Confessions of a Reformed Participant Observer

The sweet selfishness of living life, not farming #content and inspiration

It has been a long time since I’ve written anything for Love Make Share, and that started out as an accident. I had all this content planned, a schedule, and then things slipped. Work got busy, our baby got a little older and needed more intensive attention, and new diagnoses in the family meant a nonstop carousel of appointments, research, and work. (We’re all fine and figuring things out.)

I made a couple of videos, I posted a handful of things to Instagram, but the sweeping personal essays stopped. The thoughtful reflections on making and parenting kind of ceased. I was too in it to step back from it, as it were.

Eventually, things started to stabilize a little, and I started being able to breathe and reflect again. But the posting didn’t resume. Not in the same way. I’m not posting food and projects to Instagram with the frequency I was before. I’m not writing essays here. I’m not posting videos to YouTube, other than the occasional experiment with Shorts and a short live-recorded Fusion 360 project.

Here’s the thing: I love making content. But more than that, recently, I have loved just being.

There’s a research term I think about a lot, which is the participant observer.

Someone who enters a group under analysis as a member while simultaneously acting as a scientific viewer of the procedures and anatomy of the group.

“The participant observer must remain discrete for the sake of the experiment’s validity.”

What is PARTICIPANT OBSERVER? definition of PARTICIPANT OBSERVER (Psychology Dictionary)

This applies to creative people, I think. We enter spaces or situations, ostensibly to participate in what’s happening (e.g. events, family gatherings, time with friends, watching movies, etc.) and instead of switching off to be present, we switch on to gather data, to acquire raw material to transform into new work. And we hide it, oh how we try to hide it, because the last thing we want to communicate to the people we love is that we’re mining an experience that should be intimate and shared for ores and gems to forge into something new.

It’s exhausting, frankly. It’s even more exhausting to force yourself to not be the participant observer, when it so often feels like your default mode.

It is, of course, exacerbated by social media, by the desire to build a creator platform, the pressure to produce #content from every aspect of your life.

I maintained a fairly regular “content” schedule on Instagram for most of the first year of the pandemic. I documented a lot of the things that brought us joy – our new baby, experimenting with new recipes… And then, at some point, my frequency of posting fell off a cliff.

Instead of documenting and sharing everything, I documented it… and I kept it for myself.

At some point, I simply didn’t have the emotional energy to offer up my life for consumption, and so I didn’t. And much faster than I expected, the needling desire to constantly share fell away.

Falling out of habits has always been a superpower of mine, but I think this is the first time I’ve used that power for good.

I’ve been on social media for something like 17 years at time of writing, and this may be the first time I’ve felt like it doesn’t demand that my life be its raw material. I’ve been spending more time on Twitter lately, time spent in conversation and in sharing thoughts rather than sharing myself. I spend time on Facebook, but not on the newsfeed – I’m spending that time in groups, sharing projects and taking to people about that we’re making. I am more private, I share less stuff less widely, and what I do share is entirely of my own volition, rather than what I think people want me to share. It’s been liberating.

Not looking at things through the lens of “how do I turn this into something new” but rather “how do I capture this moment” has been equally liberating. It’s about building memories and relationships, not brand or product.

The noisiness of existence as a participant observer has never been quieter. That quiet, in a world that has been deafeningly loud for a very long time, is very welcome.

I will, in due time, figure out how to balance those three forces of Love Make Share that make up my mission statement here. For now, though, it’s been heavy on the love, and I can’t say I think that’s wrong.

As always, folks, paddle your own canoe.


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