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Occult Masculinity

(Warning: There is some kind of gross stuff in this one, mostly sexual.)

Conspiracy culture used to be fun. When I was a kid, I loved poking around on YouTube for people's crudely-made videos about their UFO sighting or haunted house or what have you. I probably heard the X-Files theme more times in my adolescense than people who faithfully watched the show. I didn't believe any of the wild ideas being preached, but there was a primitive charm to the manner of preaching. Windows Movie Maker default-blue-background text would spell out a message like silent-movie intertitles, or someone with their fridge buzzing in the next room would murmur into a shitty built-in microphone about the Montauk Island time-travel experiments or the Area 51 reverse-engineering program. When I was in my early teens I ate this stuff up, and at 24 I think it's safe to say my worldview did not mutate that far. I came out pretty normal [citation needed].

A lot of my internet consumption is still centered on finding and observing people with fringe beliefs. I follow some bizarre Twitter users trying to spread the message about the impending reversal of the magnetic poles, or alien DNA encoded in sunlight, or them being a reincarnation of the Oracle at Delphi. (The magnetic poles guy hasn't posted in a while. I hope he's alright). I know it's rude to gawk at people in need of mental help—and of course I follow strict Star Trek rules and never interact—but I find something so fascinating about the benign weirdo, someone with a Gene Ray-like obsession with something utterly compelling to themselves and yet incommunicable to anyone else.

Unfortunately, the benign weirdo has become critically endangered. In the early Obama years—or at least, this is the first I saw it myself—the burgeoning far-right reactionary movement started strip-mining the conspiracy world for manpower. Sure, a lot of conspiratorial beliefs had always been racist, but the culture-war draft tainted the entire realm of thinking. In 2007, the most dangerous conspiracy nut you knew was probably your burnout cousin who kept asking you to watch Loose Change. In 2022, thousands of Facebook-poisoned uncles who thought Mike Pence had sold out to a baby-eating shadow government staged an armed insurrection. So the culture is a little more extreme now. QAnon has brought our modern pop-culture hunger for mergers and crossovers to the world of the occult, forcing people who once just throught the earth is flat to buy into a much broader and more vile checklist of opinions, political stances, and medical hoxes. The silly YouTube videos of my youth, if they survive, are probably just entry points now to an autoplay labyrinth from which a teenager will emerge bleary-eyed, craving raw liver, and muttering ominously about the Elders of Zion.

My childhood online was, looking back, amazingly sheltered. I goofed around on Flipnote Hatena and posted weak memes on Imgur. I used Twitter more than anyone wanted. But I never got into 4chan, or SomethingAwful, or the places I thought of as crude or untamed. The GameCube I had at home didn't expose me to slur-studded gaming culture, which I saw completely consume guys I knew in high school. Make no mistake, my mannerisms and personality were very much molded by my digital environment—but that just meant I spent a lot of time parroting Nedroid punchlines, not attempting pickup artistry. I saw many pipelines like that open up and swallow people similar to myself. Dudes I took French with are white nationalists now. Maybe guys you used to know are marble-statue-profile-pic freaks who spend all day drooling over aerial photos of like, Winooski, Vermont. It happens!

Sorry, this is actually Montpelier. But you know the towns those "culture" dorks are always posting.
John Holm / Unsplash

There has been an insane uptick in gender essentialism online lately. Eating some pickles is "girl dinner" but eating a grilled chicken breast is "boy dinner." My partner sends me Instagram videos daily where women say (or point at some text, which is a form of saying that doesn't drown out the nightcored Doja Cat) that you should ask your boyfriend how he feels about Rome, or whether he thinks he could land a plane. I've just recently learned about "boy math" and "girl math," which seem to describe any rationalization made for any action by anyone. The digital zeitgeist is rehashing the same worn-out Mars-Venus material I thought was buried next to "the food they serve you on a plane isn't very good" in the graveyard of spent comedy premises.

My partner points out that many "girl dinner / math / etc." posters aren't consciously perpetuating this reactionary essentialism. They're catching themselves eating a handful of animal crackers at 7 PM instead of cooking and thinking of a funny [citation needed] audio clip. Drawing a gendered fence around a pretty universal experience is weird, but once something has a name we typically quit thinking about what the name really means. And we have always gendered things that don't need it; a behavior maybe emergent of anthropogenic projection or maybe learned from sociopathic marketing VPs fueling Xbox-versus-PlayStation-style recess debates over who was allowed to own which toys in what colors.

"Polly Pocket" (left) and "Mighty Max" (right) playsets.
Children of the '90s

Were I slightly more paranoid, I might suspect that the online wildfire of Boy Stuff and Girl Stuff is a coordinated operation by actors with an interest in quashing the modern redefinition of gender norms. Maybe some sort of intelligence organization with a history of psychological warfare and a hyper-conservative agenda? Does America have one or two of those? But it's most likely just a natural reaction. The CIA didn't seed the fad of hosting an elaborate party to reveal the sex of your unborn baby, but that fad did eerily coincide with the rising visibility of trans people. "Boy math" et al. could just be the vicious cycle of algorithmically-curated feeds and the resulting what-about-me-ism reaching the lowest common denominator of special little clubs you can feel like you're part of.

I'm a cis man. I also think it's obnoxious to make manhood the main pillar of your identity, in a way that merges the obnoxionsness of being a racist and being too into like, Harry Potter or whatever. It's so important to have multiple parts to your personality, and it's probably better to have the main ones be interests or choices rather than randomly-assigned genetic traits (or uncritical fandom, but that's a different essay). I know I'm not breaking any ground here by going in on racists but I always found it kind of sad to have so little going on that your self-worth comes to rest on your DNA. Try painting, or fixing up old lawn mowers, or something.

Part of being a man, or rather changing from a boy to a man, is feeling lost and ignored for a while. I am, as much as I flinch to say it, molded from the same clay as plenty of incels and marble-statue dweebs. Looking back, I wouldn't call myself popular or romantically successful, and probably only my social unawareness in general saved me from longing to be those things in a way that scarred me. For a guy who is acutely aware of what he should be and just can't achieve it due to factors he thinks of as personal failings, it's easy to end up antisocial and bitter—so much easier than ending up properly adjusted that it can seem like your only option.

