What I Saw When I Came Back to the Internet, 3 Years Later

I left social media three years ago, and when I say I left social media, what I mean is that I abandoned the preposterous idea that keeping up with Internet Culture at large was within my reach, nor desire.

I had a baby and turned 40 and there was a pandemic, so that certainly played a role in my Irish Exit. But also, the Internet became untrustworthy, as a whole. We knew this all along. We knew of filter bubbles and echo chambers and confirmation bias, but we liked to think we could outsmart the algorithm. We liked to think our sources of choice, no matter how independent, would remain true rather than loyal. But what we found is what we’d feared: black and white is unattainable. Ink, when pressed, will always smudge a little.

And in the overwhelming absence of truth, of goodness, of wisdom, I just… stopped logging on. I deleted apps, and in doing so, deleted any shred of influence that was unearned. Instead, I spent my time reciting nursery rhymes and mashing bananas, and when the postpartum fog lifted, I realized the air felt fresher than it had in years. I wrote a book for a friend, and it became a New York Times bestseller, and the truth was made evident: leaving social media permanently – experiencing strings of days unaware of comment sections, viral memes, and whatever rise of jeans we should be wearing this fall – would not hinder my work (nor life). But it just might help it.

And so, I left.

And then I wrote another book – this one for myself – and a fairly significant amount of Internet Culture research was required. And so, with trepidation, after three years of blissful innocence, I opened Chrome. 

Here’s what I saw…

1. Everyone is on Substack now.

Everyone I know, everyone I don’t, everyone I used to know but don’t anymore. Yesterday, I discovered a former member of my high school swim team writing listicles for his marketing firm, rating which Taylor Swift cover pairs best with his client’s keto popcorn brand. 

(No, this isn’t a veiled announcement explaining that I’m shifting platforms. In truth, when I see Substack constantly promoting success stories on how to move your audience to their platform with ease, how to grow a following  – publish consistently, i.e. all the time! invite everyone you know to join you! turn on paid subscriptions and watch the money flow! – with disproportionate zeal to the disclosure that they receive 10% of your paid subscription revenue? Well, weary is a poor descriptor, skeptical is a better one.)

What I will say is this: I get it. Substack feels like the early Internet again, like we’ve been whooshed back into 2006 with our blogrolls and our sidebar ads and our link round-ups, except we miss Grace’s cats and Heather’s stories and seeing each other at least three times annually in New Orleans or Salt Lake City or Orlando, wherever the next conference happens to be and does it really matter as long as we come home with a Mailchimp hat? 

But it’s not the early Internet again. We’re older and wiser (more jaded?) and we’d be remiss to overlook the fact that a platform promoting what modern writers seek – freedom of speech! a built-in audience! no technology hurdles! – is simply another Silicon Valley idea fueled by over $86 million of private funding, perfectly poised to build a foundation on ideals that appeal to the masses but cannot sustain them. (Ahem.)

   

2. And… everything is monetized.

Do we tire of this? Must we all make a living from living our lives? 

A few years ago, I attended a funeral for a school janitor. There were many touching memories shared, stories swapped, tears spilled. I knew Mike was one of the greats, loved and admired and respected by all who were blessed enough to land in his orbit. But what I didn’t know is what his daughter shared from the pulpit, that every single day, her father would arrive home from work and change from his coveralls to his smock to spend his evenings painting acrylic landscapes in the family garage. He never sold a thing, she said. Never even wanted to. He just did it because it did something to him. Kept his heart beating, I think.

I know what she meant. After creating “content” for twenty years – a decade paid, a decade not – I can safely say that the water is less murky when money is void of the transaction. My best writing – the kind that has kept my heart beating – is the kind that will never be published online, and if it is, couldn’t possibly be priced. This is not to say that it is wrong to pursue a job that brings you joy, nor is it wrong to be paid for your passions. And yet, being right and being free is not the same thing.

(Whenever possible, choose the latter.)

You can share sourdough knowledge without creating a masterclass. You can move off-grid without launching a YouTube channel. You can tell your stories without a paywall.

You can keep your own heart beating (and perhaps someone else’s?), free of charge.

3. We are supposed to be mewing?

4. Time reveals much.

This is perhaps a vastly unpopular opinion, but why stop now? There’s an undercurrent of doubt that I believe we all experience when ingesting content on the Internet, specifically curated content from popular social media personalities. We know the influencers we most love to follow are lying to us, but we’d like to know at what percentage they’re lying to us. Is their reel perhaps comprised of a 3% fib, a tiny parade of little white lies, the precise measure that most of us lie to our own selves anyway? Or is it something larger, more sinister, doling out mistruths and manipulations to line their pockets, their retirement funds, their feather beds they will sleep in and then awake in, laughing all the way to the bank?

Where I have landed is this: if you are unsure how much you can trust your Internet personality of choice, take a three year break from them, and I promise you, the fruit will be revealed. The self-proclaimed Evangelical Queen will be divorced and selling CBD sex gummies within the calendar year. The parenting expert will publicly vlog her adopted child’s PTSD symptoms (#spon!) in Fabletics leggings and Glossier blush. Sixteen months is all it will take for your childless-by-choice Auntie icon to launch a course on Brave Pregnancy, but not before penning a memoir on limiting beliefs, finding love, and manifesting the right life partner to save you from yourself.

