My phone shattered while I was trying to make a Reel, because I was despondent about my Instagram engagement. I admit this because I want to tell the truth—because, as has been established, I’m a confessor by nature: Sometimes I’m a person who’s despondent about their Instagram engagement, concerned they’ll never make a dime or write another piece ever again. As a food person, this visual medium has become important, but its ever-shifting goal posts leave those of us who aren’t dedicated “content creators” in the lurch, trying to figure out ways to compete while working as one person whose work isn’t, at least for me, content creation. “I’m a writer!!!” I am screaming, constantly, while I do amateur video editing to feed a hungry demigod. It feels as futile as when I’m cleaning the toilet and wondering when I will ever be able to stop cleaning the toilet, considering I am an intellectual. The answer is never, and the Reels will go on. Until the next new algorithmic demigod emerges.
Two weeks without a phone were a cleansing, one that brought me back to looking outward: I returned to my camera and finally brought my 35mm back to San Juan from a closet on Long Island, where it had been languishing for nearly two decades. I am actually annoyed that I bought another iPhone and had been threatening to go to a flip phone during this period, though I realize that would fuck me on work. I have to make calls to other countries through WhatsApp; I have to take calls, period. Right now, I’m editing this piece at the dog park.
But I have to admit now fully that the phone is a detriment to my thinking, to my feeling and being. I felt so free leaving the house without it. I remembered a friend telling me in the mid-’00s when I had a Sidekick II in college that it was “vain and unnecessary.” He was being a dickbag philosophy major—and he was also right! I’m trying to use this vain and unnecessary tool for good rather than evil, controlling the apps that I allow and all that. It’s going ok.
It’s probably not shocking that competing in the online economy is something that makes me feel terrible. I’m a natural poster, of course, who’s spent more than half her life online, but organic sharing is different from what we’re now involved in—that I’m involved in, by the nature of what I do.
Now I worry that if people don’t want to take photos of me in my apartment for a brand or ask me to do a “paid partnership,” that I’m irrelevant, rather than it being clear from my work that I’m not going to do those things. As I recently recalled, I am not getting press trip invites likely because the last time I went on one, I wrote about throwing up (it’s a funny essay that got listed as notable in Best American Travel Writing). The only thing I can sell is myself!
Even so, I still feel anxiety about whether I’m performing well, even though what I want to do is write essays, take photographs, talk to people for my podcast—which I think of as a curated conversation series—and write recipes encouraging people to cook with fewer animal products. And that is what I do.
But social media is how I make sure people see all of it, and that’s been made increasingly difficult thanks to algorithms and people’s real openness to the influencer economy. While I find people who post graphics quoting themselves or do self-aggrandizing videos unpleasant, I understand why they’re doing it. I also understand that I’m 36 years old and I have more, frankly, punk recollections of an earlier internet (likely apocryphal). There seems to be no need for coherence in people’s “brands” now: I recently unfollowed someone for purporting to be about a “sustainable” lifestyle while doing paid sponsorships with extremely non-sustainable corporations. I’ve been getting press releases for Earth Day about various “greenfluencers”—why?
I need to read the book Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy by Symeon Brown, about which I’ve been reading and seeing quite a bit from journalists I follow in the UK. Between his book and work by Rachel Connolly, Isabel Slone, and Sarah Manavis, we are finally seeing a groundswell of critique of what, exactly, the influencer is and what impact this concept is having on culture. Especially when it comes to social justice, which is used as a way of branding. As Brown said to Manavis in The New Statesman, “social media becomes essentially sentient, laissez-fair individualism – sentient neoliberalism.”
In a piece for Gawker, Jason Okundaye wrote about “things that sound true,” which is why I’m constantly posting and debunking people’s “true-enough sounding” slideshows about the terrible vegans, who are at most 1 percent of the global population. The combination of personal branding, ability to say basically anything regardless of whether it’s true, and money-making foment into absolute toxicity. Lies for clout on the basis of a squishy progressivism. Brown again:
These influencers have managed to divorce activism from collective action and turned it into self-serving individual branding. Their end goal is not social change that benefits others, but a cheque, and if possible, a cult-like following they can also cash in on.
Social media has allowed people the mainstream would gatekeep out of their precious worlds a way to find their audience and to make money. This is a useful tool of insurrection via images. But we have to question what it means when new faces, new bodies, new politics always seem to come with the same type of selling, the same type of pursuit of consumption. (I think Aja Barber is particularly successful because she is transparent and actively rejects this.) I just want to know why everyone is so ok with aligning themselves with brands as well as political projects they’ve only just become aware of! These seem like two parts of the same problem.
My husband, dog, and I were supporting a Ukrainian neighbor recently and ended up in a viral video, leading people to ask whether we’re pro-NATO, showing just how easily real-life context—supporting a neighbor whose family is in a war zone—is removed on social media, where people expect an odd political purity that simply doesn’t translate into real-world living. My general stance is anti-war, anti-imperialism, and I’m consistently horrified by the non-verified propaganda people will share in the name of seeming engaged with the crisis du jour. I’m also horrified that basic human engagement can be so easily viewed in the least charitable manner.
I have moments of freak-out because I’m posting too many songs and book passages rather than calls to… do what? Be aware? The same impulse that has me shattering my phone to make a Reel has me potentially posting compromising slideshows that will make me look foolish later. “Remember the real world,” is something I apparently have to remind myself.
While I’m a person who spouts off my opinion quite a bit here, the imperatives on social media are different, and I must actively work to refuse, even amid global crises, to lean on easy shit, to share things I will ultimately regret sharing simply to appear engaged when I think it’s pretty clear by my work that I am engaged in the world. I must actively work to refuse to do things that I hate for attention, like make Reels when I don’t feel like it (sometimes, sure, it’s fun to work in a new style). I have to remember how good it felt to be away from all of this shit, to only access it at home on wifi when I was making a conscious choice. I am still carrying my camera. I am still trying to keep my focus outward, on what I can see with my own eyes, touch with my own hands, discuss with my own mouth.
Last Wednesday’s podcast featured Sandor Katz, fermentation revivalist and author of many books on the subject. This Wednesday will feature Eric Kim, author of Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home (out on March 29) and New York Times “Cooking” writer. He is the creator of the gochujang glaze that I now make every week. We talked about his cookbook process, literary studies background, and why we love Nigella Lawson. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or adjust your settings to receive an email when it’s out.
Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will continue the pantry guide, with a list of all my favorite kitchen tools (spoiler: a tofu press is not one of them). See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
For Everpress, I wrote about why I love neighborhood restaurants and (surprise) social media aesthetics. It was a fun piece to write and think about!
I’ve actually had to watch a lot of TV that isn’t out yet for work, so my reading has been put on the backburner. I’m not proud of this! I’ll be back with more books next week.
Above, a farinata, one of the dishes I discussed in my weekday meal guide.