The Anxiety Of Sharing
Be warned – this week’s Tape is gonna be another one of those ones where I talk about social media a lot, because I am constantly fascinated by what it’s doing to our society and our culture. Miranda often points out to me that I put an awful lot of my thought and energy into thinking about it considering I hate it so much, and that’s true, and for those who find the whole subject kind of gross, I entirely understand if you’d rather skip this week’s newsletter. But I remain constantly almost as fascinated as I am concerned by what it’s doing to the way we think and feel, so this week I’m talking about it. I suppose it sort of follows on from some of the stuff I said last week about brand-building, so let’s consider that and this a sort of a “double bill” and then I promise to move on from the subject. Ok, strap in!
This week I got some really good news. The news was that I’m going to be writing and starring in a sitcom for BBC Radio 4 called The Dream Factory which will go out next summer. I’ve been dreaming about one day making my own sitcom since I was a kid, so I was over the moon and after initially celebrating and feeling proud of myself, I felt the urge to share my good news with some people I care about and celebrate with them. I sent out a few messages to my best friends and family, and because I was in such a good mood, put something on Twitter about it, but stopped short of actually announcing exactly what the good news was, because I wasn’t sure if there were some technicalities that meant I wasn’t allowed to reveal too much about it just yet. Then I went about my day feeling very happy and proud.
Later in the day I logged onto social media again and saw that several other comics who had received Radio 4 commissions that day had announced them on social media as well (a genuinely great load of commissions, too – Andrew O’Neill! Gemma Arrowsmith! Luisa Omielan! Great bunch of legends). And, on top of being very impressed by the quality of this round of commissions, and very proud to be in such good company, I also felt a twinge of anxiety that I’d somehow messed up my good news by not “announcing” it properly – what if the sheer act of announcing it and being seen to have “done well” by getting the commission would bring in more offers of work, and that by not saying exactly what it was I was celebrating, I had missed out on those opportunities? Was this just FOMO and social media-based anxiety, or a legitimate concern about not managing a freelance portfolio career in a way that properly makes the most of each opportunity? In the end, I awkwardly re-announced my news, explaining what it actually was, and then slunk off, vaguely embarrassed that what should have just been a bit of good news I could have enjoyed and celebrated with people close to me had become a slightly cringeworthy bit of performative happiness on social media.
I know, I know – I hate reading about the knots people tie themselves up in over meaningless online interactions. Whenever I read them I think “Just don’t worry it, it literally doesn’t matter.” I tell this vaguely embarrassing story purely so you know I am very much not exempt from what I’m about to talk about, and am as guilty as everybody else for what I’m about to reflect on. Because what we’re talking about isn’t simply the anxiety of a freelance portfolio career, or something as simple as a social media addiction. It’s a religion, a belief system, and a huge shift in where our society currently centres itself in terms of meaning.
Humanism vs Dataism
If you’ve not read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, then I hugely recommend them, they’re two of the most interesting books about humanity ever written. Homo Deus includes an exploration of the shift in the global belief system over the last 200 years which, when I read it only 5 years ago, felt like a particularly chilling prediction of a very plausible possible future. Today, it feels like an entirely accurate description of our lived experience. Harari suggests that over the course of the 20th century the dominant global religion shifted from monotheism (I know that not all major global religions are monotheistic, but I’m using it because I don’t know if “theistic” by itself is a word, and I can’t be bothered to google it right now) to humanism. Under monotheism, humans find “meaning” in their relationship with an invisible God external to themselves. Humanism did away with God and centred meaning inside the human individual – things were meaningful if they were personally and individually experienced as being meaningful, so the concept of “meaning” became answerable to nobody outside yourself. I would say that the dominant impulse behind the making of most art over the last century stemmed from humanism – “I experienced meaning in this, I felt this,” whereas most art through much of human history before that had existed to depict our relationship with divinity, in accordance with the dominant belief system at the time. Harari suggested in 2015 that the dominant global belief system was shifting once again towards what he called “dataism.” Under dataism, nothing is meaningful until it has been shared and seen and validated by others in the form of data. Under dataism, things can no longer be experienced as meaningful in and of themselves, their meaning is contained in their being recorded and observed by people external to ourselves. And, just as the artistic and cultural trends of the 20th century shifted to accommodate humanism, so we now have art being made that is principally concerned with our tendency to watch ourselves watching ourselves.
The idea of framing our obsession with social media as a religion or a belief system is not an analogy, or a stretch – it’s literally true. This week I experienced anxiety over the fact that if I didn’t “properly” share my work news, it would have a material impact on my life and career. Realistically, “Did you know that they used to believe that if they didn’t tweet everything about their own lives they would lose their jobs?” is no stranger a thing to say than “Did you know that they used to perform rituals to their gods because they thought otherwise their crops would fail?” And yet belief systems do have a material impact on the societies they inform – today I discovered that, by tweeting my news, I had created a material impact on my career, because the comedy website Chortle had picked up all those social media posts and run a story about them which has already brought in more offers of work, so if I had kept my news to myself I wouldn’t have been a part of that story and fewer people would know about my show, and those offers wouldn’t have come in. But the fact that this belief system does impact the material world, and that the anxieties it creates are therefore legitimate, doesn’t make any of this any less troubling.