Can people change their minds? Yes, yes, yes. Should they? Yes, 100%. Every day, we either grow or die. But online, many are dying while scattering their homes with peonies, snapping sunlit photos during magic hour while cropping out the dead soil. By all accounts, they look alive. Some are. Some are not.

What this means for us “followers” is – of course – that we follow. We follow the narrative that life is good or terrible or whatever someone wants to name it as, and how do we know it’s true? How do we know the wrinkles lost are from the magic serum (swipe up to buy!) or the fillers? And why does it matter?

It matters, deeply, because we are biting the fruit. We’ll have what she’s having, we say, and we add to cart or practice breathwork or buy the workshop, and who knows what we’re changing into. We’ll find out eventually, of course, and if you’re comfortable tethering any part of your journey of self to someone else’s you’ve never met, someone who you lack relationship or accountability with, someone who is “just sharing what’s working for me!” then by all means, +follow. Witness their changes in tiny degrees, applaud many of them, send strings of emojis for every pound lost or dollar gained or therapy session conquered. But if you wake in a few years and find you have followed someone you don’t know into a pit of despair and are left to crawl out of it alone, you needn’t be surprised. 

Having been on both sides of the lane, I can attest that influencers cannot – and should not – share everything. Dynamics can be hard. Relationships are tricky. Life can turn on a dime. And yet: if you are an influencer making dollars from said dimes, it is fair to say you’ll be held to a higher standard. For many, the standard a paid influencer can sustain is anything but high, and in a few short years, you will know whether or not your favorite follow is perhaps a wolf or a Lonk.

5. Everything looks the same.

I noticed something at the zoo last fall, a young mother sipping from an oversized Stanley thermos perfectly molded to her stroller cupholder. I filed it away as an oddity, but then I spotted another instance by the orangutan exhibit, and unbelievably, one more in the parking lot. All young mothers. All with strollers. All slurping from a stainless gourd the size of my backpack.

TikTok, I surmised, so I asked my very GenZ friend and she confirmed: much of the world is toting lead-laced Stanley tumblers now. No one knows why, except that it keeps drinks cold and promotes adequate hydration in ways that the bkr from 2006 is no longer capable of providing. Perhaps it’s the oversized straw. The sturdy handle? The saffron color way?

I’m as flummoxed as the rest of us, she admits as she sips her own in Hammertone Green.

6. Convenient narratives abound.

Few things make a human being’s unexplored sanctimony more clear – and more muddied – than Internet Culture. Online, it is unwelcome to express our views on [insert any of our current global and political crises], and equally unwelcome to not express our views on them, and so, it appears that many of us have chosen to express our views on the only thing we can be sure we are absolutely and unfailingly experts in: ourselves. 

Instead of forming narratives for whatever cause we’re taking up at the moment, it appears we have turned our lives and choices into one long string of meaningful causes. This is why, on the Internet, the gaining of weight seems to require an announcement. So, too, does the loss of weight. It requires a well-crafted exposé – with the assistance of a contracted PR representative, a speech writer, and AI grammar edits, no less – on why we’re not lazy (if the former) or vain (if the latter), but instead, how we’re intentionally returning to a primal focus on our ultimate inner health, abundant wellness and the embracing of our bodies as we care for our hearts.  

It is clear: if you are on the Internet right now, it is not enough to say something, you need to Say Something™.

And this concerns me. It concerns me because human nature is often bent toward two things: the sun, and justification. Whether we choose Ambleside or Botox or Christianity, we can pen a rhetorical essay of why and how and what, and we can ensure that these causes we have taken up will represent us well, and vice versa. When equipped with a keyboard and a Delete button, we can iron out any inconsistency or inconvenient narratives and we can hold our [ad] banners high. 

And this is where we find ourselves then, collectively, little Harolds with our Purple Crayons, drawing invisible lines that divide with every caption. This is where we become PR representatives with well-spun narratives instead of flawed people with a few planks in their eyes. This is how a feminist woman can go gray in order to rage against the patriarchy while happily scheduling a butt lift, because after all, it’s her choice, who needs to know (unless it’s #paid, of course) and body image has nothing to do with men or ageism or establishmentarianism, does it?

This is the precise moment we, as humans, hide under the blanket umbrella of “Two things can be true at once!” instead of digging deep to ask ourselves if they are true, or if we merely want them to be true.

7. So much crying in cars.

8.  Influencers are not OK.

As part of my research for this book, I spoke with many, many, many influencers and sifted through quotes, interviews and conversations with over 200 sources. The general consensus is this: influencers are not OK.

Each popular social media personality – from micro influencers to mega influencers with over 1 million followers – made reference to Imposter Syndrome, “crippling” anxiety, and mental health struggles. And for good reason. We are asking of them what ancient civilizations once asked of their gods – to lead, to guide, to create, to manifest, to speak. We are elevating mere peers to weigh in on all manner of subjects from paint colors to pant suits to parenting strategies, and for a while, all are too happy to give and to receive in this seemingly harmless exchange of information (inspiration?).

