I like quiet.
More than I’ve ever liked quiet in my life. My emotions are on the jazz channel right now: calm, peaceful, like Barry Fucking Manilow playing the ukulele in a top hat. Which is maybe actually a Leprechaun. It’s hard to tell, with this cheesy metaphor in my eyes.
I’ve been thinking things about life lately; did you see the NYT article about the influencer who quit influencing because, unlike the 9-5, she said the influencer was the one that had the real chains?
“There’s no comments section in an office job.”
I’ve been thinking about this for the past fifteen hours. Or was it days? Actually, just kidding, it’s been fifteen years. That is not an exaggeration: I’ve been prolifically online for almost that long (is chronically a better word???), and over the last few years, I’ve deeply questioned its effects. I’m sure you saw the news about Dooce, one of the OG bloggers of my era who recently died of suicide. While I don’t mean to imply direct causation, it does make you think: we were the first guinea pigs to BE online. I don’t mean getting on Facebook and posting pictures of a drunk night drinking Bud Lights (RIP 2006); I mean getting on the internet and creating with it. Turning it into your career. Your passion. Your community. Your world.
Beyond a decrepit spinal column, what are the long-term effects?
Two words immediately come to mind: permanent performance. Sometimes even I have to wonder: Am I performing right now? Am I me? Or is this just a performance of me? How do I know? Everything I’ve done for years and years and years and years was designed to be as compelling as possible—that’s the job. You begin to think of yourself as a brand. You need to create that brand. Shape that brand. Package that brand. Embody that brand. You are the brand. It’s the literal definition of a personal brand.
And so, when are you ever just you? When you’re “offline?” But, when is that? And also, if there’s even the slightest hint of mismatch, doesn’t that make you an inauthentic horse wanker? 🐴
This means that you now must be your brand all the time. To everyone. Even people you think are dipshits. Because, you’ve trained yourself to sell yourself. It’s ingrained. You start selling ‘your brand’ on autopilot, making yourself more likable, more fun, more shiny, more BIG. The internet likes big. The bigger your personality, the more impressive you are. Even when you don’t feel like any of those things.
People who are leaders are not allowed to be anything less than larger than life.
I think about whether or not I actually think that’s true. Do I really feel that way? Or am I selling an idea right now? It’s hard to tell.
Something I can tell you this: I am glad I didn’t come up in the influencer era. I’m not an influencer, I’m a blogger, writer, and cantankerous pizza critic, and while sometimes the things you write influence other people, the work is different: it’s more about communicating an idea rather than performing that idea.
There’s that word again. Performance.
And then I think: if even I’ve wrestled with this concept, what will an influencer feel like once they’re fifteen years in? What happens when your whole life is an advertisement? Can you ever really turn it off? Or will you forever be putting on a show?
This is one reason I’ve been digging my heels in when it comes to the way we live and work online.
The internet is a real place we’ve created—but we don’t seem to know how to go there, and ever come back.
Once you are “an online person,” you are no longer a civilian. You exists in a parallel universe. Everything changes. Your career opportunities are different. The way you earn money is different. The way you think about work is different. The way you build a life is different.
You no longer share the same routines, schedules, or collective bonding experiences as anyone else. There is no rush hour traffic. No morning coffee line. No calling in sick. No coworker gossip. There is no boss to fear, no desk to sit at, no office crush, no vacation.
Once five o’clock comes, the evening is different, too. While normal people get to turn off, pick up their kids, and argue with a nine-year-old about a floret of broccoli, the chronically online will still be online—at least, in their heads. There is no mental off button; no clock out, even when you get off the computer. Sure, you can build a schedule with discipline, but it’s the mental boundaries you need to worry about. The nature of being a personal brand means that you will always be thinking, scheming, planning, working: in the shower, while your spouse is telling you about his dying grandfather, when you’re eating mozzarella sticks at your class reunion. This is something that affects all business owners—after all, being in charge of your own destiny is a 24/7 job—but personal brands feel the effects even more: if my company sells tractors, I am able to stop thinking about tractors, because I am not a tractor. But, when you are your work, you cannot leave.
Year after year, I witness the deepening chasm between IRL people—“in real life”—and online people. We’re all living together side-by-side, but we’re experiencing very different realities. (To be frank, sometimes I think this is the real root cause of the intense political tension in America: are you on the internet, or not? Which is really to say: have you grown up learning how to foster community, share and exchange ideas, advocate for the things you care about, and create solutions from scratch…or have you been just watching everyone else, always reacting, judging, complaining, without any real skin in the game?)
Anytime I find myself at an in-person dinner party where somebody asks you what you do for a living and you’re all like “fuck, you’re not gonna understand this at ALL, Bob,” it’s almost like experiencing reverse culture shock. You are now an outsider among your own people. No one understands you or your life. How could they? Your entire experience on earth has been different.
It’s a bit like living in a foreign country: the language is different. The people are different. The values are different. Except, you’re not in a different country. But, you are a part of a very different culture.
And, the internet culture has given us SO MUCH. We’ve gotten to create an all-new digital world we’re proud to be a part of. A world where we fit in. Where we can find like-minded people. Where, for the first time, we can feel understood. And build. And connect. And create.
Yet—being an avatar is different from being a person.
You cannot take a walk barefoot in the grass on your keyboard. Or bask in the sunshine with a fresh summer breeze. Or hug your mom. Or blow on dandelions. Or know what it feels like to marvel at something.
Of course spending your life immersed in 15 inches is harming us in ways we can’t see.
Of course there are long-term side effects to living in a world where your humanity gets flattened into a 2D caricature; where your value is in your ability to be shiny & fascinating at all times; where being ‘worth following’ is nothing more than a modern-day popularity contest; where you must play by the rules of the masses, and be palatable to the masses, in order to be approved of by the masses. The book cover must be pink. The message must be succinct. The package must be appealing. There are no points for merely existing; here, you must be newsworthy. Sales-ready. Put up on the pedestal of strangers. Be larger than life for us. Be what we need. Be our savior.
The comments section is never off.
And, neither are you.
Yet, we press on, posting another video we didn’t want to make in the first place, trying so hard to keep up with the Joneses…even as they’re on their way to the grave.
The internet needs to be a tool that we use to improve our lives, rather than a replacement for our lives.
We must figure out how to take a T-Rex and tame it.
We must find a way to steward this new world forward.
Yet, perhaps the thing we need the most?
Is to feel like people again, rather than performers.
There’s a big difference between speaking, and giving a speech.
And there’s a big difference between living a life, and performing one.
Do you agree? I’m working toward a solution, starting with Selfish 101, my new on-demand streaming workshop that walks you through a plan for setting up what I call a ‘Selfish Business’: a social-free, constant-content-creation-hamster-wheel-free, low-stress approach to a modern online business you can do from anywhere…without performing your life away.