I've built a decent audience across several social media platforms, but I can't shake the feeling that something fundamental is going rotten.
For people doing longer-term and more sophisticated work, such as writing serious non-fiction, participating in the "creator economy" is something like settling an unmapped foreign jungle: the irresistible allure of adventure, the enchantment of pioneering unchartered territory, and hundreds of things that could kill you.
Constant public posting produces a set of negative psychological side-effects we continue to underestimate.
I do believe it's necessary for indie thinkers to build a public audience, and this requires a certain amount of systematic public sharing of work. The error in my thinking has been my presumption that the independent intellectual life would maintain audience growth as a constant goal and metric. In retrospect, this makes no sense because the comparative advantage of genuine thinkers—disciplined, erudite seekers of disinterested truths—is the capacity to conceive and deliver truly original, researched, and socially de-conditioned insights. Obviously this is impossible if one is frenetically glued to the same screens, and the same Discourse, as every other pedestrian of the information superhighway. For the indie thinker, maximizing audience growth in the long run must require periods of extreme detachment, distance, and solitude.
So how is one to know whether one should be building an audience via public posting, or withdrawing to work patiently in detached focus?
In the early days, when your audience is nil, some kind of systematic public posting is essential to achieve one's basic existence in the public sphere. This period requires great discipline, intrinsic motivation, and self-confidence (or else some support from a private community such as IndieThinkers.org).
But if you have something real to say, you'll inevitably earn your way onto the radar of at least a few discerning people.
The first important milestone is when your audience grows large enough that you feel extrinsic motivation to post. The number of expected recipients is large enough that it feels worthwhile to post, even if you're not naturally overflowing with the internal drive to post.
This milestone represents an exciting turning point, as it becomes easier to regularly post. But this is also where one's mind enters into a bargain with the devil: Insofar as external recognition feels like a tailwind, it is to the same degree a straight-jacket. As soon as thinking aloud becomes dopaminergic, thinking aloud starts optimizing for dopamine. The mind can hardly do otherwise; it is an unconscious dynamic that is, to a certain degree, irreducible. Once thinking starts optimizing for dopamine, it starts optimizing for positive social feedback, which means it enters the gravity well of popular opinion, which guarantees a long-term endpoint other than objective truth. For the indie thinker, falling too far into this gravity well is nothing short of doom, for it takes away the only edge that honest and patient thinkers have ever enjoyed: that Truth is always unpopular and difficult, but therefore scarce and hard to fake.
I am now of the view that, once this milestone of extrinsic motivation is reached, one should enjoy the victory but immediately step away from it. One should begin a specific, longer-term project that involves deep focus and prolonged distance from the public web altogether! Not forever, one will return; but only after reaching the next level dopamine-free. As one makes progress on the project, one will periodically post chunks to the public web, but without caring or engaging or watching the results. For this detachment is necessary to produce the work that rises to the top on the public web. And the truth is, patient work in psychological detachment is increasingly hard to perform, even for the educated and literate classes. As scholarly patience becomes increasingly difficult and rare, the simple achievement of frequently reading real books and writing real ideas will increase the price commanded by indie thinkers, given the increasing quantity of undifferentiated opinion.
One hour of truly focused attention is significantly more valuable than 25 hours of scatter-brained Twitter posting.
One hour of focused attention is sometimes sufficient to conceive one original idea, write it down clearly, and do something purposeful with it, such as post it to your blog. The quality of the idea, the quality of the decision about what to do with the idea, and the basic follow-through—all of these are more valuable, and harder than we appreciate.
When I'm scattered, I can have many good ideas and not write most of them down. Of the couple I manage to write down, one is posted on some public abyss like Twitter, and one is posted in some writing app and forgotten. The one posted to Twitter was substantively and lyrically poisoned by some degree of inescapable algorithmic competition psychology. The one posted to the notes was only half-baked anyway; when I wrote it, I was thinking partially about the last tab I saw and partially about the next tab I want to "check."
In a state of attention, I can write one decent idea and also overcome the bit of anticipatory anxiety surrounding the "submit" button on my blog. At the time of this writing, my blog posts go out to about 6k people. I could very feasibly publish good ideas on my blog a few times per week, if I wanted to and decided to. Many smart people read them, opportunities consistently drift my way from these posts. And yet I haven't been publishing blog posts half as much as I could, if I simply decided to. Why not? The calendar and the email and all the tabs are just so absorbing, one partially forgets that higher-value activities even exist, and are viable candidates for what one should be doing. Blogging somehow feels irresponsible; the tabs and apps feel like moral obligations and blogging a kind of self-indulgence. And yet, the reverse is true—but it takes a quiet mind to see this, and a focused mind to act on it.
When you're in the rhythm of bouncing around between podcasts, Youtube videos, Twitter, and all the rest, the decision to stop in favor of reading and writing is more devilishly difficult than any educated person wants to admit. It is perhaps the most underestimated social harm afflicting the literate classes today, in part because it's embarrassing to admit it.
I'm a pretty disciplined and productive person, on average, but I've been extremely embarrassed to confront just how stubbornly mushy my mind and media habits have become over the past year. Several half-baked attempts to correct course have been attempted, and they've failed.
The problem is much more insidious and significant than I previously appreciated. It's a form of mental capture so severe that it's self-effacing, a kind of usurpation where you're really not steering your own ship anymore and the quiet moment where you realize you're not steering your own ship never arrives, unless by some exogenous accident.
I will continue writing and publishing to this email list, here—indeed, this is where I should be writing and publishing most consistently—but I will tell you: I am planning a period of withdrawal from the public web. I'm going to write my second book and I'm going to institute a systematic re-ordering of my time and attention, away from all the tabs and metrics and replies.
I'll send you more details soon.
In the meantime, if you're interested in René Girard, we've produced a nice PDF study guide that will guide you through all of his key ideas in 8 weeks. You can download it for free at GirardCourse.com.