I first started blogging in college because a friend of mine pointed out that I needed to own my digital identity. I had written something about designer jeans in the lesser school newspaper and another student was dunking on me in her personal blog.
Unless I acted swiftly, Google results would be tainted forever he assured me. So I started blogging. Not because I necessarily felt like I was meant to be a writer but because I didn’t want this other girl to scoop my life story. I didn’t want to get “Bad Art Friended” by letting someone else tell my story.
I’m pretty grateful to both my friend James and the “mean girl” Phoebe for launching my social media habits. Every big break I’ve ever had has come from the connections I made on the Internet. If I hadn’t been petty enough to want to own my own digital identity I might have missed out.
Rather like the “Bad Art Friend” piece where one writer uses details from another’s life for her art, whoever is able to own the narrative is the default winner. It’s not terribly fair but it could have been someone else telling my story had I not chosen to write. If the victors write history then there is an incentive to be the one whose narrative wins. And the only way to win in our social media saturated works is to be sure you’ve got the scoop on your own life.
I used to travel a lot. It seems like another life, but before the pandemic airports were my most important liminal space. Even as a child this was true as my father loved taking us on trips. That emotional weight meant the airport have always had significance to me. This persistent exposure to airports lead to me to developing certain affinities and aversions in my routines around travel. But the one that I liked the most was buying something at the newsstand.
There was a period as a teenager where I thought carrying both the The Economist and Rolling Stone (neither of which I read anymore) was just the height of intellectual signaling. And no place was more crucial to signal than inside an airport. I could meet someone in passing that would change my life and they needed to see immediately that I was both smart and cultured. Yes it’s embarrassing now.
But this signaling was part of a wider ritual I felt was important to ground myself. Even if I felt the unsteadiness of traveling, I could bring routine and ritual into it. I knew no matter how much I anxiety or uncertainty I felt around a given trip I could always treat myself to buying something to read from the airport newsstand.
Generally I would pick up some kind of periodical. I’d leave myself time to browse the newsstands for at least ten minutes so I could adequately cover all the weird genres. Because I grew up in a small town and not a proper city, the only newsstand I ever encountered was at the airport. There was simply no place that held as many magazines covering as many topics.
And while I had the Internet very early in my life, the actual transition away from physical publishing wasn’t as far along. It’s not that I loved magazines so much as it was the only place I could find writing that wasn’t a novel was in newsstand. Now of course I read blogs, email newsletters, forums, Subreddits and my beloved Twitter. But the memories I have of finding new worlds came from newsstands. And while I may have literally been going someplace new, it was never quite as horizon broadening as picking out what I was going to read.
One of the funniest aspects of hustle culture was its insistence on always being “on!” This maxim fought mightily against that other successful management truism; a successful CEO delegates. But how can you always be working if you have also successfully delegated your workload to a top notch team? Which one is it guys?!?!
I guess the logic was that you should always be working on whatever new horizon you has discovered in your perch as visionary founder but also be continually recruiting the best possible people to take on work as you should never be doing that work yourself. But those two directions are in obvious tension.
I think this tension ended up creating founders who exercise control of their anxiety through constantly searching for new ways to show off they were hard at work. We got addicted to busywork. Or at least the appearance of always being hard at work finding a new problem and then hiring talent to own it.
You’d always be finding new blockers at every turn, justifying it as growth and then you’d balloon your team hiring people for the work that you’d just found. I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if this was the driving force behind the trend of showing off your headcount growth.
“Oh we hired 50 people this quarter!” Sure but like were you actually blitzscaling or were you caught in the hustle/delegate hamster wheel? How many of those people actually materially moved your roadmap forward? I would bet at least some of them were just there to give you the emotional safety of claiming to yourself that you’d satisfied both hustle and delegation culture.
When you sell your intellect for a living you cannot afford to have a stupid day. When I was younger I sold my time but as I got older I got paid for my ideas. Or as one of my favorite anonymous Twitter accounts Becoming Critter said I’m “a brain prostitute.”
