Asking You to Read This Is Almost as Humiliating as No One Reading It

The degradation that comes with promoting your work online.

ILLUSTRATION Yolande Mutale

In Soho, an editor takes a meeting with a 19-year-old. The teen pays for his coffee and leads him to a table before whipping out a notebook – not composition, something slicker from BLICK – to pitch potential collabs with the myriad of companies she represents. After thirty minutes of good ideas, Terra says, “Let’s talk budget.” 

Sociologists (my friends at parties) seem to agree that Zoomers are built differently than their millennial counterparts. Consider Terra, who took a gap year to host a VICE Instagram-TV show, run popular Instagram accounts and perfect her email etiquette. A success before she can legally drink, she’s a terrifying spectacle of competentness. Her future, of which she has many, many years, is brighter in part to her willingness to advertise herself online. A monetary and generational imperative that clearly pays off. Meanwhile, people in their late twenties previously understood social media to only result in cash if you leveraged your digital popularity to gain access to a more respectful field, like reality TV. That careers live and die by the feed is now accepted fact. But it doesn’t make playing the game easier to stomach. 

“It’s like throwing shit at a wall and being embarrassed that no one watches it slide down,” a friend, clearly a writer, says of advertising his newsletter on Twitter and Instagram.

“It’s like throwing shit at a wall and being embarrassed that no one watches it slide down,” a friend, clearly a writer, says of advertising his newsletter on Twitter and Instagram. In this capacity, Gen Z has a clearer understanding of this new world, where how you brand yourself online is how you’re perceived off of it. 

“This is Jake, he’s a great writer,” a promoter at House of Yes introduces me, “his captions are so funny.” Chilling.

Many artists I know delete their own advertisements after the fact, like drunken shitposts. The rock star is cool, the publicist is not—some truths are self-evident. This is to say that sharing your work online, to imply it’s something worth being enjoyed, is humiliating. However, the kids are not as allergic to virtual earnestness, take Lil Nas X who fashioned himself a pop star on TikTok before making it an IRL reality. Riding a wave of cowboy-related memes, the barely legal rapper’s single took off in tandem with the Yeehaw video challenge, a mounting obsession that art should follow or precede an experience. Worse, when marketers employ promotion tactics on everyman apps, a shaky conclusion is drawn that viral success can be achieved without corporate intervention. Questionable as the algorithms which dictate attention are designed by… corporations. 

Lesser-known artists my age usually cringe at these online antics, preferring the comfort of failing in private. “He spends forever considering how to post his art,” whispers an artist’s ex, “knowing the effort that goes into it takes something away from the work.” A fate worse than not making rent, getting clocked for trying too hard. 

“Is this cool?” A designer in her thirties asks, unaware that photoshopped borders on Instagram are out. Something we all apparently know now. 

“Culture has generally been flattened almost exclusively to newsfeeds,” a culture magazine editor tells me, “people wait until someone has been legitimized enough to finally feature them.” Confirming what we’ve maybe always known, that audience fishing is part of the artist’s job. 

A band asks their followers to pre-save their new single on Spotify. Doing so will better their standing algorithmically, making the track more likely to reach non-fans, the streaming giant alleges. Across town, a booker is making similar promises. “These guys have mad followers on Instagram,” he assures the bar, “you’re gonna make a killing.” Come midnight the venue is half capacity and label reps aren’t tipping on their drink tickets. 

Over tequila, four generational cuspers agree that while hating capitalism has never been less radical, young people have never been more consumerist.

Over tequila, four generational cuspers agree that while hating capitalism has never been less radical, young people have never been more consumerist. Which is maybe why we talk about algorithms like we understand them, naively thinking that we recognize the interests of the user platforms that crowd our lives. Social media and venture capital fucked the magazine industry, so naturally writers’ salvation lies with Substack—another third party further monopolizing viewership. As though the systemic devaluing of art is a problem that can be solved by consumers… fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, get 700 words from Roxane Gay on the “Trump years.” (For $5 a month.)

I warn anyone who will listen that social media is changing the way art is being made. That filtering our work through digital dynamics which prioritize aesthetic and sole perspective weakens it. But I’m unemployed, so I just sound bitter. And it’s partly true that I’m jealous of how shamelessly the kids market themselves.

A 17 year-old painter posts a video documenting the creation process of a recent painting, overdubbing the visuals with audio describing her tumultuous relationship with her mother. “My mom never wanted children,” she tells scrollers, implying their rift is the inspiration behind the artwork, “she’s the reason I used to cry myself to sleep and hyperventilate in school bathrooms.” Is it possible to chase clout without knowing you are doing it? “You’ve always been cynical,” an employed friend reminds me. 

Everyone in New York who’s old enough to remember landlines has a level of pride that’s disproportionate to how successful they are. Several artists I respect rarely post about their careers. But that 17 year-old is selling paintings. So maybe we should find a different hill to starve on. 

My phone pings. It’s a CNN push notification reading,  “Boko Haram kidnapped his daughter. Seven years later he gets a call. ‘Is this my daddy?’” That settles it, tastefulness is out. 

<strong>Jacob Seferian</strong>
Jacob Seferian

Jacob Seferian is a writer and editor living in New York City.
His work has appeared in over 13 magazines and he’s currently developing a comic about bad sex. 

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The Art of Corporate Compromise
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