We’ve always had big plans for the Readup blog. It’s the perfect place for general announcements and updates. But more importantly, it’s the ideal forum for talking through some of the messier stuff that’s happening behind the scenes and soliciting feedback from the readers in our community. So getting this blog up and running in a real and meaningful way has been a no-brainer from the very beginning.
But, to date, the blog… stinks.
The reason is because I, Bill, haven’t been able to write. To really write. What you’re reading right now is the first blog post in almost two months and only the fourth blog post of 2019. That’s abysmal. Especially considering all of the exciting things going on lately. Pick a topic and I’ve got juicy details to share: intellectual property, privacy, platform development, company culture. As some of you know, I’m bouncing around the country in a freaking RV for crying out loud. There’s more than enough to talk about, but there hasn’t been a flow of information because, well, like I said - I can’t write.
Last night (while I was looking at some ducks) I think I figured something out. The same weird, dark energy that has prevented me from writing blog posts is what prevents people from commenting on Readup. Basically: it’s scary. It might seem obvious, but that realization feels like a breakthrough. Writing is hard. That’s why so few of us do it. That’s why bookstores and libraries have entire sections dedicated to the craft, the process. To writer’s block.
For most of us, the dead end isn’t the actual act of writing. It’s not that our fingers don’t have the muscles or that we can’t figure out how to spell stuff, how to form sentences. It’s the publishing part that brings on the fantods. The sharing. And it doesn’t make much of a difference if it’s a story or a blog post or just a tiny little comment. The emotional burden of sharing yourself with the world is always going to be heavy. (This also explains why I have no problem filling up journal after journal, especially since I started tossing them in the fire when I’m done.)
The fear of public speaking is a perfect analogy. We all know how to talk. But plopped in front of a crowded auditorium, mic in hand, the body starts to revolt. Suddenly, talking is impossible. Come to think of it, it’s actually not just an analogy. Writing things online is public speaking. It’s you and a crowd. A big crowd. Plus, in some cases, they get to be anonymous. That’s downright petrifying.
At this moment, I don’t have internet access (which I think, by the way, is another piece of the puzzle; something I’ll write about later) so I can’t look up the exact quote, but David Foster Wallace once wrote something about how when he looks at the stuff he’s written, he sees a deformed and disgusting little baby, something from hell that he wants to kill, to disappear, to never see again. It’s a gruesome image, but I completely understand that feeling. Pretty much every single time I write anything online, I have the thought, “Ugh. I’m so going to regret this.” In fact, I’m having it right now. I had it yesterday, when I published a curse-laden lunatic rant on what’s now the Article of the Day.
But here’s the thing:
It seriously doesn’t have to matter. That’s how conversations in the real world work. They’re wildly imperfect and that’s what makes them perfect. We’re all always saying the wrong things at the wrong times and that’s par for the course. We also screw up volume, tone, grammar. I found out earlier this week that I’ve always been saying “asteriks” instead of “asterisk” or whatever it is, like a bonafide Philistine. That doesn’t mean that some small part of me doesn’t judge people who say “yous” but, then again - WHATEVER! - it is what it is. I still sometimes say “are chive” instead of “archive” and it’s not because I’m illiterate, it’s because I’m a human being.
I’ve made so many profoundly dumb comments on Readup it’s absurd. At the top of the list, my completely non-sensical rant about how priveleged and not priveleged I am. The most mortifying part is that I highlighted it in an email to the entire Readup community. “Look at me everyone! I’m living in a universe of hypocricy!” But, as always, there’s more to the story. I wrote that during a pretty tough time. I was newly single (good god, now I’m really breaking the seal here) and crashing at my parents house (they were in Florida) because I didn’t know where else to go, basically smoking pot for ten hours a day every day. At 31 years old. Yikes. Not to mention, privelege is exceptionally hard to talk about in general, even under less miserable circumstances. This is cliché, but also extremely true: what’s hard to talk about is also what needs to be talked about. And, chances are, it’s going to be interesting. Even if it’s laced with some pain.
I also left some really stupid comments on an incredibly thoughtful New Yorker essay called Pond Scum by Kathryn Schulz. The reason that this one drives me up the wall is because I’ve read that article several times, not to mention Walden (also several times) and Thoureau’s journals. Plus, now I’m really walking the walk, living a life of radical frugality and simplicity. In other words, I have a lot to say on the topic of Thoreau and, basically, it’s complicated. I need more time. I need to change my mind fifteen more times. And in the meantime, I’m going to scratch my eyes out when I see those comments which are little puffs of nothing underneath such an awesome article.
On a slightly different note, some of my older comments now look downright foreign to me. I think: There’s literally no way I wrote that. But of course I did. And ultimately I’m glad to have the opportunity to reflect on how much I’ve changed. That’s what makes people interesting: they change. Hopefully. I remember thinking twice, three times maybe, before being the first to comment on Elif Batuman’s piece on Japan’s rent-a-family industry. I’m so glad I did. In the meantime, it has won two illustrious awards: (1) It’s the number one article in the Readup Hall of Fame and (2) it won the National Magazine Award for Best Feature this past year. The timestamp on my comment proves it: I called it.
The comment that warms my soul the most is from turtlebubble, who said that one of my comments was her “fave comment ever maybe!” For the rest of that day, I was floating on clouds. It also confirmed something I’ve always known about myself - that I’m in expert in one thing and one thing only: being bored.
A majority of users on Readup don’t comment. They just read. That’s probably always going to be the case, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. (Most of the internet just lurks.) Perhaps this is completely inaccurate (you tell me!) but I think that some of the hesitation that people might be feeling about commenting on Readup has to do with the way that commenting is experienced elsewhere, on other platforms, where there’s always a very high chance that you’ll get burned, especially if the topic at hand is “loaded.” And what topic, these days, isn’t?
Some of the fear is definitely real. Trolls exist. But what if some of it is fake? Self-inflicted? What if some of the loathing is just imaginary? I’ve joked with Jeff about this, but it’s actually not that funny: I have an imaginary bully. He’s an overweight neckbeard who sits in a basement drinking Mountain Dew and he thinks I’m self-centered, arrogant, and lame. I wish I could say that those are his words, not mine, but since I completely made him up, I guess they are my words after all. Where did this guy come from and why am I so afraid of him?
Having nothing to do with imaginary trolls, here’s something noteworthy: I have never once wished that a reader on Readup didn’t make a comment they made. Not once. I’ve been surprised, confused, and even a bit perturbed by some things I’ve seen, but never once did I think, “Man, I really wish so-and-so didn’t say X.” Every comment is net positive. That’s a pretty big deal. In a way, it’s also just a mindset.
Readup began when I called Jeff, totally out of the blue, and said, “Let’s fix commenting by keeping out the non-readers.” It wasn’t, “Let’s fix reading by forcing people to finish things.” That’s just something that happened along the way, a “mini-pivot” if you will. Reading remains at the center of the experience, but the community is the thing that’s going to keep it all together, the thing that will make it grow.
Readup should be a place where you can speak your mind freely. Be honest. Be yourself. Be wrong. Be weird. Think out loud. Work through things. I know how hard all of this can be. I recently started posting on my personal site. “Torture” isn’t a strong enough word. (Now you see why I was ruminating on that David Foster Wallace quote?) It might be true that speaking freely makes us human, but that doesn’t make it easy. And if Readup can make it one iota easier, we’re definitely on to something.
What do you think? Whether you’re brand new to Readup or you’ve been around for a while, we’d love to hear from you. Why do you or don’t you comment? Where should we go next with this crazy experiment?