When every undocumented action has an opportunity cost

A few years ago, I was editing at a women’s interest site when the nature of the job changed, and my boss and I found ourselves having to write most of the content. I didn’t arrive at the job with a “beat” — there was no single, relevant subject I could have capably written on several times per day — so my job from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. was to guess at the Venn overlap between my pre-existing interests and those of our readers. Often this consisted of frantically mining the minutiae of my life, hoping to churn out something less repellant than used Kleenex. The job’s best feature was also its worst: the fact that it shouldn’t have existed. In the realm of jobs that basically don’t hurt people, I couldn’t imagine a more useless one than writing about myself every day. It started to feel like slicing off bits of my skin just to chuck them into the road.

Broadcasting thoughts almost as soon as you think them means collapsing the difference between feeling and conviction — the unformed, uninvited twinges that may not have anything to do with what you really believe versus the self you’re developing in harmony with the world you want to live in. Subjects that demand research, time, and great care have to be shaved down to the most locatable takes, because it takes time to arrive at something to add, and in the meantime you have to say something. This is how it was for me, anyway. Others are better at talking in public.

Understanding the relationship between the broadcasted self and the others is a requirement not just for media jobs but of most people who communicate online.

This week we are talking about “content” — not the substance of what’s published but an orientation: a broadcasting mentality as a way of being in the world. Social media are tools for both communication and content, which is communication put to work, made into a commodity to circulate and profit from, whether in money — directly or indirectly — or attention, or both. It’s not the expression of an experience but a calculated rehashing of it, coordinated with the metrics of the platform in use. Those who successfully make a living on content have studied these metrics and, to varying degrees, absorbed them, calibrating their emotional-experiential perception to that which their public most demands.

This attitude was pronounced enough with the first flourishing of personal blogging, but the vlogger, even moreso, learns to treat all experiences, thoughts, and coincidences as potential content, sellable and consumable. Every undocumented action has an opportunity cost.

Content is not just material as in “everything is material,” the old writerly cliché. Material suggests rawness, something that needs to be processed. “Content” is material accelerated, totalized without necessarily being analyzed or synthesized. It doesn’t need to consist of life’s most painful or awkward moments repurposed; it instead presents an instrumental approach to life and social interaction for its own sake. At worst, this degrades experience and relationships, and the reality of other people, to their potential inputs — to set design.

This week Navneet Alang writes about the “synlocutionary effect” of online speech — how the utterances we make online are not so much our statements but statements subsumed by the discourse that surrounds them. Online, our statements signify a position within the ideological flow of our feeds. As a result, when we address one another in online spaces, the distinction between speaking as individuals in a social setting and as public stand-ins for broader, often political concepts becomes blurred, as do the lines between individuals and what they’re seen to represent.

Tatum Dooley investigates the de facto minimalism of the Instagram “influencer”: an all-over aesthetic that speaks to a lifestyle in full, not merely the sum of its consumer goods. Influencers, after all, peddle intimacy as content — more than a life full of covetable objects and experiences, they represent the ongoing promise that we could not only obtain such a life but also reflect it to our own publics.

Anyone with access to the internet can tap an audience, but at the cost of some mental real estate: The more we use social media, the more we restructure our language to its inputs, and the more its feeds determine the way we think about everything. In some ways this is the timeless compromise between aloneness and its opposite: We can be among others, provided we’re willing to adapt to their needs and expectations. But the “others” in this case are as much the expression and residue of the platforms themselves as they are a group of individuals. We might begin to tag and categorize our thoughts, skimming over the meaning of meaning to the product we might be sitting on.

“Everything is content” is either callous or adaptive: At best, it’s a way to redeem hardship by turning suffering into meaning for others; the vlogger might be no different from an artist in any other medium. But it reminds us that meaning, under capitalism, reduces to a product, and making our lives meaningful might offer no protection for us after all.


“You Don’t Say,” by Navneet Alang

“Cost of Simplicity,” by Tatum Dooley

Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s upcoming installment, PICTURES OF FOOD, featuring: cooking videos; food as sex, death, and transcendence; food’s other pleasures.

Alexandra Molotkow is a senior editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt and an editor at the Hairpin. She has written for the Believer, the New York Times Magazine, the Cut and the New Republic.