Is humanity a beautifully foolish endeavor?

On reading, media literacy, going to college, and imagining a post-pandemic (or maybe post-apocalyptic) future.

A pic I took from my road trip to Massachusetts last month. Killer Drive-In line up.

In place of Animal Crossing, every morning with my coffee during this chapter of quarantine I’ve been spending half an hour on Duolingo studying Spanish. When I look at my goals for the year (and my life), speaking fluent conversational Spanish has always floated among the top. So, I’m trying to follow through on that. I’m trying to follow through on a lot more things like this. Turns out tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.

Currently, I’m on a 22-day streak and in the ‘Gold League’ and that feels pretty good and I suppose my point is that turning things into a game, like studying a different language, does have positive habit-forming tendencies, especially for the things you actually want to accomplish.

When I look at the other gamified applications on my iPad, I’m less enthusiastic.

Quick plug: I started a Discord! This link will only work for today (hit me up if you miss it) but if you long for the chatroom days, have links you want to share with people who read Control/Alternate/Delete., or just have tweets you want to workshop in a safe space (yes, there’s a place for that!) then, by all means, come join. :)

This study from Harvard called “Dopamine, Smartphones, & You: A battle for your time” goes into smartass detail about the chemical effects smartphones and social media is having on our brains. This isn’t anything too new, but this unfettered manipulation of minds and habits combined with the sudden dissolvement of public physical spaces is, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, starting to exacerbate things.

One of the half-written essays I have is on QAnon, #SaveTheChildren, Netflix’s Cuties, and the relationship between evangelical American Christians, New Age spiritual types, and their Facebook-fueled addiction to fringe conspiracy theories. Also all the people who profit from this gamified search for meaning.

It’s absolutely terrifying to see, and even more mortifying to talk about, but the conversation has to start and persist somewhere because I don’t know if you’ve noticed but things are exacerbating.

This is from the 2018 Harvard study:

Smartphones and social media apps aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so it is up to us as the users to decide how much of our time we want to dedicate to them. Unless the advertisement-based profit model changes, companies like Facebook will continue to do everything they can to keep your eyes glued to the screen as often as possible. And by using algorithms to leverage our dopamine-driven reward circuitry, they stack the cards—and our brains—against us. But if you want to spend less time on your phone, there are a variety of strategies to achieve success. Doing things like disabling your notifications for social media apps and keeping your display in black and white will reduce your phone’s ability to grab and hold your attention. Above all, mindful use of the technology is the best tool you have. So the next time you pick up your phone to check Facebook, you might ask yourself, “Is this really worth my time?”

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

It’s been pertinent in my life this year not just to expand my tangible “real life” community networks, but my online ones as well. And not in some sort of audience farming way. That’s been a shameful mistake of mine in the past. Part of that work has been this newsletter; gauging and investing in the people currently in my network and extended readership. Hopefully of course it reaches new people eventually, but that’s not so aggressively in my sights anymore. It’s a breath of relief that I’m not writing to some general public. It’s a little less scary and lets me be a little bit more vulnerable than I perhaps would in regional or national publications.

I’m grateful for the texts and email responses I’ve received from people I hadn’t heard from in forever. (Apparently, you can just reply to any of these emails, and it goes straight to me. Give it a try!)

On the other side of that coin, it’s been a little scary, mainly last week when anonymous accounts wrote some pretty nasty stuff to me in the middle of the night, and I wake up to those and a few Instagram login attempts. Then my morning focus, which should be on my Duolingo and mindfulness routines, becomes holy shit. I need to change all my passwords and figure out who might hate me today and why. And that doesn’t feel super productive or good.

Like, sure, criticize away. But your criticism, which was worthlessly anonymous in the first place, really loses value when it’s combined with attempts to break into my Instagram. Not cool.

I’m fine. While my mental health is mine to sort out, I hope that explains some of my paranoia a bit, if that’s something that seeps through in my writing. I hope it explains why, in many capacities, I’ve become a more private person. I’m thankful for the more intimate spaces I have to vent frustrations in a less public way, even if it doesn’t protect me entirely from people who only want to see me spiral.

