Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

You should write about yourself more

Or: why I write personal blog posts, why it’s okay, and why you shouldn’t care about your “personal brand”.

Recently, I was having dinner with friends and after Melinda told me about a press junket she’d been invited on as a result of her blog, I joked and said something like: “So, you get mobile phones, movie premieres and tickets to the BAFTAs while all I get is teenage geeks emailing me to tell me they are struggling to come out to their parents or are thinking about not going to university because it is too expensive.”

Both of these are true. Last year, I had a guy email me saying that he had been inspired by my rather public coming out rant to come out to his parents at 19, and told me that he found it tremendously difficult to be openly gay in the geek/tech community: he signed off by saying “thank you so much, you have helped me immensely without even knowing it”. I had another person contact me via Facebook and tell me that my writing had inspired him to make an active choice to not go to university despite the usual societal expectations that at his age, this is what one does.

For the last few years, this blog in its various guises has become a lot less about technology, social software (sorry, now we call it social media), and all that fun stuff, and much more of a reflective space. Why write about this stuff? Partly, it’s because when I get emails such as the ones I’ve described, it is wonderful. When I got the coming out email, I was pretty much elated for about a week. Because that is pretty damn awesome.

Why write about this in public? People keep warning me about writing about my “private” life in public. They tell me that I have far more readers and influence than I give myself credit for. This is probably true.

Firstly, I don’t think I write about my private life. The things I write about are things I consider public: by definition, if I am publishing them, they are things I’m happy to share. The things that are private are the things I don’t write about. And there are plenty of them. I don’t write about the actions of members of my family or my friends or colleagues at work. While I write about sexuality, I don’t write about the actual act of having sex. What I do write about are the feelings I have, the way I relate to the world and think about the world, the attitude I have to the world I find myself in. All of the supposedly non-personal things that people write about are in some form reflections of that: whether it is technology or fashion or art or music, they are writing about the relation between the world, their experience of it, and the process of deciding how you live.

So, why write about it? Because life is an experiment. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of being a good scientific experiment mostly due to the lack of repeatability, a control group or double blinding, but we do experiment with how we live, and we try to learn from those experiments. Writing is a very direct way to tap into our feelings and lay them down for future reference. Writing is human science. I write because I want to mark a feeling in time, store it in an index for future reference and comparison. Why publish then? The science analogy works here too: because publishing allows us to share our results and replicate our experiments. Without publication, science wouldn’t progress, because sharing results is what allows people to step forward and try more expermients.

Ah, my Socratic troll might respond: isn’t that really self-indulgent and wanky? Only if you make it so. I think that so long as you honestly try and reflect your experience and thoughts in a truthful and thoughtful way, you are morally blameless. I’ve read blog posts from people I follow who have discussed some of the deepest and darkest moments in their life: suicide, mental illness, death and loss, the gnawing sense of pointlessness that they feel at work… whatever. Being emotionally honest and writing with the intention of sharing the feelings you have with others so they can benefit from your experience—that’s never morally blameworthy in my view.

The next objection arises very easily: that by writing about your personal life, you are presuming that you and/or your personal observations are worth sharing. You aren’t a unique snowflake, darling, so don’t get ideas above your station. This is true. I don’t write because I want you to emulate me, or think that I have some great moral truths to teach. I certainly am not special or amazing: I’m not suggesting that I’m a particularly interesting person that by dint of achievement or social position has something worth saying. The point of the personal posts I write isn’t that they are dependent on fame or celebrity or achievement: we all feel fear or alientation, joy or euphoria, fiddly social awkwardness, uncaged anger and rage, and love and friendship and solidarity and wonder too. To write about yourself is not to suggest that you have anything special or unique beyond a human life. That common inheritance, that social, human song passed down to us, and how we decide which bits to play to the score and which bits we choose to improvise and freestyle over. That’s why personal writing is interesting: because the readers are people too.