One of the places I like to find benign weirdos is the UFO subreddit, a community constantly at war between helpful skeptics explaining people's mystery photos with earthly phenomena and fringe theorists trying fruitlessly to explain their self-invented hypotheses while accusing the skeptics of being disinformation bots. Recently, I spotted a post that was not really about UFOs at all but grabbed my attention in the first line:

In ancient times, legends spoke of a powerful and mysterious technology known as the Deep State A.I. Run by the illuminated Philosophers, this arcane system was believed to have the capability to monitor and track individuals, keeping tabs on their every move. While many dismissed these tales as mere myths, recent discoveries suggest there might be a grain of truth to them.

This is the kind of thing I find entertaining. It's very funny to imagine ancient legends about something called "The Deep State A.I." being passed down by generations who were waiting around for those words to mean something. This is also a theory I assume this guy invented, since I can't find anything else substantial on it. So I checked out his other posts, most of which were screeds on this "Deep State A.I" concept or about adjacent theories involving Martians and mind control. Then I got to his first post, in a subreddit called "Pure Retention," about something I had seen before:

Everything is [sic] the material world , is designed to bring your energy levels down, low enough for the veil between realms to work effectively. It is necessary for the secret enslavement of the human race. So you can have your life force, drained out of you in a magnitude [sic] of ways, and this energy is dispersed in to the luminiferous Aether, where it free game for the Demons, Devils & Djinn from the Lower realms to feast on this potent source of energy. that one Retained soul has the energy expenditure to decimate an entire, solar system. When the willpower (that is obtained by defeating all desires) becomes so powerful, the magnetic force within you becomes so high, that it start to manifests, into energy constructs or telekinesis. Everything gravitates towards you and reality starts bending to your whim.

So, there is a demographic of guys online who believe that by not masturbating they can cultivate some kind of mystic energy that grants them vague spiritual power. I've bumped into this belief before, mostly scanning Twitter feeds of guys who get virally dunked on for saying something like "makeup should be illegal" in their only post not about biblical prophecy. Plenty of men also have a less-mystical take on this concept—the equally unproven idea that refraining from cranking off makes you more attractive and confident via some biological process—but I find the faction convinced demons and djinn are involved much more compelling, for obvious reasons.

"SR" stands for "semen retention," which is what they call it. Also: lmao.
Reddit / peter9087

I would not qualify my feelings toward this group as sympathetic, but in an objective sense I do kind of see how you'd end up here from point A. Loads (sorry) of these posts talk about things like "defying your programming" and "escaping" or "transcending" nature. Women—object of the desire they seek to suppress—are reduced to either predictable automata or malicious succubi, either way agents of oppression trying to take something precious from you. It's a perfect fit with the way a guy sees the world at sixteen: confusing and cruel, but despite all the confusion and cruelty a world in which he is the undisputed protagonist.

I frequently revisit an old episode of This American Life called Chip In My Brain. It's about a teenage boy named Cody whose basketball coach feeds him a theory about an Illuminati supercomputer buried under Belgium and an impending satanic mandate of implanted RFID chips. To the reporting staff and their core audience, this is a story about the challenges of parenting: a child has been led astray in a shocking way that illustrates just how impossible it can be to truly understand your kid. But I find it just as compelling as a story about adolescent masculinity, the voids created by the things we don't give young men, and the unintended ways they can be filled.

Being a teenage boy is pretty similar to being a conspiracy wingnut. You are compelled and consumed by a hunch which at many times seems to be in control of your mind. To a kid smart enough to recognize it, this is terrifying. You don't know what's going on exactly, you definitely don't have the vocabulary to process it, and all you know is that society doesn't want you to talk about it. The only difference is whether the all-consuming hunch is thinking JFK Jr. is alive or being chronically horny all the time. Anyone who doesn't understand is an enemy agent; only a subreddit's worth of comrades can be called friends.

Imagine going through a period of your life defined by chronic horniness but also by a crippling inability to get what your hormones want—because you're kind of awkward, or unattractive, or otherwise just unlucky. Now imagine that this is also a period in life where everything that happens to you seems world-endingly important. The culture raising you says that men should be strong, stoic, and in control. If factors outside your reach prevent you from attaining this ideal, it can seem like damnation to a lifetime of emptiness.

This is what I mean when I say that myself and "incel" guys share a common ancestor. A low-hanging solution is to try and amputate the desires you can't fulfill or are otherwise ashamed of. I spent a lot of my younger years thinking—or really just wishing very hard—that I was demi- or asexual, because sexuality was embarassing to contemplate or exercise. And I got handed the easiest version of it! I continue thinking it's shameful to express sexual thoughts, but only to the healthy extent that I think it should be a private thing rather than, again, a load-bearing component of your personality. Being publically horny is, and I'm sorry for this, cringe. It's cringe! Have you ever seen one of those Subarus with anime women plastered across the back window and thought, Wow, a really normal and cool guy must drive that. We should be friends? No. Keep that stuff at home.

I wanted to find a photo of one of those 'weeb whips' but everything I found was far too gross to share here. So here's this lady who came up on Shutterstock for "anime car."
ElsonPhoto / Shutterstock

Simultaneously, the push to scrutinize masculinity and challenge its hegemony in our culture—which I think is a monumental net good, let me be clear—puts additional pressure on these guys to suppress their feelings. I'm not trying to absolve myself of toxicity when I say this was-slash-is probably my biggest motivator to keep it packed up. To pursue sex as a man or even just talk about wanting it is a diluted form of violence, an abuse of power. I associate such crass openness with the worst aspects of pop-masculinity: frat guys, pickup artists, Andrew Tate disciples, Twitch viewers. To speak openly about your biological imperatives is to submit to them, to become a repulsive animal no better than some Barstool guy ripping his dab pen on the world's most disgusting couch. I think self-control—or rather, control of the lizard-brain—is part of being a good, functional person.

What I didn't do, fortunately, was invent a fantasy version of the universe with which to punish myself for yanking off. My upbringing was not especially religious. If someone was raised in, say, a Catholic household, it's not that far a leap from there to the conclusion that your pubescent impulses are the result of demons trying to weaken and trick you. (My idea of Catholicism is that it's like 10% removed from DOOM lore.) After all, these kinds of ideas mesh perfectly with your existing understanding of the world: You're driven to want something by subconscious processes that feel externally imposed, and being denied satisfaction by a world that seems rigged against you. If this is the work of dark entitites that subsist on your siphoned qi, then at least it's all for something instead of just unfortunate happenstance. Some more selections from that Reddit post:

Ever since Lucifer failed to bow & Disobeyed The creator, being banished from the heavens he vowed that he would constantly bombard the progeny of Adam, till the end of time. He designed the societies of earth through Hundreds of thousands of years of planning, carried out by those who worship him. designing everything in society geared towards antagonizing of humans, lowering their ascension, whilst swaying them like cattle. It is not hard to predict & manipulate you when all your options have already been calculated for eons.

