How to be a human being on the internet

This essay has been a long time coming.

Sooner or later, almost every person who has a blog tires of it. I’ve seen it in the bloggers that I read, and I’ve seen it in myself, especially over the past six months. Sooner or later, the passion dies.

When I first started Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, five years ago now, I wanted to experiment with writing as “myself” (by which I mean, under my real name and not using a pseudonym) and learn how to connect with an online audience. And over the years, I did that pretty well. I learned what sort of content bombed and what flew, and learned to provide the kind of posts that got the most “likes”, reblogs, and comments. I built an audience which continues to grow, even when I do nothing that warrants its growing.

And then I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I didn’t want to provide the kind of content that I believed the people who had subscribed to my blog wanted to read. It bored me. It tired me. It seemed facile. And none of this is surprising. Who wouldn’t bore of a project they’d been working on for five years?

It started around the time that Daily Life launched. I had been writing about feminism for pay for years (since 2005), but never before had my “because I feel like it” writings and the writing I was paid for so closely overlapped. I now had a choice between posting those meatier ideas that I knew would do well on my blog, to said blog, or pitching them to someone who would pay my bills. And like most self-employed people, I took the paid option every time.

My other energy drainer, of course, has been the book. A project so complex and all-encompassing that it doesn’t leave much brain space for anything else. Nor does it lend itself well to pithy blog posts.

The result? What had been carefully managed as a pleasure for years became a burden, something that was expected of me and that I didn’t particularly want to do.

Like I said, none of this is surprising. I’ve observed the same unarticulated boredom in many of the bloggers I follow; particularly those who have been blogging on the same topic for a period of years, and those whose blogs are clearly written for an audience as much as they are written for themselves. And in old media, an artist would just tear up her canvas; an editor would leave her magazine and start a new one.

But on the internet, there’s not really a graceful way to bow out – at least, not without making a big “I’M LEAVING THE INTERNETS” scene. And then… what if you wanted to come back a couple of weeks later?

The other issue I’ve been feeling acutely is the commodification of the self in social media. The demand to be the same person you were last week or last year, to be the person other people like you most when you’re performing (or to be the person other people would like you better as if you started performing).

I watched a video by Gala Darling this morning, offering advice on how to self-promote and self-create online. On the internet, she said, we are all the authors of our own stories, and if we want people to read us (or get paid), we should present as our most fabulous, sparkly selves possible. So, I would be… I don’t know, a jet-setting intellectual superstar with loads of friends, who throws great parties, wears great dresses, and is on the precipice of writing one of the most important books in her field in the last decade?

Not exactly untrue (although the last bit makes me feel queasy – but hey, I’m sure Gala would have no qualms owning up to it), but it feels more like a figment than it does a human being. In a way, it reminds me when I was nineteen and on the precipice of depression, talking to my platonic former love interest over MSN messenger about how I planned to turn myself into the ultimate art project, to cover up all my flaws with an exterior of perfection.

That’s not to say I think she’s entirely wrong, either. It all depends on how you categorise the self: as something innate and static, or as something you can bend according to your own will. As an authentic expression of “who you are” and what you feel, or as something that can be leveraged for followers and profit. (And those two sentences are not perfectly paired opposites, by the way. It is possible for identity to be changeable, even according to your will, and also authentic. I think at least.)

Let me give you an example, outside of parentheses. I know I’ve been letting my fears and insecurities get the best of me lately: which is partly due to some of the circumstances I’m in (being pushed and pulled, spending a lot of time on my own, moving into unfamiliar territory), but also a reflection of my own choice to wallow. I don’t HAVE to indulge my insecurities. I could focus on the positives instead of my negatives, have confidence in my best qualities instead of letting my fears seep through. And online or not (and really, offline is more important here), that’s exactly what I ought to be doing.

As for my online activities, I vacillate between Gala’s advice (“For god’s sake, woman, stop sharing things that make you look bad! Cultivate your public image!”) and what Vice’s Kate Carraway calls Radical Vulnerability. (And you know what? I actually do think that vulnerability is kind of radical. If there is one life – rather than intellectual – lesson I’d like people to take away from my book, it is that vulnerability will set you free. When you know you’re not the only one who feels crap, the things that make you feel crappy are so much less powerful.)

Which takes me back to my original point. If my “project” back when I started Musings of an Inappropriate Woman was to learn how to build an online audience, now the project I’d pick would be more simple: to learn to just be a human being on the internet. Highs, lows, flaws, victories, vulnerabilities, and all the rest of it. Which is why I started this blog in the first place.

Ironically, I think I might be getting the energy to write for Musings back. To be that woman again who is part of me, but not the whole me. And to begin to stretch the boundaries again of what kind of writing she might put out there.

Because if the audience keeps on growing no matter how shitty and infrequent the content I put out there is, I may as well see what happens if I put out the content I actually want to write.