There isn’t a union for idea whores so when your mind has a sick day you are fucked. Not idea fucked, no, because then you’d get paid. If you can’t produce a good idea you’ve got nothing to sell. I personally found this entire concept of knowledge worker as as brain prostitution to be pretty amusing. It kind of takes the wind out of your sails if you’ve decided being a “knowledge worker” makes you better than other types of labor.
We’ve decided that selling your mind is higher status than selling your time but I think it’s all just a a clever way for the capital class to move labor into categories that produce better returns. If someone has found it beneficial to employ you, either for your time or your ideas, it’s because it’s worth more than you are getting paid.
I like that the intelligentsia is lying to themselves about being bourgeois. Doing practical things like running a grocery was beneath them. So they had to invent some exciting distinction that convinced everyone that selling ideas made you a better class of person than selling lettuce. I’m not really sure how Marx would see all of this but it seems like if you aren’t capital then you are still labor.
But I guess now that we’ve got rid of hereditary aristocracy the need for more elaborate distinctions for how we determine our betters is clear. The market demanded a rebrand. Personally I like idea whore better but I can see why we went with knowledge worker.
I’ve got a bad relationship with work. Since I was a teenager I’ve been compulsive about the idea of hard work. I don’t know how I got to have a problem with the Protestant Work Ethic but it seems likely I developed it long before I read Max Weber and found it’s comforting rationalizations about work’s inherent morality.
I’m fascinated by things like commodity aesthetics, the history of consumption, and theories of leisure & status. Partially because I got a kick out of supposing I was a better person than those wretched lazy types. I wasn’t so sophisticated to sneer “rentier” class as kid but I was well on my way to veneration of hard work and productive capital. An economics degree finished the job.
This was compounded by growing up in a family that worshipped the culture of Silicon Valley. The innovation of computers and the people that worked all hours to bring their creativity to the world were the most important people on the planet. They hadn’t quite crossed the cultural rubicon of power that the tech industry has now, but the power of making the future was hard work and heady stuff even before it captured the mainstream. I wanted to change the world like the people my father admired
There was a time when computing and automation raised questions of a new era of leisure. If we could move all of the work we’d previously done manually to automated systems perhaps humans could ascend to The Culture of Ian M Bank’s novels. In a distant future of abundance, sentient AIs run industry and production, so humanity can do, well, whatever it likes.
But we haven’t achieved a post scarcity world. If anything accumulating resources and showing you’ve done it by the rules of the meritocracy makes hard work even more crucial. You’ve got to play and win two games. You’ve got to make the money and show you’ve demonstrated the proper status while doing it. It seems like leisure is losing the battle quite soundly.
I’ve been pushing all year to get back to hard work. I’ve worked hard at my health. I’ve committed myself to biohacking. But really what if the obsession with working myself to the bone is killing me? I’ve been completely relaxed as I prepared for a medical procedure this week. I’ve never felt better. Which forced me to ask myself if maybe I better come to live leisure like the way I have loved work. It might be a much better life for me. The future sentient AIs might approve as well.
I own a reasonably good library on the intersection of class, wealth, and capitalism. I suspect that sort of preoccupation isn’t that odd of a leaning when you come from family that jumped from working class to bourgeois and had set its sights even higher for their children. And it’s reasonably amusing that I file the topics together in my head and on my bookshelf.
Money has never been the determining factor for class, but the American preoccupation with capital has led us to develop elaborate social mores to try to distance that we have overlapped wealth and status into the term “upper class” in this county. We don’t have peerage so things like taste and creativity has come to dominate. We absolutely hate the nouveau rich and disdain people with bad taste.
I spent a number of years working in “style” which is the overarching set of professions that dominate who has class. I worked for luxury houses, founded a cosmetics brand and even did marketing for a very high end gym. All of the kinds of things you can buy to demonstrate you have good taste and thus are worthy of being considered upper class.
Honestly it seems easier to have to learn the manners of the aristocracy than to have to bother with keeping up on style. At least those assholes had a consistent dress code. But an elaborate set of social distinctions overlaying signifiers on who has taste and credentials is fundamentally more accessible. Hipster are social progress.
