If you’d asked me a year ago ‘what do you do for a living?’ I’d say ‘Send and receive emails, just like everyone else.’
These days, the answer is similar, but different enough, I guess, to be interesting: ‘Make stuff and put it on the internet, just like everyone else.’
Of course, my job title is Director of Music Tech Fest. And that means a large part of what I do is to help create a live, shared experience for a community of brilliant scientific and artistic innovators from around the world.
In part, I do this in order to seed innovation, inspire change, create sustainable new businesses, foster creativity and provide a fertile ground for new research, new artistic projects and new collaborations between people who might never have had the opportunity or the reason to work together.
But also, so that I can make stuff and put it on the internet.
Importantly (and, for me, interestingly), most of how I do my job is also by making stuff and putting it on the internet. In order to bring those people together, to let people know about it, to communicate with them and organise everything – it all involves social media posts, instant messaging and tagging far more than it used to – and increasingly, more so than sending and receiving email, though of course there’s still a lot of that too.
So both the core activity and the resulting output of everything I do revolves around what is loosely referred to as ‘content creation’. And like the incessant generation and processing of email before it, content creation quickly spills over to fill other areas of life beyond the day job. As someone once cleverly put it, the great thing about mobile devices, laptops and ubiquitous internet is that now we can work on our way to work. I’d argue that there’s very little left that could be categorised as ‘not work’.
Having long been considered a productivity killer, it’s now fast becoming pretty much everyone’s job – whether they’re at their place of employment or not – to post on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook… and not just their own Facebook profile, but also the company Facebook page, the various Facebook groups, the Facebook event, Facebook Live, Facebook Messenger, Instagram Stories, IGTV… and, if you want anyone at all to hear what you’re saying – even the ones who have specifically elected to do so, you also need to start investigating Facebook and LinkedIn ads.
In other words, you not only need to make stuff and put it on the internet (free labour for the corporations who run these social network platforms – or ‘self-exploitation’ as some critics have called it), you also need to pay for the privilege of being heard by those who are actively trying to listen to you, which takes the world of marketing in some fascinating new directions.
And yet – this is just me talking to my friends.
And here’s the point. This is not a critique. I am no longer in that game. I’ll let professional media critics post comments and make other stuff to put on the internet to tell you how bad this all is. This is just an observation. You can be cross about it all you like. It’s just how the world currently is – until you, me or somebody else changes it.
And since I live in that world, there are a few things I’ve become very conscious of in recent months.
First, people like to have some of the stuff that gets made and put on the internet delivered to them in such a way that they can make use of it while traveling, at the gym, walking the dogs or whatever. There’s way too much content creation going on to be able to take in everything you need while you have your eyes and hands free to devote to the task.
So from this month I’m going to be posting a Music Tech Fest podcast every week. I’m doing lots in the way of still images, video and short and long form text content – but not audio. So we hosted and recorded over 50 interviews with amazing people at MTF Stockholm and each one of them will be rolled out as a 20 minute podcast, give or take…
Second, I need to have those interviews transcribed so that they can be posted in text form on the MTF blog, reposted on Medium, linked to on Facebook and LinkedIn – and then boosted if they cross a pre-set threshold of engagement. We have this content – and not everyone will sit through 20 minutes of talking, but might just want to link to, post, refer to, or even read what was said. Besides, audio is not yet as searchable as text. Give it time, but we’re not there yet.
This stuff cross-references, so someone who finds the text via a Google search may end up listening to the audio version.
Third, there are a lot of photos, videos and posts to make sense of. When you run a festival, you’re not the only one taking pictures or saying things on the internet, and so managing, amplifying, reposting, liking, linking, commenting and sharing become incredibly important activities. This is not something you farm out to an intern. This is something that everyone needs to be doing.
This is a community of people doing amazing things. It would be ridiculous to pass up the opportunity to share this stuff around and celebrate just how great they are and show people what they’re up to.
But of course, all this begs the question, if this is work, what is “not work”?
For me, as a long term practitioner of this stuff, the creep has happened faster and more conclusively than most – but I’d contend I’m the canary in the coalmine, rather than an exception. Social media used to be the ‘work-flavoured stuff’ I’d do outside of work, because I happened to be fascinated by the topic and interested in the people. Good conversations, good content. These days, all social media is work, or at least it feels like it.
Twitter is a grind. It’s important, but for me it’s become a place for a lot of really challenging and important political discourse, engagement with the meanings of what we do professionally and personally, peppered with long threads and retweets of dissenting voices. It’s also where the best topical jokes are, which helps make the medicine go down.
Instagram is a conveyor belt of scenes and concepts that I need to absorb and respond appropriately to, and it’s where the community posts and shares their work and the lives they attach to it.
Facebook has been described as a world of its own and we are its citizens. I think it’s more like a city. Specifically, Dark City, the 1998 film where everyone’s memory gets completely rewritten every 24 hours and it’s always night. We used to visit Facebook, now we inhabit it. I can’t remember the last time I finished reading Facebook, can you? It’s everything, and perhaps like all cities, it becomes inescapable the more it becomes unliveable.
