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If ghosting is the sign that a person lacks the will or the ability to hold their end of the social contract, muting implies a fear of abandonment and an absence of emotional hygiene.
I am one of you. Part of the tribe. I do the work. I apply for hundreds of jobs, residencies, grants. I update my resume; a lot of waiting. I get passed over. It's fine. I query agents, for old times' sake, only to find we are asked to specify what our platform is, and what type of media promotion we envision for a product we are yet to deliver in full. Oh you have a podcast. That’s cute. How many downloads per episode? Share data (gender, age, location). I send hundreds of messages hoping one or two will get opened in a month. Emails may get deleted in bulk. Due to the volume of queries … It's become fashionable to warn in advance: no response means no. You're not a good fit. You might be terrible, actually, but don't you dare ask for clarification. (What I wouldn't give for a neutral form rejection. I love those.)
Mind you, it was exactly like that back when I had a face. The ones dealing with sustained silence were my handlers.
Being a known quantity means burning three to eight hours per day in the futile attempt to get strangers to change their mind about you. See? I'm not a monster. I'm not the core reason your life sucks. Maybe sharpen your aim. You smile, you get personal. You look them in the eye. Burden of politeness is on you. (Fun fact: I made zero money. None.) The last manager I had, he straight out whimpered over the phone, we're swamped, when he wasn't tittering out of desperation or taking extravagant family vacations off-season. The fuck you're on a plane for, I went, and what I wanted to say was, you think Death will stop chasing you mid-air. Every workplace was understaffed to the point language itself broke down. Unless a year-long multifaceted coordinated marketing campaign happened around the facts of your body out there, nothing broke the wall of indifference. You drowned. Contracts got breached, options expired. In the words of a manager I did not sign with: you argue with a company over a single talent, there's one less door you can try for someone else in a week.
And yet. For a limited number of seasons I posed for photo shoots, sat for interviews. Why? I checked a number of boxes – younger woman, curious about fame, wants to look good (revenge-good) – and I craved the unspoken promise of annihilation that would come from turning into a piece of media.
By pretending to be a willing participant in the failed commodification of a face/name I thought I was casting the first stone, a preemptive strike of the early Colin Farrell variety – whereas, I went along with any promotional opportunity, no matter how déclassé, because I knew the minute the chatter died down I would leave no trace. Dumb blonde. By allowing significant chunks of my image to be determined by professionals who maintained they knew better, I was auctioning off the rights to my own ability to generate work in a professional manner. Every outing takes a bite right out of your neck. Comes a point you are bleeding out and your publicist barks, why aren't you happy! Behind the curtain you see people go still, glitching. Buffering. If you're being paid MCU money, you might acquire the tools to cope with a lack of personhood. Create a self within the self, no code, uncrackable. You slip the actor face on at the break of dawn; you make a doll, the doll moves around.
I was an accidental starlet. Then I allowed most people to file me under “deceased.” Easier than to keep living. Got a brand new name. There were flesh and blood security issues that couldn't be dealt with, the sort of threats you don't shake once and for all, barring a severe lifestyle change. It's a standard story of the boo hoo cry cry persuasion – no one cares about a woman in danger – and that's not the full reason I went under. That button I pushed when I realized I had never done one single thing I wanted to do. Not one. Just what was offered on a lark or a dare by older, wealthier folks, or whatever scraps were left on the floor to fight for: the kind of disenchanted constant war liable to turn a person into a stab wound.
People who have spent their entire lives in the ghost draft are not sympathetic to invisibility as a choice – they might ask you, what did you really do to embrace self-exile, in lieu of getting nastier and more haggard in real time. The panopticon comes for all.
Ties were severed. Phones were trashed. Outfits I'd worn on camera went in the donation bin. I lived off the grid for twelve months, skipping no anachronism – a nom de plume picked from a street sign, beat that – and I started writing once I was on the way to a full turn into someone else. Made sure [birth name] was not to be found unless I said something, so, of course, midway in, I caught temporary feelings for Daniel, a person who knew more than most.
