Notes on Digital Self-Acceptance

26 Hours, no. 2. On the journey of (not) writing online the past five years.

1.

A neat thing happened after I published my first Substack post.

A blogger-friend, Mike Sowden, subscribed to 26 Hours and then replied to the email that confirmed his signup. Ooh, I thought, a human in my inbox.

These days, my personal inbox consists mainly of marketing emails. I do get messages from real humans, but these conversations are mostly transactional in nature — our realtor asking if we want to update the blinds on the windows, a State Farm insurance agent responding to say we’re covered while we’re living temporarily at my parents’ house, and a customer support rep helping me troubleshoot why my video messaging app isn’t recording properly.

I don’t get much else beyond these types of exchanges. I used to write long emails to my friends, especially those who lived far away. Before we lived in the same country and got married, Nick and I penned very long emails as we courted one another from across the world: me in San Francisco, him in Cairo. These were truly epic digital love letters.

Despite the currently corporate and impersonal feel of my Gmail inbox, it’s still my nerve center. I send myself tasks in the subject lines of otherwise-empty emails, making my Unread section a personal to-do list and bulletin board of reminders. It’s also a digital treasure chest of all kinds of moments, from huge life decisions to small transactions, easily searchable. It makes me sad that this private space, full of memories, has become a predictable, lifeless feed of Target.com order confirmations, Square receipts, and Morning Brew emails.

So when I got a series of emails from an old blogger pal, and saw his reply on Twitter after I shared my post there, I got excited — and came here to write.


2.

In her LitHub essay “For the Love of Mail: Letter Writing in a Pandemic,” Lauren Markham writes about the everyday magic of the U.S. postal service and the mail we receive from afar:

My correspondence with loved ones, and particularly fellow artists, is what has kept me aloft in recent months in this era of devastating loss. Their letters, postcards and care packages have reminded me that there is still real, thrumming life out there, on the other side of my door, through the toxic smoke of the California wildfires and the haze of so much uncertainty, and that there is a reason to keep writing.

The emails I received from Mike after publishing here for the first time reminded me of the kind, thoughtful, and inspiring comments I used to receive on my blog: from my mom and family members, from friends, from fellow bloggers and writers, from strangers. What a community that was — one that kept me going. Looking at my blog’s stats, I currently have 36,083 followers. While this number is deceiving given the bots, spammers, and people who’ve abandoned their blogs over the years, it still reflects the relatively big readership I grew early on.

Today, that community is gone. Because I stopped posting? Because others stopped blogging? Both, I suppose. In the times I’ve published on my blog recently, it’s been awkward, and there’s hardly any activity. I basically say, yeah, I’m still here but not really here, and I’m only posting because I feel I have to, like when Skype periodically emails you to log in to your account and do some kind of activity in order to save your credit. My blog is less an ever-changing feed and more a cold, empty museum: each post is a relic, a snapshot of my stilted online self.

I do miss those exchanges. The bouncing of ideas, the sharing of links, the casual conversations. The unfolding of me, all on a public space that was safe, that was mine.


3.

When I publish something new these days, I run through these types of thoughts:

This has no focus.

It’s not long enough.

I can do so much better.

Should I just delete it?

Yes, I usually delete it.

When did I stop giving myself permission to write? A decade ago, my blog was called Writing Through the Fog. Why? I wrote my way to clarity; that was the theme. I gave myself the space to think out loud, to find my way. But now, I struggle with thinking and writing in public, especially as I see more disciplined and more business-minded writers around me doing so much more: building and shaping and marketing their Things. All neatly packaged. All uniquely theirs.

Over the years, I’ve leaned on hazy, borderless themes: time, space, place, home. When Nick and I built and lived in our tiny house on wheels, that was the first time my writing had a clear focus. I offered real, practical value to people who wanted to build their own tiny house, or live in one. After our experiment living in 131 square feet had failed, I once again felt I had nothing to write about.

