On Online

A meta note to start 2021.

A widely shared Instagram text post asked me, “Do angry women make you uncomfortable?” I thought it was funny, because hours earlier, another had told me to never accept anger from a man. I’ve experienced anger from humans of a range of genders: it’s always been scary. It’s what happens afterwards that counts. Who apologizes, who goes to therapy, who continues to flip a fucking shit and never see an issue with their behavior.

On someone else’s Instagram, no doubt, the stories were telling a different tale: maybe one of religious subjugation, maybe one of transphobia or white supremacy, maybe one of fatphobia. My curation means I am flooded with ten-point plans for decolonizing [insert noun here] and self-flagellation by anyone who expresses an opinion that might “center” themselves on their own account. Sometimes there’s a ten-slide text-blocked Canva slideshow that feels suspicious not to share, despite any reservations one might have about its content and lack of truly traceable sourcing. No matter: that’s a reactionary mindset that privileges expertise gained in an unequal society.

And it’s true, and I don’t want to privilege the kind of sanctioned expertise gained in an unequal society. I draw my insight and inspiration from every damn thing. But I also do not want to present my thoughts as definitive. They’re not! But the authoritative tone of Instagram Information™ gives me pause, because it wants to be understood as definitive, as a guideline for behavior—online and off. I can’t work with that, and I can’t work like that. And, to point out the obvious, Instagram is a dangerous venue for information-sharing because it doesn’t allow links. 

My hesitation around how information spreads on Instagram meant I didn’t accept a challenge to post a black and white picture of myself despite invitation. It’s why I never posted a black square. Both things that were revealed within hours to be well-intentioned but poorly executed and appropriative. Media literacy isn’t taught in the U.S., and it shows. Social media literacy is even less fluent, apparently. I, of course, share some text posts when they say something I believe. But I shouldn’t! Because I don’t know shit about the source. Often, it’s a lot of language that sounds radical, sounds true—but would it pass muster if it weren’t presented in a pretty square? Would it read as credible if it were not being shared widely, making one’s own share of it feel obligatory? Would it stand up to fact-checking, basically? And shouldn’t we on the left care about such things, especially when the right does not?

While off Twitter for a month, I realized how much people share tweets on Instagram, and often they’re chiding people or telling them what to do—even if they’re being told not to feel bad about something. All of it is dizzying, especially because you can often face behavioral decree whiplash, as when I saw two posts in one day about accepting or rejecting anger based on gender, when I personally despise anger as expressed by anyone. I also personally despise being policed incessantly about what I may or may not think, what I may or may not do. I have been policed enough physically while living in Puerto Rico during this pandemic.

This obsession with everyone’s thoughts and behavior seems to suggest a desire for a moral code, a desire for certainty in an uncertain world, and when I have asked readers (or followers, who are generally not one and the same) to tell me what they want from me as a writer, more often than not it’s help with fighting the ills I point out all the time: capitalism, extractive consumption. I hope I haven’t given the perspective that I have these things figured out for myself. I do not. We are all subject to them, and we all must do our best. When we aren’t the millionaires and billionaires, the answers are always pretty complicated. People also want me to post more “commentary” or recipes on Instagram, when those are the things I publish in this newsletter or in other publications. People using Instagram as an outlet for everything has made others believe, somehow, that it is an outlet for everything. Some people seem to make a living out of it. All I see it as is a place to post pictures and share with people.

Maybe it’s because I’m 35 and started using the internet in the mid-’90s and started personal “blogging” in the early ’00s. This was when it was an exploratory place where you weren’t confined to the realities and assumptions of your corporeal form, and nor was your online identity supposed to be the entirety of your existence or the total expression of your self, experience, politics. There was a place for that, and it was in your lived experience and had better venues in art, journalism, and other longer modes of expression.

Why now do we expect our whole selves to be mitigated through a screen—no, through one app? Friends with far fewer followers than I have tell me they feel hesitation about posting because they don’t know if they’ve ticked all the boxes, if the comments will be hostile or demand further information (even simply “Recipe?” can cause anxiety). There seems to be an informal decree to no longer let people exist on social media as they want to exist: Instead, constant explanation and information is demanded. (See: Chrissy Teigen’s New Year’s resolution.) Every post is regarded as a categorical imperative rather than one person’s perspective or an invitation to conversation. This has happened, continues to happen, with art, where one simply can’t read or look at or watch a work that doesn’t adhere perfectly to one’s worldview. It’s a perspective that wants everything to be everything all the time. Who can live like that?