As someone who lives in Facebook, pretty much for a living, the ads I get served are quite often about how to make more ads on Facebook.
LinkedIn is proper work. I put on a nice shirt to go on LinkedIn. I behave appropriately, keep things on topic and “network” in the true business sense.
I’m increasingly aware of my shortcomings with Snapchat and the fact that this is probably the first online context that “I don’t get” because “I’m old” irritates the hell out of me. I will come to terms with this one way or another.
Of course, I post pictures of my dogs on the internet. But mostly I’m talking about things like Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Accessible Music Technology, streaming, downloading, recommendation algorithms, data mining, digital archives, music information retrieval, generative music, AI composition, 5G distribution, latency-free production, live coding performance, chip implants and post-humanism, physical modelling, making music with everything from gravitational waves and planetary orbits to biological systems. My work has, for a long time, been about understanding the age that we live in and responding to it appropriately.
But if all this is work, then what is ‘not work’? For me, either because I’m a romantic, or nostalgic, or just getting on a bit – I turn to older media. And I don’t mean radio, or television, cinema, records or even books. I’m talking about Tumblr and Flickr, both of which are still there, neither of which have succumbed to the all-encompassing, life-devouring, essential nature of these other social media forms. Which is to say, they weren’t nearly as successful, but are plugging away regardless doing what they do well. And I have a lot of empathy for that.
I have a very curated and very selected Tumblr feed, most of which looks like a beautifully shot and idealised version of where I’ve ended up living for real. There are forests and lakes, farmhouses and foxes, romantic landscapes, vintage Russian typewriters, organic apples, open fires, second hand record stores, inspiring quotes about Autumn by e.e. cummings, beautiful interior designs, freshly baked bread, still frames from 1960s sitcoms, distant mountains, hiking boots, mixtapes, dogs in canoes, analogue cameras, hot chocolate, reel to reel tape recorders and half-written sepia diaries.
Nothing bad happens on Tumblr. Nobody is angry most of the time. The most common negative emotion in my Tumblr feed is missing someone who has gone away. This is my escape and my meditation. I contribute almost nothing. I drink this from both hands like a glacier stream before returning to the grit of the world.
Flickr, on the other hand, is where I contribute but do not consume. This is where I hide my treasure. I post the photos I’ve taken that I’m incredibly proud of. And I mark them as private.
I use Day One in much the same way, but for personal bits of writing. It’s still making stuff and putting it on the internet, but it’s for me, not for you. Along with everything else, I’m a writer. I have books out and everything. I don’t write every day, but most days – and when I do, like my photography, it varies considerably in tone and quality, while remaining pretty much consistently and authentically me.
It’s taken me a hell of a long time to figure out what kind of a writer I am. Turns out, mostly I’m an essayist. Always have been. Which is good to know when you’re in the middle of writing a book and start to notice a pattern to the process. My new book, which – at its current rate, should see the light of day in 2027 or thereabouts (slow progress for sure, but measurable – and I am very happy with what’s there already) very quickly became a collection of essays around a theme. A mixtape, of sorts. Appropriate, given its subject.
Which brings me around to the point of all this.
Personal, self-hosted blogs like this one right here – just like Tumblr and Flickr – they’re old media. Writing here doesn’t stick anything into your timeline. It doesn’t ask you to Like it or Share it. It doesn’t require me to put on a nice shirt, and I don’t have to read and respond to an avalanche of comments, monitor the engagement ratios or watch it swept away by the tide of a 24-hour cycle that puts new things to remember back at the top of the page to replace the previous set we’ve no doubt already forgotten.
And of course, being me, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Way too much thought, if the truth be told. A few years, actually. What should my website be about? What’s its theme? Why should people come back here or link to it from elsewhere?
And the answer is – at least for the moment – I’d like to stop thinking about it and just get on with it as and when it seems appropriate. It should be sort of holistic. Both work and not-work. It has my name at the top of the page, so if I’m going to put anything here, it should attempt to represent me, at least in aggregate – and I am all of the above and a lot of other things besides.
But there couldn’t be a better medium for someone like me than this right here. It will vary in consistency and regularity. You can take it or leave it. It’s mine, but you can read it too, if you like. And who knows, perhaps I’ll make it into a podcast, post it on Twitter, make a graphical quote from it for Instagram, share it on some Facebook page or other, and perhaps come up with some use for Snapchat that involves rabbit ears or colourful captions so I can address the under-35 audience too. Or maybe none of those things.
The hard part is not to write. The hard part is to post. Because then it’s done. Finished. Out in the world. You’d think after all these tweets, Facebook posts, mail-outs, Instagram shots and so on, I’d be hard wired for that by now. Inured. But this is different. There are no instructions. Nobody is selling me webinars about fixing the three weird mistakes most people make with their personal blog that will affect my ROI overnight. I don’t, in short, know how to do this or whether I’m doing this right.
Which is, happily, the very definition of the essay. From the French. ‘An attempt’ (noun) or ‘to try’ (verb). It’s a way to explore ideas, test them out, and then see what happens when you communicate them in some form.
So here goes.