Make Yourself A Home Online: An Exhortation
By Brian ToMay 20th, 2020
With a collective inquietude, inside our inner walls until further notice, we reveal certain truths about ourselves, to ourselves.
I'd planned to write something a bit longer, but I mean, I've had months to do that. As of May 19, 2020, it has been 57 days since Gov. Jay Inslee's announcement of the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order in the state of Washington, which has mandated the closure of public spaces and most offices, stores, warehouses, and other places prone to dense crowds, in an attempt to slow community transmission of COVID-19. The most restrictive of measures are bound to go on in Seattle till mid-June.
We all find ways to cope. Mine is apparently creating a personal website. (And far too much online shopping). So I'd like to talk a bit about the exercise of "personal branding".
I recently read Jenny Odell's excellent How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. In it, Odell makes the following observation about the intersection of social media, "personal branding", and increasingly blurred lines between work and life:
In a situation ... when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes ... monitoring the ongoing development of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource ... we also see all of our own time and our actions as potentially commercial. Just as public space gives way to faux public retail spaces or weird corporate privatized parks, we are sold the idea of compromised leisure, a freemium leisure...
Online, the co-opting of public space for semi-public spaces such as social networking sites has happened pretty quickly in my lifetime. And a lot has been written about the many problems social networking sites face. But most crucially, it's fundamentally not 100% you. No matter how much you try, your content is mixed-in with all sorts of recommendations and ads that are not only out of your control, but run counter to your goals by spraying distractions around whatever it is you're trying to say. On Instagram, paid advertisers and those over a certain number of likes are given privileged, more interactive modes of communication unavailable to most users, in the form of "swipe up to view" on Stories, among other things. Stories themselves are ostensibly ephemeral by nature, unless you choose to highlight them - but Instagram will never delete your Stories. Your stories don't disappear, they get permanently filed into training sets for complex, inscrutable neural networks. No matter how hard you try, no matter what you write, you must always bend to the will of the platform.
I'm not at all advocating to get off of social media. And neither is Jenny Odell, the author of How to Do Nothing. (She has an excellent Instagram where she posts mostly photos of birds). For many, social media is essential to their livelihoods. And of course, I'm not arguing against "personal branding" either, at least not in the sense of performing in certain ways in public spaces (including online) and revising them later when such performances no longer suit you. I do have some qualms with the word "branding", but on the whole it's a useful enough term. But if you personally brand solely on social networks, you don't have a personal brand - you have a brand the social network has lent to you. And maybe you can change it a bit. But it's not yours and it never will be, and social networks subconsciously remind you of that fact every time you write a story or like a post. And how can something be personal if it was never truly yours to begin with?
GeoCities versus Company Towns
I realize there are people who have never heard of GeoCities, so let me use this as an excuse to explain it here: Essentially, GeoCities was an ad-supported web host where anyone could sign up, upload some files, and boom, you have a website that anyone can visit. Sure, it's not your domain name, and sure, there's a giant banner ad above your content, but for many years this was the easiest way to say something online. This was before the age of ad blocking, too. But crucially, the ads were always distinct from the pages, which you were free to design in any which way (including badly). There were minimal distractions beyond the banner ads and no algorithmic noise.
Unfortunately, it was shut down in 2009. Fortunately, because of the open nature of GeoCities, much of it survives on the Internet Archive. And of course, any website owner could easily export the site on their own accord, since it was all just simple, self-contained HTML.
I will freely admit that I don't have any reason to browse those GeoCities archives myself. Maybe I had one or two webpages on there, but I don't remember now. But GeoCities now exists as a beautiful historic relic, mostly well-preserved, its pages weaving and contributing to the aesthetic, identity, culture, knowledge, and values of the late-90s, early-2000s web–all of which are incidentally being mined now for inspiration by artists, musicians, and yes, companies and brands.
GeoCities was the most famous of the web hosts, but I decided to highlight it for another reason: The "city" metaphor used in the branding and, for a while, the actual organization of the GeoCities network itself. You were a "homesteader" making a site in a "neighborhood". How perfect of a metaphor for a time like this! If a personal website is like a detached house, GeoCities (by the time Yahoo! took over) was kind of like an apartment in a city with billboards. But social media is not anything like that. It's not even a hotel room. It's a dorm in a company town.
Carve out your home
Inevitably I'm writing this in the context of COVID-19, which has caused many to consider and reconsider what home means to them. That's another essay for another month (or year). But for anyone who is online and whose livelihoods are materially impacted by what they do online (which I think is actually most, if not all, of us), I strongly urge you to seek out ways to "brand" yourself beyond social media.
I fully expect no one (and I mean, no one) to read this. But that doesn't matter. Because this is, in some senses, my online home. And my home means it's not for others. It's not so I can float above some algorithmic high-water mark. It's for me.
Don't just settle for a company town. Make yourself a home.
Up next. I vaguely remember starting this blog to share insights of a technical nature. Stay tuned for my take on the venerable to-do list sample app. I promise. Definitely in less than a year.