Cold Pitch
Cold Pitch
Fear of Loathing in Lancaster
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Fear of Loathing in Lancaster

What can fears about sharing work online teach us about the politics of identity and recognition?
9
Transcript

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I am much more comfortable "showing up" online than I am in the analog world. I've spent decades learning the rules of blogging, social media, email, and private communities. I feel relatively comfortable hitting publish—even when I'm sharing something vulnerable or bold. I'm confident that I'm presenting myself at my best.

But I know not everyone feels that way about online spaces. Often, the people who are most comfortable navigating the analog world and talking to strangers in the checkout line are the same people who feel ill at ease on social networks and online communities. They're much more hesitant to hit the publish button than I am.

Of course, there are as many different ways to feel about "showing up" online or offline as there are people in the world. I'm painting with a very broad brush.

I wanted to learn more about the fears an outgoing, extroverted person might have about sharing things online.

So I asked Sean.

Because for him, making media to share online is "like pulling teeth." His words.

The Phone Tree

A few months ago, out of the blue, Sean texted me a phone number: 1-406-200-8460

I cannot overstate how anxious the sudden appearance of a phone number makes me feel. I avoid calling people at all costs (including actual financial costs...). He knows this.

Dialing the phone number, it turned out, resulted in an automated phone tree. Sean was finally going to turn his moderately absurd idea into reality.

Inspired multidisciplinary artist Tamar Ettun's project "Lilit the Demon" and a conversation with

, Sean had decided to launch a "hotline" as his first foray into content marketing. However, the idea had been on the back burner for a good year because he assumed setting up a phone tree would be a big lift. When he discovered Google Voice Attendant through a friend, he got started immediately. "I had it set up that day," he told me—which, between you and me, is quite a feat of motivation for him!

Each week, Sean shares a pre-recorded story or affirmation (about 3 minutes long) in his phone tree.1 You can listen to a new one each Monday morning, as well as last week's recording. After that, the recordings are gone for good. It's like the SnapChat of 90s phone calls.

He also records himself reading a poem, shares some music, and shares more about himself and his work. Plus, there's an opportunity to leave him a voicemail.

I can't over-stress how very him the whole thing is. I mean, if the man could figure out the workflow to record himself on an audio cassette and physically mail it to you, he would. For heaven's sake, we make podcasts for a living—arguably the most frictionless technology of broadcast media ever conceived—but he loves a little anachronistic challenge.

This medium—the phone tree—is an interesting choice from the perspective of our hopes and fears around making media online. Many people, and probably most people encountering this project, make media online to be recognized. Whether the reason is marketing, employment opportunities, or just keeping in touch with friends and family, we post to be seen by others we care about.

The Need to Be Recognized

Recognition, argues philosopher Charles Taylor, "is a vital human need." We crave recognition that reinforces both our equal dignity to others and our unique differences from others. In the past, identity was understood as a product of class, profession, and social hierarchy. Identity was contingent on a more or less fixed status. But today, at least in theory, we've abandoned rigid hierarchies and fixed status. Most of us value the flexibility of our identities, and we want to be recognized for the choices we make based on who we know ourselves to be.

Setting aside the many various problems with social media and platform capitalism, digital media indisputably created greater access to a kind of recognition. Even if we are socially isolated where we live or from family, we have a chance to connect with others on our own terms online. We make connections by representing our values, interests, and worldviews in the form of social media. To connect, then, is to be recognized, at least in some small way.2 What's more, various public-private online platforms make it possible for others to find us and reach out to connect.

Sean's phone tree, however, isn't "findable" in the same sense. You won't discover it by entering a relevant search term into Google. You're unlikely to just stumble on his website where the number is listed. The phone tree is a medium you have to go looking for. Which means you already know it exists, you already recognize Sean in a way. The phone tree is completely public—anyone willing to dial a US number can access it. But also relatively private.

Recognized by the "Right People"

"What I want from [the phone tree]," he explains, "is that the people who are listening to it want to ... If this is something that is compelling to you, then you're going to listen to it ... And if it's not, you're not."

I might call what Sean describes here as the desire to be found by the right people. This desire implies its opposite, as well. Call it a fear—or maybe an aversion—but many people feel anxious about the "wrong" people finding their work online. The wrong people might leave a heartless comment, attack you or your work, or question your integrity in front of the right people.

