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📱The Impossibility of Fallow Periods Online
Or, "Sorry I haven't been posting!"
This is an entry in Shaped by Tools, the PEP vertical on media & tech. Subscribe to stay up to date.
The internet never sleeps. It is tireless, relentless, and endless.
Or at least that’s the image I have of the internet in my head as an elder millennial, who remembers a childhood without it and then with it—the supposed “Oregon Trail” microgeneration.
Alan Kay once said “technology” is anything invented after you were born; everything else is just stuff.”
And that’s true of the web, I think. People like me are endlessly fascinated by the promise and peril of the thing, whereas my child has no memory of life without apps or Netflix or her parents reading and watching stuff on their phones.
Being in the cohort I am, I think I feel the “weight” of the web in a way someone younger might not. I remember the 2000s when everyone was starting blogs and abandoning them. Inevitably, there would be a months-long gap, followed by a “Update” that would say “sorry I haven’t been posting! Lots has happened. I transferred schools and got a new job! More later! :)” followed by nothing.
This was gradually replaced by social media, where posting was just something you could do in the background. It didn’t have to be written pieces. The pressure was lower—and with the advent of smartphones, you could post whatever whenever wherever. If you wanted to post, you could.
If you got engagement, it could be fun or horrifying. If you wanted to hustle and build an audience, there was a chance you might be able to. There still is.
Along the way, there were bad actors who leveraged social media’s targeted, custom algorithms to flood the zone with disinformation, or dehumanize others.
Elon himself fell down a predictable alt-right pipeline, bought Twitter, tried to back out of buying Twitter, was forced to buy Twitter, and reduced it to its current form, X, while performing various acts of what Casey Newton called “cultural vandalism:”
“…this framing misses the true shape of Musk’s project, which is best understood not as a money-making endeavor, but as an extended act of cultural vandalism. Just as he graffitis his 420s and 69s all over corporate filings; and just as he paints over corporate signage and office rooms with his little sex puns; so does he delight in erasing the Twitter that was.
And yet we keep trying to replace it with something new: Bluesky, Mastodon, Threads, et al.
This is all a continuation of the shift that started last year. I wrote this at the close of 2022:
“I do not think social media is dying. It may, perhaps, be changing—or perhaps the ways so many of us relate to these services is what’s really changing.
My heyday as a “poster” was 2016-2019, when #exvangelical was becoming more of a known quantity on Twitter. Then in 2019, a personal private loss, followed by a public drama, forced me to re-evaluate how I used these platforms myself. I lost my appetite for confrontational dunk-tweets or punching up, and I set a boundary against encouraging or participating in online “drama."
I would still post, but I am generally more measured and certainly less prolific.
But this latest chapter on Twitter has cast things in starkest, bleakest terms. When the world’s second-richest man kicks up drama for no reason, you start to question who has anything to gain from any of it.”
What I recognize now, re-reading that piece, is how I highlighted the work of Tricia Hersey, whose work focuses on rest, and how soon after, I saw content online shift to posting about rest. The irony was not lost.
Anything can be content. Is everything cheapened by that? No, and certainly not universally by everyone. The same content that was giving fatigue to me may have invigorated some other soul.
What I realize, however, is that even though I am no longer a poster, even though my opinion of these sites and their power to change both individual lives and broader social realities has diminished, I still have that nagging sense of obligation to post. That need to post the message “sorry I haven’t been posting!”
I feel an urge to explain myself to a potential audience of the entire world about why I haven’t been active, when ultimately I’m just very tired after having gone through a very difficult period I’d rather not tell the whole world about.
But if the nature of the web is content, and nature abhors a vacuum, someone else’s content will fill the vacuum you left online in order to rest offline.
There’s a post in my drafts called “the social internet is a bad third place,” and I think I’m starting to figure out why that is—participation in them requires production or performance, and ultimately feels like or becomes work, and the point of a “third place” is to not be work. And the unspoken expectation we often have with content creators is that they should always be working. But they cannot. We cannot.
The “creator economy” is symptomatic of larger issues in our society about who gets to rest, and when, and who receives support even as their output diminishes.
We need our fallow periods. We do not make it easy to rest.
Douglas Adams has a longer version of the same notion:
“I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”