The illusive membrane only works if your Magnetic shields are down. So in order to do so, all other aspects of society have to contribute.

Food - Poisoning the foods with toxins deemed to the masses as preservatives, make unhealthy food options, readily available. (not only do the toxins contribute to descension of man, but the profiteering of the Medical pharmaceutical complex.

Water - Poison the water with chemicals that calcify and lower the IQ levels of the masses.

Entertainment - Create a hyper sexualized society that is heavily influenced by the entertainment industry, that promote the spilling of seed and female essence.

This poor guy is looking for answers to his problems in the Bible, which lots of people do, and I think is generally just as fine as any other place to seek meaning. But the extrapolation ropes in a bunch of other unrelated stuff—fluoride, GMOs, Hollywood's secret agenda—and turns it into something pretty removed from typical interpretations of scripture.

Once again, while I do not sympathize with this type of guy (especially given the unprintable vitriol expressed about women in a lot of these posts) I can see the turns a person could take that would land them here. If you're uncomfortable with your sexuality, especially if yours is the globally dominant hetero-male one, it's kind of insane how relentlessly horny capitalist culture is. A world where everyone from online influencers to goddamn M&Ms is trying to activate or exploit the sex center of your brain—which you can't figure out how to defuse or ignore—absolutely seems like it could have been designed to punish and challenge you. Inventing the extra twist that it was designed to punish you by Satan and/or the Illuminati just helps you believe that it all means something.

Western men are instructed that they're supposed to be strong, unemotional, and sexually accomplished. But nobody will tell us exactly how to get there or even how to know if we're close. Eventually you'll grasp at anything that floats by. In trying to fulfill the archetype of the independent stoic, young men are flocking to basically anyone sufficiently jacked or sufficiently intellectual-sounding who peddles any kind of salve, regardless of absurdity. Eat nothing but raw organ meat, offers the beet-red bodybuilder. Clean your room and beware of chaos magic, offers a Canadian professor who is also constantly crying for some reason. Call CPS if your parents are compromised by the Belgian supercomputer and try to implant a microchip in you, says your basketball coach. And you listen, because it makes more sense than nothing, which is all you can come up with on your own.

I don't necessarily think this class of wacko thought leaders are causing the crisis they profit from. They're just pointing a confused, exploitable audience at a nameable enemy and selling pills and podcasts on the back of the resulting anger. These guys are just playing the free market—that they're liberating their followers from the prison of masculine emotional stuntedness into the larger prison of being commodified is a bummer, but it's not a new approach.

The pipeline(s) of men becoming weird embittered outcasts who blame their fate on women and/or demons is a failing of their environment. I don't believe anyone is born fascist. But when you give a bunch of kids no outlet and no tools for emotional introspection and throw them into a world designed to exploit that ignorance, you create a mass desperation that's gonna result in some marble-statue guys, or worse. Sex education for students of all genders is woefully too little and in a lot of cases too late. Mental health has been growing steadily in the discourse for years but we still aren't at a point where we can meaningfully offer the right resources to everybody, and will probably always be playing catch-up with the massive harm done by being online constantly. And of course, all this is generational—progress is being made, but it'll be a long time before men who were taught that it's normal to ask questions and cry are raising kids who learn the same.

The mechanics of guys becoming incels (they call it "redpilled" I think) and people becoming conspiracy nuts are functionally the same. Nobody knows anything helpful about the world: there is just the struggle to keep your little piece of it squared away and maybe, if you have a minute left over, try to compare it with someone else. The pressure comes from everywhere—capital exploitation, social expectations, cultural guilt. From under this pile, doesn't it seem nice to imagine that you could throw it all off, if you could just expose the secret cabal, or reject earthly temptations? Doesn't it sound appealing to think that the universe—even if it's stacked against you—has a knowable structure with predictable movements?

Absent from either type of person's wildest hopes is a true transformation of the system they claim oppresses them. QAnon's goal was ultimately to replace the president they thought was bad with one they thought was good. Redditors picturing a mythology centered around vibrational energy and hidden realms are unable to then critique their own creation; they can only hope to move up the chain and achieve the ability to gloat over the rest of us demon-food. To paraphrase Jameson, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Satan stealing your jizz to blind your mystic third eye.

The same lack of structural criticism also shades our thinking about gender in general. I reiterate I am a cis man, but the few times I've interrogated my own gender identity I've realized that I was trying to distance myself from the cultural idea of masculinity: its historical baggage, which I feel guilty for, and its loudest proponents, whom I have no interest in sharing a club with. I'm sort of the 2007 UFO YouTube channel of masculinity trying not to be automatically grouped in with the 2022 rabid QAnon guys of masculinity.

I like to think I made a clean escape from the chapter I'm describing, at least relatively—I didn't get radicalized into a neonazi or hooked on unregulated whey supplements or obsessed with shunning real women for anime decoys. All I did was repeatedly embarass myself for a few years and then go to college and become a new guy with a better sense of empathy. I'm mature enough now to admit that my screwups were my own fault, not a punishment from the spirit realm. But some guys are always going to see the dark path as their only option, or even the righteous option, something they have to endure to become what culture expects of them.


Nostalgia Poisoning

There is probably some wisp of truth, at certain times in history, to the idea that the first part of someone's life was better than the later chapters. Maybe your coming-of-age years coincide with the outbreak of a world war, or a society-redefining diaster of another type. The world changes for various reasons, and people caught in the churn will inevitably prefer the familiar and comforting to the new and hostile. This is a fine and normal thing to do. I'm not here to fault the guys digging trenches at Verdun for wishing they could be back on the family farm. People put in these situations know intrinsically that they will never be the same; that this trauma has altered something within them that only rolling back time could restore.

The Homecoming, N.C. Wyeth, 1945. Fine Art America

But this is not what Americans my age talk about when they wax nostalgic. While it is true that in the "Western world," things have been on a gradual slide downward for the poorest 90% of people, the same neoliberal façade of history being settled has stood for basically the whole lives of people born around the turn of the millennium. And it's held true, at least here in the imperial core, where not even a massively deadly pandemic was really enough to clog up the gears of going to work and paying your bills for more than a few months. The inertia of American society and culture Being Like This (by which I mean an endless circus demanding the clamoring masses look the other way while capitalism poisons and kills us) is overwhelming; perhaps it will not truly falter until the final hour when the one percent retreat into their bunkers and the cities crumble into the sea.