But what about the social consequences of writing about one’s life and experiences? What about your privacy? What about your personal brand? As I’ve said, privacy is a choice we make. So long as you make your privacy choices on the basis of informed consent, and you think about why you are making those choices, that’s all good and fine in my book. Privacy is a choice we should have, but so should public disclosure. It’s like sex: you may want to be abstinent, but you haven’t got a right to go around acting like an offended schoolmarm when you find out that other people not only are having sex but quite enjoy it. You want your privacy? Okay. Have at it. I’ll go with public honesty precisely because the benefits to doing so have been so much greater than the costs. If your idea of privacy is that if I tell you something in confidence, you don’t go blabbing it to everyone, good. If your idea of privacy is that I’m not allowed to talk about my personal life or my feelings because I then risk my own sacrosanct privacy which must be socially enforced on me by others, please go swivel on a giant phallic razor blade.

As for one’s “personal brand”? Puh-lease. The concept of such a thing is so toxic to human honesty as to make me want to kick a small child. The reason we’ve only now seen one professional sportsman in the United States come out of the closet as gay is precisely because of “personal brand”. We’re all too horrified about offending some hypothetical future employer with our opinions or even our very own lives that we hide away from telling anyone anything. Sorry, but I’m with the kids on this: YOLO. Lives are short, closets are bad, crippling fear is toxic. If your personal brand demands that you live your life in fear of disclosing important parts of your life or your experience, the answer is to reject the whole sodding concept of personal brands.

Do things I write about my personal life threaten my personal brand? Perhaps. Are there people who wouldn’t hire me based on things I write? Probably. Do I give even a whiff of a fuck? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t want to work for them anyway. I’m a programmer, right? What do people who employ programmers want? Logic, hard work, empathy and honesty. If they are smart, they’ll realise that the sort of Socratic self-examination that writing about yourself encourages contains all of those things in abundance: instead of just tumbling along based on social expectations, by trying to think and write about yourself, you are trying to build a life based on reasoned examination of your desires, intentions, values and actions. That’s hard work, that requires honesty and it builds empathy. If you’ve sat down and written an essay where the underlying message is “I made this enormous fuck up in my life for n years, here’s why I did that, here’s what I’ve learned from it” (and I’ve written a few of those), you learn a little bit more about empathy. You are empathising with your earlier self, trying to understand the motivations that drive you then and the motivations that drive you now, and how you went from one to the other. If you are writing software, you ultimately have to have a grasp on the human condition (because humans use software): and the whole point of examining yourself is to try and develop that skill.

It’s a bit like the whole thing with pictures of people drinking or enjoying themselves. People seem to live in this strange mortal fear that their employer might find a picture of them drinking in a bar. As if that’s some great signifier of moral failure. I don’t get it. Confession time: I spent Saturday night drinking vodka in Soho and ended up dancing like an awkward geek in a tacky gay bar with go-go boys. Does this make me some kind of ghastly terrible person? No. I was enjoying myself after a long and tiring week at work. I was embracing a bit of hedonistic Dionysian oblivion after long days of having to solve technical problems. Which bit exactly threatens my “personal brand”? Was it the vodka, the awkward dancing or the go-go boys? I don’t know, but the thought that my employer might find out that I enjoyed myself is such a terrible thing that I must not write about it, apparently.

Crikey. We used to have priests and Puritans who would give us threats of hell and damnation to tell us to not have fun. Now we have social media consultants with the always present threat of damaging our personal brands. Fuck. That. Shit.

I watched a documentary recently about the Hutterites, a Christian movement in North America numbering about 50,000 people. They live communally and simply, rather like the Amish. Their whole lives are planned out: communal schooling, working on the communal farm, eating and worshipping communally, having to get the permission of the village elders for absolutely everything. And, of course, it is completely segregated and patriarchal: the men make the decisions, the women mop the floors. The whole thing is repulsive to me: no freedom to experiment in your life, no learning, no creativity, no individuality, just “simplicity”. In such a society, self-examination would be pointless because there would be no way to change, except perhaps by leaving. At the end of the film, we see Kelly Hofer—who made these beautiful photographs escape from the colony, cycling to freedom with the assistance of his sister. He had made the decision to become the author of his own life rather following the traditions of the elders.

That’s why you should write about yourself: because you are literally writing your own life by doing so. You should write about yourself because by doing so, you’ll make yourself more satisfied in life by finding out where you are failing to live in the way you want to live. Of course, happiness and freedom might be against your personal brand.