Thoughts

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Grateful for

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  • Having so many Christmas cards to send that it’s stressful. I’m lucky to have so many people that I feel compelled to send some love to.
  • Holding an American passport – meaning very little visa issues, ever – and having the means to go be a tourist in basically any country I want.
  • The space I get to come home to after being said tourist. Everything is mine and holds memories, it can be warmed when I want to, the tap water is divine and easy to get, and the fridge is always full of food I like to eat.
  • Being able-bodied to enjoy the things I love to do – writing, designing, using computers, rock climbing – and also being able-bodied enough to do the things I have to do, like doing dishes and cleaning myself.
  • A partner who values communication, trust, health, and growth.

Unlearning and 'returning to'

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Since having a Big Girl Job with Good Insurance, I’ve had the luxury of treating myself to a few different therapies: physical therapy for hip pain, talk therapy for existence pain (lol), and voice lessons, which is not categorically therapy per se but whatever, I’m counting it.

Going into these three therapies, I would have figured they’d share some similarities since they all seem to try to “fix” something. And while that’s true to an extent, I’ve noticed that it’s less about fixing and more about unlearning.

In physical therapy, I’ve learned that my hip flexor is too tight because I’ve been overusing that muscle in times where my hamstring should be the one doing the work. I’ve somehow learned to engage the wrong muscle, and now I need to return to a natural state of engaging my hamstring instead. My body isn’t broken – it just took a wrong turn somewhere years ago and now it has to backtrack.

In talk therapy, I’ve had to learn to sit with my emotions and allow myself to feel them. Frankly, I don’t like doing it, which is why it’s something my therapist is encouraging me to practice. But I really can’t argue with the thought that if we weren’t meant to feel our emotions, we wouldn’t have them in the first place. My emotional processing isn’t broken – it’s just always felt safer to hide instead.

Voice lessons have maybe been the wildest. I’ve had to learn to project my voice and allow it to fill an entire room. Processing emotions is peanuts compared to the vulnerability of singing – my vocal anatomy is perfectly ready for the act of belting, but I’ve somehow learned that giving it my all is somehow unsafe, even when it’s just me and my teacher in a sound-proof room. It’s less like building a muscle and more like coaxing a scared dog with a piece of kibble.

What’s most interesting to me about this observation is that there’s an implied idea of “returning to” some state. Like I’ve only needed to engage with any of these therapies because I learned the wrong thing however many years ago, and I’ve unwittingly turned it into my default state, which has hurt me down the line. There are so many directions I could take this train of thought, but above all, it’s unexpectedly comforting. Framing it as “unlearning” lets me be kinder to myself than framing it as “fixing”. It’s a redirection, not a deficit. Learning is something I know I can do – unlearning can’t be that hard either.

Fighting newness

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I keep looking at my digital garden and seeing all the timestamps that haven’t budged since March. I keep being like, “damn, just make something already.”

But that’s a bad habit. The corporate internet is sooo saturated with newness – new post, new story, new tweet, etc. Content goes stale so fast these days, for no reason other than there’s so fucking much of it that there’s no space left on the shelf for the older stuff. There’s not really any inherent value in newness – it doesn’t always (nor does it often) translate to quality.

Last summer, I was doing some research about a trip to Iceland and found myself ignoring anything that was posted before 2018 because it felt too old to me. While that was 4 years ago, if we exclude the COVID timeline with the tourism industry coming to a standstill during that time, that content is really only 2 years old. Even still, I wasn’t even looking at potentially volatile recommendations like where to grab dinner or which walking tour to take – I was looking at scenic routes to drive. As if 4 years could really impact whether a particular waterfall is worth taking a 2-hour detour for. Like I said, it’s a bad habit.

This also makes me think about how trends used to cycle through in periods of ~20 years, but mid-2000s fashion is already making it’s way into mainstream fashion again. The abundance of inspiration through the online world means that trends move a lot faster than they used to, too. Mina Le also discusses this in her video gen z vs. millennials: who’s right about their jeans?

So I’m trying to remember that I’m still unlearning that. Digital gardens are a way of being like… not everything has to be new all the time. Sometimes we can just keep on thinking about stuff without writing it down. Sometimes we don’t even have to think about anything at all for half a year.

On the cozy web, who are you?

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In the last 6 months, I’ve stepped away from typical social media sites and turned towards cozy web spaces. The cozy web is the name for the areas of the internet where you interact with others but are largely safe from uninvited eyes, like ad trackers, trolls, and the general public. It was originally coined by Venkatesh Rao.

Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit are not cozy web, but the following are:

  • Slack communities
  • Discord servers
  • Whatsapp groups

Something I’ve noticed about these spaces is that the question Who are you? is answered very differently than on social media.

On the cozy web, it’s not enough to glean who your interlocutors are through their profiles alone. Other than an avatar and a display name, cozy web profiles offer very little information about that person. In order to get a real feel for who someone is, you need to actually see them interacting repeatedly over a period of time – how do they type? What do they say? What reacts do they use? Identity is developed actively, and over time.

This is the opposite of sites like Instagram or Twitter. The whole point of those is that everything you’ve said or posted is cemented into a bundle of “who you are”, ready for anyone to stalk for years to come and devoid of all context in which it was posted.

On the cozy web, for anyone to develop any sense of who you are, you have to actually participate in conversation – but you’re also not necessarily beholden to everything you’ve said in the last few years. And on the flip side, if you only ever lurk, you never quite develop an identity. (This can also be said for traditional social media, though.)

Identity as brand

The other thing about cozy web spaces is that brands don’t live there (unless it’s a space made by the brand, for the brand). Corporate content doesn’t get mixed with layperson content: you don’t interact with corporations, you don’t consume a cool piece of content only to discover its a sponsored post. There’s no careful crafting of brand identity by professionals, whether it’s for a corporate or personal account – it just doesn’t make sense to invest in.

Does this mean that cozy web presence is more authentic than social media presence?

Your @ is a commodity

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A while ago, I signed up for Polywork, a new-age tech-focused LinkedIn, in their early beta stages. I was one of a first few hundred to get access to the platform, and when they asked me to choose a handle, I took my opportunity: @alisa

But I was instantly hit with an error message that this handle was reserved. Not taken, reserved. I was a little offended because I had discovered this site through Brian Lovin, whose handle was @brian, and it looked v cool. I just didn’t have enough internet clout to lay claim to the handle bearing my own first name.

On the other hand, I kind of understand Polywork’s decision to reserve quality handles. I’m sure lots of people sign up with sought-after usernames then end up abandoning the platform. I imagine the net anger is probably higher when Polywork decides to boot the username of an already-existing user, who comes back later to find that their handle been given to someone else. Safer to reserve from the start.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about how the internet has commoditized weird things. We already have an entire industry around how high up in rankings your site gets on Google when someone types a search term. I used to work for an SEO company, and it was strange to have your entire livelihood depend on whether Google decided to change their algorithm dramatically. It’s a pretty “new” industry, but it feels tired and outdated already.

It’s similar to influencers – they’re effectively engaging in a type of SEO, except the algorithm they’re trying to stay afloat on are the ones on Instagram or YouTube rather than Google.

I never ended up getting into Polywork. Maybe it’s the chip on my shoulder, or maybe I wasn’t productive enough. Anyway.

Context and sensemaking

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Thinking lately about how context is so intimately central to the way we understand the world around us. Seeing the same information before and after a few key pieces of context is transformative.

When I was in college, I picked up a book on existentialism that was curated and edited by a man named Walter Kaufmann. It had excerpts of writing by several existentialist writers at the time, with introductions written by Kaufmann for each of them. I immediately recognized Sartre’s name and flipped to his section, eager to see what made him so brilliant. To my disappointment, Kaufmann spoke somewhat flippantly about Sartre, saying [paraphrase1] and [paraphrase2]. I went on to read Sartre’s excerpt – The Wall – and was somewhat amused, but largely unmoved.

The original takeaway: Sartre wasn’t actually that great, and maybe I was naive for thinking he was.

Almost a decade later, I read The Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell, which followed the biographical lives of many existentialists as they moved through pre- and post-war Europe, with Sartre situated as the main character. Having had my interest re-piqued, I reached again for the book by Kaufmann.

As I read through his introduction for Sartre and Sartre’s The wall, I experienced whiplash after whiplash of new insights, caused by the new context I held after 10 years.

Context 1: I noticed this time that Kaufmann was writing in 1950. Given the biography, I realized he was actually Sartre’s contemporary.

Context 2: A quick google told me Kaufmann was a traditional philosopher, having served as a professor at Priceton for 30 years. I realized maybe Sartre’s (at the time) radical rejection of academia made Kaufmann look down on Sartre a little, hence the flippant intro.

Context 3: 10 months earlier, I had witnessed the unexpected and swift loss of my dad to cancer – an awful fate for someone who really did not want to die. The Wall is all about someone who doesn’t want to die. I realized it’s actually a really fucking scary read.

The new takeaway: Sartre actually was great, and all it took was a little bit of context.