The Larson piece is making its modest rounds on Twitter, and I feel terrible. This is a combination blog post and journal entry. I’m writing this while spiraling. Strap in.
A few years ago, I spent around 3 hours each day on Twitter. I posted funny little ironic quips, and I lost the ability to focus on anything for more than fifteen minutes. I couldn’t read books. I felt like I was being robbed of the use of my own brain. I had a small meltdown and left. I deleted my Instagram and Twitter, and deactivated my Facebook and dating apps.
I healed my brain, wrote a musical, started another musical, and had a focused few years overall. I even wrote a little song about what I learned on Twitter. Even when the pandemic hit, I still spent most of my time offline. It was a godsend.
But as the years crept on, I felt more and more like I didn’t have a community. I’ve been writing this one show for 3 years, and no one has heard a single song from it except for my collaborator. If I had a reading, I don’t know who would come.
Before the pandemic, my thinking was this: if I keep my head down and get really good at writing songs, the market will eventually reward me. And to a limited extent that was true. I work sort of consistently; not enough to support myself, obviously, but enough to feel like I chose the right career. But the ultimate goal is to feel that my songs are in people’s ears, and that they’re useful to people. That isn’t happening yet.
During these few years of offline bliss, I installed Chrome extensions that limited my time on these sites. I’ve limited all of my tech. I have no social media apps, I get no notifications on my phone at all, and I’ve disabled all news feeds. I can’t even look at websites on my phone. QR code menus are impossible for me. I need to be vigilant. When I so much as dip my toes into these platforms, they consume my entire life.
BUT THEN IT ALL WENT TO SHIT:
I slipped back online when a collaborator shared a project I arranged. It got a positive enough response online, and I became completely obsessed with what people thought of it. I wanted people to love it. I logged back on Twitter. That was six months ago. I haven’t been able to leave ever since.
I carry this image in my head every day of this huge crowd of imaginary people having this amazing party without me. They’re all making really cool musical theatre, and they all hate me. They all think I’m a terrible writer. Or, they think I’m a great writer and they’re too intimidated to talk to me. Or they think I’m ugly. Or they all want to sleep with me. They think I’m not funny. Or they think I’m hysterical. They think I’m out of touch because I’m a straight white man who has nothing relevant to say. Or they think I’m the BEST straight white man and wish there were more straight white men like me. Or they hate that my perception of social justice all boils down to whether or not people like me. Or they like that I have this much self-awareness and a good enough sense of humor about it all. Or they, rightly, point out that this much self-awareness reduces a person down to a ghost of their former self, and renders them incapable of holding any actual stance or taking any meaningful action. Woof.
This invisible crowd of people takes on humanoid form when I use social media. I’m not talking to real people. I mean, of course the people are real, but I’m projecting this crowd onto every profile I see. If they like me, then, I imagine, so does everyone. I’m famous. But if they don’t? Oh man. But with every like, every retweet, every follow, I come closer to gaining the respect of this imaginary crowd, which is really just a manifestation of my deepest insecurities. Do I have a right to cast everyone on Twitter as an actor in this dumb little drama? They didn’t audition. They don’t know it’s happening. Isn’t that just sick?
There are plenty of other musical theater writers on Twitter, and they have thousands of followers. When they want to have a workshop, I imagine they have hundreds of people dying for a seat. Let’s not probe that assumption too deeply, that’s not the point here. I find myself surfing their profiles, seeing them announcing gigs they have that I don’t have, and I seethe and feel awful. I compare my writing to theirs. I want to vomit.
There must be an alternative to this. There must be a way to cultivate an audience for your work without having your brain exploited by billion-dollar tech companies. There must be a way to find like-minded people and have enriching interactions with them and still be able to read books. There must be a way to interact online without stewing in anger towards delightful people who want the same thing as you.
I’ve thought for a while that if I just wrote high-quality pieces on topics that were important to me, I could forge meaningful connections with strangers. I could eventually start some sort of newsletter and forego social media altogether. I wouldn’t intrude into people’s inboxes with invitations to things, but rather with funny, well-wrought, and hopefully insightful pieces that they might value. So when I watched Tick, Tick… Boom! I thought I might start there.