At the risk of psychoanalyzing my dear husband, I see his choice to create the phone tree as both an artistic choice and a way to allay his concern about being exposed to people who "don't get it" in distasteful, harmful, or even violent ways.

I do the same thing—just in a different form. My own voice, topic choice, and content structure are based on how I love to write. They're stylistic choices more than they are savvy product choices—to be sure. But at the same time, I know that my style limits who comes into contact with me and my work. The odds that I get shouted down by some hyper-capitalist tech bro Elon Musk superfan are extremely low. How would they even find me in the first place? And why would they start listening to or reading my work?

But at the same time, I can make it harder for the right people to find my work, too. And I do want to be recognized by the right people—just like Sean.

The Value of Anonymity

To be clear, Sean is very "in process" when it comes to figuring out his fears around sharing work online. During our conversations on this topic, he was processing his relationship with online spaces in real-time. A few hours after one such conversation, he told me that he realized that he was getting hung up on his value for anonymity—but that he was starting to see that in a new way.

"Anonymity doesn't demand much of you," he observed, "and I tend to lean towards things that don't really demand much of me." Anonymity, he was starting to realize, may be more about valuing control and conflict avoidance than actually being anonymous. After all, he also has a very high value for interpersonal connection that doesn't always get met in the way he'd like:

"What I've been processing lately is: I like anonymity, but why? Is it that I like community and connection, but only when I can control it?"

If there's one thing Sean does not want from this life, it's celebrity. Stardom. Or, god forbid, to become an influencer. He realized that he was connecting "showing up online" with "becoming a celebrity"—but that's a very large spectrum between anonymity and celebrity. "I think that there's a way that I can be known ... but still protect my time, my space, and still have some control," he told me.

The Harm of Misrecognition

Let's revisit the idea that recognition is a vital human need. That we all want to be recognized for both our dignity and our difference—in a way that feels true to us.

Is a celebrity recognized in that way? Or an influencer? Or even a super niche performance artist you follow on Instagram?

No, I don't think so. We can recognize their persona. We can identify them as a standardized, flattened version of who we must presume is a multifaceted person. We might even view all of their public activity as a performance of self. But we don't recognize them in the way we crave being recognized.

Charles Taylor, the philosopher I mentioned earlier, argues that our individual identities are formed both through recognition and through misrecognition. Taylor writes that "a person ... can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves." Being misrecognized can trap us in a "false, distorted, and reduced mode of being," even to the point of internalized self-hatred.

It's this kind of misrecognition that we experience when someone mistakes one of our identities for our whole identity. For instance, imagine someone who believes that all mothers would prefer to stay home with their children, and that preference characterizes their view of the economy, their job, and their personal finances. If they learn I'm a mother, they'll come to all sorts of incorrect conclusions about my preferences and worldview. It's one thing to shake off a single person's misrecognition—but it's quite another to shake off institutional or societal misrecognition. In that case, misrecognition can seep into our identities and limit who we believe we can be.

So at best, misrecognition is frustrating. But at worst, misrecognition imposes a restricted and constrained identity on those being misrecognized. We can internalize the way others perceive “people like us” and lose the ability to imagine our identities outside that narrow class.

The desire for anonymity is a guard against misrecognition. And there are many very legitimate reasons to desire anonymity and avoid misrecognition! There are also reasons—like maintaining control—that make it much harder to be legitimately recognized in the ways we might want.

Privilege and Recognition

Now seems like a good time to remind you that Sean is a 6' tall, white, cis, straight man with a big, full beard, blue eyes, and a smile that puts people at ease. In other words, he exudes privilege. He has the privilege of almost never being misrecognized in a way that puts him at risk of harm. There are very few rooms, literal or metaphorical, that he walks into in which he wouldn't feel comfortable stating an opinion or asking a question.

Lots of people don't have that privilege, though. However, online spaces have made it possible for more of us with fewer layers of privilege to show up, share our thoughts, and be seen. That's the promise of the democratization of media. We have a bigger, more accessible "public square" than we've ever had. For good and for ill.

But democratization of media and access to public spaces online also means that, "it's taken advantage of by a lot of really ugly people." The discourse about the discourse is a laundry list of (mostly) justified complaints about the vile stuff people post online. We might think of online harassment as weaponized misrecognition.

"That's the other thing that I'm afraid of," Sean told me, "I'm afraid of becoming a target of those people."