Part of why I started this newsletter at the start of the year was as a first step towards dismantling my relationship with the internet, because I was beginning to recognise how caught-up in it I was and how toxic that was becoming. I have a job that relies on my ability to communicate ideas and work to an audience, and the internet has become an essential part of that process, but I wanted to create an online space where I can explore thoughts in-depth with a community of people who have elected to be part of that process, and are free to reply and spin off into their own thoughts and stories, and my favourite thing about curating this newsletter is reading through the stories and ideas I get back. Having experienced that weird anxiety spiral yesterday, I feel even more like I need to re-examine and dismantle my relationship with social media in particular, because it’s genuinely troubling what a strong impact it has on my feelings. Most of my best friends don’t have social media and have no relationship with it at all and I’m genuinely envious of their ability to live happy, fulfilled lives that aren’t reliant on sharing their thoughts with a mostly-anonymous audience. But then they work in jobs whose very foundations aren’t built on a relationship with an anonymous audience, so it’s a false equivalence and the idea of ever going fully nuclear and getting off the internet full stop isn’t really workable without my deciding to pack it in and change careers. As usual, I’m rambling towards no concrete conclusion, but I’m going to finish with something my friend Emily sent me in response to last week’s newsletter, which is the world’s new boyfriend Bo Burnham’s thoughts on brand-building and self-promotion. I think they’re very wise and everybody should read them:
You know I sort of fell into an audience at a young age because I went #VIRAL so any advice I’d give on starting out building a career would be silly as I got very lucky very early. But I do think there’s a lot working against young people who are wanting to make things right now, and they are things I’ve struggled with and continue to struggle with and I don’t feel are talked about enough. Everyone talks about how great these new internet distribution models are—and they are, they’re more democratic and from the bottom up and they allow people to be in control of how they share their work with others—but I also think they create really toxic impulses. Brand-building, self-promotion. These are fine things to do once you’ve actually worked hard enough to get good enough where you can make something worthy of being shared. But it should never be a starting point. The first step when starting out should always be to get as good as you possibly can at the thing you’re doing. Learn a ton, try different things, challenge yourself, fuck up, learn more. And I’m not saying this to say “fuck success, do the work”—I really do believe that good work is the best promotion—that if you want to have your thing seen by a lot of people, the best chance you have is to make it as good as possible. In getting an audience early, I realized how incredibly fluky and volatile people’s attention was. And that trying to control it directly was impossible. The only thing I ever have had control of was the actual work. And for me, the corny truth at the center of it is that you should try to follow your impulse to GIVE something to people, not the impulse to get something from them. I try to tell myself to just shut the fuck up and work hard on something that I think is good and important and make it as good as I can and when I’m done with it, share it. Self-promotion should be the last step, not the first. But also I got super lucky and didn’t have to promote myself so I’m a bit of a privileged hypocrite – but like that self-branding shit is pretty gross and I just think like makes you feel icky and unsatisfied and I don’t think leads to happiness even when it works. But making things is fun. So make stuff! Hope that made any sense.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Loads of cool people got Radio 4 shows. Did I mention it?
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Toby made a picnic on Love Island yesterday and nearly stabbed himself in the face while trying to remember what the letter E looks like, and maybe I’ve got Stockholm syndrome with that show, but I thought it was the funniest thing I’ve seen in at least a month.
Book Of The Week – The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. It’s actually by a guy called Douglas Abrams who wrote down what the two lads talked about while they were hanging out for a week, but I guess it’s slightly easier to market a book by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu than it is to market a book about them. Anyway, it’s about how to create joy in your life and live with an open heart and all that jazz and I thought it was great and the two of them seem just lovely.
Album Of The Week – Chocolate City by Parliament. I had a big Parliament-Funkadelic phase back in 2014-ish, but never quite got round to listening to all their albums, so I’m going back and listening to the less well-known ones. Chocolate City is a sort of dry run for Parliament’s big hit Mothership Connection, and it’s not quite as good, but it is a lot of fun.
Film Of The Week – Still not seen any films in ages. Too much Love Island. Absolutely cursed show.
That’s all for this week! Next week, I promise to get my head out of the internet and start writing about things a bit more expansive and fun! As ever, if any of you ever want to share this newsletter with a friend, or encourage people to subscribe, I hugely appreciate it. Take care of yourselves, and have a great week,
PS Here I am holding a dead spider crab.