Until recently, I’ve been an advocate of nearly all forms of social media and self-publication. I liked the freedom from gatekeepers, the chance to step out on stage unrehearsed, the touches of humor from people whom I never thought might be funny.
As this decade has unspooled the internet, launched with the best of intentions, has become a dumpster fire. Worse, the internet is the leading symptom of the unraveling of tech generally. In 2010, tech was supposed to solve a lot of problems for everyone. Yet somehow tech mostly made a lot of money for people who are already rich. And the internet, which was going to unite us, has divided us instead.
Now, it’s not all bad. We have delivery on demand! And 3D modeling! And protestors in Hong Kong using social media (when they can) to coordinate their protests. The internet is worth fighting for as a medium of free expression, as I’ve written elsewhere. But we’re in a fix now, with the online universe increasingly populated with misinformation and a place that is dangerous for women with a point of view.
On all social media, the drumbeat of paid advertising steadily drowns out personal posts that have some feeling to them.
If you have something to say, where do you say it online? What works? Well, this works, writing here on Substack, a time machine of a platform where the art of blogging is alive and pretty much well. On Substack, the blog has mated with the email newsletter to create an awkward but bright child with traits of both parents. I’d hazard a guess that most people don’t get Substack. (“Is this thing a blog or is it a newsletter? And I have to pay for it?”) But I persist in writing here because it’s a safe place and the people who started it seem like good folks.
Safety Slips Away
But safety. This has become a big factor online. Most places I post don’t really feel safe, and I am the product of years of whiteness, maleness, and the resulting privilege of both. On the edge of 2020, the internet is a lot less safe for a lot of people than it was ten years ago. But as Buckminster Fuller said, don’t fight the bad system. Invent your own. (“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete,” is what he actually said. It does sound a bit better than my paraphrasing. You get the idea, though.)
Writing in Public
With Bucky’s good advice in mind, I believe that if you want to speak online, you have to claim your own platform as best as you can. In the past ten years, we’ve seen the rise of writing in public, creating in public, failing in public, and building in public. This is new. It’s like thousands of comics are working out their material in small clubs, playwrights are workshopping in community theaters, directors are holding private screenings that aren’t private at all on YouTube or Vimeo. Posting a work in progress has become a thing. I like it, although it’s easy to post something that isn’t ready yet. Like this blog. Maybe you can live with that because it has that fresh-out-of-the-oven aroma. At least, I hope so.
Finding a platform that works is a challenge because you’re not about to build your own server or put up your own antenna (as it were) and begin transmitting. For ease of use, you have to use other people’s platforms and make them your own as much as you can. Therefore: Substack. Or an oddball platform like Blot that takes your Word files, your TXT files, your embeds, your iframes, your Markdown jottings, pretty much any raw materials, and turns them into a blog post instantly. Here’s my example: Universal Story Engine, an uncharted mindscape of random celebrations, hat tips, nods to superior thinkers, goofball rants, and whatever comes to mind when I want to write in public. Also, the good people at Postlight Labs have created something called Yap that is a personal chat room for friends. You post there without anybody tracking you, recording you, or even preserving the posts. And it’s free. There’s still WordPress, Squarespace, and even a platform called Ghost. You can run your own world on any of those platforms, or post your videos and podcasts on others.
Open platforms without ads were the best of the past and they will be the best in the future. But they have a downside. They tend to be open secrets. When you use them you have to get people to come by your neighborhood. People have to find you. Your audience has to be composed of seekers. You leave the door open for them and wait.
Now, dammit, what I have always feared in writing has come to pass in this post. You’ve graciously boarded my train and we’ve riffed together, sliding downhill faster and faster past some interesting conceptual scenery, and now the brakes are shrieking as we slam to the end of this sentence. What I’m saying is I don’t have an ending for this thing. I only wanted to ask some questions, and we’ve done that, haven’t we? And it’s kind of like the feeling of reeling from one decade to another, one significant moment of change sliding imperceptibly into the next. At least that’s how I might justify this lapse, as a writer who believes in his craft, to leave you gracelessly, boldly right here.
Have a good 2020 online and IRL.