This is why it comes off as absurd when 30-year-old guys from the suburbs post about the Nintendo 64 like it was the Garden of Babylon.

I think it's sort of silly to be a young person in 2024 griping that you were "born in the wrong generation" because you like Jimi Hendrix or whatever. You live in a time where every song he ever performed is available instantly, for free, and where you can buy weed-infused Nerds Rope at the corner store one thousand times stronger and more pleasant than anything sold or smoked in his entire lifetime. What are you complaining about?

I think it's exponentially more silly to be a young-ish person in 2024 griping that you miss, like, 2003. What, you liked the GameCube? Your parents probably still have it, or you can install Dolphin and play every game ever published for it in crisp 1080p.

Kirby Air Ride looks great in HD, by the way. My screenshot / Dolphin Emulator

There's nothing about a 90s or 2000's childhood—at least materially—that isn't still around or even easier to get. If you're really fiending for some Gushers, I have great news: They still make them, and there's nobody legally appointed to stop you from eating a whole box for dinner. (I have done this, at a low point in my life, while also watching the 2000 Gary Sinise movie Mission to Mars. It holds up in a campy way.)

But if just having the same readily-haveable stuff was the key to recapturing that vague childhood bliss, the world would be full of adults blowing their paychecks on Home Alone 2-esque mounds of ice cream and candy. This probably does happen sometimes, but by and large we are not a society of little Caligulas storming the poor guy at Target who guards the Pokémon cards.

A few months ago there was a tweet going viral that I can't be bothered to dig up now. It was basically some 30-something software engineer mourning the fallen world he used to know and advocating vaguely for "reclaiming" it in dangerously similar terms to much more deranged Twitter users who post about like, marble statues and seeking a child bride to read the Bible to. Attached to this post were some very funny images I would classify as "Nickelodeon Gak Norman Rockwell:" two kids in matching pajamas play their new Nintendo 64 in a Christmas-tree-lit living room drenched in deep jewel tones; a mom in light-wash jeans serves her smiling nuclear family a heaping platter of Peggy Hill-ass mid-looking spaghetti.

Substitute tweet I did remember the keywords for.

Nostalgia for past decades continues to utterly dominate our culture, to an extent that is arguably suffocating new ideas. No field of art is being meaningfully advanced by a $200 million Ghostbusters movie with the general half-assed vibe of Playstation DLC. It serves basically nobody that you can buy a plush ALF (4 seasons, ended in 1990) at Barnes & Noble or top up your coffee with Friends (10 seasons, ended in 2004) creamer.

For reasons known only to Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and God, this is just one of three Friends-branded foods I could have cited. Brand Eating

There are various reasons for this, mostly fiscal. As streaming, YouTube, and video games continue to erode the once-monolithic audience for major movies and TV shows, the accountants and strategists in control of what gets made and marketed have come to fear risking a dollar they might not make back on something new when something old—something people already know about because it was a winning bet 30 years ago—is right there, and they still have all the trademarks filed.

This is just the expected behavior of corporations, those Strossian alien beasts to whom we've accidentally entrusted the keys to the entire world, acting in the ways they always will. It's obnoxious, but it's hardly interesting.

What's more interesting is the way we've mistaken this corporate cowardice for our own problems, seamlessly adapted the whims of Universal Studios to answer our own personal dissatisfaction. This is a misinterpretation of what's actually different between then and now.

The thing you miss about being a kid isn't the specific flavor of GoGurt or the specific aesthetic of Neopets or even the general culture of [insert decade]. It's the fact that when you were a child your material needs were taken care of in the interest of giving you time to goof off and socialize. The thing you hate about being an adult today isn't the absence of said yogurt tube and/or role-playing website. It's that your life is dominated by squeezing a right to live from a system opposed to you living, in much the same way as you might once have squeezed the last of the yogurt from the fabled tube.

Group of "breaker boys" employed processing coal, Pittston, Pennsylvania, 1911. Lewis Hine / Library of Congress

Childhood wasn't an institution until pretty recently, in the big picture. Kids were going to work—doing the same shitty and dangerous work as adults and sometimes even worse jobs too delicate for larger bodies—until the midcentury, when an expanding middle class standardized going to school five days a week. Even now we lack a complete grasp of the relationship between the conditions of someone's childhood and their adult psychological profile, besides the accepted theory that it's causal and permanent. With no primary evidence, I'm going to guess that the generations of kids who crawled through coal tunnels or lost fingers to mechanical looms in the 1870s didn't then spend the 1890s sighing about how much better things used to be while snacking on a box of 19th-century Gushers, which I imagine to be a sort of cured beef nugget filled with cocaine.

Which is not to say—please do not quote me as saying!—that the era of legal and widespread child labor produced better-adjusted adults. Even if children continue to face hardship and trauma, it's a social triumph that we generally prioritize education and leisure over rising and grinding between the ages of zero and eighteen. The tragedy is that we don't continue to prioritize these things for our whole lives.

When people wistfully recall their early years, the fixation on specific products or media properties is a misdirect, a corporate-planted fill-in that can never heal the void. What we truly miss—what the borderline-vestigial class-consciousness center of the American brain is too shriveled and starved to express—is living in a world that is designed to suit our needs, rather than the adult world of unkillable machines built to commidify, impoverish, and as soon as we outlive our usefulness kill us. As one of the only passages of Marx I can remember any of goes:

The lowest and the only necessary wage rate is that providing for the subsistence of the worker for the duration of his work and as much more as is necessary for him to support a family and for the race of laborers not to die out. The ordinary wage, according to Smith, is the lowest compatible with common humanity, that is, with cattle-like existence.

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

The false sense that our nostalgia stems from certain video games or snacks or TV shows is both intentionally planted as a diversion and intentionally juiced for profit. It's manufactured demand on a scale both reelingly massive and sickeningly personal. Feel the void created by the contrast between one life where your wants and needs matter and a second life broadly describable as "cattle-like?" Well, check this out: Ecto Cooler is back and we smoothed out Bill Murray's face a little on the can so you don't have to squint as hard to pretend he's not 500 years old.

