This website was archived on July 21, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.

Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

The Privilege of Being Myself Publicly

In the wake of the Samantha Bielefeld debacle — which, to summarize various Twitter threads, involved a man posing as female tech blogger in order to stir up drama and possibly make money — I’m reflecting on anonymity online. (It’s not important that you be familiar with the whole SB thing in order to read this post, but if you’re interested you can learn more here, here, here, and here, in addition to the link in the first sentence.)

It benefits me tremendously that I’m able to reference my personal Facebook account on this website, that I’m able to post selfies and meet people in person. If I were in the situation that Samantha claimed to be, and I needed to conceal my identity so my bosses wouldn’t object to my internet life, it would be harder to be trusted. Maybe when I chose to criticize popular men, people would wonder, “Is this another scam artist? What’s her ulterior motive?” (Although I suppose this problem doesn’t afflict Taylor Swift’s infosec account.) Being able to reveal my face makes it easier for me to be taken at face value.

On the internet, nobody knows you're a baked-goods enthusiast! Illustration by Surian Soosay.
On the internet, nobody knows you’re a baked-goods enthusiast! Illustration by Surian Soosay.

I feel weird about this. I’m not a huge privacy advocate — we don’t have any inherent right to conceal information about ourselves and insignificance is the best protection — but I’m also not a moron, and I recognize that society’s preexisting power systems determine who gets to conceal themselves and who must be open in order to be believed. The main reason I don’t have to worry about demonstrating my genuine legal identity is that I’m not discussing anything controversial, and I’m a middle-class white girl. (Imagine if I wrote about feminism, or video games!) There are risks, but minimal enough that I don’t worry about it.

I’m guess all I’m saying is that structural inequalities are a bummer, and the dynamics of anonymity reveal that. What an exciting and tötally nëw revelation!

There’s more! An update from Samantha herself and my position on it:

Commentary on Samantha Bielefeld coming out as trans.
So much of this is happening and being discussed on Twitter.

The Economics of Writing Online

“Failures in Self-Publishing” just went up on The Digital Reader, so now feels like a good time to post an elaboration on how to actually make money by writing online. (Scroll to the bottom for the other reason I’m putting this up now.)

As a person with many opinions but only moderate hustle, I’ve ended up writing for free a lot. Not just writing for free, but being published for free. I’m okay with that — I have a day job. I also understand supply and demand: personal essays aren’t scarce, so they’re not particularly remunerative. When I have been paid, the check was usually a pittance that amounted to minimum wage (and that’s before self-employment taxes!). I resented this when I was freelancing professionally, but now that I do it as a hobby, I shrug and tell myself, “This is what the market dictates.”

Price, after all — especially average price — is a number synthesized from the desires of the various players in a commercial endeavor. Customers want to pay less and merchants want to charge more. They agree somewhere in the middle, depending on which side has more leverage. Who is willing to walk away? Who is anxious to make a deal? If customers have many other merchants to choose from, the price is low. If merchants face a deluge of eager buyers, the price is high (*cough* iPhone 6s *cough*).

It’s not a new observation that this problem plagues digital media. Readers can easily jump from website to website without sacrificing anything. Publishers, on the other hand, need as many eyeballs as possible and therefore must be flashy and attractive, as well as careful not to alienate their audiences. Most website-owners are stuck in this game, straining to make a couple of advertising cents per reader. You can’t convince people to pay money for a subscription unless you offer unique, high-quality content, which is extremely hard to produce.

Writers have the same relationship to publishers that publishers do to readers — there are plenty of other fish in the sea, so unless you offer something very compelling that can’t be obtained elsewhere, you’re probably shit outta luck. Don’t get me wrong — there is money to be made in writing to entertain a general audience, but not enough for the amount of people who are trying to make a living at it. Incumbent media outlets and winning internet-age startups like Vox Media have flooded this territory.