The crush itself was an out of body experience, fun live wire turned into fear in a minute: I backed away from the screen the first time he called me “Darling.” Mouth burning, face on fire, the twelve year old experience all over again. Oh no. I want to be his girlfriend. What have I done.
Blame me. Daniel being a persistent Reply Guy to the wealthy and infamous, that element I chose to ignore. Daniel being a mutual I’d picked up without the faintest idea as to how, or why, I chalked it up to the pleasant randomness of a pre-social media internet. Daniel being an aspiring writer, now that made our correspondence feel like an enormous deal. We went back and forth: we traded tips; unpublished material, eventually.
He’s still following me. Must have hit the mute button six months ago, maybe sooner – Christmas. If you've been here before, the absence of interaction tells the whole story.
The way I figured, Daniel had blocked me. Fair enough. When I realized that wasn't quite the case – I could see his precious updates, comment on the friends-only posts wheezing past me in high times of political distress – I assumed he had made a clean break, so I stayed in my lane: polite avoidance, pause to revisit the dull pain of a missed shot, asking questions such as what the hell did I see in that guy, is he dating someone – does he ever see what I'm up to now.
And then reality rolled in: of course he doesn't see it.
Daniel hasn't spoken to me for the better part of a year, but I am someone he might want to hear from, if and when he un-mutes my account.
This was new. Striving ex-lovers had the common sense to hit “unfollow” the minute we were done, or, they messed around and I blocked them (once). But getting the silent treatment after you staged your own disappearance? That brings a kick of, you had it coming.
The most common human trait to be found in the right now is the reality of being ignored. Not canceled: just unseen. Getting nowhere unless you scream.
In her essay “Rejection Sensitivity,” Katherine Dee argued that mass interaction and mass rejection are one and the same:
This frequency and volume of interaction, and therefore rejection, is unprecedented in human history. Not everyone is built for this lifestyle. Many of the people who actively seek it out aren’t built for it. When you attend film school they warn you about this: People aren’t designed to be rejected as often as you’ll be as a filmmaker. It’s not just artists now though. It’s everyone, all the time.
What I would argue is that ghosting is contagious – the monster girl video tape from the original Ring – and the humiliation chain baked in the fabric of social interaction pretty much ensures we are living in mass retaliation times.
Here's the bad part: over the past year I did start muting people as well. It got out of hand fast.
What I should have said – so, I wish you no harm but I see little value in receiving updates from someone I share the loosest aspirations with – morphed in a haze of snap judgements, yes/no/next. Annoying as fuck, tweets hundreds of times per day, whiner, obsessed, self-obsessed, everything's a knife fight to them, mentally ill from Amityville, social collapse on main vs. Golden Retriever pictures over DMs, mute, mute, mute. That's some sick behavioral pattern to carry over in one's adulthood: if ghosting is the sign that a person lacks the will or the ability to hold their end of the social contract, muting implies a fear of abandonment and an absence of emotional hygiene at play; if hoarding as an obsessive-compulsive disorder can be tracked to far deeper issues, then digital hoarding might get summed up as, I'd rather have you as a data faucet I can turn any time it's convenient for me.
In the end what broke me about Daniel was, I couldn't cope with being a follower. Part of an overwhelming female audience when I thought there was more to it. To get the tiniest amount of attention from him, I went without much sleep. Ignored the endless flirting with whoever told him he was attractive or talented. Rewarded him with likes, compliments, replies. Observations. Only then he would give it back. Join the line.
A certain strain of unattached straight man does tend to turn every social environment into a full season of The Bachelor you can't recall ever auditioning for. And the processing of a small grief – the reason why you don't mourn lost opportunities in a timely fashion – lies in the unpleasant knowledge that one's gonna be on you too; another box to check on your to-do list, another bullshit task eating up your daylight. When I did get to it, alright process residual pain over tedious Internet crush, go, I was faced with the memory of the times I had minimized my genuine likes and dislikes, whatever I did enjoy doing, in order for Daniel to invest the least amount of labor imaginable in a friendship.
