#37: Community, mob, fandom, or cult?

Why I’m turning off comments.

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Last week some people asked what happened to my comment section. This week I’ll be explaining where it went, and why, among other things. But first, if you’ve been considering becoming a paying subscriber of Maybe Baby, it could be the time…not only because I’m bringing on the inimitable Aminatou Sow this week, who gave me a life-changing pep talk last month that partly inspired the below essay, but also because I’M DEBUTING A NEW THEME SONG!! Real heads know how much I hated my old one... This one was written and produced custom for me by Soft Streak and I think that’s so special and I love it. The ep drops Tuesday. You can view subscriptions options by clicking this orange button and entering your email. Always so thankful for the support!

Anyway, here’s a photo of my recent dalliance with a side part to break up the torrent of text you’re about to embark upon.

Community commodified

I’ll never forget the person who called me a hypocrite in a comment section and claimed it was constructive feedback. I don’t remember their name—it probably wasn’t their real one—but I remember exactly how they made me feel: ashamed, defensive, then livid. I stewed on their words for days. By the end of the week I could recite, as if from a script, exactly why I thought their opinion was bullshit, offered in bad faith, and irrelevant to my creative work. Of course, nothing about my energy suggested I’d truly internalized those beliefs. Instead I was an angry paradox; so caught up in explaining why something wasn’t worth my time I’d wasted all mine in the process. This is one of the more humiliating ironies of being online: the ease with which you can perjure yourself in the process of explaining how very little you care.

Some people on the internet thrive on conflict. They say things for the purpose of inciting rage then ride it like a wave. I, on the other end of the spectrum, write to be understood almost exclusively, and feel my faith in myself and others crumble when that’s not achieved. But I understand that conflict can be healthy, and that, as political theorist Hannah Arendt once put it, a “plurality of agents” is part of a thriving society. It was Jenny Odell who crystallized this point for me in her book, How to Do Nothing: that rubbing up against different opinions and enduring the discomfort of letting everyone have a say is how genuine community—rather than, say, a cult, or a dictatorship—is fostered. Yet the conflict that has come to define online life is at increasing odds with this goal. Despite what brand strategists might put in their marketing decks, participating in social media, forums, and comment sections very seldom resembles belonging to an actual community. Instead, it often feels like dying very slowly for all involved, and I’ve been wondering why that is.

In “What Is Community Anyway?” for Stanford Social Innovation Review, researchers David M. Chavis and Kien Lee define community as “a feeling and a set of relationships among people” maintained to “meet common needs.” Members retain a sense of “trust, belonging, safety, and caring for each other.” This does not mean everyone agrees all the time, but there exists a mutuality and shared history; an understanding that their environment might be influenced by individual and collective action. Throughout human history, whether through a shared faith in things like religion, moral principles, government institutions, or communal child-rearing, this is how societies have organized. But modern Western life, as has been spelled out ad nauseam, has been largely defined by a fracturing of these communities in favor of a secular and individualized society. It’s a dogma that’s infiltrated the places the West has colonized, too, whether by force or through supposedly charitable means. People are on average less religious, their concerns less local, their lives increasingly atomized. 

In a 2019 feature for Business of Fashion, Doug Stephans explores what connective tissue has formed to accommodate these fractures. “Declining trust in institutions like the state and the church doesn’t quell our fundamentally human desire for affiliation, purpose and meaning,” he writes. “People need to believe in something.” He cites a 2018 global study by Edelman that determined that 53% of people believe brands can do more to solve social problems than governments. “Let that sink in a moment. A majority of us now place more faith in brands to change the world than traditional social institutions.” The name of the piece? “In Brands We Trust: Why Companies Are the New Communities.” Doug Stephans? A retail consultant, and a little too excited about his conclusions.

At this point it feels stale to point out that consumption habits have become the perceived building blocks of identity. That we are what we buy, and in a bad way. Even critiquing capitalism has become a kind of cultural in-joke—or a business of its own—hinting at its delightfully meta-commodification. But consumption cuts multiple ways, and today it’s about more than simply buying the right shoes to signal you belong to “the counterculture” (or however we delude ourselves into padding billionaires’ pockets). It’s about the apps we use, the publications we read, the shows we like. As work and leisure become increasingly mediated through the digital marketplace, it’s hard to imagine a modern version of community that doesn’t somehow hinge on profit margins. Unfortunately, the two are often, if not fundamentally, at odds. And yet capital remains our primary bonding agent; a condition intensified by the pandemic.

