Hello dear Realists,
It's been a long time since my last message. I owe you an update.
An important note first: everything is fine with me, do not be alarmed by the title of this post. The adversities I evoked have to do with chaos rocking a social media platform… and not having internet at home for 6 weeks. Inconsequential stuff when it comes to the Big Picture. I’m good, more than good, and happy to resume this newsletter.
I owe you an update AND an apology. You know when you are supposed to do something but you keep pushing it off? And then you feel terrible because it's been too long and you feel a tinge of embarrassment you haven't been able to do the thing? This is precisely how I've been feeling. Sorry for the lack of updates.
Things have been busy over the past few months. I started writing a series of children’s books that champion representation, I’ve resumed photography and freelance editing work, I’ve been exploring setting up a non-profit… but I haven’t forgotten about The Realists. I’ve been researching topics, as I still feel it’s hard to resume work on a documentary right now, when there are so many moving parts and momentous changes rocking the world of technology. All this to say: I’ve been quiet but I haven’t been idle. I have simply taken a step back to look at the macro picture and do some reflection.
Real life events and work on The Realists have been overlapping and I would like to share with you a recap of what I have been up to at Realists HQ:
I was an “ultra-Realist” throughout the month of August. Yes, I just made up that term! What I mean is, I was offline, fully present in the world, in childcare (well, mom) mode, while my child’s nanny was on holiday. I spent time with family IRL and many hours on the phone with friends in far off places, while the little one napped. When she was awake we read books and went on adventures. It felt like being in another era. It felt good.
Upon our return to Paris, my husband and I discovered our internet box had been vandalized. Someone cut the cables, in the back staircase of our building. So after a month of semi-voluntary offline life, I was plunged into a forced offline mode at home. For SIX weeks. It wasn’t fun. But it was an opportunity to re-evaluate my stance on all things digital, re-appreciating devices and platforms that I had looked at with an excessively critical eye.
This forced offline mode was a reminder that the internet is something truly magical and I am blessed to live in this day and age, with fiber internet and the world’s knowledge at my fingertips.
I read Dr. Susan Linn’s superb book Who’s Raising the Kids?: Big Tech, Big Business, and the Lives of Children.
I am raising my toddler following the same philosophy outlined in this book (encouraging no screen time, aside from FaceTime calls with grandparents who are far away).
The book provided a lot of food for thought. I am planning to cover it in a future post and hopefully interview Dr. Linn for this newsletter and in the Realists documentary (I had interviewed her in my documentary The Illusionists - she even recommended my film at the end of her book!)
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter sent shockwaves through my digital world. It felt like witnessing the emperor Nero setting Rome on fire, destroying most of it.
It’s difficult to put into words what Twitter has meant to me over the years. I’ll do my best. Despite its reputation for a hostile environment, Twitter to me felt like a safe space, where I found my tribe. Many of my dearest friends are people I initially connected with on Twitter. I have also been noticed and offered great job opportunities (video campaigns for Lottie Dolls, video interviews for Italy’s number one newspaper) and speaking gigs thanks to Twitter. I discuss all this in Kelly Hoey’s terrific book Build Your Dream Network. I befriended several Twitter employees over the years and I was even invited to Twitter HQ in San Francisco twice. I did a screening of my documentary The Illusionists there, for Twitter’s employees. The reason why I am mentioning all this is not to humble brag, but to explain how devastating the Musk takeover has been.
This November, I spent days building and organizing a database in the app Notion, listing people I follow on Twitter and how I can stay in touch with them elsewhere.
I signed up for Mastodon.
And then the unthinkable happened.
I reactivated my Instagram account after 3-4 years of being off of it. Yes, I know. I KNOW. I have spoken very harshly about Facebook/Meta/Mr. Zuckerberg and my opinions have not changed. I just need to be able to carry on digital relationships with people in my life who are no longer using Twitter.
I installed Instagram on a burner phone. I have a private account. I’m on it for 10 minutes a day tops. I’m not planning to grow an audience; I just need to be on a platform where my friends are, so I can comment on their posts, send them encouraging words and maintain a connection when so many loved ones are abroad. But yeah, I’m the first one to be shocked about this. It will definitely be the subject of a future post.
The demise of Twitter - or its new chaotic chapter, if you prefer - has reminded me of one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received.
Years ago, when I experienced a surprising devastating event, my dad suggested that I see it as an opportunity. For change. Sometimes we are forced into it, aren’t we? How do we adapt? And thrive?
When it comes to the chaos at Twitter, let me tell you, the Notion database that lists the most important online connections I built over 14 years feels EMPOWERING. Having that kind of knowledge, neatly organized in a database, with the names of people I would like to stay in touch with going forward feels… indispensable. It’s like I’m taking back power from big platforms and carrying with me this essential list of people I know, admire, and look up to. (Being reminded that Brené Brown follows The Illusionists made my week).
How odd is it that it’s hard to port that kind of information from one platform over to another? Shouldn’t there be an open-source, centralized tool that allows people to stay in touch with others, regardless of the network they are on? Isn’t the point of social media to connect people? Why can’t I export a .CSV file with the list of Twitter people I follow?
Thing is, this is precisely the Big Illusion concocted by “social media” platforms. Of course Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & al. don’t offer such a tool. It’s in their vested interest to keep people’s eyeballs on their OWN feeds, for as long as possible, so that users will see ads and these platforms will make money.
Another part of the Big Illusion is making people believe that leaving a platform will make one person cut and irretrievably lose their connections to their contacts. So, back to eyeballs on feeds, with algorithms attempting to make the experience last as long as possible, to maximize the number of ads one sees.
I was initially reluctant to sign on to Mastodon, as the learning curve for it felt steep and I didn’t know anyone on it… But then someone created Fedifinder, a tool that scans the list of people you follow on Twitter, in an attempt to find their handles on Mastodon.
Mastodon has several advantages over traditional social media sites. According to the EFF:
Mastodon makes it very easy to save your online life, so even if the instance you’re on today is bought by a bored billionaire, you can easily upload most of your account info to a new instance. If you’re planning ahead you can also port your followers to your new home by having your old account point to the new one.
All this to say, even if I have mostly been lurking on Mastodon, you can find me here: https://mastodon.social/@_elena
Coming up next week on The Realists: I will share with you how I keep track of social life (IRL, far off friends and digital contacts) using Notion.
I hope you have been well and please share your thoughts and feedback in the comments.