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In a social media age, when is it best to keep quiet?

A luna moth, image courtesy Wikipedia

In the New York Times, author Akiko Busch writes of the concept of invisibility, reticence and camouflage in both the human and broader natural world. By and large, invisibility is seen as something negative, tantamount to social alienation. Busch writes, “If we don’t get the interest, attention and recognition we think we deserve — whether we are men who have retired, women of a certain age (over 50, like me) or millennials who obsess over their brand visibility — we tend to file grievances.” Or, you know, if you keep and professional remove and don’t post wildly about your personal goings-on on social media.

But when is invisibility a positive thing–or further, even strategic? Busch writes about what we can learn from camouflage in the wild:

“…becoming invisible, whether it is in color or behavior, is not the equivalent of being nonexistent, a lesson the human species seems to resist. It is not about denying creative individualism nor about relinquishing any of the qualities that may make us unique, original, singular. Rather, it can be a condition of insight and endurance, a position of strength and power, a matter of knowing how and where we can be best accommodated by the exterior world…Invisibility can be about finding a sense of fit with the immediate landscape, be it social, cultural or environmental. It can be about adaptability and the recognition that assertiveness may not always be in our best interest. Most of all, it can reflect a sense of vigilance, a sensitivity to and respect for external conditions.”

In part, this text reminds me of Hito Steyerl’s video “How To Disappear: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File” (2013), which in part covers the advantages of disappearance in a surveillance state (and the invisibility of being a woman over 50). You can watch an excerpt of the video here.

What are the advantages of invisibility and quietness? Given that art world darlings are now frequently also savvy social media users, what is the fate of the quiet, reserved artist? What about artists that don’t fit into this quiet / rancorous dichotomy? I also can’t help but feel like these issues are heavily gendered, and that our non-quiet counterparts tend to “burn out” faster. Think Moyra Davey compared to Banks Violette.

A corollary point to consider, as well, is the economic dimension of “keeping quiet.” John Herrman of The Awl has written extensively on the subject of “platforms” and the “content economy,” most recently here. The point of relevance for artists is that social media isn’t really much more than a form of advertising imbued with a slightly greater sense of autonomy. So while “disappearance” creates PR risk in the current environment, it should also be understood as the default mode. (Have we gotten to the point where participating in social media is no longer a matter of opting in?)

The other things is that participating in social media, rather than contributing to a publication and having conversations there, or going to a live event, significantly reconfigures who owns what tranches of discourse. Herrman gets to this in the piece linked above:

If in five years I’m just watching NFL-endorsed ESPN clips through a syndication deal with a messaging app, and Vice is just an age-skewed Viacom with better audience data, and I’m looking up the same trivia on Genius instead of Wikipedia, and “publications” are just content agencies that solve temporary optimization issues for much larger platforms, what will have been point of the last twenty years of creating things for the web?

Or, stated differently, do the structural costs of the social web outweigh its benefits? Further, isn’t this at a very basic level a matter of labor expectations and forms of economic assimilation for artists? And, finally, why do we equate social media with volume/loudness/extroversion, given that the burdens of producing a single Tweet are minimal compared to other forms of reactive expression, like a letter to the editor?

NB: I get that Herrman is talking about how “platforms” reconfigure the economic realities for publications, not individuals, but what he’s referring to is publications tailoring their work for distribution on the social web, such that eyeballs/advertising dollars eventually fall under the indelible control of external entities. So the broader phenomenon at play is the same.