Building community, or hinting at a people-centric purpose, has become the central focus of modern marketing. “The economics of [traditional marketing] are no longer feasible,” writes Michelle Manafy for Inc. “Because of this, CMOs have started to look at alternatives... Significantly, the words ‘soul’, ‘purpose,’ and ‘community’ dominate CMO responses about their view of marketing.” According to this ethos, it’s no longer enough for consumers to like what businesses are selling, they must believe in it, feel a part of it. As Emily Robinson writes for Forbes, “People aren’t just buying products because they saw an ad on Instagram. They are buying products that align with their values and express their identity.” Often, this translates to marketing mumbo jumbo; sometimes, it changes a business entirely.

By the end of the 2010s, it seemed like every newsworthy brand, particularly in the women’s space, had centered their marketing strategy—if not founded their entire business—on the idea of community: Glossier, SoulCycle, Outdoor Voices, Thinx, Goop. Founder Audrey Gelman cited a Harvard study about the fracturing of communities as an inspiration to her opening The Wing, a detail that now reads fairly cynical. Even media outlets became harbors for identity, throwing events, selling merch, launching apps. Over the course of the four years I worked as an editor at cult women’s media site Man Repeller, the emphasis on community rose to a fever pitch. I don’t think the team’s attempt to reimagine our readership as a community was at all predatory, but it was always going to be limited by business constraints. When Man Repeller readers spoke out against a certain type of content, for instance, but that type of content helped pay the bills, the bottom line took precedence. I may have found that distasteful at the time, but what did I expect from a profit-driven entity? The best check against a brand’s claim to be purely mission-driven is their status as a non-profit—or more likely, lack thereof.

The moral and ethical snags in corporate activism are well-documented, as is the infamous fall of the girlboss, but these are playing out more so in the cultural sphere than in boardrooms, and probably among a minority. Sixty-six percent of consumers still “feel it’s important for brands to take a public stance on leading social and political issues like immigration, human rights and race relations.” It’s safe to assume that fostering a community in an increasingly alienating world is among these expectations. In the digital media landscape, this translates a number of ways. Whether you’re a social media editor in charge of sending free pizza to dissatisfied Comcast customers, a celebrity insisting you love each of your individual fans, or a writer making yourself available to readers who dislike you, an expectation of reciprocity has arisen as a kind of signal for democratic engagement. But it remains by and large a PR strategy. If the core components of a community ask that all members experience a level of trust, safety, and shared goals, business incentives—on the part of the individual, brand, or the platforms mediating between them—are always at risk of betraying those values. They often do.

No comments

I started thinking about all this as I considered whether fostering a “community” around Maybe Baby—which, due to the nature of my work, mostly means making myself available in the comments—was worth the cost to my mental health, a struggle I’ve written about before. You could call it a character defect to take negative comments so seriously. There was a time when I was better at sifting out the trolls from the well-intentioned, when I was better at rolling my eyes. But at some point over the last year, I lost track of that skill. I got defensive, sometimes unnecessarily. I grew paralyzed by strangers’ criticism, sometimes devoting entire days to processing their comments, wondering if they were right, replying to them in my head much more snarkily than I ever would in a public forum. This required a humiliating degree of self-focus, inciting a snake-eats-it-own-tail style of narcissism other creatives might recognize. But there was an important shift in my understanding of these exchanges around September of last year, when I published a critique of Emily Ratajkowski’s feminist doctrine.

None of my newsletters received as much exposure, or were as provocative. I received a barrage of responses on Twitter, some of which fervently disagreed with me. Curiously, none of them triggered a spiral. But why? If I was as sensitive as I’d begun to believe—as closed off to critique as my private pettiness indicated—surely this would have sent me down the rabbit hole for days. Instead I felt energized, open. Upon reflection, there were two qualities of this discourse that differed from my typical comment section. The first was that most of it was taking place on Twitter, where the conversation was decentralized: People weren’t talking to me, necessarily, but to each other. The second was the critiques were focused on my ideas rather than me personally—in part due to the piece not being about me—giving me the satisfaction of good-faith engagement. (It would be dishonest to not also mention that a bunch of people agreed with me, which felt very good, but the shelf-life of peer approval is unfortunately dogshit.)