(Tellingly, this has no significant correlation to how food functions on social media. As I’ve written about before, the populist backlash to the Michael Pollans and Alice Waterses of the world means most food writers post tons of steak, chicken, shrimp, pork, etc., without noting where it came from or why that might be important considering the heavy toll industrial animal agriculture is taking on the planet—indeed, its very role in this pandemic we are suffering through.)

At first, the internet was where I found other people like me, people I hadn’t yet found in real life. They were on Diaryland and LiveJournal, being honest about what was going on in their lives and tooling around with HTML and CSS. Usually we liked the same music. We exchanged images of different artists, when images were hard to find. It was a place of solace. Now I can’t tweet a damn thing without someone I don’t know, who doesn’t know me, saying something in reply that mocks me, insults me, suggests total lack of awareness of the circumstances of my life, etc., etc. It’s not the place it once was, where we were vulnerable, honest, and seeking connection. Now, it feels like we are only seeking righteousness and/or a perfect aesthetic. It’s boring. I’m not the first to point this out.

If you’ve read How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell you know how she likens the capitalist destruction of ecology to the decimation of our attention by social media demands to produce, look successful, look busy, look correctly engaged. “The stakes for playing along,” she writes, “are growing.” I play along. I need your attention. I need to convert your attention to money. That’s how I survive, in a very real way.

I write personally, of course, but I never could have fathomed how much it would affect me, affect my performance of myself, to know all these virtual eyeballs are on me. I have become someone on social media somewhat unrecognizable, I’m sure, to those who actually know me in the flesh, who’ve seen me sad, happy, drunk, in a rage. By necessity, I’ve become a two-dimensional version of myself—all farmers’ market and martinis. That’s an odd feeling. I don’t really know how to go backwards, to make that self more true to life again. If it ever was.

Of course, social media is a powerful tool for community support, for spreading knowledge, for inciting protest, but what are we expecting from those we follow? Because I came up online so long ago, I expect pretty little. I follow people with politics and interests similar to mine, and I never expect them to post anything about anything. If I assume they don’t eat oysters, I will simply say to myself “I was wrong” when they post oysters (to use an example of something I’ve done that’s upset people). If I thought a restaurant was vegetarian and then they post some fried chicken, I will say to myself, “I was wrong” (to use an example I just experienced). I do not put the mistake of my assumptions to the person, the restaurant, because it’s not my business. No matter how many followers a person has, they are a person, and your bullshit comment might make them not sleep, be mean to their partner, distract them during dinner. Is that the intention? What is your purpose when you do that, if you do? I have my own history of subtweeting—it’s a sick compulsion. If shit isn’t personal, if shit isn’t actively evil, it isn’t your business. Instead of getting angry on social media, I’ve tried to use those feelings to inspire actual work.

I wanted to start the year with this because I want to be clear about who I am and my online boundaries. Nearly 10,100 people have signed up for this newsletter. Over 14,000 follow me on Twitter. 10,100 on Instagram. I don’t really understand what this actually means about my audience or perception of me; I don’t think I want to, though I’m of course appreciative of the attention. (W did refer to me recently as a “popular food writer,” which was nice because it felt definitive and I’m wanting for definition.) I don’t think it would be healthy to know, and while the input I’ve gotten from so many strangers over the last several months has mainly been positive, when it isn’t, it drains me completely. We’re simply not built, as humans, to know so much about what other people think about us. I decided to be a writer, though. I’ll learn how to deal with it.

But I want to make it clear that that is what I am—a writer—and my work isn’t my social media output. If you want to understand me better, please read what I have written. If you want to know my politics, please read what I have written. I am not performing my totality on social media. No one is; no one should. What should we expect from people we follow? That they act like people, and we respond in kind.

I’m going to do a public thread on Wednesday about how people are approaching social media in 2021, what are our anxieties, etc. I’d also love to ask paid subscribers if making threads monthly rather than weekly and make them a bit more open rather than a specific question. Please comment or write me if you have thoughts!

On Friday, the paid-subscriber interview will feature Dirt Candy chef-owner Amanda Cohen on how gender still impacts perception of chefs, cooking vegetables before it was cool, and the effects of the pandemic on the restaurant industry.

A lot of stuff went up while I was off Twitter and not writing this newsletter, but honestly I can’t be bothered to go find it all—if you’ve been following me on Instagram, you’ve seen it!

I’ve been reading Committed: A Love Story by everyone’s least favorite, Elizabeth Gilbert, because I got engaged. I’m also finally into the Outline series by Rachel Cusk.

Nothing exciting, honestly. Or, more honestly, I haven’t been paying attention to what I’ve been cooking when I’ve not had to document it here. Up there is candied ginger!