The Simpsons S7E4 / Reddit

In a sense, the delineation of childhood as a period when people deserve protection and care represents a small and hard-won victory against capitalism by humans; a sort of fireline before which our bodies and minds shouldn't be exploited, but after which we are hurled into the cogs as the markets demand. And that is where, within this partial measure of kindness, lies a deep cruelty. Modern childhood is a glimpse of the world as it could be, one where the physical welfare of human beings is the primary goal. For all your parents' flaws, they were trying their best to feed and house you. For all the education system's flaws, it was giving you a social venue and some starter knowledge. Once these two entities release you, every authority you encounter for the rest of your life is trying to scam, indenture, or outright rob you in service of inhuman, incomprehensible concepts like "quarterly earnings" or "a rising rent market" or "giving a foreign ally billions of dollars to do genocide with." Arguments about maturity aside, who wouldn't forgive us—thrust blind and clueless into the wasteland of late capitalism—for reminiscing about the comforts of the bunker?

A world where the protected status of childhood lasts our whole lives is a world much like the utopian visions of the radical anarchists; a world founded on the basic right of all people to not just survive but to enjoy living. Imagine a post-capitalist society where labor has been dethroned as the point of existence by things like self-discovery and creativity. If you belong to a certain privileged bracket, you may fondly recall the early weeks of the 2020 quarantine when people were spending their newly-afforded free time experimenting with hobbies and reading books and going outside. I like to picture a future society that feels a lot like that but without the prerequisite condition of thousands of people dying preventably. It's a vision that long predates covid, obviously. As the womens' rights movement of a hundred years ago sang:

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

James Oppenheim, Bread and Roses, 1911

The raw materials exist for a society where we are free to continue learning and growing and for our whole natural lives, not just the chapter when our bodies are still growing. A world like the one you remember—not just in its neon-splattered trappings, but in its fundamental spirit—can be built. The only people stopping us from building it are the ones selling you fucking Friends creamer.


UFOlogy: An American Folklore

I have been fascinated with stories of alien abduction and UFOs for a long time. I think the questions attached to these topics—whether Earth is the only living planet in a dead universe, whether our human perception of reality is accurate, et cetera—are genuinely interesting and worth pondering. I think something weird seems to be repeatedly happening (to people and in the sky) and that the extraterrestrial hypothesis to explain this thing is just as valid as any other guess. I do not personally think that the sum total of evidence for this hypothesis is compelling, and I do not personally believe that extraterrestrial beings are routinely visiting Earth and picking up random people and sampling cows' spinal fluid and the like.

Alleged UFO photographed by Paul Trent in McMinnville, Oregon, 1950. PD / Wikimedia

People see weird objects in the sky. People report bizarre experiences involving sort-of-human creatures performing vaguely medical rituals. There are commonalities between these stories: UFOs tend to be disc- or cigar-shaped, the aliens are short with large heads and eyes. This network of commonalities can be read in two ways, depending on your prior beliefs. They might expose a standard mode of operation employed by a unified alien presence; peeks at the manual followed by myriad agents of an extraterrestrial civilization with unknowable motives and immense technological power. Or, they could suggest a cultural staple built over the last century in the collective subconscious and borrowed from to patch over the effects of something strange but completely earthly.

I've been reading Abduction by John E Mack, M.D.—here's an interview he did with PBS on the topic perfectly preserved since 1996—a book which compiles dozens of stories Mack has collected from people who sought his psychiatric help for trauma they believed to be related to an alien abduction. I have a lot of respect for his approach, which is in turn respectful to these people and their stories. They believe, often with such conviction that it ruins their lives, that they've had an encounter with alien beings. While occasional hucksters are found out, the bulk of abductees have nothing to gain by sharing their stories—many of them lose relationships, jobs and social status for it. People who don't truly believe something happened wouldn't sacrifice to defend its veracity.

My interest in UFOlogy and the alien phenomenon doesn't hinge on whether it's real, and if I had to guess I would say it isn't. I am fascinated by the anthropological bedding of the UFO phenomenon; the existence of extraterrestrials (and Bigfoot, Mothman, your personal favorite cryptid or ghost) as a sort of American folklore.

Photo taken by Jack Nethering, Green Bay, Wisconsin, 2007. The Black Vault

In my first year of college I took an introductory astronomy class. The professor, knowing that a lot of kids would get their required science credit and then never take another science class, required us to read Carl Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World. Parts of the book feel a little stuffy now (chapter 2 cites Beavis and Butthead as a red flag of humanity's decline) but I think it presents a highly compelling argument for skepticism toward pseudoscience and, at the same time, a convincing case for accepting our inability to change another person's beliefs. Some people will believe in something unfounded, and some people will do so with a life-ruining grip.

I'm not suggesting that humanity has a complete understanding of our world. Strange, unexplainable things happen all the time! What I think is most revelatory, though, is the nature of people's reactions to these events, which are almost always reinforcing of a previously-held belief or assumption. The human mind is so fixated on the maintenance of a continuous narrative—that narrative being so critical to our experience of consciousness—that any gap needs to be filled as a matter of self-preservation. Whatever is happening to people that causes lost-time events or gaps in memory is probably weird and scary! We understand so little about the mechanics of our own consciousness that even questions like how anesthesia works remain a mystery after almost two hundred years of using it worldwide. The conscious mind can react to trauma in a variety of ways we sort of understand: suppression, dissociation, reinterpretation. In Abduction, Mack examines a link between alien abduction and abuse in childhood. My belief is that when the human brain needs to fill a empty space in our personal story—left by either the blotting out of a traumatic event or by accident, such as sleep paralysis—it will reach for material absorbed from the ambient culture. Before space travel or even other planets were widely known of, people backfilled these blanks with simpler myths. Sagan writes:

Abductees frequently report having seen 'aliens' in their childhood - coming in through the window or from under the bed or out of the closet. But everywhere in the world children report similar stories, with fairies, elves, brownies, ghosts, goblins, witches, imps and a rich variety of imaginary 'friends'. Are we to imagine two different groups of children, one that sees imaginary earthly beings and the other that sees genuine extraterrestrials? Isn't it more reasonable that both groups are seeing, or hallucinating, the same thing?

Map of UFO sightings worldwide since 1906. Esri / ArcGIS

A reaction based on ambient cultural absorption would explain why the UFO phenomenon is so deeply American. Other countries' reports of alien encounters come from a modern world subjected to America's cultural radiation through empire and trade. The alleged UFO crash at Roswell in 1947 coincides neatly with the beginning of the Cold War; the UFO phenomenon's cultural weight decays throughout the 20th century as our collective paranoia changes targets. A mythology, or family of mythologies, develops: The government is aware of aliens, or is in a contract with them, or is in possession of crashed spacecraft. The extraterrestrials are here to warn us about impending global destruction, or raise us to a higher level of cosmic understanding, or enact a hybrid-breeding program to save either our species or theirs.