On Maybe Baby, the stakes felt much higher, and more personal. When I launched in March last year and began to engage in lively conversations underneath my writing, I started to think of it as a community of sorts. During a time of isolation, trapped in my apartment and newly freelance, this was profound, but came with obvious risks. Rude comments came off particularly cutting, nice ones dangerously fawning, critiques as if offered by a trusted confidant. I replied to everything I could, believing my participation an important component of fostering reciprocity. I might not have been willing to admit it at the time, but those comment sections were ultimately about me. More than a public forum, they resembled the reviews under a product on Amazon. Reading through them felt like sitting down to a feedback session with a manager, only on a constant basis and with anyone who cared to weigh in. I don’t mean that every comment was a referendum on the quality of my writing (although many were), I mean that by the very nature of them existing underneath my work, they were an extension of my creative output. A reflection of me.

For a long time I likened comment sections—and followings—to communities. Insofar as readers of a publication (or fans of a person) are like-minded, they can often resemble one. But there are some key components missing. To return to Chavis and Lee’s definition, members of a community share history, common needs, and a sense of mutuality, trust, and care. Comment sections, where most enjoy a cover anonymity that the writer does not, where participants praise or critique a single person or their work, far from fit the bill. This hints at why I find comments as pleasurable as I do hurtful: Rather than serving as equal-footed chatter, they are a direct line to my ego. It feels almost sacrilegious to say so, but Maybe Baby is not a brand nor a community.

“Turning off comments will make your business less like a cult, and more like a newsletter,” Aminatou Sow said to me on a phone call in early December. I had decided to take the month off from Maybe Baby to address some of my operational pain points, of which my tenderness had, humiliatingly, become top billing. Despite the supermajority of my comments being generous and thoughtful, the few that weren’t were making me want to quit. It wasn’t that I saw them as unfair—rather, I saw them as the price of admission, and just didn’t know if I was cut out to pay it. But long-time podcaster and bestselling author Amina, whom I consider more self-assured than me in every way imaginable, didn’t hesitate to suggest I shut them down. “You don’t owe everyone a forum,” she said.

The thought of shutting off comments filled me with relief, and a little dread. I wondered if such a hard line would be antithetical to healthy discourse, a form of censorship. I mourned the animated discussions organized in a single place, full of anecdotes and recommendations. I thought of all the compliments I would no longer receive, like shots of dopamine in the arm. But then I recalled the conversation following my Emily Ratajkowski op-ed—the private conversations I had with readers via email and DM, the public debates it incited that earnestly engaged with my ideas, with or without me—and realized I wouldn’t be shuttering all discussion, only one hierarchical mode of it. As much as I’d like to commune with my audience on Substack, no attempt will be adequate if I’m up on a pedestal, as vulnerable as I am celebrated. I’d rather meet readers elsewhere, on common ground. Or provide fodder for you to engage your own communities, even if you do so critically.

Running a dispatch without a comment section—with the exception of occasional, pointed discussion threads, which I intend to do!—feels like launching a sneaker brand without Instagram. It contradicts every prevailing marketing dictum. (I might even grow to hate it, in which case I’d like to reserve the right to reverse my decision!) But for now, releasing myself from the captivity of comments is both an important step for my mental health and like an honest evolution of my perspective on what it means to participate. A freelance writer friend of mine recently raved to me about writing for a site that didn’t have comments; the safety she felt in expressing an idea without feeling as though she were standing naked in the town square. “It was so freeing,” she told me, “to just contribute.”

Online, Arendt’s “plurality of agents,” filtered through the prism of late capitalism—in which our behaviors signal not just what we like, but who we are, and who survives—functions more like a mob, cult, or fandom, than a community. Promises of soul, purpose, and togetherness may sound nice coming from the figures and networks we’ve come to rely on for a sense of belonging, but without the shared goals or implied mutuality of actual communities, these PR-approved overtures are simply exploiting an urgent need. Brands parading as people and people parading as brands—the LARPing we’ve come to recognize as discourse—isn’t the answer to our collective estrangement from shared meaning.