My biggest advice to you today would be to start more conversations with people in your circles. As many as you can and soon,

Clearly, I’m aware of some of the enemies I’ve made in my life; whether it was calling out their business or not putting up with some aspect of their behavior and effectively “canceling” them, interpersonally. I’ve been on the other side of that coin, too.

This isn’t my newsletter on cancel culture though, but do send me your initial thoughts on that term if you have any burning questions from someone like me in my spheres. That’s another half-written essay.

I can’t tell you how valuable reading and internalizing like, physical books has been for me this year. I haven’t read a crazy amount, my GoodReads account has a 2020 year-end goal of 25 books, which I plan to beat somewhat handily, but I’ve never been one to breeze through books. So this has been a big step forward towards being one of those smartass Harvard types.

In high school especially I was the kind of person who had, like, the same book on me for a month at a time (if that’s a type of person), and I'd highlight and dogear the heck out of it. I like to sit in the universe built into books for as long as possible.

These days I need both the text and the audiobook to really glue me but once I’m plugged in it’s hard to peel me away. Just make sure Do Not Disturb is on.

Like Spanish, another one of those long-procrastinated life goals is to finally read Dune by Frank Herbert. The copy I’m reading was given to me in the summer of 2012, in Spokane, from a friend’s geeky uncle. It’s dauntingly dense and long and in a universe I couldn’t really attempt to sink my teeth into. Obviously I’m aware of David Lynch’s adaptation, but I’ve willfully put off seeing it until I’ve read this book. Then I plan to watch the documentary about the failed adaptation. Then I’ll see this upcoming very cool looking adaptation.

What I’m saying is that Dune is delayed because of me and I’m sorry it’s my fault and I’m trying to fix it. I have no interest in reading Star Wars extended universe novels so now I’m 15% through the book. This movie looks very cool.

It’s felt like school again. As we enter the Fall under quarantine, it’s allowed me to continue my studies with more rich results than when I was actually in school. Who knew addressing your hierarchy of needs healthily could yield such rewarding fruit??

At Georgia State, a place not built to address your hierarchy of needs, I was studying Film & Media with a minor in Sociology. This past semester (likely my last?), my courses were exclusively online. And you know what? Those classes that cost tens of thousands of dollars a year were heavily dependent on public broadcasting and YouTube videos like Crash Course, a series started by brothers Hank Green and John Green; both of whom I’ve been following online for the last like, 11 years.

The assignments were like, watch this YouTube video and write a response. I’ll email you next week.

So, that’s annoying. But more productively, my recent studies have made me extremely interested in Media Literacy.

I obviously want to make media; I wanna make more movies and music and I’m making media right now in this newsletter, but understanding communication and psychology is key to getting your actual point across. Apparently.

Communication is a two-way street and when you’re unable to communicate or get through to a certain demographic (or even individual person?), eventually it falls on you to understand how you’re being perceived is just as important as what you’re hoping the recipient of that media perceives themselves.

The definition goes,

As of field of study, Media Literacy comprises and overlaps many different theories and subjects from critical thinking and psycology to linguistics and ethics in technology.

Media Literacy can be defined as the ability to access, analyize, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.

If we’re not to exist in churches, movie theaters, malls, schools, or community centers anymore and we exist now in these digital spaces; we are community members together now. That’s unreconcilably global and inadvertently universal. So much for the private intimate newsletter thing.

No matter how much I try to shape how I’m perceived, I can’t control it. If I wear my heart on my sleeve, I can’t command others to follow suit simply because I made myself vulnerable.

If we exist in media now, if we’re citizens of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple more so than citizens of our states, countries, and creeds, media literacy is imperative in not just understanding others and their media, but more pertinently, our own.

I leave you with the transcript I finished from the paid-only audio clip of this question I asked author, YouTuber, and Crash Course co-creator Hank Green. It begins with a brief synopsis of his “Carl Duology,” and I hope you pick it up. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing came out in 2018 and its conclusion, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor was released in July. Having followed him for so long, and in the relative shadow of his widely successful brother John, I can’t praise these books more highly. Sometimes reading it felt like seeing someone you know very well perform in a musical. Sometimes you can’t separate the art from the artist you know so well parasocially.

