054. Elon's Not the Problem. We Are.
The fact that you love to read means you have the skills to use the interwebs more effectively--what are you waiting for?
This current ruckus about Elon Musk, Twitter, censorship, disinformation, bias, online influencers and the ‘public square’ has got me thinking about the first time that something I wrote went viral. It was in 2010, it was a piece about the end of my marriage for Salon, and it kicked off a pretty significant, for me anyway, online shitstorm.
In those days, the best way to get a book deal in the creative nonfiction/memoir category was to get in to the New York Times “Modern Love” column. It was the period of time just after an unknown writer could get a book deal by blogging (e.g. The Julie/Julia Project) and right before an unknown writer could get a book deal by tweeting (e.g. Sh*t My Dad Says). The writing form for “Modern Love” was very clear: 750 words, a hook, a description of a challenge or ‘conflict’ that was broadly about love in one way or another, a plot twist that revealed an opportunity for personal growth on the part of the writer, and a resolution of the conflict caused by the plot twist. It’s a good form for online personal narrative—a short version of the tried-and-true storytelling template, the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, and it still works for many media outlets.
The key to getting picked up was to get your hook pinned to a timely topic—something that would drive media clicks online. This was when the topics still came from something in print media or a press release or a news event that happened in real life as opposed to getting created on social media and then reified in real life. It was a bit like surfing. As a writer you would see a culture topic start to trend in the blogsphere via your Google reader in the same way you see a wave start to swell. Once you saw it coming, you could pin the opening paragraph of something you were working on to the incoming topic and more easily pitch it to editors—ride the wave, as it were. In some ways the process is still true today, except that the cadence is something like 12 - 24 hours instead of one to two weeks.
So, for awhile, I wrote a lot of essays in this form. And, in the case of the Salon essay, it was a really simple hook—the movie “Dear John” was coming out in theaters, and I had a story about a “dear John” letter that I had written. The movie is a romantic drama about a soldier and a college student who fall in love through the medium of letter writing. The piece I wrote was about the complexity of ending a marriage to a soldier. When I sent it to Salon it was called “On Leaving a Soldier,” but by the time it was published it was called, “How to Leave a Soldier.” As you might expect, the revised title made it significantly more clickable, which is probably why it went viral. In the end, a whole lot of people read it and plenty of them liked it. I got a lot of heartfelt letters from soldiers, divorced people, married people who were struggling, and others who resonated with my story.
I also got a hell of a lot of hate mail from people who felt the piece was an outrageous piece of selfishness written by someone who deserved to be tortured and killed.
I’m not exaggerating about this last bit. You can read the piece here, but you can’t see the comments anymore, which is probably a blessing because there were a couple of hundred comments made by people whom I have never met about how I should be hunted down and murdered for what I had done to a soldier. I also got about a hundred emails and dozens of comments on my blog along these same lines. It was violent, explicit, misogynist, hateful vitriol and it went on for about a week.
And, because the commenting, pro and con, went on for awhile, the piece stayed at the top of the most read column on Salon and even more people saw it, which was over all, good for my name as a writer and generally good for the longevity and reach of the piece.
I share this story because it is illustrative of the fact that the internet is a volatile and tricky beast, full of blessings and curses, and as such is a good object lesson for something that I think maybe a whole bunch of people have forgotten: we are not victims of the internet. We are grown-up adults who need to use our grown-up skills to manage how we engage with it. Yes, there are large-scale systemic changes that need to happen in technology companies that are, in my opinion, unregulated public utilities, but there are plenty of things we can and should do as ordinary human beings right now to make things better.
And one of the most important ones is the thing you are doing right now—reading. Just that. Actually reading—not scrolling, not skimming, not RT-ing— reading.
We can debate whether or not we need more of Elon or less Elon, or more content moderation or less content moderation and get nowhere while the world burns—or we can focus in on something that we can actually control: our plain old fashioned reading and thinking skills.
Which you are already in possession of, or you wouldn’t be reading a long-form Substack newsletter. That’s the good news.
Here are three things that I have learned from using the internet as a writer that you as a reader can also use—and all of them are things you can do right now, today.
Realize that the internet is not safe, never will be safe, and is addictive by design. Lately, it has sort of seemed as though a lot of people believe that the internet is a human right. Somehow, we skipped over food, shelter and healthcare as human rights and are now focusing on the idea that we are all entitled to having a safe, filtered, perfectly equitable and objectively true internet experience, delivered by either the government or the company that made the internet. I am here to tell you today that this is never going to be a thing.