I can pinpoint the beginning of the end of my blogging habit, which was early on in my role as an editor at WordPress.com, a company, ironically, known for blogging. In a lot of the inspirational and educational content I’ve published over the years, I’ve referred to the “Publish” button as this sort of magical thing. Tapping this button puts our words out into the world. It sets our ideas free. It enables self-expression. These are all lovely things, but it’s no wonder that over time I conflated writing with publishing — that I began to believe that whatever I wrote must be for public consumption. It certainly didn’t help that my readership grew exponentially, which added to the pressure.


4.

I experience the fear of writing across most of the web, not just my blog.

I loved Twitter a decade ago, but today, I exist there primarily through likes — my stream of liked tweets a mirror of me at any given moment. I recall a brief but memorable exchange with author Teju Cole about favoriting tweets, now buried in my DMs.

Eight years later, I still feel the same about my likes on Twitter: they say more about me right now than anything I could tweet myself. I suppose this aligns with how I communicate in general: I primarily listen and need a lot of time to process what’s being said in a conversation, and even though I may not say anything, I’m constantly synthesizing and shaping my own thoughts. The process may not always culminate in something verbal, but I assure you I’ve internally formed some kind of response, swirling and finding its form in my gut.

You’d think my tendency to turn inward would benefit my writing. But this introspection, which has grown more intense with age, does not bear creative fruit. I imagine a black, spongey filter in my bowels, unable to push out what I’ve absorbed in a productive, meaningful way. It doesn’t help that I suffer from imposter syndrome and constantly feel like everything is already being written, by others writing much better than I ever could. So, why bother?

Instagram, on the other hand, has been my social sharing preference for some time now, ever since I bought my first iPhone and Instagrammed my way through Istanbul in 2012. By the time Emilia was born in 2018, Instagram had become the only way I could express myself. It’s where I documented her first months as a newborn and mine as a mother. The fourth trimester was a blur, but I clearly remember excitedly typing captions on my phone in the dark, as she nursed multiple times a night. I was inspired first by the novelty and logistics of motherhood — the setting of my alarm every few hours to feed, the burping, the pooping, the swaddling — and then the repetition and mundanity of everything. Somehow, amidst all of it, I wanted to write — my fingers were peppy and light. And Instagram was the most comfortable place for it.

The app’s tiny post screen is a less intimidating place to write than the blank WordPress editor staring back at me on my laptop. And when you’re composing a post on Instagram, you don’t see anything else. You’re not distracted. It’s the complete opposite experience on Twitter.com, which — if you post from your desktop as I do — displays your feed, toxic and relentless as it is, beneath the tweet you’re drafting. Which, to me, is terrifying. It’s like, hey, this is the moving bullet train you’re attempting to hop on with this tweet you’re about to send. Are you sure you want to jump on? There are lots of people yelling and arguing in this car, thieves and assholes in that one — and usually there’s nowhere to sit.

So, yeah. I’m not sure how to open up and be myself on Twitter again.

5.

My colleague and friend Krista Stevens shared an essay with me by Pamela Petro in Guernica about the incompleteness and liminality of dusk. In “Shedding Light,” Petro explains:

I think of dusk as the temporal place where seer and seen meet and mingle. It’s the time of day—or is it night?—when the perceived world becomes an equation: Half us, half other. Half human invention, half environmental insistence. A hybrid time. An inclusive time.

The digital images that accompany the essay, created in-camera and with light and motion, are blurry and abstract yet strong and beautiful. Some resemble watercolors, while others look like a cross between Rothko canvases and light paintings. They all reveal the passage of time in the places captured, from Wales to the Brazilian Amazon to New England to the forests in Oregon. “Dusk is like holding a yoga pose,” Petro writes.

I’m especially drawn to this:

If we humans could experience geological time, these photos might be what we’d see in the blink of our lifetimes. And if so, it wouldn’t be the earth’s movement that would register, but our own. We would be the ones in motion, just passing through.