Let me know if you end up reading them, I would even recommend listening to them. The audiobooks are particularly well crafted.

Ok goodbye for now this is Hank Green quoted and then my question, which you should feel free to answer as well.

“So a basic synopsis of what these books are about: there's a young woman and her friends, and this young woman sees something very weird on her walk home from work in New York City. She stumbles across this thing, and it's very weird so she calls her friend to make a video together.

It turns out it's much weirder than they thought because their video’s kind of one of the first videos about it, and also it’s kind of adorable and nonthreatening. It goes viral, and then she sort of gets half-dragged and also half-climbs-and-pulls her own way into the [media] spotlight and becomes famous at the same time as humanity and the world begins to go through some really difficult adjustments because of the weirdness of the situation.

A lot of this [novel] is me trying to figure out my own relationship with being in the public eye, the amount of influence that I have by virtue of my platform, my relationship with my audience, my relationship with notoriety and fame, what that stuff actually means, and letting April make a bunch of bad decisions so that I don't have to. And in the end, there are many mysteries that they have to work through.

But the most TL;DR version of it is that it doesn't go great for April.”

“Then in the second book, we come back and find her friends interfacing now not just with their own personal relationships with the social internet, but the social internets overall impact on society, and how I think that could go over in the next 10 or 20 years if we do not put some control on the amount of power that I think that those platforms have.

So, you know, I have a lot of that I'd like to say about internet culture and its influence on culture broadly; the divisiveness that it can create as well as the isolation. But I also wanted to tell that inside of a story that's really exciting and fun and weird and funny and I don't think that it's sugar with your medicine. Hopefully, it's all good for you.”

With the awareness you bring to the idea of our “citizenship in digital spaces,” how has that changed your approach to social platforms, and what meaningful behavioral changes would you encourage in readers with that knowledge?

“I saw a really interesting tweet the other day that was sort of like: at what point can you not ‘quote tweet’ someone? Like in anger, because your audience is so big that you're going to bring the brigade upon them? And I thought that was like a really intelligent question because it wasn't snarky. It was like, no seriously, at what point can I not do that anymore? And you know, the [response] numbers varied from like, 10,000 followers to 50,000 followers, but it wasn't much higher than that. A lot of people have 50,000 followers on Twitter! And I think that like, that's certainly my understanding of how audience works, or how my audience works.

You know, early on, I didn't get it, and I think it was really natural not to get [it]. Luckily, I was sort of in an earlier version of the Internet and it was a less combative place. So I think that the mistakes that I made were pretty minor.

Whereas now, I do have a really strong idea that when you have a certain level of power, you have to be much more careful in how you move around because you could accidentally cause harm without knowing you're gonna cause harm. Then your reaction to being told that you caused harm can cause even more harm.

So that's also something to be careful about. And in general, I've become a more careful person.

I think that that's both a bit greater understanding of my own digital citizenship, but it is also my own interfacing with the relationship that I have, or the level of influence, the level of power, that I have.

That’s a weird sentence, like ‘the amount of power that I have,’ but I don't know how else to say it. When you’ve got 100,000 followers on Twitter, that is a level of power that you need to think about intelligently.

Or you could not! And just make broad, surprising, and biased epidemiological opinions! You could also do that, that's also an option available, but that's not how I feel like I should conduct myself. And I get really frustrated by that. So like, I think that it's really personal individual thing.

I get frustrated, though, by people who have large audiences [saying], ‘well, just because I have an audience doesn't mean —’ and I'm like, ‘Yes, it does. I'm sorry, it does. It does mean; it means that you have to be more careful. I'm sorry.’

You can't do it the same way you could if you did not have all this power; I'm sorry. And like, does that mean that maybe your reputation is going to take a bigger hit than it otherwise would? Maybe.

Oh, no, I'm sorry that like, a bad thing happened to you. And this is a thing that I've been trying to get used to myself, because it's not like this never happens or will happen to me as a public figure on the internet like that.