There are several ways to deal with the evident economics of writing online. One is to be a typical professional from nine to five — in fact, being a smart and prolific blogger will get you a better job and a better salary than you would earn otherwise. It will also bring you surprising opportunities — I landed a copy-writing gig via Twitter recently. Good writing demonstrates key communication and analytical abilities, which are important to every kind of skilled labor. Does having a day job mean that you can’t devote most of your time and intellectual energy to writing? Yes. Such is reality. The other options are to 1) work for peanuts and write thousands of words per day or 2) develop expertise in a particular niche where there is a market for quality.

In closing, I would like to note that I owe a majority of the ideas in this piece to Ben Thompson of Stratechery. I highly recommend his blog and newsletter.

Additional note: I originally wrote this in late September and it was published on Samantha Bielefeld’s blog. I asked her to take it down because of this drama. Summaries of the situation can be found on Building Twenty and Analog Senses. I resent being duped and exploited, and I don’t want my name associated with someone who is essentially a fraudster. If you want to explore the whole brouhaha, you can read everything I’ve said about SB on Twitter (scroll down to September 25th and read upward) as an introduction.

Giving & Receiving Criticism

We need less harshness and more humility.

It is extremely difficult to deliver criticism productively and equally difficult to receive it productively. This is basically because most critiques boil down to “You’re doing something wrong,” which people tend to automatically interpret as “You are bad and I want you to feel bad.” Sometimes the intent is actually to shame, but I believe that most of the time people want to improve the world and their critiques are put forth with a genuine desire for mutual betterment. The problem is execution, on both sides.

I’ve struggled with this personally. It took me at least ten years to realize that hostility and defensiveness were not a good reaction to being criticized, and even longer to stop manifesting defensive hostility despite this epiphany. I haven’t perfectly mastered this — far from it! — but I am much more likely now to react to criticism calmly than I used to be.

The mindset that got me here was a focus on productivity or perhaps constructiveness rather than rightness. Effective communication that furthers your goals is way more satisfying than the fleeting glee of driving home a point. The well-known irony is that an obsession with being right is a sign of intellectual insecurity, whereas openness to changing your opinion is a sign of intellectual strength. It’s healthier to view criticism (assuming it’s delivered with basic respect) as an invitation to collaborate rather than the opening blow of a fight.

Even when a critique is offered unpleasantly, the only two productive reactions are 1) neutral curiosity — e.g. “Can you tell me more about why you say that?” — or 2) complete non-engagement. Far better to ignore someone whose critiques annoy or offend you than to blow up at them. (I know this because I’ve burned bridged by doing the latter! It stinks for everyone!)

Geoff Greer on Twitter: "How to substantially improve Internet discussions: Next to every comment box, have the reminder, 'Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?'"
Geoff Greer on Twitter.

I’ve also gotten a lot better at delivering criticism, thanks to the people who critiqued me right back. It’s an ongoing struggle, because I default to bluntness and I love feeling witty, which is usually not conducive to productive discourse. (I am constantly trying and failing to suppress my desire to mock other people’s ideas or efforts when I perceive them as ill-advised or substandard. Basically all of my deleted tweets can be attributed to gleeful jerkitude and immediate remorse.)

I don’t employ the compliment-sandwich technique (alternately called a “shit sandwich”) but I try to make my positive intentions explicitly clear. Example: “I hope this doesn’t come across as an attack; I am trying to be upfront but I don’t want to hurt you.” I use a lot of massaging words to soften the message. I frame things as questions as much as possible: “Can you help me understand your thinking regarding XYZ? To me it seems ABC, but I’m curious about your strategy and perspective.”

Illustration by Daniel Garrido.
Illustration by Daniel Garrido.

Am I good at this? Not at all. It runs counter to my personality and my natural instincts. But I think it’s worth trying to get better, because communication that feels emotionally safe to all parties is vital to progress of any kind. Working with other people can be incredibly rewarding in terms of both process and outcomes. Humble criticism habits are key! It’s easy to deliver positive feedback well, but delivering negative feedback in a constructive way is also crucial to excellent results and therefore a valuable skill.

My thoughts on this were sparked by the app-pricing debate between Samantha Bielefeld and Marco Arment, which I tweetstormed about this morning.

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