All of this is, of course, spun up from white noise. Fake documents spring up concerning the mysterious "Majestic 12," which becomes the center of its own cluster of myths and lore about the aliens' purpose on Earth and the role of our government in dealing with them. Photographs are fabricated for fame or just for kicks by all sorts of people; these harmless hoaxes are chummed up by the uncritical into a patchwork of supposed evidence which always seems to serve their own angle or agenda. And the end result—a network of beliefs and convictions that has survived a drought of real proof for generations—resembles, in its own cheap and garish way, an American mythology. A faith. A folklore.

The earliest sighting of a UFO (at least according to UFO Casebook, one of the world's best websites) was reported in 1876. John Martin was out hunting near Denison in northeastern Texas when he saw a large, dark orb zoom overhead. He told the local newspaper that "it resembled, as well as he could judge at such a distance, a balloon, which seemed to him to be the most reasonable solution."

Critically, Martin did not assert in any way that the object could have been alien or otherwise supernatural in origin. He was characterized as "a gentleman of undoubted veracity," and his best explanation was based on things he knew to be real, even if it was improbable that a balloon was being flown over a frontier town. The assumption that Martin saw an alien spacecraft (a "UFO" in the colloquial sense, rather than just a literally unidentified object) was first published by Maj. Donald Keyhoe, a retired Marine who pivoted from a career in writing science-fiction stories to a career in preaching about the impending alien threat. He is a fascinating figure in the American mythology, and it's difficult to sort out whether he truly believed or just saw a buck to be made.

Keyhoe in 1953. Getty

The town of Denison had been founded four years before John Martin's sighting. The land it's built on once belonged to the Wichita, Kiikaapoi, and Tawakoni people, who lived throughout the region. By the 1870s these peoples had been forcibly relocated to "Indian Territory," a shrinking patch of difficult land in an unwanted corner of the expanding United States. They were moved without consideration for any existing attachments to geography: gravesites and monuments were rendered obscure. They were dumped into a new place with no regard for cultural differences. Were they allowed to stay on the ancestral plain that became Grayson County, they may have assigned their own meaning to Martin's mysterious balloon.

William S. Soule, Arapho camp near Camp Supply, Oklahoma, 1870. Wikimedia

America is built on a mass grave; this we are just beginning to truly reckon with. It is a story written not just in blood but over the erased story of an existing world, now pushed to the margins or only legible between the lines. The theft of this continent from its original inhabitans went beyond the physical realm. An unknowable amount of culture, history, and knowledge was lost forever. It should be a point of shame that the American people are "discovering" from scratch and scattered artifacts the ways of people who still lived here, alongside those artifacts, an archaeological blink ago. They might have told us if we had asked.

Instead, we are left guessing, given an empty hole in history and nothing to go on. And we imitate the behavior of the conscious mind on an expanded scale, packing that void with anything that can be rationalized in any way. Anything that can be leveraged to excuse our being here. The story's provability isn't important; just the justification it can provide. It's the same impulse that leads people to think an exiled Welsh prince sailed to Alabama 300 years before Columbus—a story included in Alabama history textbooks for decades. Or the more fringe belief that Cleopatra and Alexander were buried by a funeral ship of Ptolemaic soldiers thousands of miles from Egypt in the headwaters of the Mississippi for reasons unknowable. On the latter, Jon Bois writes:

A consequence of stealing land is that you will never find the significance of it. Whatever lies you made up to justify your crimes will fade away. There are lots of people who grew up down there in a society that was missing spirit, purpose, anything sacred.

And then there are some who [...] need to assign the sort of historical importance here that they see in Paris, or Addis Ababa, or Bangkok.

It's here in abundance, of course. It's just the history that they choose not to think about.

We killed the spirits of this land when we killed its people. The Americans of the 20th century and beyond inherited a country bleached free of inherent meaning. We dominated this continent by a long, bloody war as a sacrifice to the godhead of science and economics: masters which restrict us from mystery, which streamline away myth. The psychic vacuum left by this destruction has never gone away. Human beings still seek meaning beyond their own lives and bodies, just as the native people did by honoring spirits and communing with nature. America has simply concocted a stand-in folklore infinitely more crude and toxic: Mormonism, scientology, paintings of Jesus as a white guy. Aliens and UFOs.

The extraterrestrial hypothesis as a replacement for religion in the post-Enlightenment psychosphere is not a new identification. "UFO religions" have existed for decades—beginning prominence with the The Chicago Seekers, a Midwestern apocalypse cult whose analysis by social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the phrase "cognitive dissonance." The human mind's all-consuming need to organize a chaotic universe into linear narratives has generally led us to invent a higher power or an unseen plane from which the mortal world is managed. Gods, saints, spirits, karma. When we could not measure the age of the Earth we still theorized about its creation. Some kind of story, no matter how long or complex, needed to span the gap between the current moment and an assumed beginning point.

Illustration of goddesses pouring the primeval waters over the mound of creation. Excerpt from the Book of the Dead of Khensumose, 21st dynasty, Egypt. Wikimedia

Of course, no mythology ever ends there. These controlling forces—with their own motives and relationships, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile—are still all around us, demanding tributes or prayers. Ritual has been a key component of our conscious experience since humans first diverged from apes.

In the American age, when science rules, the big questions which once provided fertile psychic space for mythology have been mostly answered. We know how old the Earth is, where it came from, and even how it will end. And so the realms we imagine and beings who inhabit them take on new forms consistent with our knowledge of reality. Our modern model of the universe—based on physics and chemistry and hard, cold math— does not allow for faeries and sprites, but it does not definitively rule out alien life. There's nothing on the books that says extraterrestrials couldn't be visiting our planet in glowing spacecraft for unclear reasons.

Of course, this mode of thinking inevitably contaminates the past as well. Foundational to modern UFOlogy is Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods?, an incredibly racist text which cobbles together several earlier fringe theories into a thesis that ancient (read: non-white) people could not have built the things we observe them having built without assistance from highly advanced aliens. K.E. Roberts writes on Däniken for We Are The Mutants:

What’s shocking to me, having never read Chariots of the Gods? until now, is how blatantly racist Däniken’s “evidence” [...] is, and how blatantly fascist his happy acceptance of it is. His third and fourth claims are merely contradictory and daft: while completely discounting the role of human imagination in the invention of primitive mythologies and religions, he simultaneously invents, by grand imaginative fiat and seemingly unbeknownst to himself, a new mythology and a new religion.

