Wednesday, June 08, 2016

You Should (Do Something With That)

I managed to terrify myself on Twitter today. I know what you’re thinking: that’s not that hard. But bear with me for a second and I’ll explain why this Squarespace ad had me spiraling down into a pretty dark place. 
​On the surface, it’s a gorgeous ad. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s pretty freaking sweet graphic design. Take an awesome vista, in wide view, and frame the center of it with just the implication of a web browser (Squarespace is, after all, trying to sell you on making a website on their platform), coupled with the words, “You should.”

The design captured and captivated me. If it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been nearly so disturbed by the message.

There’s a sense of things that’s become so ingrained in my life, that I rarely question it. It asks one dominate question again and again: What are you going to do with that?

It started when I was an undergraduate. Whenever I’d try out a new major or when I’d settled on one, people—well-meaning people, mostly—would ask, so what are you going to do with a degree in X? I didn’t really know. I didn’t really know if I was even going to major in X. I was just looking for something I liked enough to take more classes in and could get a decent GPA in the process.

This isn’t a new woe for college students. But what strikes me is how it’s persisted into everything I do post-college. Want to pursue a hobby? Maybe you start sewing bags, or get serious about exercising, or write a story, or start a blog, or paint, or take up photography. You should really do something with that. (Assuming the speaker thinks it's an activity of value.) Oh, what are you going to do with that? (If the speaker thinks . . . less kindly of the activity.)

You go to all these great, thrilling, exciting, vibrant places?
You should really start a travel blog.

You do crossfit?
You should become a trainer. You should try out for American Ninja Warrior.

You’re good at sewing?
You should really sell these.

Dabble in photography?
You should make a coffee book and sell it online.

What I keep hearing again and again, what I’ve unfortunately internalized is that it’s not enoughto have a hobby and engage in it in a way that makes you happy. It's not enough to just Do A Thing because you love it; instead, you should Do A Thing only if there’s a way for other people to engage with it. And, if possible, monetize their engagement.

I won’t deny that money is, usually, nice. And that many a "living the dream" story comes from people who have managed to take their passion and turn it into a profit. But this notion that our interests are only worthwhile when we can use them to engage with others? The only worthwhile passion is a profitable passion? Egad.

And this isn’t all just in my head. If it were, then there wouldn’t be so many articles out there on how to grow your Twitter or Facebook or Instagram following. How to gain a base or build a platform. Nor would there be so many services seeking to make money off of our desire to engage. Because how can we know our interests are interesting if we don't have 10,000 fans and X,000 likes to tell us other our interests are, in fact, interesting?

Take for example the case of the Would-be Podcast.

I suggested to my friend that we start a podcast simply because I thought it would be fun. We have fun when we get together and talk geeky about books, movies, etc., so why not record it? And admittedly, because I listen to way too much NPR and I wanted to attempt to make my own version of their audio-essays, and I figured my attempts at debasing well-produced radio would be swifter (if not better) with a friend.

My friend’s first and recurring question was, but who would listen to it? I dunno. Does it matter? We wouldn’t be spending very much money making and producing the podcast; we more or less had all the equipment (nothing fancy), there was basic editing software available for free, and all we’d really be spending was the time and effort of editing the sound file and packaging it as a podcast. Does anyone need to listen to it if we’re happy with it? Should a person only speak if they're certain they will be heard? If a tree falls in a forest . . . ?

We went to Penguicon this spring, and there was a panel about starting your own podcast. I went hoping they’d explain it was hard, hard, hard, and I’d be effectively talked out of the idea. My friend and I sat through this panel together, and the panelists explained that it was, more or less, easy. That all you need to do is have fun (and not spend more than you can afford to lose because you shouldn’t view it as a means of making money, just a means of having fun). Just have fun, they said, and the listeners will come . . . or they won’t. But either way you won’t care because you’ll be having too much fun.Followed by a stern commandment to stop when you stop having fun.

I walked out of the talk singing, praise the podcast, I’m a convert!

Then we ran into a convention-friend of ours, told him the notion, and the next thing I knew, we were back to, but who would listen to our podcast?

We’ve come to rely on engagement as a barometer for the worthwhileness of our activities. #PictureOrItDidntHappen. It seems strange that in a time that’s considered the Age of the Geek, where it’s cool to like whatever it is you like, that we are still hyper-focused on having interests that others deem interesting. The interests and avenues we pursue, are often those interests a jury of our social media peers tell us are interesting. It’s not that we no longer need a tribe or team or clique to back us up and make us feel like what we’re doing is worthwhile; it’s that we now get to pick our tribe from a much larger pool.

And we want our tribe to like us. So when we go someplace breathtaking, we document it with our phones. Bonus points if you can upload and share it in real time. We don’t just make crafts for the sake of having fun while making crafts, we open a goddamn Etsy store. We don’t just write a book because it makes us happy, we self-publish a book and try to get everyone to buy it. Because you should be sharing these things. You should be engaging. Because if you’re not gaining followers, you’re losing followers—and you should gain more followers. Because you should be doing more with whatever it is you do. Heaven forbid you just do it because you like it and never let anyone know.

Highly Recommended