According to research shared last year on The Conversation, digital hoarding is a bad marriage between opportunity and misplacement. Here you have your piles of email saved just in case. Excessive amounts of photographs never to be revisited with purpose.
How about: forgotten bookmarks, archives of purchased or cracked digital goods no one has the time for (Steam sales are notorious for that), thousands of profiles followed on social media: human presence reduced as content, a streaming service you can click out of, anytime.
Then, when you feel fried, stuck in a melted casing you can't leave, you blame connectivity. You blame the way we live today. You blame capitalism. How about: your insecurities, your neediness, your urge to resent.
What should have spared me the embarrassment was the awareness of trash in the Back Before. Magazines, books, DVDs, gaming consoles; the landfill waits for no man, best you can do as a creator is to whistle past that particular graveyard: delude yourself into relevance, dream of a life-altering success around the corner, both. Take a look at any collection of unwanted media, as told by the authors who sift through it for a living.
How are you on social media?, I got asked in a production meet-and-greet of stunning desperation, the unspoken there being, we are so so bad at it, really bad, we are trying to lure some magical-girl talent who will rescue our brand. And the scout who brought me over: she's great, she's amazing. (No I wasn't! I was hot and I could post through a breakup. That was it.) These career-decline meetings tended to happen over rainy days in office rooms with unopened stacks of cardboard boxes and dark metal shelves, bare but for a string of knockoff Transformers, am I about to get scalped in here.
When every part of the social contract is outsourced to you as the talent, and all failure is still placed squarely on the talent, having a platform might become a non-essential nightmare you can't snap out of. Hence, anyone with any professional or romantic aspiration at all might feel forced to Post their way to Doing Numbers they will never do. You are demanded a platform when it's understood watching, following, is a passive action that requires minimal commitment and no monetary exchange. It's a basic act of digital hoarding, point and click. When a project by an influencer doesn't play as well as expected, we get to read the New York Times postmortem. Oh-oh, what happened here? Billie Eilish fans didn't buy a coffee table picture book featuring the musician. Who could have predicted it?
Over the summer an American social media personality had a believable mental breakdown as she was filming in her house. The incident created such an echo someone did alert the authorities, eventually – we're talking hundreds of screaming TikToks in the span of a few hours – but the shadow of a doubt lingered: what if that girl was acting out in order to gin up traffic for some project? Her overall effect could be described as “polarizing”, she had amassed a number of anti-fans – people who keep tabs on a public person out of irritation and sheer spite. What if all she wanted was eyeballs?
Sure, nobody admires the person shouting in a video – but, what if you're left with nothing if you don't scream. What if that melted, angry boor is the ghost of Christmas Future. The ubiquitous Car Rant format, your destiny.
I don't get recognized. Amazing what you can accomplish once you stop getting your face out there. It's been a while, I grew my hair out, gained weight – all the fun, performative, cost-effective stunts one would pull in order to get their film noir on. I don't show up anywhere my skin-ware could make anyone blink twice – no bookstore, no arthouse theater – and I seem to have turned invisible everywhere else. Railway stations, bus stops, E.R. waiting rooms. A small flicker of recognition thrilled me at the start – have you been here before? / nope / oh, I must have seen you somewhere / you sure did!, now get out of here before the bartender reaches for a follow-up question, we're on thin ice as it is, go go go.
On the single occasion I got spotted, I pretended I was not there. I froze. Averted eyes. Moved past it. I'd be surprised if the spotter waited until the end of his lunch date to blab about it in some group chat of the damned.
I don't miss it – any of it. This is by far the most interesting endeavor, the one reliable life I've known since I was seven, and that's being generous, so no, I don't miss being a commodity whose value is established by others' perception in a mutable game of slip and slide. Barbara's gonna be fine.