This is the natural way of religions, to assimilate existing beliefs into their own canon. The Romans renamed the Greek gods and later roped in the Egyptian pantheon. The Christian church turned Pagan equinox festivities into Easter. Keyhoe reinterpreted a mysterious object over Denison, Texas as an alien spaceship. Däniken fudged the bulk of human history to support the idea of alien intervention.

The earliest humans understood, as a matter of intuition, that they were animals: subject to the laws of nature and thus only one part of a greater ecosystem they should take care not to deplete. Anthropologists believe that the earliest religions centered around shamanistic figures who could commune with the other animals and understand their thinking. These people's gods did not hide above the clouds or on other planets. They were the trees, the birds, the auroch; tangible and knowable, yet stil possessing a link to something mystic.

Aliens are the gods of the conquerors. We cannot imagine anything on Earth more powerful than ourselves. But to suppose that we sit atop a pyramid of all creation brings liability, loneliness, confusion. So we imagine something greater than us off Earth. And at the same time, this framework excuses us from guilt: If humans, otherwise just a bunch of apes, inherited our intelligence—our capacity to inflict horror and violence—from extraterrestrial visitors, then none of this is really our fault.

Just like religion has always offered the tormented masses, UFOlogy promises a chance at deliverance. Sometimes this manifests as a literal ride on a comet away from our doomed planet. Sometimes the deliverance is agency; the technology or knowledge to fix things down here. Scenes of global destruction are frequently shown to abductees, seemingly as warnings. In the mythology of alien contact abductees are the new shamans, given special knowledge or unique proximity to the higher plane. A breakthrough is always just around the corner—maybe now, with the Pentagon releasing videos of things they admit they haven't identified, or former intelligence officers testifying that weird stuff is happening, we're about to reach the long-promised Second Coming analogue of UFOlogy: "disclosure." An imagined day or deadline or maybe years-long process wherein the world's governments finally let go of whatever they have, releasing classified information about the existence of "nonhuman intelligence" and the extent of their research programs, and this catalyzes (in many tellings of the tale) a great societal change for the better.

Still from the "Gimbal video," a US Navy video alleging to show a UFO. Department of Defense

The idea of disclosure depends on the possibility that dozens of balkanized agencies of different nations' militaries and governments will suddenly decide, in tandem, to start sharing strategically-valuable knowledge and intel with not just each other but the global public. A version of disclosure satisfying to all believers would include the cooperation of some agencies and groups which only exist in the minds of UFOlogists. What does this sound like but an exercise in faith?

The increasing alienation (meant here in a Marxist sense) of gods and spirits has been a trend since prehistory. If your king is the avatar of a god, increasing the mystic power of the latter increases the earthly power of the former. What began as knowable (trees, animals) became archetypical (tricksters, warriors) and finally unknowable (an omnipotent capital-G God), each step improving the leverage of the people who played the conduit. And in cases when those conduits overstepped or abused this power, it was believed that the celestial component would inevitably right the scale. The Egyptians tore down Akhenaten's capital city for his arrogant assertion that he and the sun god were one and the same. Martin Luther rejected the Catholic clergy for their claim that they alone understood the word of God.

In the material world, those with power over us today may as well be trickster spirits or celestial kings. Corporations, states, agents of capital: we've created inhuman and untouchable forces beyond understanding or accountability right here on Earth. It seems like this is the apex. What could possibly threaten or judge the most powerful forces on Earth—an Earth we now understand to be a closed system with no special place in the universe?

Belief systems of previous eras have attempted to peer up a slope of inhuman power. In the earliest, foggiest faiths, regular people looked up to shamans who attained their insight from nature's complex interactions. In better-known religions of ancient times, a priesthood under a godly ruler served to interpret the gods' will to the masses. In the age of monotheism this model cemented into a socioeconomic framework for controlling the peasants through selective application of scripture.

Diagram of the human accessibility of interpreters and of the power they represent across human eras.

As illustrated by the most insane graph I've ever made, the "humanity"—the ability of a normal person at the lowest level to approach and understand each party—has decreased at each of these steps, from "one of the guys in the cave" to a sort of career to a class of citizens protected by wealth and law. Today, we are ruled by computer networks and corporate enterprises and nation-states; systems of control that emerged at some point from human minds and yet lack any foothold a regular person might find to grasp their functions. At this inflection point, we find ourselves imagining an entity beyond these systems' reach which is at once terrifyingly powerful and paradoxically more human-like than our own arcane creations. If an alien being's motives are unknowable, at least they're widely reported to have faces and arms and legs.

UFOlogy is a substitute folklore, a last-ditch pass by the collective subconscious to kick the can of reckoning with our innate need to imagine a greater power a little further down the road. It's the manifestation of a need for connection and absolution we like to think we've engineered away. We think, or prefer to think, that Paved over and deferred, this primal drive isn't dead and probably can't be killed. It will resurface in new ways which satisfy—or at least trick—the newer, more logical centers of the brain. Are aliens real, in the empirical sense? Signs point to no. And yet they persist, their reality irrelevant, because in a world subsumed by reason and poisoned by clarity, we need them.

The languages of the dying suns
are themselves dying,
but even the word for this has been forgotten.
The mouth against skin, vivid and fading,
Can no longer speak both cherishing and farewell.
It is now only a mouth, only skin.
There is no more longing.

Translation was never possible.
instead there was always only
conquest, the influx
of the language of hard nouns,
the language of metal,
the language of either/or,
the one language that has eaten all others.

— Margaret Atwood, Marsh Languages


On Twitter

I'm sad that Twitter is going away, or at least becoming less usable at alarming speed. It's a blend of several types of sadness. There is a sense of nostalgia; the strange feeling of losing something that was never yours, the pang of watching a crane demolish your hometown mall. There's the feeling of futility and powerlessness at watching something you value be killed by a stranger whom society has granted immense wealth and power despite being, by any account, a "showboat and a dunce." The capitalist-hellscape ennui associated with a stark reminder that everything you like or care about, regardless of utility, is merely a bad fiscal quarter away from nonexistence is part of it. And there's also a sweaty uncertainty for the future, as we scatter to the tides of online: many people I know from Twitter are moving to Bluesky or Cohost or something else, and I will still see them around and hear from them now and then. But the unity—in proximity, if not in culture—is dissipating forever.

