likely, in January. I’m writing some articles for other websites; I’ll keep doing that and I’ll announce them on Twitter as they’re published. I will certainly continue to moderate comments around this website and answer as necessary.
I hope you all take care of yourselves through the holidays.
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