You wouldn’t let yourself drink tequila shots all day long, starting the moment you wake up, why do you let yourself scroll social media all day? Using the internet is not akin healthy things like drinking water or getting 10,000 steps and no amount of comment moderation will make it into such a thing. It is instead a powerful tool that requires discernment and skill to use. Much like you put on a helmet to ride your bike, gloves to prune your rosebush or clean your bathroom, a seatbelt to drive your car, and don’t drive yourself home after you’ve had a double vodka tonic, you have to cultivate safe habits when using the internet.
When my piece was up and getting commented on, I stuck to a core tenet of crisis communications: replying will make it worse. I also only looked at the comments when I was with a friend or family member who could help me keep a sense of perspective. With a supportive person at my side, I could find ways to laugh at even the most horrible comments, including the guys who had figured out from my blog and some few public Facebook posts where I lived and were discussing how to launch a flame thrower at my building. I didn’t only laugh, though. I found a plugin for my blog that hid the geo location details of any photos I posted online, and I stopped being explicit about where I lived in anything else I wrote. I also created a filter for emailed responses and opened the folder only once a day to scan for emails that were supportive of my piece—of which there were many, including one from a producer at American Public Media who offered me an hour long interview slot on Dick Gordon’s “The Story” to tell a fuller, more nuanced version of my story.
Here’s a corollary to this principle. Not only is a safe and anodyne internet not a right, it’s also not your responsibility. You alone cannot protect the world from billions of users and trillions of pieces of data. Being outraged about what happens on the internet is going to hurt you, not help other people. No system, government, software, or any other mechanism will fix the fact that there is a percentage of human beings who are violent and evil. All you can do is tend your own garden. If someone comes into your feeds with violent or ugly comments, you can block them. If you are in a public forum, you can leave the forum.
We can actually choose to vote with our attention. We can block, ignore, mute, hide, and sign-off whenever we choose to. No one (unless you are a paid social media manager) can make you read ugly, abusive, violent feeds or ugly, abusive, violent comments or any other online media that is ugly, abusive and violent. No one can force you to engage with it, which is a good thing because engaging with it always gives it more power. The power that comes from ignoring something is real, and we need to use it.
I didn’t like what happened with the Salon piece, even though it helped to get a chance to tell my story in a longer form on a different medium. It was aversive to have people call me the most vile names you can imagine and articulate the most disgusting and horrible things they were going to do to me when they found me, and so for a long time, I didn’t want to pitch any more personal narrative to online media. This, in turn, inhibited my ability to leverage the viral nature of my piece, even though the story performed well enough to end up in a best of the year anthology collection.
Yet, I don’t actually regret that I backed up a bit back in 2010—I did what I needed to do for myself and my mental health at the time. Writers make conscious tradeoffs like this as a part of what we do. We understand it’s part of our job as writers to figure out if we want to dial up controversy or dial it down, if we want to share vulnerable details from our lives or stick with simple or fictional plot lines, or if we want to write long form academic research or short, evocative opinion pieces and so on. We pick and choose amongst rhetorical forms and audiences and find the places we feel the most comfortable to work in. We aren’t victims of a malevolent internet ecosystem that is being manipulated by the right or the left or the plutocracy or the meritocracy or whatever it is. We are skilled at navigating a multi-variable communication interface.
You don’t have to be a writer to do a version of this kind of cost/benefits analysis for yourself regarding your online habits. In fact, given that we live in an information age, everyone would do well to develop the skill in some small way. You can learn to, for lack of a better adjective, professionalize your experience online. You can understand the risks and figure out how to deliver value to yourself and your audience—whether the audience is your family and friends or a market segment.
Know that there is no such thing as an “objective” source, and therefore you have to read multiple sources. The New York Times is not objective. The Washington Post is not objective. The White House Press Secretary is not objective. Dr. Fauci is not objective. Tucker Carlson is definitely not objective. The CDC is not objective. CNN is not objective. MSNBC is not objective. Volodymr Zelensky is not objective. No one is objective. No one.
Writers, journalists, politicians, press secretaries, and editors bring their point of view to everything they write and say. Good, responsible writers and journalists know this about themselves and their work and will explicitly point out their point of view and its limitations. If space is available they will also sketch the other points of view. If you are reading something online that is being presented as a complete facts then you should immediately question them, and the source. There is no way to get the whole picture on any topic without reading several sources and triangulating the different lenses from which they are presented. This has always been a bit true, and it’s really true now in a time when video and photography can be easily manipulated or even generated with artificial intelligence, when publishing something is possible with the click of a mouse and when news is driven by clicks instead of long-form reporting.
