My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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suckage explained

Every six months or so, i used to write these emotionally dramatic emails to all of my friends explaining how sorry i was about not responding to email, please forgive, i’m going to do better, i promise. And then, at one point, in writing that message, i shortened it to the equivalent of “i suck, i know it, it’s not getting better” and one of my dearest friends wrote back with something akin to “thank god you finally realized that cuz i’m sick of getting your apologies every few months.”

I’ve never really learned to stomach the fact that i can’t respond to everyone. I feel guilty. If you’ve been reading this blog for years, this wimpering sounds familiar because i now wimper here every six months or so. Lately, people have been getting angry at me for not being able to look at their project; others yell at me for not being able to find 15 minutes to talk to them for their news articles; still others go straight for the guilt trip. I’ve started not responding to email. I find that i’ve gotten snippy in emails and that sucks; i even read blogs about how overly curt i am. The problem is that i spend 16+ hours a day working and my #1 goal is to have a life somewhere here. I’ve started making up appointments as excuses so that i can have nights off or leave open the possibility of dinner with a friend. I’ve been home for 7 days and it’s the longest i’ve been home since i moved to LA. Anyhow, you know the exhaustion, depression, emo woe is me… that’s nothing new.

Well, last night, a dear friend of mine wrote with similar exhaustion. I didn’t get his message till this morning because i snuck out and saw a movie. In a theater! (I usually only see them on airplanes.) I wrote back with similar exhaustion and he sent me two pieces from Neal Stephenson that rang so true i wanted to cry. First, Why I am a Bad Correspondent. Second, My ongoing struggle against “continuous partial attention”. I’m nowhere near as cool as Neal but, like him, i need 4+ hours of writing time at a time. In fact, i usually need 6+. Otherwise, i get nothing done. I know this. And i’m preparing for everyone to hate me when i go underground next summer for as long as it takes me to write a dissertation and book.

At the top of Neal’s description is a quote from Umberto Eco: “I don’t even have an e-mail address. I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages.” What does it mean that i’m not even 30 and that’s my goal? I can’t help but wonder if the firehose of the Internet drowns a lot more people simply because a lot of people with good intentions can now reach them. I know that a lot of people think that i’m an uber bitch for complaining about the amount of attention that i get, but i really wish that folks could understand what a mixed blessing it is. Sure, i feel honored (and completely embarassed) by being called the high priestess. But the cost of such compliments is an inability to hang out with friends, an inability to lie on the beach staring at the stars without panicking about how i’m getting behind in work. Of course, i do make time, but often only under crisis. This week, for example, i’ve dropped the ball majorly because of making time for three beings that matter more than work.

I’m kinda concerned about the psychological costs here. I still remember the horror that i felt when i first learned that rescuers who are deemed heroes often commit suicide. Part of what happens is that they get spun into the spotlight for a brief period of time and then spit back out. Their identity is destroyed twice – first when they became a hero out of a passion that they believe in and second when their hero-ness is no longer significant. This is a form of micro-fame. You can have prolongated micro-fame (like many bloggers who are well known amongst niche audiences) or brief periods of mega-fame for a micro period (lottery winners, rescuers, people who the media spotlight). Unlike real fame, folks with micro-fame have no one to help them negotiate or handle all of the incoming attention that overwhelms their ability to cope. While that is exhausting, the rush is so exciting that you try really hard to take care of it all at first, to please everyone. In the process of coping, you take on that new role, the role of the center of attention. And then when the winds of attention shift, if you’re clinging too hard to it, you’re lost. There is no doubt that i’m affected by this (and thus, why folks are fair when they call me an uber bitch). There is part of me that loves the attention or else i would’ve walked away from this blog long ago. But i’m also trying to not get destroyed by it both in terms of exhaustion and in terms of shifting winds. Still, i’m curious both for myself and at a broader psychological level what it means that it’s so much easier to be thrown into micro-fame. This is also something that’s coming up with young people who suddenly get a surge of attention because of what they do online. I wonder what the costs of this are long-term. (Hmm… maybe that’s a post-dissertation project?)

Anyhow… in short, this is my semi-annual “i suck, i know it, it’s not getting better” message. I simply cannot get to all of the requests in my inbox so i’m super sorry. My primary focus for the next month is to finish a chapter for MacArthur, try to find teens to interview, and spend some time at home. I’m sorry that i suck cuz even if i can philosophize it, justify it, rationalize it, i still feel guilty.

