What happened to Julie?

Thu Apr 28, 2022

I was starting to wonder if I’m the only human on planet Earth who still writes blog posts anymore. I’m not going to lie - now that social media is entrenched into the fabric of the 21st century, blog posts seem retro and anachronistic - even to an old man like me.

And then I came across Matt Gemmell’s brilliant insight on the rhetoric of writing in these dark times, giving much-needed context to my thoughts. He’s right - words matter. Gemmell sees “a worrying trend towards trivialisation amongst those who make things on their own”.

I found his disassembly of the phrase “blog post” particularly insightful.

He points out that the word “blog” has “connotations of the ramblings of some random person, without authority or polish”.

And here is his take on the word “post”:

It focuses on the mechanic of putting-up, making the actual published material almost irrelevant. It’s an emission; it’s another chunk. That’s minimising, and trivialising. It’s insulting.

Gemmell brings it home by calling out “content” as the most hideous word out there: “content is fungible, space-filling, placeholder-replacing stuff, and that’s not even its most offensive connotation,” he argues.

Read the rest of his piece to see how the offense escalates.

So, perhaps I won’t call my longform pieces “blog posts” anymore. To counterbalance the insidious narrative, writers need to re-frame what we do. If blogging is dead, then it is us who should wield the knife.

And needless to say, I’ll be calling myself a “writer” until the day I die - never a “content creator”. It’s no wonder that such a demeaning job title asks for so little pay. It really is depressing how far the monetary value of the written word has plummeted. And how so many writers are complicit because they have been beaten into submission and have lost all confidence in their craft and talents.

Humans thrive on creativity. Molding something beautiful out of chaos isn’t easy, but creation is the breath of life. Breath is movement, a wind that brings change and growth and joy at the breaking of the doldrums. Whatever creative space you inhabit, your ultimate goal should be to evolve from creator to artist.

The distinction is subtle, but spiritually significant. Creators are trapped in a fruitless cycle of appeasement trying to hold an audience. Artists don’t care about an audience - instead, they rely on an internal compass, staying true to their vision of what constitutes something unique - a raw creation without precedent. One has integrity, the other does not. Choose wisely.

Social media is anathema to a true artist. But it is now the dominant form of cultural expression in our society. User-generated “content” (Gemmell’s definition of “content” almost certainly applies here) is completely lacking in artistry, yet so many are pulled into both the sordid and trivial minutiae of people’s lives.

This concept isn’t new. Reality TV paved the way decades ago - cheap and exploitative, from the Jerry Springer Show to America’s Funniest Home Videos, voyeuristic forays into peoples lives has always been around, but at least it used to be on the fringe.

Yet today there are those who are so deeply submerged in social media that, instead of harmless entertainment, they consider it a credible source of news and journalism.

How far we have fallen.

As if this situation wasn’t weird enough, Elon Musk actually bought Twitter this week (for the bargain price of 44 Billion Dollars). So, now both Facebook and Twitter will be owned by cults of personality - the egomaniacs Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk - who are both, ironically, the most socially-awkward men on the planet.

Oh man, Facebook, WTF. If Facebook’s big bet on the future of VR and AR (now rebranded as “Meta” to avoid all the negative connotations of the Facebook brand) doesn’t have you alarmed, it soon will. They’re developing a wrist-mounted electromyography device that you can train to sense the signals you’re sending from your brain to your hands. So, basically you can manipulate virtual objects with your mind - absolutely bonkers.

Sure, “mind control” and “dystopian future” go together a little too comfortably in a sentence, so maybe it’s unfair to jump to conclusions. The technology actually sounds impressive, to be honest, as it should when you pump billions of dollars a year into R&D. But, ugh, Facebook. I’d like to know why aren’t other players investing as heavily in AR/VR Research and Development?

Zuckerberg is gunning so hard to own “the metaverse”, you have to wonder if he knows something we don’t. Twenty years ago, I tried Second Life for a few minutes and that scared me off social VR for life. Are people really going to surrender their souls at the gate to Facebook’s (sorry, Meta’s) virtual world? Given the current status quo, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised if they do.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Apple comes up with in the AR/VR space, and maybe they’re working on something mind-blowing, but probably not. The issue is scale - Apple doesn’t play on the bleeding edge anymore, and if they can’t feasibly manufacture millions of units, they won’t do it.

Anyway, let’s move on to Musk’s new (adopted) baby.

Twitter is not as ambitious in its plans of world domination, but has far more trolls. If you’re especially witty or funny, perhaps there is a place for you on Twitter. But then again, it all comes down to the same question - how do you define your self worth?

Elon talks a big game about “free speech”, but does this amount to nothing more than enabling the trolls and unleashing the Nazis? I agree somewhat with Hugh Howey’s take, in that “most users will stay with Twitter because of the same craving of a bully pulpit that caused Elon to purchase Twitter”:

That is, we are little different from him. If we were less like Elon, we would be content to send our thoughts and cat photos to our close friends using gmail, or Whatsapp, or group SMS. We would write on our blogs, knowing that few people would ever read what we wrote (and we wouldn’t even Tweet or FB a link to the blog). We would start a newsletter and send it to our eight subscribers.

But we don’t. We have a billionaire mentality as well. We want to broadcast to the whole world, command everyone’s attention, amass as many followers as possible, acquire, acquire, acquire, preach, preach, preach. It is an age of excess, and we are its inhabitants.

I would add that only a small, vocal minority has a high level of engagement on Twitter. The vast majority of Twitter users shout from their soapboxes and nobody listens.

But some people crave attention, and engagement on Twitter validates their existence. When they are ignored - depression, anger, and loneliness can compel them to lash out.

Harassment, trolling, and subversive or extreme views gives them attention - yes, it’s negative attention, but as destructive and socially deviant as this is, their selfish needs are fulfilled. Without any real accountability, it’s all too easy for “normal” people to become monsters online.

On the other hand, some people just write blog posts longform pieces that nobody reads, and that’s okay.

How did social media get so complicated? When you have to deal with a spectrum of “trigger warnings” on one extreme to “toxic positivity” on the other, it just isn’t fun. But when you can’t be found on social media these days, people either think you’re weird or you’re dead.

I’m just as guilty as everybody else - there are people I went to High School with that are nowhere to be found online. Sometimes I wonder what happened to them. Where is Ross, a friend I used to play Space Quest with? He used to feed his dogs Biltong and once my hair caught on fire when we were setting off fireworks at his house on Guy Fawkes Day. Now he’s a ghost.

What happened to Julie? She lived on my street and I used to walk home from school with her sometimes. I once made her blush because I liked her new hairstyle. Now she’s gone without a digital trace.

I like to think she’s out there living a fabulous, authentic life - she’s probably a true artist, shunning the limelight, living off the grid, creating something beautiful…

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