But something happens in the exchange. We become tethered to one another, oddly reliant. Our influencers bear the mantle of thought leader, and that mantle arrives with a long and winding digital thread in which an audience can grasp onto – to find, track, dox, love, or hate. On the Internet, you become embraced or ignored not for what you do, but for what you say. The emotional whiplash of living a public life in which feedback is freely and instantly given arrives with a cost: your world exists in two extremes, straining against both pride and despair. Pride, if the caption/photo/stance is loved. Despair if otherwise.

So influencers do as they’re told: they learn to develop a thick skin, ignore the comment sections, hire a team to moderate their socials. Their thick skin grows into a shell of protection, and soon, their mantle becomes a noose. They are no longer trudging ahead, a line of followers trailing behind their cloaks. Instead, they are being dragged by the audience’s desires, through threads of expectations, dizzied and directionless. They are weary and tired and worn, and they are crumbling under the pressure, and yet: they are still wearing the mantle. They are still holding on. What else is there to do? It’s a job, they tell themselves, flicking on the ring light. Just smile and do the job.

Is it any wonder why we are struggling with a nationwide mental health crisis? It has been said a community is only as healthy as it leaders, and an overwhelming number of our leaders are, by all accounts, caught in a tug of war with themselves, tripping over their cloaks, trampled by their own mantle.

And we, the followers, follow.

9. I didn’t miss anything at all.

The great controversies and crises that once gripped our bandwidth and attention – #FreeBritney! Big’s Peleton heart attack! Jeopardy’s new host canceled! – have drifted away from our collective memories, to be replaced with… well, whatever arrives today. Will it all matter in thirty years? Twenty? Tomorrow?

If these words sound harsh, perhaps it’s because they are. I’m typing them quickly, my thoughts racing far past thoughtfulness as I resist the temptation to edit my noticings into niceties. The truth is, I have never been more convinced that – in creating this world wide web, and creating on this world wide web – it is plausible that we, all of us, have become the bait.

And to that, I will say this: if we are not yet dead, we can still untangle ourselves.

It’s not too late to become free.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Whew! This is the real I’ve been missing. Thank you for not editing yourself. That in itself is inspiring to me.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you….you have once again gorgeously articulated the words my soul needed in this moment.

  • Real is what I crave, but finding real is difficult. Thanks for not editing your thoughts. There’s plenty of that, more than we need, floating around. I limit my social media time, go days without logging on to Instagram, haven’t used FB in months and have no real inclination, other than a mild guilt that I’ve missed friends birthdays, ( if they are real friends wouldn’t I just pick up the phone? Insert more guilt) Your post is refreshing.

  • I loved this, Erin. And this “Must we all make a living from living our lives? ” is exactly what I’ve been wondering, too.

  • Yes to all of this. I’ve been blogging since 2006, and while I despaired of not having a Following, I’ve been so turned off by all of the people who monetized and branded themselves out of existence. I envy your resignation from The Internet for three years; if I didn’t have to deal with certain government agencies, I would happily join you :-)

  • Thank you so much for your time and thoughtfulness in crafting this . Absolutely spot -on and what I needed to read today. So much of what I see on social media are people turned into carbon copied caricatures. I have an 18 year old and he is struggling so much with identity. But I can still begin to be a better example starting today by getting off these platforms!

    • I am so sorry your 18-year-old hasn’t inherited a better/kinder/softer world. And I LOVE that you’re guiding him toward something more lovely together! Sending big hugs to you, Aimee.

  • 100% YES! I quit the internet for a good 2 years, post-second kid/mid-pandemic and it was heavenly. I returned just within the last year or so, and felt the exact same sentiments, which you so beautifully illustrated here. The question I face now, as a mom, as a business owner, as a human is… how do I life with “the digital” on the sidelines of these arenas that are required of me (motherhood and entrepreneurship, in particular) while continuing in freedom!? For starters, my kinder and I simply do not complete his homework when offered online, and haven’t peeked at his teacher’s class pics on X…. and he’s just fine! And as for business: my local neighborhood. The people I see face-to-face… THAT is where lasting connections are made.

    Pre-ordered your newest title – can’t wait to dive in with other local mamas in our reading club!

    • I love your thoughts and creative solutions to start where you are, Kacie. What beautiful and tangible steps you’re taking to untangle yourself! And oh, I’ll be so honored for The Opt-Out Family to grace your book club!

  • Thank you for articulating so well some of the thoughts I have had floating around in my head over the last year or so! Yes, EVERYTHING looks the same!

  • I really enjoy your writing, and so great to have you back. Thank you for the wise perspective:)

  • erin .. your words are on fire .. i tend not to follow ‘influencers’ .. more look for insta’s with pretty pictures .. but it’s all the reels and movement and speed that i can’t endure any longer .. i am editing the clutter .. i only do insta, no other social media .. but i feel it has just gotten out of control .. fascinating your info on how influencers feel .. yikes .. too much pressure .. really enjoy your point of view and your wordsmithing ..

