From the Desk Recommends... Establishing Our Limits
Autonomy in the age of algorithms. Plus, a book giveaway and playlist for paid subscribers.
I recommend setting limits on social media and putting one’s phone on do not disturb (with exceptions, of course, for those we’d list as emergency contacts). I’m new to it, but it’s already given me back my brain: I can focus again; my ideas are sharper; I’m reading the news and magazines with renewed interest; my mind is spontaneous; I’m far less irritated by people I will never meet in real life or have any sort of pleasant interaction with; I’m not plagued by existential concern for why people would be so upset about Oscar nominations.
I’m writing my second book, and that was the impetus for putting these parameters in place. Yet it’s taken on even more importance with a renewed cultural concern with what writers are going to do with themselves as the media burns down in a whole new way. The notion of the writer-influencer isn’t new; it’s as old as the notion of the writer, yet of course it’s taken on new weight in recent years: Allegra Hobbs wrote a great piece on the concept for The Guardian in 2019. Last week, The Verge published a piece on fiction-writing AI and Vox covered self-promotion: Both of these pieces grapple with the demands of churning out a ton quick-moving content at a breakneck pace that cannot support actual human creativity. (They both reminded me of when I was looking up tutorials on Scrivener, the word processor I use for long-form projects, and a YouTube caption said the maker had used the program for “37 out of 40 books” he’d written in a decade. I’m sure they were not all masterpieces…)
I’ve felt increasingly concerned by the amount of self one is expected to perform on social media, and for a general audience that has no context for one’s work or life. People’s projections, assumptions, and willful misinterpretations can be disorienting and unsettling. While creativity demands a certain lack of concern for one’s audience—see, music producer Rick Rubin talking about this; see, this line in Dodie Bellamy’s essay “The Pink Place” from Bee Reaved: “…advice my mentor Bruce Boone gave me back in the ’80s: ‘Writing is an SM relationship between the writer and the reader, and you, Dodie, as writer, need to learn to be the top’—the algorithms and output expectations of late capitalism demand the opposite. Your value is in what you offer your audience: Are you educating or entertaining? Are you building community? I hope I’m doing all of the above, in the aggregate, but I have no interest in spelling it all out. I’m a writer, darling!
Of course, I’m lucky: I’ve established myself, to an extent; if I’m not rolling in dough, it’s because I decided to be a writer to begin with—and we can talk for ages about why my first magazine work as a copy editor fostered massive resentment within me of who does get to write, ensuring I had to prove my ability to pay rent on my words, just not today; for now, let this 2015 New Republic review of longtime New Yorker copy chief Mary Norris’s book suffice—and I’ve put a lot of restrictions on what I’ll do with whatever cultural capital I’ve been allotted. (Write a profile of a supermodel, yes, duh; shill for a big box store’s cookware, no.)
But exercising autonomy around these apps and inputs opens up the possibility of using them for what they’re good for and getting what we want out of them in return. I love chit-chatting on Instagram DMs and sharing little insights or visuals from my days; it’s healthier if I only allow myself to do that in controlled bursts. I want to know what people are up to on TikTok; it’s too easy to never stop scrolling and fall prey to silly outrage or nonsense desires for new makeup (personally speaking… the Milk jelly sticks…) if I don’t have a time limit. I’d rather read the news, magazines, and newsletters; I’d rather have my childhood level of concentration back for focus on books, considering my job.
If I sound like an old curmudgeon, please know it’s coming from lived experience: I just need limits. I can’t do my work well without them.
I feel similarly about newsletters: I have learned how to use mine for what I want to do and not force myself to perform the same ways others do out of a false competitive urge. A competitive edge comes from differentiation. We’ve maybe forgotten that as algorithms have foisted sameness upon us, making it hard to find ourselves in the forest of others posting, posting, posting. GET READY WITH ME! we might feel compelled to scream into the void. COME WITH ME AS I GO TO THE AIRPORT! WATCH ME AS I EXIST TO BE SEEN EXISTING! HERE IS MY ENTRY INTO THE T*YLOR SW*FT ESSAY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!
The slowness I’ve forced upon myself—when it comes to how many essays I’m writing per year, how much I can use social media—has brought my brain back from the brink, to a place where I am excited and invigorated to be myself. If we’re all being forced to be “creators” in an “attention economy,” let our attention and creations at least come from how we each are really living our lives and not the content ouroboros.
Onward with this month’s recommendations of essays, podcasts, and more… Plus, a poll to determine when to have a Zoom for The Desk Book Club; a book giveaway; and my January 2024 playlist.