The idea that we’ve lost faith in the old institutions is well-worn, but our suspicion ought to extend to those profiting off of the gap they’ve left in their wake. The impact of more community-minded brands isn’t necessarily toxic, but it can be duplicitous, and it by no means fills the much-needed role of community in our lives. We need less celebrity- and brand-worship and more opportunities to build connections from which no one person or entity stands to profit over the rest, where our connective tissue goes deeper than consumption preferences, and where trust enables mutual understanding and healthy conflict. There is an enduring appeal to the chaotic communing happening online, especially where our egos are concerned, but if it makes us feel empty in the long run, it’s not hard to see why.

1. This week’s Small Good Thing is this recycled plastic cutting board by Material, a gift from my sister, that solved a bunch of kitchen problems I didn’t realize I had.

2. “I Recommend Eating Chips,” a perfect NYTimes Letter of Recommendation by Sam Anderson. As someone who has eaten more chips in the last 10 months than I did in the cumulative years of my life before, I loved this so much. “Lean in, inhale that unmistakable bouquet: toasted corn, dopamine, America, grief!”

3. The ideal creative collaboration that is Troye Sivan x Kacey Musgraves:

4. “Magic Beans, Baby,” David Runciman’s review of Obama’s new book for London Review of Books, which was, unlike most coverage of Obama, measured in a way I appreciated. 

5. The show Industry, which I loved in the most Pavlovian sense. I miss work, I miss partying, I miss the arbitrary gamification of everyday life that I actually probably hate.

6. The single best purchase I’ve made in the last year: the Litter Genie. Cat-owners...if you’re still shoveling cat shit into a bag and then throwing it in a haunted bin, let the genie into your life and prepare to be changed.

7. “The Hater With a Heart of Gold,” a conversation between Haley Mlotek and Jay Caspian Kang, two writers and thinkers I admire, for SSENSE. They’re both such effective communicators, and so casually sharp; every line packs a punch.

8. The story of Claudette Colvin via @historycoolkids, which I’m embarrassed to have never learned: “Claudette Colvin was just 15-years-old in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white woman, telling the bus driver, ‘it's my constitutional right to sit here.’ The NAACP decided to recreate it with Rosa Parks who was a respectable older woman in her community. ”

A post shared by History Cool Kids (@historycoolkids)

9. “The Hour of the Barbarian,” by Vincent Bevins for N+1, a short but pointed look into the absurdity of claiming the attempted coup on DC was somehow “un-American,” as nearly every politician and pundit claimed in its aftermath.

10. The definition of bathos: “an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous (especially in a work of literature)”

11. Maple’s Spa Day, in its totality:

12. The story about the German dude (as reported by the Times) who has over $200 million dollars in bitcoin but can’t remember his password and only has two more tries before it’s forever encrypted, which elicits in me a strange mix of thrill, horror, and complete incomprehension. To be honest, this tweet is the only part I read.

13. ”A Year Without Clothes,” by Rachel Syme for the New Yorker, an essay that challenges the popular pre-pandemic notion that fashion, at its purest, means dressing for yourself, an axiom that never felt completely true to me.

14. This perfectly long sentence care of Rebecca Solnit in her book Recollections of My Nonexistence, on learning to feel untethered to her time: “I think I gained a sense of how differently constituted the idea of being human, the purpose of life, the expectations and desires had been even a generation or two ago, let alone half a millennium before, of how the definitions metamorphosed, and how that meant you could step outside the assumptions of your time, or at least wear them lightly, and at least in theory not let them punish you.”

15. And finally, the breaking news that if a manatee crashed into you in the water it would feel like being hugged by a pillow.

A final thought

While I don’t think comment sections are the best conduit for critique, I like the idea of offering a mechanism for accountability. So I’ve created a new form you can use to give me high-level feedback about Maybe Baby, which I’ve designed to imitate the pace and context of a letter to the editor. I’ll be checking it once a month.

Okay that should do it. Thanks so much for reading!

P.s. You can always talk to me on Twitter or Instagram.

This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to Food Bank for NYC, the city’s largest organization focused on ending food poverty in the five boroughs.

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