  • Erin, I have a proposition for you. But firstly, thank you for your honest, raw words. For many of us, as I and you can see in these comments so far, we relate to this down to our bones. I loathe social media, but how in the heck are we to find people any other way? I, like everyone else, joined Substack because I was promised it would be more intimate, more connected, but it “FEELS” just like Instagram to me – you have to play the game to be seen and heard. So, my proposition to you is this – can you open up a discussion about this someplace where fellow creatives who are feeling this pain can join in and be heard, seen, and have a voice and maybe with all of us together we find a solution that we can all feel good about? Because there are some of us who genuinely want and desire connection and are done with the phony facades and game playing. What are we to do? I feel like I write and write and write and create and 5 people see my work, if that, if I don’t play the games. Ugh. I hate it all. But so many of us do. I’d start something – a community to discuss this exact topic in efforts to find a solution – if I had enough people to see it, LOL. But I don’t. Anyway, I’m grateful for your emails and the quiet little corner you have carved out for yourself where you share with those of us who are listening. I am listening. <3

    • Oh Kelly – thank you for your kindness and encouragement! I’m honored by your proposition and will put on my thinking cap! For now, have you rallied your local community? If anything, this post (and the 300+ replies in my inbox thus far!) are assuring me many of us are tired and seeking refreshment in the form of real community. Can you gather some local creatives who feel the same? Perhaps start at the library with local writers/authors, branch out to artists or musicians or anyone making things? You’re so very not alone.

  • Thank you so much for writing this. You perfectly captured how I have been feeling over the last few years as I spend less and less time online. I am more than happy to be out of the loop on so many things these days.

  • This was sooooo beautiful to read and I appreciate that you weren’t so nice in this post but very real lol. I am so excited to read your new book and I hope it gives me some advice and encouragement to “log off” as well. Thank you!

  • Oh, how I love this! I have been off Facebook and Instagram for quite some time and do not miss it…at ALL!!! I want a real life, with real people, with eyes that I can look into, and hearts that I can touch and respond to. Thank for your beautiful candor.

  • Thank you for not “editing your noticing into niceties”. It’s refreshing and reassuring to hear a brave soul speak the truth!

  • I just deleted my Substack account when I found myself receiving so many emails, and resenting certain “writers” in particular, purportedly inspiring creatives by telling us to “ride the waves” of our passions towards “fascination” and diluting the process of creation to the kind of beige catchphraseology that looks good on mugs and pillows. No more thin veils of too cool for school-
    If it’s on the internet – it’s too late.
    It’s not cool anymore.

    • Oh, I hear you, Camille. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about Substack for sure; I do so despise the taking advantage of creative souls!!!

  • Scarily poignant words Erin. That ending…you mean we’ve been trapped in Shelob’s Web all along but we didn’t even realise our danger. I just did a 30 day IG break and yet looking at it again I am just as easily sucked in as before. Why do I think I need all this information/inspiration? How do we escape the net? Thankyou for speaking your observations so bluntly. I hope it’s the wake up call I will use to get out my elvish sword and cut free of the Web.

  • Thank you for this honest post. If only the influencers spoke of quality character traits and habits instead of material objects! I’d love to hear about someone’s journey to becoming more loving, or less critical, or overcoming negativity with others. These are admirable and life-giving lessons everyone can improve.

    • Oh I couldn’t agree more – we’d all benefit so much in some character training 101! Until then, we’ll always have Chesterton! :)

  • I agree with so much of this — and absolutely feel burnt out by social media at the moment! (At the moment or always, not so sure.) As always, love your words and your way with them.
    And a fun sidenote: I’m currently redesigning my portfolio site (I’m a writer/editor) and am using the same template as your opt out family site—LOVE the color scheme! :)

  • I agree with so much of this — and absolutely feel burnt out by social media at the moment! (At the moment or always, not so sure.) As always, love your words and your way with them.
    And a fun sidenote: I’m currently redesigning my portfolio site (I’m a writer/editor) and am using the same template as your opt out family site—LOVE the color scheme! :)

  • Yes…thank you for putting words to what I have been feeling for way too long.

  • Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts, Erin! I am always grateful to hear your perspective. This one did land harshly for me. I imagine it’s at least in part because I recently opened a paid Substack after writing regularly on my blog for 15+ years in what I hope was a generous, helpful, and prudent way. (And I’m still writing there, for the “joy, connection, and growth,” with no plans to stop!) While you say that it is not wrong to be paid for your passions, the bulk of this essay does seem to say that there is indeed something seedy about it. (And honestly, I don’t even disagree with you!! I, too, am frustrated by this compulsion for everyone to monetize everything everywhere.) I also agree completely with points 4, 5, 6, and 8. Yikes.

    My Substack topic of choice is helping others to build more low-tech, connected families – we have a lot in common :) Just as you spent hours, weeks, months, years compiling and shaping the wisdom you’ll share in your new book (which I can’t wait to read), I, too, am a big believer in using what I know to help someone else. I do it in my local community, and I do it when I’m able online. I suppose I am an optimist at heart, and I can’t bring myself to write off the entire internet while there are still people kindly, gently, and wisely sharing wisdom and beauty on it. (Myself truly the least among them.) Navigating in the gray takes discernment, thoughtfulness, and a whole host of other character virtues, and I think it’s actually a lot more challenging than logging off completely. (I think you might agree.) But there’s beauty and value in being a light where it’s dark. I’ll keep raising my candle where I can.

