A few weeks ago, I read an article (that I can no longer find) on the end of the amateur web. The author was talking about how he was trying to do a routine sprucing up of his personal blog, changing the theme and the design elements and so on, when he suddenly realized that it was no longer fun, no longer the easy tinkering that it used to be, now that he has to make sure it looks good not only on every browser and OS but also on every mobile device and app that readers will use to access your site. Writers, he concludes, should stick to writing and leave the design, upkeep, promotion and marketing to the professionals. This is the solution that sites such as Medium offer, and his prediction was that more and more writers will embrace these solutions and gradually abandon their personal blogs.
As I was reading this, though, the more pressing question on my mind was, “what do we have to say, anyway?” Amateur journalism is certainly a thing that exists, and the power and reach of amateur opinions online has been widely praised (and criticized). Most amateur writing on the web, though, is not journalism, or advocacy, or even substantiated opinion. Most writing on the web is, in fact, nothing but the barely coherent musings of people who feel that they have something to say but are not entirely sure what it is. (There are of course exceptions: as a rule of thumb, the more focused a site is, the less expansive an area it targets, the more it has to say. This also has exceptions.) I have written before (as have others, and better, which is basically my point) on how much of our online presence essentially boils down to identity performance. We all -with varying degrees of effort; you might not feel like you’re doing this, but only a little self-reflection should be required to see it- construct and project an image that reflects only what we want others to see. For most of us a successful performance is one that we wear as a second skin, comfortable enough that we never have to take it off. The difficulty arises when it no longer wears snugly, when it begins to suffocate us, when the dissonance between the mask and the confusing mess within begin to grate.
There exists, as an antidote that is always available to the writer, the obsessive honesty of Hemingway or the nearly fetishistic transparency of Karl Ove Knausgård. It is the cost of this antidote that frightens me, because of course Sartre’s statement was quite incomplete: Hell is not other people. Hell is what you see of other people through their masks, and hell is also the fear of what might be behind your own.