Ego on the Internet

January 26, 2023
Technology and Spirituality

There’s a Tyler, the Creator interview clip that’s been making the rounds again where he talks about artists and self-promotion:

“And you mean to tell me that you’re gonna be passive with your own shit and put it on your story once? Are you fucking crazy, bro? I’m still promoting my album that came out in June… it’s a year out, and I’m still out here… and what I notice is some of the younger guys and girls will be like ‘oh, I got a song out’ and they forget about it. And I’m like, ‘No. Let motherfuckers know. Tell people.’ … I put time and love and too much energy into this finished product just to put it on Instagram and forget about it.

The first time I watched that video, I felt like he was speaking directly to me. I watched this one-minute clip close to a dozen times before I was finally like, “okay, I needed to hear that, something needs to change.”

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My own aversion to self-promotion is rooted in embarrassment and shame :

  1. Regarding embarrassment: When I’m promoting my work, I see every comment as judgement, every view as potential judgement, and every share as pity. It’s not that I don’t believe in my own work, but there’s an unhealthy obsession with what other people are going to think. Much of that stems from my own tendency to be judgemental at times, which gets projected onto others.

  2. Regarding shame: At the same time, when I’m able to get over the judgement from others, there’s this nagging question of, “why am I doing this? Is this just an attempt to feed my ego?” The shame is rooted in a belief that self-promotion is inherently egotistical, and that suppression of the ego is noble.

Your reasons might vary – who knows, maybe you don’t face an aversion to self-promotion at all! But in conversations with friends and peers I’ve learned that I’m definitely not alone.

Still, some of these battles are more prevalent: I think overcoming embarrassment is the most discussed and straightforward struggle on the internet. For example, a few years ago, Imranye published a short clip titled, “fear not, the internet moves quick”, and I come back to it often. The takeaway: you’re probably overthinking it, people are more supportive than you’d initially believe, and even if everyone hates your work, the internet moves quick – nobody will remember in a month.

On the other hand, shame is a more difficult battle, in large part because it’s not widely discussed. The first time I really considered this topic was after reading Omar Usman’s book “Fiqh of Social Media”:

“The ultimate question here – as always – boils down to intention. Why do you want to be portrayed a certain way? Who are you hoping to show this version of yourself to? What do you get from doing this? A good rule of thumb learned from our pious predecessors when it comes to portraying a certain image: work to hide your good deeds even more than you hide your bad ones. "

The vast majority of content we consume is posted with a selfish motive. Folks are trying to grow their audiences, to be perceived as cool, to get a brand deal, to land a new job, or simply to feed their egos. If you consider why you are sharing things for even a minute – asking yourself the questions in the quote above – it’s almost impossible not to feel at least a bit of shame.

It’s hard not to feed your ego on the internet.

Understanding attention as a form of capital reshapes the way we think about its allocation. Attention can be spent and earned, just like money.

Likewise, rather than being allocated according to importance, attention often flows to the mostlegible ideas. Legibility, in this case, is defined from the perspective of “the algorithm.” The algorithmic nature of media consumption on the internet creates a world where it’s difficult to be intentional about consumption.

In general, we have very little control over what media we consume. Intentionality requires disproportionate effort. In a world of infinite, unintentional media, we have no choice but to develop a point of view that we find truly meaningful and put it out into the world. We’re playing the game anyway, we might as well do so in a way that is meaningful.

Visa calls this “presenting your vector,” the idea that folks will be attracted to your ideas if you’re able to put out a point of view and a direction of where you’re headed. The focus on the journey – and the intentionality that comes with it – is important to maintaining your legibility:

If you want to make it in a market as a creative, an artist, whatever, you have to be able to “present a vector”. Which is a way of saying, “here’s what I’m doing”, in a way that has a sense of direction.

Of course if you dig into this you find that you can’t really say what you’re doing (Friendly Ambitious Nerd) with any conviction unless you have self-awareness (Introspect), which is why my “marketing consults” end up being kinda lightly disguised therapy sessions.

In other words, your work on the internet must embody a sense of intentionality rooted in introspection. Under Visa’s framework, developing and presenting your “vector” requires continuous introspection and intentionality. To Omar Usman’s point, it requires constantly asking yourself “why do you want to be portrayed a certain way?” and making sure that portrayal aligns with your values and goals.

The shame of self-promotion disappears when you view your work as a mans of proliferating your values.

I wrote this essay as a reminder to myself and my friends to put more work out into the world. It doesn’t matter how big or small, how seemingly important or insignificant. There is a game being played, whether we opted-in or not, and that is a game of attention. I know some of the most thoughtful, creative, kind-hearted people in the world who are choosing not to play, leaving more room for folks who are less intentional to make their voices heard.

It is the Islamic perspective that our cultural objective should be making “the will of God prevail.” From my view, promoting your own work is a meaningful way to do that so long as your vector is aligned with a remembrance of your values and chosen purpose.

Ego on the internet is a new beast to be slain, but it shouldn’t stop us from making our mark on the world.