    Thanks again.

    • Hi Em!

      It sounds like we have so much in common, yes!!!! Thank you so much for sharing what this tension looks like from your perspective; I’m so grateful to know there are many candles like yours being lit and lifted in the dark. I hope you keep shining and sharing as long as it makes sense for you!!!

  • There is so much truth and beauty to this article. I quit all social media 5 years ago and it was the best decision ever. So many individuals are ignorantly unaware of how the internet is shaping and tracking their lives. And I’ve watched the shifting from reality to a virtual universe. Most give more credence and time to this screen world.
    Such a great read. Thank you for sharing.

  • Yup yup yup to all it. I can’t wait for your new book to come out. Chasing Slow is on my desk as this daily reminder of what I hold dear and the reminder that I am not alone.

  • Well I’ll say! someone still capable of seeing, looking, thinking and writing without doing it for the applause or laughs.
    This was better than coffee this morning! and I love coffee.

  • Good morning Erin. Incredible and absolutely worth the wait. Thank you for speaking the unspoken. Your words have struck a nerve. As I am six months into my 60th year, my stress levels are high. Whatever time I have left, I don’t want my life to feel like it does now. Although I’m not on social media all the time, it must be enough to have a negative impact. I wish there could be balance, but by its design, I think that impossible. At least your beautiful and profound words have helped me realize I’m not broken. The Internet is.

    • Tina – you’ve said it PERFECTLY. Thank you for confirming what also concerns me: “I wish there could be balance, but by its design, I think that impossible.” Perhaps that will change in the future, and I do so love supporting those on the frontlines of that change. But oh, I do think this digital world is harming us all in very significant (and often unseen) ways.

  • Erin–you don’t know me, but I feel that you are my soul sister. THANK YOU for speaking truth. You manage the tension of having a platform in 2024 beautifully and honestly and graciously. I have to ask… will there be a book tour? Considering you are a mom of three littles who focuses on important over urgent, we understand if not. Asking for a friend! ;)

    • Thank you, Avery — it’s lovely to e-meet you! And I’m not yet sure what the plan is for launching the book, except that, to borrow the words of a friend, I’d like to “get the word out sans Internet hysteria,” however possible. ;) I’ll certainly keep you posted if I’ll be on the road! :)

  • Erin!!!! The best thing I’ve read in ages. I am so triggered by people hiding behind “therapy speak” in the name of self indulgence. “Yes, two things can be true but both the things you’re going on about now are self-serving bullshit.” 🤣 I know I should have more compassion or something? But is social media a place where compassion really stands a chance? I once lived in NYC for 3 years and had a neighbor who had lived there for ages whom I would commiserate with about New York-specific difficulties. He told me once: “this is a hard city, and it hardens people.” I wonder if the internet is doing that to me in a sense — hardening me. This essay is an inspiration to set some real limits. As are my two young sons. And I can’t wait to read your new book. Xoxo.

    • Joyce – I LOVE your thoughts here. I think you’re exactly right – this place does harden people, and I want to be soft. So glad I’m not alone in questioning the Internet’s role and influence in my life! :)

  • A day late in leaving my comments – but 100% yes to all your thoughts! I deleted Instagram just over a year or year and a half ago. I still enjoy blogs and anyone who sends out an occasional newsletter. For me it was like drinking from a fire hydrant. Just too much information about pretty much everything. Everyone too eager to share their trauma like it was a requirement. I’m more than happy to bare the burdens of friends who I’m in close relationship with, but I really don’t want to know everything about all the random people online! And what you were saying about influencers – I followed so many Christian influencers when it was popular to write our your faith de-construction – and those influencers helped me! But fast-forward ten years – they have all had major life shifts (divorces, etc.) and I’m not saying divorce is always wrong or bad or that it makes anyone better or worse than me – but you just realize, they are people who are gifted at writing and they don’t really know more about life or God or marriage, or really anything than you or I do. Looking forward to your book.

    • Oooh, this is really thoughtful: “You just realize, they are people who are gifted at writing and they don’t really know more about life or God or marriage, or really anything than you or I do.”

      Amen. I have – many times over – been swept away by a beautiful string of words that are simply that: a beautiful string of words! Discernment can be tricky in a world of screens and mirrors indeed.

  • It is good to read your writing again, and even more so, to realize that I am silently nodding along to your comments and then laughing out lout at the strange world we live in! I have been reading blogs for almost 20 years (?!) and I remember when it was a fun hobby, then it was a ‘side hustle’ and they were amzn affiliates, then it was a full time job, then their husbands were quitting to manage the blog, then they all left to join IG, then they started a podcast, then they started a YT channel, now the voices I liked from the beginning are heading to substack (but your warning makes me think that is in vain). I think I most appreciated your sentiment: about just sharing without monetizing it. I try to seek out the ‘old fashioned’ bloggers who are just sharing the thing they like and stay aware of the sites I follow where I am always being marketed to.

