I miss blogging...and because I don't have a blog, here is an email that would normally be a blog post. Inspired by days of ruminating on The Bad Art Friend (be glad if you have no idea what this is about) and our very human need for...attention.
We’re told by our parents and therapists and friends that nobody is thinking about us as much as we think they are. But sometimes...they are. Sometimes, they’ve dedicated entire Reddit threads to dissecting the posts of complete strangers, and sometimes they’re posting reviews of your work that are really just reviews of you, sometimes they’re following your posts just so they can make fun of you in a group chat and later lift an entire paragraph of an earnest letter into a “fiction.”
People have always been duplicitous, small, petty and insecure and there is hardly anyone who is more of those things than a writer.
I can say that, because I am one. We all are, at this point: the Internet has turned us into perpetual memoir-machines and documentarians. Instagram and Snapchat and TikTok are 24/7 news channels dedicated to ourselves, where we star, direct and produce. Twitter and Instagram and blogs and Facebook and newsletters are self-published autobiographies of the monumental and the mundane.
My friend Laura McKowen recently exited social media altogether, citing the ways it mirrored her own alcohol addiction: how it kept her wanting more, needing more, constantly evaluating herself in terms of other people’s perceived successes or happiness, removed from herself.
I have felt that, and I’ve seen it keep us removed from one another even as we’re more connected than ever. I see in it the cynical flattening of our own humanity, reducing each other to an avatar, a “brand.” And I see it in the earnest redefining of the word “friend” to mean “person I am tangentially connected to online who I assume wants to connect with me in good faith.”
Never in human history has it been so easy to spy on one another, to look through the windows we’ve all left wide open in our own lives and take inventory of each other’s thoughts, feelings and values and to analyze and assign value. We do this -- I do this -- and justify it by saying it’s to be expected. That if someone shares something -- anything -- publicly, they’re inviting discourse about their intentions and their impact. If they didn’t want the attention...why did they court it?
We sniff at that word -- attention -- as though it’s something base and unbecoming. I’ve seen that in my own interactions with people: how we label each other as an “attention-seeker” and then believe that it’s our job to withhold that attention, to judge it and the person who needs it while ignoring our own attention-needing.
The prevailing parenting wisdom when I was a child was that certain behaviors -- fits, tantrums, disobeying, acting out, showing off, being too happy and energetic or too sad or angry -- were “attention-seeking” and therefore should not be rewarded with attention.
Attention is our currency, and has been long before we were overconnected to one another.
The problem with getting this attention through the internet is that it is easily and publicly quantifiable: we’re able to see just how many people are or are not paying attention, to use our internal currency converter to determine our own human value. The fickle gas of external validation is a dangerous thing; too little and we doubt ourselves, too much and we’re absolutely addicted. We need it, but we’re not supposed to need it, or at least not look like we need it. We’re meant to be the exception to the rule, a person whose self-esteem is an endless internal resource, who thinks well of themselves without any input from another person.
If this is you...I have so many questions for your therapist.
For the rest of us, be assured that what you are seeking in your phone or in your interactions is as natural as what your dog seeks when they run to greet you at the door, what your plants respond to when you water and tend to and speak to them, what you wanted when you were a little child screaming at the top of their lungs: Attention.