Before this article I wrote started gaining a bit of traction on Twitter, I shared it on Facebook. It got a meaningful response. Some people I knew reached out to me and shared their own struggles with obsession over artistry, their own perceptions of the passing of time, and their own insecurities and obstacles. This lead to actual conversations with people I care about. It was really nice. I wanted my inbox to look like that for good.
Then some people shared it on Twitter and I started getting tons of likes and follows from people I’ve never met. If you’re one of them, hello. Thanks for playing.
My brain short-circuited. I lifted the time limits of the Chrome extensions that keep me sane. I became obsessed with the profiles that were following me. Obsessed with the notifications. Obsessed with who read it, what they looked like, if they liked it, why they liked it. I’m using the past tense, but that’s actually happening right now. I can’t stop looking. I can’t stop looking. The invisible crowd likes me, they really like me.
YOU KNOW WHAT?
Let me get serious for a second. Let me drop these little literary devices. Let me get right down to the fucking point: I stayed off of Twitter for YEARS. During that time, I was like, “whoa, definitely not doing THAT again.” I started looking at people who used Twitter daily like they were a different species from me. My political views became more nuanced, I was happier overall, it was great. I was armed with the knowledge that I’m much happier offline.
So why am I here? Why the FUCK am I here??? Why have I wasted all my time today? Why is it 3:25 PM and I haven’t written? Why am I keeping the Twitter tab open? Why can I only leave it closed for ten minutes before I crawl on back like a fucking junkie? I KNOW BETTER THAN THIS. I KNEW BETTER FOR YEARS, AND THOSE YEARS WERE BETTER. WHAT THE HELL. WHY AM I DOING THIS.
I have some close friends in the recovery community. 12 step programs and such. You could say I’m a friend of a friend of Bill. I’ve learned things about addiction through these friends. It is demonstrably true that addictions to drugs and alcohol are thousands of times worse than addictions to social media. But there is one way that social media is more insidious:
There are tangible real-life benefits from using social media that even the staunchest social media skeptic can’t disprove. Believe me, I was one. I can look at an alcoholic who just relapsed, and I can hear them say that they have plenty more friends since they started drinking, and I can see right through it. Most people can. You can say that it’s delusional, and you’d be right.
But what if I told you that people with more Twitter followers are more likely to sell out a performance at 54 Below. Is that delusional? No. It is absolutely not delusional. I would imagine that in many cases, that’s true.
CAN HE SOMEHOW FIND A CONCLUSION IN ALL THIS? LET’S FIND OUT:
So here I am. I’m on this site. Life is worse here. I feel defeated by this place. Sure, I could leave. I’ve done it before. I could gain some sanity and clarity in no time. But what about an audience? What do I do with the hundreds of songs I’ve written in the past few years? Do they just sit on my hard drive? What do I do with these questions about the form of the musical I have swirling in my head? Do they stay up there forever? Can I please just feel like I’m part of a community that is thinking about these things together?
I’ve wanted to use the form of a blog on my own site to house my own content for some time now. And I’m doing it. I have some pretty crazy ideas for some imaginative pieces, and I think it’ll be fun to write them and talk about them with people. And I guess it’s going well? But if I can’t even gain a mere 20 followers without my brain turning to pudding, should I even keep going?
My answer is the most tentative ‘yes.’ I don’t think my experiment here is done. Twitter has taken so much away from me. I want to feel like I have conquered it. I’m well aware of how exploitative these services are. I know that they are literally designed to use us and sell us. But I’m in the impossible position of being a young musical theater writer – dreaming up productions whose budgets exceed any amount of money a reasonable person would put behind my writing. In this impossible position, it wouldn’t only be foolish to deprive myself of the possibility of an online following – it would be downright Sisyphean.
Please, for the love of God, do not follow me on Twitter @johncoyne_. If you have thoughts, ideas, questions, or (ideally) advice on any of the stuff above, please don’t hesitate to DM me or reach me here.`