Showing you’ve got the capacity to read social signals has lead to a lot of weird shit. Our current preoccupation with critical theory for one. But it’s opened up class status to people who are capable of demonstrating their understanding of what it takes to occupy their place on the ladder. And yes I think shitposting is the new Harvard degree or house in Newport. I guess it’s no weirder than marrying someone with an estate on a cold island off the coast of Europe.
Yesterday I was fucking around on Twitter, as I am prone to doing. I made a barely sit-com worthy joke about divorced guy energy.
My husband Alex replied with a searing burn “don’t worry, I’ll be fine” response and we were off to the races with all our mutuals dunking. I was howling with laughter. The two of us were trading zingers and watching the DMs roll in from friends.
Obviously the undercurrent of any thread on social media got dark very fast. So quickly I ended up putting out resources for men who were struggling in the replies. The amount of pain on display was enough to make you want to donate to the first domestic abuse charity I could find.
So why is it that I can shitpost about a topic and come away unscathed, indeed it was a fun and entertaining night for both myself and Alex, but others melted down? I think it might be about class and social signaling. It takes a lot of social capital to shitpost. And those that shitpost on the most socially contentious topics are demonstrating their social capacity to discuss whatever they want without consequences. I can shitpost because I’ve got enough social capital to do so.
One theory I’ve got is that shitposting is a backlash to Ted Talks, super serious reverential coverage in glossy business magazines, and the proliferation of HBS style “business” books. We’ve had an saturation in performative professionalism.
Once it became unclear that every self seriousness biography or magazine puff piece was placed by professionals to make their clients look like geniuses (visible effort undermines certain kinds of status) the savvy social seeker knew they needed a more authentic way to telegraph in-group power. The next logical step was demonstrating that you were so smart, so powerful and so connected you didn’t even need to demonstrate it. Hence the shitpost.
The weirdest part of “shitposting” being an actual status symbol in venture capital is that a couple of billionaires are going to see me and Alex making jokes about divorced guy energy and this will only increase our status. Which is ludicrous on its face ans yet absolutely true.
This isn’t even a flex on my part (though it obviously is a flex) as it is now accepted that having a following for saying whatever you like gives you a leg up in startups. A friend likened it to “dressing down” or the practice of wearing causal clothing even in formal settings. It shows you are so powerful and wealthy you don’t need to give a fuck about manners. Shitposting on Twitter is like wearing ripped jeans at the country club.
I want to explore this topic in more depth so this post is just some sketch notes. But I wanted to get it down and organized so I hope it’s alright to have some half baked ideas. It’s my blog so I figure it’s fine b
I’m becoming quite bored of feeling like shit as I go on maybe day 8 or 9 of a poor reaction to an anti-viral. It’s not fun when the cure is worse than the disease. I noticed something fascinating as more and more “days off” piled up. I’ve still got a lot of emotional shit when it comes to being sick.
My anxiety over being seen as weak, lazy or lacking in willpower started to compound the more days I’ve needed to recover. What will people think of me that just as I’m making a comeback to full time work that I let myself get waylaid by a virus? Every project and meeting that needed canceling felt like I should accompany it with an apology tour. I felt like I owed everyone my time and energy. I felt ashamed.
The social striving and status chasing that have gripped the aspirational class seems to have its claws firmly in my psyche. At least when it comes to work, I’m convinced I must always be working to be “better.” Where the fuck did this self limiting belief come from?
Who cares if I needed a week off to cope with health care needs when I’ve been on medical leave for nearly two years? What is another week. Why am I so anxious to show that I’m capable of going back to work? Who the fuck cares! It’s not as if I’m dependent on a salary to survive. I’m not chasing a resume or CV polish on LinkedIn. I can just not work.
Technically I’ve already made it out of the status social climbing games. I’ve got money. I’ve got traditional credentials. I have a well compensated skill set that is easily hired out for income without sacrificing much of my time. I should not be experiencing any class anxiety at all. I should happily go into the leisure class and not concern myself that my workaholism isn’t possible for health reasons. And yet I’m absolutely panicked that I’ll be see as lazy and unreliable every time I have a minor setback.
The aspirationals’ endless pursuit of better can produce psychic restlessness and doubts beneath the façade of confidence and accomplishment.