There are times when reputations take hits. And oftentimes those are deserved, and it's never like I've never made a mistake in my life. So, I think that to some extent that we have to accept that what we sometimes refer to as ‘cancel culture’ is just somebody's reputation not being shining as it once was.

And like, I've had plenty of those moments, me and John both in our 15 years on the internet. And so, you know, you want to be aware and to some extent, like my shining reputation is deserved, to some extent it's not, so, you know, ultimately I am human and very imperfect.

I learned about what influence actually is, and how it actually functions more.

Like, there are these two components to fame:

There's the number of people who know who you are, and there's the level of devotion or like, (devotion is probably the wrong word) level of enthusiasm that they have for you and your creations, and so like a cult leader is the example of someone where the number of people is small, but the level of enthusiasm is very high.

And then you have my example of the opposite of that, David Schwimmer. And we all know who David Schwimmer is, but he doesn't have a [rabid] fan club? I don't know. Maybe he does. I'm sure that there are some hardcore Schwimmers out there. But I think that you'll find their level of devotion isn’t realtively high. Anyway, I don't mean to call out David Schwimmer there, I hope he's doing well.

So I think that that's something that I learned from April [the main character of the Carl duology] and that was a thing that I needed to confront.

Also that fame is not a thing that is experienced internally. It is only experienced externally. Like, when somebody looks at me, I have no idea how they know who I am, like you cannot know what they are perceiving in terms of your fame, it is only something that is perceived externally, like beauty.

This is the thing that they say, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ so what I think is beautiful is different from what other people think of as beautiful, but there are some, you know, nonsubjective elements of beauty, and people know when they are more or less attractive, even if they are not going to say it out loud.

Whereas fame really only is in the eye of the person who is experiencing it and it's only inside of the person experiencing it, not inside of the person who is famous. Especially now with how fractured it is because there are lots of people from reality TV to TikTok to YouTube, who a lot of people know, but most people don't.

Like I saw Bianca Del Rio on an airplane and I was freaking out about it and nobody else in that first class airplane section had any idea, and I didn't even say hi I was that freaked out.

As for the behavior of the average internet citizen, I think this is so hard. I think that we have responsibilities to, you know, check things before we share them, and to note when we see things from certain people that are repeatedly not accurate when we check. We ask, do I tell them about this? Do I try to do it in sort nice way?

Do you stand up to that power dynamic and be like ‘hey, I've noticed that you share a lot of things that turn out to be not right, maybe you should take it down, or look more carefully, or just unfollow those people so that you don't have misinformation showing up on your feed.

That kind of behavior in general. We do need to build up some norms and taboos around misinformation but also around outrage bait, like stuff that is true but isn't representative of reality.

And that's harder because a lot of times outrage bait is part of broader activist work and so it's not just isolated in and of itself, and sometimes there's real stuff to be outraged about, and so we have to find the examples that are clear.

Right now there’s a conversation around masks. I think that this period of time where we were sharing videos and we’re still dealing with people who are absolute just disconnected from reality probably like have easily deeper, like much deeper, issues that they're working through that are that aren’t in these viral “I won't wear a mask” videos.

I think that it doesn't make anything better. I don't think that helps the situation. I might be wrong. Maybe shame is an element of that. But I think that anything that creates more division around ‘this kind of person wears a mask,’ ‘this kind of person doesn't wear a mask’ is bad right now because we're trying to save people's lives.

So we just need to be really, really fast onto that eventual place where we will arrive to wear masks are apolitical, and we need to examine every single thing that played a part in making them more political.

Now, I'm not saying that outrage bait was the biggest piece of that equation, but I think it was some part of that equation. I think that the biggest piece of that equation is signaling from leaders from movements that masks are political, and particularly signaling by people who are just consistently not showing up wearing masks over and over and over again, and it's like, well, I think I see what those people are trying to say. And, and those people are really sort of like indulging in their influence in a really gross way.

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Tyler Scruggs is a writer, musician, and millennial swashbuckler navigating the digital frontier through internet content like this and love songs for your Zune. He brews his own coffee now and doesn’t feel it’s safe enough to go to the movies as much as he might like.

Feel free to validate him on Twitter (@TylerScruggs), Instagram (@Scruggernaut), and YouTube.

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