The images in the essay are lovely, revealing both tangible and intangible, allowing us to witness a thin, liminal moment that happens every day. As a viewer, I know they’re ultimately snapshots of moments past, and I appreciate how fleeting and imperfect they are.

I wish I could surrender in this way when I read and respond to my own writing; I wish I allowed my own creative process to unfold in the open: to expose the in-between and feel relief, not fear.


6.

Mike recommended a post called “The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet,” in which Yancey Strickler explores why we’ve become so scared to fully be ourselves online, and where we’ve gone to hide:

I went dark on the internet a few years ago. I took social apps off my phone, unfollowed everyone, the whole shebang. This was without a doubt a good decision. I’ve been happier and have had better control over my time since. Many others have done this and are doing this. A generation of modern wannabe monks.

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.

Over the past five years, I’ve gone through a few cycles of detox and deactivation: I deleted my Facebook account (twice, and now gone forever). I stopped visiting and using Twitter for nearly four years. I’ve even redesigned my blog numerous times, transforming it into a static space to hide the fact that I wasn’t writing, and to avoid any interaction with readers.

Thinking of my own dark forests, I’ve moved into private Slack channels, a Marco Polo video chat with college friends, and a password-protected family photoblog. And then there are my Instagram Stories, which are semi-public, mostly video glimpses of Emilia. These aren’t private places where I’ve gone to write, but I can certainly be myself, document my day-to-day, and update friends and family on what Nick, Emilia, and I are up to.

Strickler says retreating to safe spaces like these can be good for your mental health and productivity, but there may ultimately be disadvantages to this isolation, which he addresses a bit more in his follow-up, “Beyond the Dark Forest Theory of the Internet”:

Here I was retreating from the web because I thought my online presence was unimportant and inconsequential. Meanwhile, a foreign power was using its resources to pretend to be someone like me to try to influence someone like me. What kind of influence does that mean I really have? What kind of influence does that mean each of us has? And who fills that vacuum if we fail to fill it ourselves?

There’s a lot to unpack here — and, for a bit of context around “foreign power,” he’s referring to the disinformation spread before the 2016 election in the U.S. — but what I come away with, at least today, is there must be a space for me, for you, for anyone: somewhere between public and private where I can relearn how to be me again online.


7.

All this talk of dark forests reminds me of how Helena Fitzgerald at The Verge likened Snapchat to one of the internet’s ghost towns, when users, especially celebrities, abandoned the app a few years ago. What remained of Snapchat was dead and useless space, but as Fitzgerald continued to chat with a small group of friends while everyone else left the app, it became a sort of secret clubhouse. “It felt as though we were having a private conversation in another room in the house, far away from where the party was happening,” she wrote.

First in the era of America Online, and then in the era of LiveJournal and micro-blogging, the internet was at least partly an escape. It was a place where the boundaries of real life, in which everything was more or less a job interview, could be sloughed off and one could imagine the internet as a quiet, uninhabited space of whispered intimacies. In this era of hyper-usefulness, what seems rarest and most valuable online are spaces that offer, however illusorily, a return to this original uselessness. There are places where, against the constant obligation to be seen and remembered, we might get to be unseen, unrecorded, and forgotten.

I get the attraction to this end-times atmosphere in Snapchat that Fitzgerald describes, or the underground feel of a network like Tumblr. It’s what I loved about writing on Diaryland in my early twenties, which had a very ’90s DIY and SFRaves community vibe. For me, it’s the ability to let go and unravel, but there’s also a desire to be part of something bigger, and at once acknowledged and recognized yet hidden and anonymous. (This is one of the things I loved about the warehouse rave scene, which is a totally separate discussion, and one I might explore in time.)

So I wonder about the possibilities of Substack. Can I shape the exact space I want here? Is it possible to recreate that community again — warm, safe, curious, and full of humans? And is it possible to write again without fear?

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