The Courage to Be Disliked

When life imitates art I mean the internet

Bouquet 06 [Source unknown]

Perusing in McNally Jackson recently, I saw the title of a book that caught my eye: The Courage to Be Disliked by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi. I’ve been ruminating about it ever since and how it serves as an interesting portal into exploring the relationships between courage, fear and the internet by framing “courage” as an active decision rather than an inherent characteristic.

As we become more visible (and accessible) than we’ve ever been, I started to consider whether I actually have the courage to be disliked or whether I simply like to believe I do. Nonchalance can be a valuable form of both social currency and digital protection: if you don’t care what people think about you then you can’t get hurt by their opinions. And yet…

In what contexts does being liked (and by who) matter? How do we quantify “liking”? What happens when the distinctions between IRL self, online self and our (creative) work become blurred and conflated and how does this stifle our ability to communicate or be ~vulnerable~?

Take this week’s bouquet for example — source unknown, though not for lack of trying to trace because this gorgeous photo deserves credit! But, without a name or attribution, we are free from potential associative judgment for better or for worse. Anonymity can be freeing though it has also enabled the aggressive and at times disproportionate responses that now constitute “cancel culture”. Is there still value in putting ourselves out there (in life and online) and how do we continue to do so when influenced by the fear and knowledge that the tides can turn so quickly?

I’m not sure, but let’s do a deep dive.

How audiences shape content

What is content anyway? Are some things “content” in their own right or do things become content by having a relationship with either metrics or an audience, something like images + numbers or x + viewership = content? Is this newsletter “content”? By either of those equations, it kind of is.

I fully expected to lament into the internet void through iPhone note/heart excavations but as readership has grown (hello and thank you!), I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to stick to initial uninhibited ideas or if creation will always be informed by response and reception, this tension between fear of rejection and desire for acceptance. If you see something doing well, you’re inclined to do it again or something similar.

Would I be writing something different if no one was watching? Maybe. I started this newsletter for many reasons, among them: as an exercise in “public earnestness” and to keep small commitments, to observe how something unfixed in its nature might develop over time and to return to my creative writing roots. I wanted to operate at a distance from “personal branding” or “finding my niche” and instead just follow the feeling.

For me, no audience = no pressure but no audience also equals a lack of opportunity to connect or to grow through dialogues, through the sometimes uncomfortable process of being challenged and the joyful encounters of synergy. By adding an audience, you’re consenting to evaluation and that’s a scary thing. It often feels very personal, even more so when writing about personal things which is maybe why I’ve taken to writing about the internet instead of love, pain and awe like I planned.

But the courage to be disliked is born from the courage to be vulnerable, to stay true to oneself in the face of that unpleasant feeling or simply, to test the waters knowing that it is a possibility but risking it anyway.

Figure 1. An occasionally alluring notion of personal hell

Platforms and validation by association

I’ve been thinking about the fear-courage complex in the context of “platforms”. To me, the word itself implies a marketplace of exchange, a stage of heightened visibility that encourages inherent performance. Even non-performance is a performance, and everything takes on the vocabulary of commodification — we post “content” to our “audience” because we are a “user”.

To build on that Zadie Smith idea from last week about terminology changing our thinking parameters, I wondered what building a digital constellation might look like instead of building a digital platform. To me, a constellation implies an environment or an orbit, a circular notion of community with participants instead of users. Platforms fuel fear and addiction through being metric-driven and ostentatious; a constellation could be something quieter and other-worldly.

I’ve been thinking about how digital selves are crafted and validated through passive interactions and increasingly powerful proxy clout: who you follow, who follows you, what you like, declaring your silent approval without having to actually declare anything. I wonder if a constellation by contrast could be crafted as an environment where we *are* more declarative because there is less 0-100 energy; we are mindful and accountable, but not fearful — and how do we build this in by design? It might seem like a tech utopia dream, but emerging from my data privacy rabbit hole (very bleak), I am only more convinced that we need to ask these weird questions even if they go nowhere.

I’ve also been thinking about how to reduce this “clout factor” from online presences and if it’s disproportionately tied to visual elements. It determines how trends emerge and informs the nature of the mythical algorithm, which if you’ve been on Instagram’s “Explore” or Pinterest, you will know that it’s all the same. Is it possible to keep being exposed to divergent content and to encourage people to make it? I love to say of my friends that we are not like-minded but like-hearted, and I’m intrigued whether an approach like that could burrow into progressive tech or if similar “minds” will always emerge as “similar aesthetics” — which is to say, aesthetics deemed “safe” and “cool” by said clouty users. Queueing the post-authenticity debate for another time.

Energy never dies

Being earnest in public. Being personal on the internet. Why does it matter, you might ask? That’s something I’ve asked too. Why does it matter that we do this out in the open sometimes and not only in our private lives? Why does everything have to be “on show”? For the most part, who cares?

But I think it does matter. It matters because though we may be “private individuals”, we are also part of local and global communities. When we strip everything back, what we are left with is each other and a desire to connect based on the truest versions of ourselves. We need environments that aren’t fear-based in order to flourish in those respects: both online and offline, and the two feed into each other.

Seeing and feeling life through a poetics lens, I’ve always loved the fact that energy never dies; instead it is transformed or transferred. The same thing is true of courage and vulnerability: seeing someone else be courageous or vulnerable frees me to do the same, to attempt to have the courage to be disliked by virtue of having the courage to say anything at all.

And through that courage and potential discomfort, we might learn more things: that we care about being liked deeply rather than being liked widely, that our fears for the most part are universal, that our work and our reputations are not the beginnings or ends of our worlds. Sometimes the harshest judgment is the judgment that comes from ourselves.

Congratulations if you made it this far. Whatever happens next week, I promise not to write about the internet.