My 750 word story about the end of my marriage, as told to Salon, is not even just ‘my point of view’, it’s just one of many of my points of view. It’s a snippet from a long, painful, painfully ambiguous time, which is what any personal narrative is, especially if it is shorter than Proust’s In Search of Lost Time which clocks in at seven volumes. I did not simply break up with a letter. We had hundreds of conversations before, during and after about how to take care of our kids and each other during an incredibly challenging time. There was, also, a particularly pointed letter. Both of these things are true. My subsequent relationship and life was not as rosy as it is portrayed in this piece either, though it is true that some things worked out, on the whole, pretty well. My anger at the US military industrial complex and how it blasted a hole in my family life during the 1990s is much greater than is portrayed in this piece, but I do support lot of things about military life and I have an especially soft spot in my heart for all soldiers. There are things in this piece that I can now see were hopelessly naive. I can also see some things that I think are courageous.
All stories contain multitudes, just like people do. We have to remember this.
As readers we are capable of knowing the strengths and limits of a 750 word essay, compared to a 5,000 word essay, compared to a book. We are capable of applying context and making connections. We have that skill—or we used to before all we did was scroll. We can get it back.
Read a piece all the way to the end before you judge it. Or don’t read it. But don’t share or comment on pieces that you haven’t read to the end. And don’t judge a person by one single piece of their writing.
Realize that you are in an echo chamber. Yes, you. Lately, it seems like everyone thinks it’s the other people who are in the echo chamber. Friends, we are all in an echo chamber. Social media and search algorithms are designed to put you in an echo chamber and keep you there. Telling yourself that your echo chamber is the right one because it’s telling the truth is straight up delusional. That’s not how the math works. You are seeing more of the things you like because the computational science is making sure of it. Full stop.
Look. Echo chambers are not intrinsically bad. We need safety and connection and like-minded people around us to be happy and healthy—it’s only when we are never, ever exposed to any other points of view that things get out of whack. And being online a lot, especially in the pandemic, has exacerbated this effect on all of us. We have to course correct.
I wrote the Salon piece from within a supportive cocoon of family and friends. My ex-husband—the person about whom I wrote it—knew about it and understood what I was trying to do. My writer friends understood the form I was writing in and understood how headlines work and why the controversial one was better for getting the piece distributed. My regular friends knew me and knew the story. As a result, I was shocked at first by how angry this piece made people. I had forgotten that a lot of people believe that divorce is intrinsically wrong, full stop. I had forgotten that just because someone believes that divorce is sometimes necessary, doesn’t mean they want you to celebrate your choice in an online piece for Salon. I had forgotten that there are people who believe there is no other calling higher than supporting a soldier. To be honest, I am at times very sympathetic to this last one, even though it means I have to see myself as having failed at this, especially now that the harder aspects of being in a military family have faded from my memory.
At the time, I had forgotten that other people would feel differently about my story, and as a writer that was sloppy. A writer’s whole job is to tell stories that delight and create connections between humans, and you can’t do that if you assume everyone thinks exactly like you do. I would tell the same story again—it’s my story—but I wouldn’t be so naive as to assume it would land without impact.
As readers of social and digital media, we can make a point of disrupting our echo chambers for the good of our ability to connect people who are different from us. One thing that I started doing several years ago was make a point of following reputable sources that disagree with me. I did this for the Mueller investigation, the January 6 insurrection, Covid research, the war in Ukraine, and most recently around economic analysis about monopolies, supply chains, and inflation. I look for thought leaders who are politically different than me or who have expertise that I don’t have, and I follow them as a way to crowdsource my own critical thinking skills. Anyone can do this—there’s nothing in any social media outlet that prevents you from searching outside of what is dropped into your feed.
In her preface to Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes
My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: Writers are always selling somebody out.
Here’s the thing. It’s not just writers who do this. We all do this. We are all looking after our best interests in how we represent ourselves all of the time. We present our best photos, our best stories about our kids, and our best career narrative—just to name a few things—in person and online. Even when we are sad or angry, we present the best most appealing version of it. We do this automatically as a means of social survival. It’s become an issue because social media magnifies this tendency a million times over with the power of machine learning. The only difference between writers and everyone else is that writers know that this is what we are doing.
And because we know that we are always looking for a way to put our own best angle on a story, writers are inherently inclined to know that everyone else is doing that, too, and to look for it in what we read and think about. So, take a page from our book and use it to be a much smarter consumer and user of online media—you will feel better and if we all do this, we can, actually, affect online culture.
One more thing. The time for doing this is now. You don’t have to believe me—you can go online and see for yourselves how dire the situation is. We have to do this, and soon. We, as readers, can lead the way. I’m right here with you.
PS: There are lots and lots of resources for private browsing, internet safety, how to check sources, the sociology of social media, the monetization of social media, community and culture building, algorithms, and etc. Please do considering dropping links to anything that has helped you in the comments—if it helped you, it will help another Survival by Book reader. ♥️
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This delightful piece from Jo Petroni on “Primal Architecture,” or why we all need a really good place to nap.
This one from the SBB archive, which is a rambling, multi-topic celebration of reading as intrinsically marvelous. I have made it public, for you to enjoy and share.