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26 comments to suckage explained

  • One of the emails moldering in your inbox is probably from me, I’m not sure if you even remember me (I’m the guy doing his Master’s thesis on identity construction among Filipino bloggers, you found me on LiveJournal). I don’t mind even if you never get back to me again, I thought it was nice of you to get in touch with me in the first place. I’m not famous and I’ve got reviews and whatnot piled up too, plus I’ve already gotten stuff from your own Master’s thesis. So there you go, one less email to feel guilty about.

  • This post sucks. Anyway, I asked you something, months ago, and you sent me a mail in response. Thanx. And now, logoff and get a real life.
    😉

  • ryan

    i love you d!

    ::hugs::
    ry

  • This is just a “me too, kinda!” and “take care” comment.

    🙂

  • danah, being famous–whether micro- or macro- –does not take from you the decision as to how you should spend your time. Feeling guilty about _express_ committments that you have made and reneged on is one thing. Feeling guilty because you don’t have time for anyone that can find your email address is another.

    It might be less stressful for you to edit your main site to include links to Neal Stephenson’s essays; maybe then your guilt-o-meter wouldn’t pin quite so often. 🙂

    I don’t expect to need a response from you on anything soon–while I do research in SNA it’s more in the data analytic side and little to do with ethnography per se–but even if I felt that I did, that would not impose a committment on you.

    Good luck. 🙂

  • Michael Chui

    If you’re going to whimper every half-year, you should complement that with some, “I’m doing great” things and some time for yourself things. Why should the negative be getting all your attention? You’ve got loads of positive stuff; otherwise, I wouldn’t be reading.

  • Eco is an old fox.
    Thanks for the links.

    For what it’s worth, I’m also on the “me too, kinda” list.

  • ingo

    Did you try delegating work?

  • Dan

    Or, in four words: “I need a secretary”

    Take care, and don’t feel guilty: your writing, research, and friends matter a lot more than making hangers-on feel loved.

  • MicroFame.

    Sounds like a distributed semantic interchange markup standard.

  • oh, i know you’re busy. i’m sure most people imagine that you’re perpetually inundated. at least i do. so it never bothers me if you’re slow in responding or caught up in other things. doesn’t bother me at all…

  • Hi.

    I’m a teen. If you need someone to interview, I could probably do it.

    I’m leaving my email and lj if you want to contact me.

  • Damn you abigail,

    I just had the passing thought of offering myself up for interviewingness. Anyways, I’m a teen too; and would be happy to be interviewed too.

    My blog and email are all here

    (ps youre awesome)

  • Since the essence of high priestess mythology is introversion, I’d suggest that you can happily lie on the beach! (I’ll sidestep the implications of the Viking version).

    Greatly enjoyed your Chapel Hill talk.

  • This is a great post, danah! I just wanted to add something that you didn’t make explicit, but which I think is probably as true for you as it is for me and other folks who deal with daily requests for advising, feedback on new work, interviews, collaboration opportunities, and so on.

    Even if we ignore a request becuase we don’t have time to deal with it, that doesn’t feel good. It feels bad and it doesn’t mitigate the micro-drain each request creates. When I receive a request, as anyone with any real degree of empathy, I feel that tug and the motivations behind it whether I respond to it or not. So even if I don’t write back or I turn down the opportunity to collaborate, I have had my attention pulled, and my emotional radar for other people’s needs is on.

    I think it’s not transparent to people who ask for such stuff just how many pings like that we get each day. And each individual case, I can TOTALLY see why that person would request my help and how much I could in fact help by responding. And dammit it doesn’t feel good to have to start shielding yourself from requests that you don’t enjoy turning down or ignoring.

    Anyway, I don’t know if it’s fair or not to complain about this. Most of us just cope with being seen by some as unhelpful or unresponsive, so be it. But I think there is some research or work to be done on the impact of these micro-drains over time on emotional well-being and productivity. And suckage is a great word for it 🙂

  • Linda Stone’s recent talk at IDEA [1] was about eras of attention, and how the era of continuous partial attention is ending. It’s interesting, in light of what you’re writing about, to think about our identities in terms of these eras of attention, e.g., we’ve been defining ourselves in through the types of performances that are possible via modes of continuous partial attention.

    So, do we feel obliged to respond, in some sense, because our obligation to respond is part of our identity?