    • I do the same, sonrie, and found that so many of us “Internet Old Maids” are craving much the same. A penny for your thoughts, but certainly not a million. :)

  • Thank you, Erin for your thoughts and honesty. What I find most encouraging is reading the comments and seeing the volume of responses. I am a millennial that never joined social media until Substack because I missed the authors. As you and others have indicated, it has been disappointing with the promoting and re-posting and other gimmicky features that I’d thus far avoided.
    What amazes me is the enormity of the trends and the rate of the spread. It is mind boggling. As others have mentioned, it doesn’t even seem to be what everyone wants, but like a tsunami engulfing people and near impossible to avoid. . I would love to see the movement shift and appreciate you gathering voices with this piece.

    • I am so encouraged by such wise comments, as well! Always so inspired by the truth and wisdom and perspectives shared here. :) Thank you for joining your voice to the chorus!

  • Greetings from rainy England Erin. I adore your powerful words, which ehoe exactly how I have been feeling, for a long time. Especially as an emerging fledgling of a writer who dipped her toes into ‘Medium’ where I see stories and pieces of writing that draw me in, to then be slapped with ‘to continue reading you have to be a member’ I totally understand that sites and people don’t run on thin air, and Internet taxes are due. But it seems hard to connect these days without there being a cost involved . Perhaps we could set up a virtual writing café? (I appreciate time zones are tricky) but how wonderful would it be to log on with your favourite cuppa, pens at the ready. Then break out at a set time to hear what each other are working on and to offer gentle support. Your NEW book launches here in August and I can’t wait! Wishing you a lovely day Erin.

    • Melita – I couldn’t love your idea more! A virtual writing cafe sounds so very lovely!!!!! Anyone else in?

  • Such a candid and accurate reflection. Thanks for going ahead of us and sharing your experience. I pray courage for all of us to move beyond this entanglement.

  • As real as it gets. Thank you for this, it’s so refreshing to read this type of unfiltered writing. Love your line of thought!

  • Wow, what an interesting perspective. I think we should all walk away from the internet for a while, but it’s hard to do. I have noticed that people post how wonderful life is, but when you get to know them, they are often suffering. I didn’t consider that influencers fell into that category, but it makes sense.

  • Still digesting this. I want to comment but I’m not ready yet.

    This piece comes at a time when I’ve been busy thinking about life, my life particularly. I’m going to add your words to my thought process as I decide what’s important in my future. I’m 75 so I’ve lived almost 90% of my life without influencers. I was able to reach 65 good years with only men, unrealistic models, and TV shows/hosts telling me what I should do.

  • Thank you Erin, for putting words to the tension and irritation I have felt with social media and the ‘reality TV’ feel of it all. Your perspective is refreshing. Your first book gave me courage to step away from a career and the hustle that went with it, into a quieter, more peaceful life. So I am really looking forward to your new book!

  • Brilliantly written. I quit social media January 1, 2010 and aside from withdrawals for the first two months, I haven’t missed it. I have no idea what’s “in” or why everyone looks the same. I don’t know which celebrities are dating and I haven’t bookmarked a plethora of random facts I’ve never revisit. It was freeing. deeply and truly. Just as you mention, “It’s not too late to become free.” Life is a thing of beauty on the other side.

  • One can argue that you’re doing the same thing — influencing us, your readers/followers, to think a certain way or to embrace a certain worldview. (The “screw the internet; offline is better, healthier” worldview, which is the impression I got from this post.) I am all for it, I am 100% with you on this one and wish I could have beautifully penned this post myself. If I could stay off the internet for good, I would. But I also know that the internet is my livelihood, if not my mission, and somehow I have to make money off it (or through it!) for me to continue serving it.

    I’m curious what you have to say to people like us — who want out of it (the internet!) but also rely on it to make a living? Case in point: clearly you are also selling something (a book, a sentiment, a movement; rallying people to a certain cause.) It almost feels like you’re critiquing how others are using the platform (monetizing) while doing the very same thing yourself. You may not have strategically placed a Stanley cup or your favorite beauty products in your blog photos, but you sure have creatively dropped a link to your portfolio and teased us about your new book, which feels kind of the same.

    • 100%. This feels extraordinarily hypocritical to me.

      Not denying that monetization of everything can feel tiresome and excessive sometimes. But someone’s writing isn’t less valuable because it’s on the internet as opposed to a book. She hits on some valid points here but overall this just feels gross, especially because it is littered with her own self promotion. I don’t know what the answers are to the Problem of the Internet, but it’s not tearing other people down like this.

    • I like your style, R! Thanks for bringing this top of mind – it’s very good constructive criticism, and I can absolutely see why this could have felt like little more than a book or portfolio tease! I still have some thoughts to sort out on the how, and I know everyone takes a different path here. But I do have some rules in place I keep for myself in terms of Internet usage, what is shared/monetized, what is consumed, what is sold (or not), what time or brainspace is allotted to online happenings, etc, if an upcoming post on that would be helpful? I’ll warn you – I’m a slow writer (this post is evidence of what happens when my fingers type faster than my spirit!) and not often on the computer, so it will take me some time. But if you’re truly curious, I’m happy to put some focus and energy toward it!

