I’ve been having trouble again, lately. I haven’t painted anything new in two months. I have self-censored certain blog posts & tweets. I have been working furiously toward writing a novel that is closer to what the market accepts than to what I want to create. I even asked an author directly whether he’d prefer me to not write a review of his book, rather than to post an honest (2-star) review, rather than just posting it. It’s all symptomatic of the same feeling of being oppressed. Restricted. That there’s a certain way things are to be done, certain things that are allowed to be said, certain reasons for creating art, certain formulas for constructing fiction, and that it is wrong of me to be myself in any way that contradicts these certainties. That it would be inappropriate for me to be honest, because that simply isn’t the way things are done. This feeling has been building up, bubbling up, boiling up within me more and more, lately.
It boiled over a little, today. I probably alienated a lot of folks on Twitter, and in the Phoenix Twitter community. I allowed myself to sink to the low level of discourse that had upset me so much when the other person had used it. This, I believe, stems from my old tool/habit of trying to be a mirror for people – to reflect back to them who and what they are representing themselves as, to show them what their behaviour looks like and feels like from the outside. Until the person’s cadre of friends popped out of the woodwork to defend her and to attack me and I found myself trying to explain what I was doing, I wasn’t even aware that I’d been doing it. Until it had been going on for long enough that I could feel heat radiating off my body, I didn’t realise I was reacting in anger.
A few seconds later, I also realised that I hadn’t had as engaging a conversation on Twitter, or anywhere near as many responses (and from so many different people!) in response to anything I’ve had to say recently. I thought back, and the last time such a conversation took place, it too was an argument. This went directly into a line of thought that I’d been puzzling over for quite a while, actually: My blog, my online journal, this site you’re reading now… I don’t get many comments. Usually none. Even years ago, when I had a dedicated daily readership in the thousands (I think I peaked somewhere around 5-6k daily unique visitors, somewhere around 2003), I didn’t get many comments. After today’s trouble, it occurs to me that the only posts I’ve ever had that had long conversations in comments, lots of engaging responses, even other people blogging about the topic, sometimes calling me at home about it … were the posts where I said things that people didn’t want to hear. The posts where I said something that wasn’t popular, or that wasn’t polite, or that people could get angry about. When I am uncontroversial, when I am polite, when I don’t use harsh language, when I don’t state any personal opinions, when I am uncritical, I do not engage. Apparently.
If I have learned anything from social media, from ‘blogging’ for a decade, from mySpace and facebook and Twitter (and Pownce and so on…) and from forums before those, and from Bulletin Board Systems before those, it’s that the only thing that really gets people engaged is to be inflammatory.
Which is ridiculous. And terrible. And obvious, if you’ve ever bothered to scroll past an article online to read the comments section. But still terrible.
Across all media, including social media, people seem to increasingly be building communities of like-minded individuals where they can all agree with each other and talk about how wrong anyone not inside their echo chamber is. It’s painfully obvious on talk radio, and in heavily moderated forums. It’s also obvious where people from different little echo chambers meet (ie: in the comments section of your local newspaper’s site) in the ways they so totally fail to communicate. I believe that this is intentional, this polarization, this updated-version-of-nationalism focused on some subset of ideas rather than on location, in order to build engaged communities. Talk radio hosts want engaged audiences so they can sell advertising. Cable news networks want engaged audiences for the same reason. Most major media have been doing it for a long time, and when people -already polarized- got online, they just built what they were used to. Now the only way they know how to engage, is to get enraged. (Or to try to get others enraged.)
Except… I don’t want to enrage people, I don’t want to have to say something inflammatory to be heard. As I wrote on Twitter earlier: I dislike it when people don’t bother to read or react to a thing I write until it’s something that they don’t like. I don’t like that the only uses many people have for the internet is their echo chambers and attacking/arguing-with people.
I’m not usually a rude or angry person. On the other hand, traditionally I do what I’m complaining about here, to a certain degree: I have a long tradition of simply avoiding people I don’t like. Now, understand that this isn’t “people I disagree with” -I’m all for disagreement and intelligent discourse- it’s people I don’t like. It’s people who engage in “drama” (in that high-school-like, he-said/she-said, petty, retaliatory, ridiculous way). It’s mean people, people who are knowingly and intentionally cruel and mean-spirited for no reason at all, often without being aware of it. It’s willfully ignorant people. These people (and I’m sure others, in this vein) are who I tend to try to avoid. Traditionally, when I learn that a person is like that, I just avoid them, ignore them, whatever is necessary not to be infected by their bilious nature. And traditionally, this has assisted me in not being a particularly angry person, and in not having anyone worth being rude to.
But I have changed my behaviour. In some twisted idea that being more inclusive will somehow help me – that by not ruling people out and avoiding them, I might have contact with more people and thus potentially have a larger “audience”… More people who might, potentially, appreciate my art, my books, and my other creations. That was the theory – that by casting a larger net and by drawing from a larger pool, I might discover more people who wanted to engage with me and with my creations. This was incorrect. This was a flawed idea. It’s like the idea that I so-readily accepted before: That the people who don’t want to think, and that people who don’t like to read aren’t the “target audience” for my books and I shouldn’t try to sell to them. Those people, the mean-spirited, the drama-engaging, the willfully-ignorant, et cetera, are not -and should not be- in the “target audience” of people that I want to engage with in any meaningful way. All engaging with them does is harm me – far more than avoiding them altogether does. Those people were never going to have a meaningful conversation with me, they weren’t going to think critically about what I was trying to accomplish with the anti-narrative structure of Forget What You Can’t Remember, they were never going to invest themselves meaningfully in the appreciation of my art – which is what I’m really looking for, not mere sales. I shouldn’t change my behaviour to try to ‘play nice’ with these people.
I also don’t feel like I should have to change myself, change what I paint, why I paint, what I write, and how I represent myself online just to avoid crossing some other person‘s idea of how I ought to behave. I don’t feel I should have to build an echo chamber around myself, or have to be inflammatory, to build an audience. I want to be honest. I don’t want to hold back, or to limit myself to conventional norms. I want to be myself, follow my passions, my ideas, and my art wherever it takes me. I’d been re-reaching this point, and realizing that I didn’t want to be self-censoring, in the last few days, which I’m sure also contributed to my brutal honesty and possibly-rude comments in response to another rude person’s rude comment. I don’t want to have to keep going through this honest->censored->honest cycle, but it the world insists on censorship, and it’s so hard to resist.
I don’t want to have to worry about alienating my “audience” or about “losing followers” (who gives a damn?), especially if what they’re upset about is that I said that a mean-spirited person was mean-spirited, and that I don’t want to be near them. The people who actually engage with me probably also don’t like mean-spirited people or -at least- understand why I wouldn’t.
Update: Some people have interpreted parts of this post as my saying that I was intentionally picking a fight to get attention. It was not my intention to give you that idea, and it was not my intention to 1) pick a fight or 2) get this kind of attention. If that’s what you think, you may fall into another category of people I try to avoid as much as possible: Stupid people. I don’t like fighting, or confrontation generally. I thought that was clear in my post. I don’t like getting attention by being controversial. I don’t want to be controversial for the sake of attention. If I do or say something that causes a controversy, it’s because I wanted to do it or say it, not because I was interested in controversy.