    Part of Linda’s point was that these modes, taken to extreme, don’t work (don’t fulfill their promise). So, in general, we’re all getting burned out on continuous partial attention, and creating a new mode (identity?) based on NOT having the obligation to respond to everyone.

    (My paraphrase of Linda Stone should be discarded–just listen to her talk!)

    [1] http://ideaconference.org/2006/audio/02%20Linda%20Stone%20-%20Opening%20Keynote.mp3

  • Funny thing is, I tend to use my Livejournal blog more for working out my writing muscles than anything else. As far as I know, no one reads the thing, but I could care less as it allows me to let my goofiness thrive.

  • Jay — yes, yes… Linda Stone’s continuous partial awareness work has struck a chord with so many people, it will no doubt be a major framework for better figuring out social technologies and ways to treat each other. At her etech 2006 talk, she also talked about quality of life as the major issue going forward, and I have come in the months since to concur completely. My game design work now, for instance, is designed around the principle of improving everyday quality of life, and I know a number of other technologists looking much more closely at that area as well. (although at the ame conference bruce sterling brushed aside my QOL concerns regarding his blobjects vision as a rather reactionary way of thinking… so I guess it hasn’t caught on everywhere yet!) but fingers crossed that we can find a saner, happier way of staying connected…

  • Read this book: When I say no, I feel guilty. Changed everything for me.

  • Take care of yourself first! Of course you know this, but there is no way to lead or be a voice of conviction if you don’t.

    I think the harder thing, is to give yourself the compasion that your needs and life actually matter. They do! There is no guilt in being human and having limits. (In fact, it’s the ultimate beauty in my opinion.)

    The harder thing, I agree is the ability to sift through all the ambiance… and as there is more and more… how to make the best decisions for you to create a balance that YOU enjoy!

    … and yes, philosophy and rationalization is easier than practice! 😉

    Take care of yourself, girl! xo. anita

  • Take care of yourself first! Of course you know this, but there is no way to lead or be a voice of conviction if you don’t.

    I think the harder thing, is to give yourself the compasion that your needs and life actually matter. They do! There is no guilt in being human and having limits. (In fact, it’s the ultimate beauty in my opinion.)

    The harder thing, I agree is the ability to sift through all the ambiance… and as there is more and more… how to make the best decisions for you to create a balance that YOU enjoy!

    … and yes, philosophy and rationalization is easier than practice! 😉

    Take care of yourself, girl! xo. anita

  • I think great bloggers like you should just keep the blog dialog going. The problem with email is that the barrier to corresponding has become far too low, so interesting people get buried while “get a life” people clog the systems.

  • If anyone needs a different quasi-celebrity to harass, I’m available.

  • Genius1.

    To the # 1 Ms. Ipseity,

    The “suckage” also describes my health..

    I’ll keep this brief(for the sake of the fractal…). These ideas are freely given – I do *hope* they’re not – how shall we say an “Elephant(I hear they’re anti-social these days) in the China Shop of Human Thought”…(they aim to be more “meat” and less *chafe*…but who knows?…).

    In a previous send, I made a mention of *mythology*. Society has *proceeded* to construct one for you – and living *up to* this must be of momentous difficulty.

    Countless entertainment acts have been *sideswiped* by this phenomenon.

    Your project – one of society’s most needed *rhizomes* – *may have* already received its most significant import from you.

    Maybe *the stress* is a sign?….or perhaps just merely a proximate effect.

    In any case, it’s *not* “suckage”. You’re experiencing the social phenomenon of evil – the kind *unrelated* to individual character – and one I’ve construed an idea of in an unprecedented way.

    And *out* of this maelstrom – a seemingly thorough *original* account of “Human Identity” vis a vis fame. You’ve *plummed* for sociality – and the thing of value *got out* there for beneficial use – produced from *right here*(the blog).

    (Oh…and regarding the general project: *my* advice – do those interviews *first* – institutions understand delay – youth identity *won’t*).

    (Sorry for the length kiddo – just a distant, but concerned breathing(barely) observer who’s mostly in the same space/time continuum as you….these “insights ain’t unwelcome – *are* they ?)

    You don’t mind that people post – do you?

    P.S. (Is there a tad bit of…Fnord! ??? – [God bless RAW]).

  • ApparentlyAMoreLimitedandLesserGenius..

    What the hell happened to my writing?

    The markups?! Damn computers…(good humans).