In 1965, Dylan (in)famously went electric at Newport, kicking off a sizzling set with “Maggie’s Farm” (see it on YouTube). The FU spirit of the song is powerful. Dylan was breaking free from folk music convention based on the power of a song that itself represented a musical insurrection — breaking free from a toxic sharecropper / landlord relationship:
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
This story is as old as time. The basic theme from “Maggie’s Farm” was lifted from a 1920s Bentley Brothers song, “Penny’s Farm.” This was a song that Dylan certainly knew since the basic lyrical form showed up later in his song “Hard Times in New York Town.” Dylan clearly drew his inspiration for “Maggie’s Farm” from that Bentley Brothers’ song:
You go in the fields, you’ll work all day,
Way into night but you get no pay;
(You’re) promised some meat or a little bucket (of) lard;
It’s hard to be a renter on Penny’s farm.
It’s a-hard times in the country, Out on Penny’s farm.
Digital sharecropping on Twitter
In today’s world, many of us are doing the digital equivalent of working on Maggie’s farm but our new landlords are digital and Twitter is now Elon’s private farm. On Twitter, the little bit of meat and lard you get for working on Elon’s farm and enduring the landlord’s occasional abusive rants is “engagement.” The idea of “digital sharecropping” is certainly not new (1, 2) but I would argue that the “engagement” rewards one gets are generally worth less and are more troublesome than when that term originally emerged years ago. The meager rewards most people get are worth even less than the cast-off scraps they got in the first place. From a business standpoint, advertisers certainly seem to valuing this engagement less than ever, as selling ads on Twitter has become equivalent to walking around wearing a sandwich board with your brand at a combination building explosion / riot / car wreck / hanging / bloody insurrection.
I’m not a Twitter star by any means but I’ve had moments of achieving large-scale engagement and the general experience is a short-term rush of endorphins (“people are interested in what I have to say!”) followed by the online equivalent of a burst sewer pipe flooding your house with shit. As engagement shoots up, the quality of the conversation goes irretrievably downhill to the point where you mute replies, start blocking people, mute specific words, and clench your teeth until the flow of sewage stops and you can get back to your regular life. Even when you’re not actively involved in a discussion, incredibly important topics like “free speech” get debated with all the rigor of a first-year philosophy student who just took a massive bong hit and won’t leave your dorm room until he expresses every last faux-profound thought on the subject. This is, to put it mildly, not fun.
Blogging: old-school but WAY better
Blogging is entirely different and I would argue better. Blogging is a little retrograde, but retrograde in the same way a warm vinyl record with illustrations and liner notes is retro in comparison to a disembodied streaming service where accessing music is hyper-convenient but with very little warmth.
With a blog post, I can’t just react or dunk on someone — I have to actually write and formulate thoughts. When I’m done, I post and let it sit as I focus on other things. I feel clear-headed (vs. the brace for impact feeling I get when posting anything remotely controversial on Twitter). Anything you might call “engagement” on a blog is generally slower and more thoughtful. I have been blogging in some form for almost 20 years and I still get thoughtful emails about posts from many years ago, whereas with Twitter people tend to forget what you posted within hours. The overall body of tweets in the universe don’t tend to serve as an archive of considered thinking. (In fact, the primary use case for old tweets today seems to be surfacing things people wish they hadn’t said.) The vibe of Twitter often resembles Sartre’s dark play No Exit in what we are collectively trapped in a room with each other and the only thing we can do to pass the time is engage in mutual torment. L’enfer, c’est les autres (“Hell is other people”).
Sure, the engagement model around blogging is much less instantaneous and visceral. You don’t get to likes and retweets pouring in immediately — but that’s a feature, not a bug. With blogging, you might write a post that only three people read, but if the right three people read it, it can be life-changing.
A good blog post can have the same enduring small-but-huge generative spirit of the first Velvet Underground record, of which Brian Eno famously said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” My post about helping move a Confederate monument only has about 1,000 all-time views but it connected me to an historian doing work in this area and we met up for dinner when he visited NYC (turned out we were related! Another story for another time.) A potential executive coaching client doing background research on me also found that post and instantly related to the topic given that he had grown up in the South. We have been working together for years now and that post provided a key part of the instant rapport and connection that makes a coaching relationship work. When I saw the esteemed historian Robert Caro speak in Brooklyn, I was able to ask him if he believed LBJ (subject of his Pulitzer Prize winning books) was actually racist, and I blogged his answer. The post only has ~5,000 all-time views but blogging what I heard actually contributes to the historical record in a meaningful way. I send this post about red / yellow / green check-ins to my coaching clients all the time as practical guidance on a research-backed practice that will improve communication in their teams.
I have many examples like the ones above over the years but those immediately come to mind. The blogging medium promotes thoughtful interaction. It’s thoughtfully prepared “slow food” versus the McDonald’s-slamming-out-burgers of Twitter.
I no longer like the way I feel when I use Twitter. With Twitter, I find myself transforming into the never-satiated “hungry ghost” of Tibetan Buddhism, with a “mouth the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain.” I might get a bunch of likes and retweets but the more I get, the more I want — and the dumber the conversation tends to get. And the more “engagement” I get, the more I might find myself arguing all day with strangers about a momentary thought that I didn’t care that much about in the first place. Even dumber, I find myself hardening on that fleeting thought as arguments escalate. I see otherwise lovely people I know in real life transform into raging maniacs on a daily basis. If “engagement” is seeing an endless parade of everyone’s worst selves, then Twitter is truly killing it right now. But for me, this type of environment has turned into an all-around waste of mental and emotional energy.
So, I ain’t gonna work on Elon’s farm no more. It’s time to step out of the darkness and into the light.
As Dylan sang, I got a head full of ideas that are drivin’ me insane — pissing into the algorithmic wind of Twitter isn’t how I want to work through those ideas. I’m not deleting my Twitter account but will be going more or less read-only while doing most of my writing here on my own virtual land (powered by WordPress, built by a company led by a person who seems like a deeply thoughtful person — great interview with Matt Mullenweg here, btw). Let’s see how it goes.