  • “So much crying in cars!” LOL!! (Confirmation I could never be an influencer because I am clearly doing “crying in my car” wrong because when I am crying in my car, I would be MORTIFIED if anyone heard or saw me -but go LIVE or record it?? OMG! Hard Pass!!!) Looking forward to your new book!!!

  • Like so many others have said, I so appreciate your perspective. I left “formal” social media one year ago (facebook and instagram) but realized that reading blogs/comment sections and Substack basically morphed into another form of social media for me. I have zero pull to ever create things on the internet, but the consuming sure can be addicting.

    One interesting thing I have noticed is that I live in a fairly small town and most people I know do not follow content creators, they truly just use social media to keep in touch with high school friends, etc. Whenever my book club meets and gets off topic (as we do), I’ll always ask, “hey, did you see XYZ thing on substack, is anyone else concerned?” and I usually get a bunch of blank stares. I am still mulling through what all this means but it is such an interesting contrast to some of the outrage culture on the internet.

    • Katie! I, too, have noticed this! It’s as if we’re breathing from a different oxygen source. I’ve learned SO much from being entrenched in a community that doesn’t read blogs or follow social media. It’s a whole ‘nother world out there! :)

  • Thank you so much for this! It’s really great to hear from someone who is not jumping on Substack haha. It just feels too much like a fad that all of these writers are barreling into because it’s “cool” right now. Really though, I loved this whole post. I’ve gotten to the point where I just feel sad for influencers-it seems like a miserable way to live (several months back, my husband and I were watching a Poker tournament online that some twenty-somethings who are influencers were participating in. It was entertaining for a bit, but it just seemed so…empty and fake). I’m grateful that more and more people seem to be waking up and realizing what they actually need vs. what society or the internet tells them they need.

    • I’m grateful, too. You put it best – “realizing what they actually need vs. what society or the internet tells them they need” is a fulltime job, isn’t it? I pray we never stop questioning this!

  • Wow! I was delayed in reading this and as always really appreciate your insight and perspective. I especially respect that you didn’t edit out your truth to be nicer and softer. I am a mental health counselor and I’m constantly encouraging everyone to turn off the social media and all the noise because in the silence is where we can reconnect to our soul. I of course am constantly dealing with my own struggle in this area but I do know that real life is so much better then what we experience online.

    • It is indeed, and I’m so grateful for your work as a mental health counselor, Angel! I’m finding myself knee deep in research of how alarming this world is for kids, and yet, many of us adults think we’re immune. (We’re not.) So appreciate that you’re among those sounding the alarm.

  • Why isn’t your book free then? Why is it okay to sell a course teaching people to journal, but not to teach the ins and outs of baking sourdough?

    This feels so hypocritical, especially because you are promoting your own writing that you have for sale right here, while criticizing that others do the same. Why is paying for a book more justifiable than well thought out essays published on the internet?

    I’m quite new to Substack, and can’t really speak to how different it is from any other platform. I personally have no plans to have a paid one, I just want to write for myself and maybe find a few people that feel like dialoguing on some common interests. And so far I’ve found that!

    Although the paywalls are sometimes overwhelming to me, and I couldn’t possibly afford to subscribe to every writer whose work interests me, I do think they deserve a means to be paid for their work, and I vastly prefer paying a writer or content creator personally than being on a platform where they’re incentivized by ads. Nothing on the internet is free, and if you’re not the one paying for the product, YOU are the product.

    Paying for more of the content I’m reading may result in reading a smaller number of people’s work, but it also means that I’m more mindful about what I’m reading. It means having a deeper connection with those people and deeper conversations about those topics. I don’t think we’re meant to be bombarded on a daily basis by countless short blurbs by countless strangers on countless topics chosen for us by an algorithm we don’t understand.

    I don’t know what the answers to all the problems of the internet are, but I’m fairly certain it’s not tearing people down like this was.

    • Hi Jen:

      Thank you for your gentle reprimand – we all need it from time to time! I LOVE your sentiments here:
      “Paying for more of the content I’m reading may result in reading a smaller number of people’s work, but it also means that I’m more mindful about what I’m reading. It means having a deeper connection with those people and deeper conversations about those topics. I don’t think we’re meant to be bombarded on a daily basis by countless short blurbs by countless strangers on countless topics chosen for us by an algorithm we don’t understand.”

      Agree, agree, agree. These are the WONDERFUL sides of Substack, and I’m glad to hear you’ve found them to be true in your life. My concern with Substack is that by introducing so many growth features like re-stacks, Notes, Chat, Recommendations, DMs (with an algorithm rumored to be just around the corner), writers are building platforms on a shaky foundation that is beginning to look and feel like social media by the day. Many creators are handing over (or newly generating) a subscription base to an entity where they have no real freedom in how that connection is maintained in the long run. Do I think it’s a lovey place to host and exchange thoughts/ideas? It can be. Do I think it lives up to its promise to support writers and writing? In the short run, perhaps. In the long term? For a select few, maybe. But for the masses? My concern is Substack will become another platform to distract from the work of the craft itself, and when Substack decides, an algorithm will be introduced and the rug will be pulled out from many.