Sure, anyone can become a target of online harassment, even a marginally straight white dude with a small that puts people at ease. But over the course of our conversation, Sean realized that the examples he had of people becoming targets of online harassment were all people who hold marginalized identities. That his privilege had shielded him from even considering whether he was likely to be targeted in the same way a Black woman or a trans rights activist might be.

He also realized that the specific fear he had was being told his work wasn't very good. He wasn't worried about speaking out on issues that are important to him—"I am very comfortable and confident in telling them to go fuck themselves."

One of these fears is a fear of the attention that can come from sticking up for others. Even negative attention of this sort has the effect of recognizing a part of his identity he values. The other is the fear of having someone confirm his doubts about the thing he made and shared with the world. And he's more fearful of this kind of attention. Being told that his work isn't good or interesting hurts because it feels like misrecognition. That type of negative feedback takes an expansive and multifaceted identity and squeezes it into something smaller and constrained.

The Benefit of the Digital Doubt

One nasty comment or email may do damage. However, the more one is exposed to that kind of feedback, the more likely one is to internalize that constrained identity. That’s one thing for Sean as a marginally straight white male. But it's another for those who don't experience the social benefit of the doubt that he does.

Taylor distinguishes between the principle of equal dignity and the principle of difference. He notes that those who aim to elevate the principle of equal dignity (even equal human potential) above the principle of difference often ignore the ways equal dignity is contingent on assimilating to the dominant culture. In other words, in order to benefit from systems that prize equality, many of us have to make ourselves appear less different.

When Sean posts something to a public online space, he benefits from the ease by which he's afforded equal dignity. People are more likely to treat his differences more charitably. But when a Black woman or an Indigenous trans woman posts something to a public online space, they are much more likely to face both the pressure to appease dominant culture and an erasure of their difference. That takes a considerable amount of emotional, cultural, and even aesthetic work.

While I was talking to Sean about his fears, I realized that he has much less practice being misrecognized than people with less privilege. He’s less accustomed to the kind of work that underrecognized people do every day. The online world feels uncomfortable because it's uncomfortable for him to be visible in a place that seems less safe than he's used to being. "In the analog world," he reflected, "I know the rules. I know how this works." And, he would tell me later, he knows that those rules are all written with people like him in mind.

The rules of online spaces are still largely written with people like him in mind. But there are more spaces where underrecognized people take the lead and write their own rules. Some of those spaces are private—but many of them are hiding in plain sight. Sean is right to be hesitant, to learn more about the rules of the spaces he enters before he contributes an opinion. It's an experience that's familiar to lots of people.

Recognition is in the Dialogue

To state what I hope is obvious, not everyone needs to or wants to show up online and share their thoughts publicly. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, online media presents an incredible opportunity for those of us who crave being seen on our own terms. Whether it's social media, or podcasting, or writing, or other forms of digital media, we have new and more accessible ways to connect with others who recognize us—and we also have the opportunity to recognize others as they share their work and identities.

Charles Taylor makes the point that pop culture preaches a view of self-actualization and identity that springs from an always already existing essence. When we talk about being true to ourselves or acting authentically, we tend to reference an immutable internal monologue about who really really are. Taylor says we give far too much credence to this perspective. Instead, he emphasizes that identity is born from dialogue—both real and imagined—with others. We learn who we are through interaction with our caregivers, friends, partners, and children. We also learn who we are based on a dialogical relationship with institutions and culture, including media.

If making stuff online exposes us to misrecognition and dialogue with those who may belittle, attack, or dispute in bad faith, then a certain fear of loathing is justified. But is succumbing to that fear worth giving up the possible recognition and constructive dialogue with people who are willing to see us and our work in good faith?

Everyone needs to find their own answer to that question—there is no right or wrong here. For me, the benefits of making public work online outweigh my fear of loathing. I'll take the risk of being targeted if it means I can be recognized and recognize others in affirming ways.

1

If you hate the phone as much as I do, you can listen to a sample in the What Works feed.

2

William Davies offers a fascinating take on how Taylor’s politics of recognition do and, importantly, don’t function in the realm of social media and surveillance capitalism.

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Cold Pitch
Cold Pitch
An experimental media project on media, curiosity, and identity brought to you by the host of What Works, Tara McMullin, and Sean McMullin, co-founder of YellowHouse.Media.
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