I think it sucks that the ambient attitude toward Twitter's collapse is a cynical glee just because its owner is a piece of shit and the collapse stands to possibly cause him financial harm. It's pyhrrically funny to see this unfold how it has, but in no timeline would I choose to give up something like Twitter in order to harm the livelihood of a rich guy I personally loathe and a bunch of software engineers I don't know. I would prefer to never think about them! In a reality where the online platforms we use have to be owned by somebody, the ideal scenario is for that owner to be a sort of hands-off landlord who doesn't call very often or let his weird nephews stuff flyers for their AliExpress reselling business under the door. From the irony-hardened mind of a longtime poster, it makes reflexive sense to proclaim that this is what you always wanted. It saves face, when the walls are coming down, to cement "Aha, these walls sucked ass!" as your take. I don't even think it's a farce to call yourself smarter than Elon, who is demonstrably very stupid. But it blows to leave something behind, and it's okay to express remorse over it even if—especially if, maybe—you've been forced to give it up by circumstance. To overdramatize massively, I don't think the Russian villagers who left their cottages and crops ablaze ahead of the French army were yukking it up with the neighbors about how Napoleon deserved it for being "cringe."

Episode of the war of 1812 by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov, 1874. Wikimedia

We all know Twitter is-slash-was a net social ill; it was abused by bad actors and misunderstood by its owners for basically the entire lifespan of the service. As a straight white man I almost certainly missed the worst goings-on; the place was lousy with Nazis and scammers and sex creeps until the bitter end, which is when most of the scammers and creeps started paying monthly to make the place much lousier. I joined Twitter in September of 2012, when I was a tender thirteen years old (if you know a thirteen-year-old child, please stop them from doing this) and I think I recieved between five and twenty spam DMs a week for a straight decade. The Musk-administration reforms could be allegorized as the new owner of a factory that manufactures extremely annoying guys cutting costs by dumping toxic waste in the town reservoir.

And yet. And yet! There were also good people there, nice people I care about and respect, whom I couldn't have met any other way. I formed friendships and creative partnerships with so many talented, wonderful, kind individuals. Groups I'm proud to be part of—DESKPOP, CARI—would exist but I would never have learned about them and subsequently been able to join in. As a conductor for social interaction Twitter was lower-resistance, for better or worse, than anything else. Twitter was the sociological equivalent of the jelly they use in Petri dishes to grow bacteria: a medium so easy that every community imaginable took root with total ease and fermented over years into its logical extreme state. Sure, that includes communities like Taylor Swift extremists and flat-earth evangelizers. It also includes communities with good premises and nice members. No website is ever going to reach notable size without hosting both.

To talk business for a minute, one thing I am very sad and worried to see go away is the discoverability and exposure Twitter brought freelancers and creators. I depend on freelance income to pay my bills most of the time, and I consider myself pretty fortunate to get the amount of work I do. All of it comes from online connections and references, and the huge bulk of those originated on Twitter. As much as I grimace to self-advertise, it's necessary to keep living my life (in the real world—hey, remember in 2013 when people tried calling that "meatspace?" That was wack) the way I like. Twitter is very obviously sputtering out as I write this, and if it fully shuts down or if the emigration of users speeds up substantially I don't see a good alternative platform that serves artists like myself the same way. And speaking of grimacing to self-advertise, it also lets me do that in a way that was at least tolerable to me: sharing work, posting links, always keeping it earnest and real. When I think about grappling for "exposure" by mechanically separating my creative process, mashing it into performance-ized goop, and extruding it as emulsified pink slime in the form of a TikTok or an Instagram Reel I think about chucking my laptop in the river and getting a regular job. I know people who do pretty well at these things—but reader, if I am ever in such dire straits that I start uploading portrait-mode videos of myself designing scored with Fleetwood Mac nightcore or whatever, I am authorizing you to take me out.

The endless tube of hot-dog goo represents content. That's the metaphor I was building. ResearchGate

The root of this problem, and something I've talked about at length before, is that corporate assimilation has made the Internet too fragile and too small to survive. With everything compacted into a few sites upheld by a few investors, and those investors trained to yank the rug at the first sign of unprofitability, any of the remaining major platforms could basically wink out at any moment—and given how deep we've let capital stripmine online spaces, a fifth to a third of human knowledge hosted on one of these sites would just evaporate overnight. It's our fault, in some ways—convenience supplanted vigilance, art became "content," forums became subreddits—but there's no way back now. "We are living through the end of the useful internet."

My prescription for this problem has been to get small again, to spread out our personal online footprints beyond one critical dependency. But the fences and boundaries put in place by capital to divert and attract traffic make it impossible to regain the networked sense of discoverability within "the Internet" as a whole the way it existed on Twitter. Search engines are in their last useful days, as endless GPT-generated garbage chokes out real results. The "AT Protocol" dream of social media as a unified, distributed standard like email is years away from fruition and frankly seems doomed to fail the profitability requirement for existing very long in this world. This all stinks! It's fun to have a little website. It's probably healthy (both in a Marxist labor-reward sense and as a low-pass filter for toxicity) to return a little craftsmanship to the online experience. Building a whole page from scratch without the scaffolding of a post format is nice! The less you depend on a corporation to hand you in terms of tools, the more freedom you gain in your voice and style.

Compositors' Work And Stereotyping, Jan van der Straet, ca. 1580. Wellcome Collection

And yet. And yet! What the distributed, re-personalized Internet can't offer is the audience and conduit to that audience that made Twitter so powerful. You can share things in the same channels where people who like them will learn to look. The pyramid effect of your followers sharing your work to their followers meant you can have things unexpectedly blow up—and for all the weird haters who always show up, it's a nice windfall for people who depend on that organic, word-of-mouth (word-of-phone?) exposure for a career.

It's difficult to imagine a standalone webpage "doing numbers" the same way a Tweet randomly can. It's not 2002 anymore, and people have been trained to fear exploring away from the major sites. The environment of the modern Web is designed to keep you on marked paths in monetized spaces for as long as you're awake. The boomer cry of mass ADHD is halfway accurate, but the general reduction of attention spans isn't an emergent result of technology adoption—it's the intended outcome of years of social maneuvering by profit-driven entities with profits created by higher usage time and more ad space.

We're locked in, and they're gouging us on pretzels. Reddit user BJoshua34

All this is to say that I am really sad to see Twitter go, even for all its problems, and I am nervous that the future looks grim for artists who needed it. You can find me on Bluesky, but it's not the same.