      I could be wrong! I’ve certainly been before. :)

      And I do want to clarify again that yes, of course, it’s absolutely fine to be paid for you passions – sourdough or otherwise! But I do think there’s a high cost to monetizing our lives that we often leave unexplored. The lessons I’ve learned have led me to take a different path, which of course doesn’t mean it’s universally right, just that it’s mine. This is why my journaling class is free to anyone who feels finances are a barrier to participate. This is why my book will be made available to borrow for free to public libraries all throughout the country. This is why a homeschooling co-op I run is made free and available for scholarship recipients each quarter.

      I, too, don’t know what a solution for the masses might be, but I’m committed to asking questions and observing critically the role that participating in Internet culture plays in my own life. And from time to time, it feels right to share what I see.

  • Erin, it’s been so long ! Good to hear your voice again. I agree with your sentiments on all of the above. I actually just wrote about resisting the “gold rush” mentality, and the urge to force my writing into a “Substack-shaped box” ….on my Substack, lol.

    However, I also feel like this post could come off as pretty ungenerous to writers, particularly newer/younger writers who are trying to do the very same thing you and I were trying to do back in the 00s…only with a brand-new set of tools, expectations, and WAY more noise to content with.

    Us old-timers have the privilege (a word I never use lightly) of having gotten started when we did, when the Internet was a very different place. And we’re still reaping the rewards from it. My book was picked up by a publisher in large part because I have a longstanding legacy audience and also have had the time to slowly build a a new audience over time. You wrote a NYT bestseller…which I’m sure, along with other economic factors, played into the fact that you got to take a three-year break from showing up at all, then re-emerge with a new project and this post, and instead of just shouting into a void, find that you’re still “relevant” – whatever that means.

    I got started as a writer with the express need to earn an income from it to support my family. It was my goal from Day 1, and over the years, that writing for pay has taken many forms. But even after things changed drastically online, I’m still benefitting from that early scaffolding in my career. An emerging writer today would almost certainly not be able to sell a book based purely on its merits, or “just” leave the internet and return later to a waiting audience. So what do they do, then?

    I see younger writers and creators trying to carve out their own places, and in many cases, still making lovely things I enjoy. reading, watching, and listening to. (and, of course, in other cases shilling and group-thinking and car-crying all over the place, but then again, the Internet has never been a cringe-free zone.)

    We’re both old enough to have seen some stuff, and understand the thankless hamster wheel social media can become. A complete exit from being online at all is one solution, I suppose. But I have to wonder what it would do to the voices I really do want to pay attention to, if they all left and all that remains are those willing to ignore authenticity in the quest for relevance.

    • Hi Meagan! So so good to hear from you again, and I agree with you on much of this! I just visited the post I believe you were referencing and found myself nodding along, recognizing myself in much of your essay.

      I found these words especially relatable:

      “Because along the way, I’ve found myself trying to “game” the Substack-sphere, adding new series and hooks to try to bring in subscribers or convert existing subscribers to paid, while then feeling pressure to up the ante and offer more value to the subscribers who’ve already upgraded (I so appreciate you.) And frankly, I don’t love what all that hustle does to my writing… I’ve been there, most recently with Instagram, where I found myself chasing an ever-changing set of tactics and tools to boost engagement and grow an audience instead of focusing on the two things I truly wanted to do better: write and connect. I’m not there yet with Substack, but I smell danger in the air in this space; a whiff of gold-rush excitement (or desperation?) that I’ve experienced many times before in my two decades as a digital content creator.”

      You’ve penned exactly what I sensed, and I’m grateful you wrote it so eloquently and from a place of firsthand knowledge. What I appreciate is that we both lived through two decades on this thing, and I believe we’re both attempting to support the people who haven’t, albeit in different ways. We know what’s coming with these platforms. You’re staying on the scene. I’m yelling for help.

      Two emails landed in my inbox last week:
      “Every time I turn around somebody wants me to pay to see what they wrote. Or they want me to buy them a coffee. I love everyone’s work, but it just isn’t doable to support the whole world and everyone’s writing…”

      “Almost all of the blogs I’ve followed for years have switched to Substack and paid subscriptions. I canceled their subscriptions because I can’t afford to pay to follow them.”

      Remember when Kevin Kelly wisely noted that Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles? And Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content? And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate? We’ve had the luxury of seeing what these platforms did – and do – for the economy, yes, but also what they did – and do – for humanity. The downsides are tremendous when we peek behind the curtain of faster airport rides, funny memes, and vacation destinations. And that’s what I see happening with Substack – the very nature of the platform’s business model is unsustainable for readers, which then makes it unsustainable for writers, and that, I believe, will be far more ungenerous to a generation of writers than anything else.

      On another note, I’m so excited for your book (LOVE the title!) and will absolutely be requesting it at our local library next summer!