I’ve always thought of my habits as being high status. I read science fiction, make a hobby of macroeconomics, and pursue healthy biohacking experiments. Of course, that I think of these things as having status is precisely what makes me signaling it low status. The perception of me caring so fucking much is proof that I don’t think my status in life is secure. I’m no better than the middle class strivers in Downtown Abbey who miss manner cues. How embarrassing!
But if I can admit that I’m anxious about my place in the world maybe it’s a sign I’m not so beholden to class systems after all. I’ve just now admitted that I’m afraid of how I will be perceived if my climb back to health isn’t perfectly stage managed. I hope that is the first step in letting it go. Fixating on fear and anxiety isn’t great for physical health. So I’m putting it out there that I’m afraid of how I’ll be seen by others. And I’m letting it go.
Popular culture portrays Silicon Valley and the startup space as one where capital is king. But it’s not the kind of capital you might be envisioning. Money (literal capital) is less of a driver of success than your social capital. And a specific type of social capital is overlooked.
The people with the most social capital aren’t necessarily founders or venture capitalists. It’s the career startup operator that has a good reputation that matters. They have a type of social capital I call operating capital.
This makes spotting who has the most status in startups tricky. In industries like finance, money keeps the score. In consumer packaged goods, it’s what brand team you were on. In startups, the score is tricky to quantify value. We’ve developed an elaborate system of social capital signaling that determines who is considered valuable. But within that social capital status in-group you will find that the executive team layer has some of the most pull as founders and board members build working trust with them over years.
Because we value operators as high social status individuals we build our social status signifiers around your proven capacity to problem solve. How you solve problems can make or break a startup.
And we need all kinds of thinking. We need system thinking, (ops), a knack for keeping talent motivated HR), an ability to drive excitement and warp reality (marketing and PR) and obviously you have to be able to make shit (product and engineering). The people with these capabilities are the ones that accrue the most operating capital. Find those high status people and you will never be far from a startup that may have a shot at the big time.
Aesthetics are opinions. And opinions are totalizing. I’ve been on some bullshit recently about how taste is totalitarian. Mostly because I care about how aesthetics turn into politics. But aesthetics are almost always personal choices (except our biology which is another discussion entirely) which gives them wide latitude to be all encompassing.
That aesthetics are choices matters. We choose to articulate our aesthetics. If our tools have the capacity to articulate an aesthetic vision with clarity and fidelity it’s often been the choice of artists to render their vision closely to what is in their mind’s eye. Or sometimes we say fuck it, who cares, there is virtue going in the other way. I’d argue that is unaesthetic.
A deliberate decision to eschew aesthetics is literally the definition of unaesthetic. It’s not an insult. It’s just a choice. If we can tell something is a deliberate choice to pursue an aesthetic that is unappealing, unpopular, ugly or otherwise thumbing its nose its nose at beauty that is unaesthetic. Which is its own aesthetic. And it’s fine for that to be your taste but it is a taste.
Modernity has been on about how the search for universals of beauty is both hegemonic and homogenizing for most of the last century. That means everyone has to have the same standard and because we have the same standards we all tend to look alike. Think Stepford Wives or South Korean beauty pageant queens.
Understanding and telegraphing cultural norms of beauty is generally considered crucial for social competence and often for participation in any group. Think of how awkward it is to wear a suit into a startup or not wearing any makeup for sorority rush.
Sometimes I think beauty and aesthetic standards wish they were as totalitarian as technology. Protocols are literally limitations on what can and cannot be done. 8Bit and pixel art were originally protocol standards. What could be rendered wasn’t a limit of imagination but our tool sets. That’s why we obsessed on rendering and fidelity for so much of the history of computing. We’d say shit like “look how crisp” and we’d mean it.
That’s not true anymore. If anything we’ve got issues with too much fidelity. The uncanny valley of hyper reality upsets our mind because it’s hyper real. Aesthetics now has to cope with the ability to render even the most elaborate vision to exact reality. Now that’s a cool problem. But if you want to sell pixel art, call it punk, and tell me it’s actually a cool commentary on protocol limits that’s fine. But I’m going to call it unaesthetic. But it’s not worth being insulted about.