Another Week Ends

Click-Bait Documentaries, Personal Brands, Clown Club Confessions, and Email Anxiety

Cali Yee / 2.3.23

1. As anyone in marketing will tell you, a product’s branding is almost as important as the product itself. Branding tells the story of your company, furthering its mission and vision while creating an audience or customer-base. If it’s done well, branding is also aesthetically pleasing and fresh. But with the rise of social media and more specifically, influencers and celebrities, branding has taken a different meaning. It is no longer just for companies or organizations, it’s for you too. Tish Harrison Warren writes about the allurements of the “personal brand” in her essay for the New York Times:

In a recent Times article, the reporter Emma Goldberg wrote about how the rise of social media and influencer power has made it such that young people, in particular, find their livelihood, success and sense of self inextricably entwined with an online presentation. She wrote, “With personal branding, the line between who people are and what they do disappears. Everything is content.” A strange, exhausting new twist in being human is that each day, each of us must decide how much of ourselves, our family life, thoughts, work, photos and feelings we will share with strangers online. Goldberg quoted Tom Peters, a marketing writer, who explained that, we are each “head marketer for the brand called You.”

To reduce ourselves to brands, however, is to do violence to our personhood. We turn ourselves into products, content to be evaluated instead of people to be truly known and loved. We convert the stuff of our lives into currency.

This new way of interacting with the world is driving institutional dysfunction, personal anxiety and the hollowing out of ourselves. In this morass, religious faith ought to have something to offer. Though the Gospel that Christians proclaim has never needed to be put in quite these terms, increasingly part of the good news that churches must offer people is: I am not a brand; you are not a brand; we are not a brand.

The idea of creating a personal brand feels completely overwhelming to me. Not to mention that an individual’s likability is like a ticking time bomb in an internet world that is quick to judge, accost, and reprimand. Just a single sentence in a 30-second TikTok video is enough to be scrutinized and cancelled by viewers, followers, and supposed “fans.” Taylor Swift fans (who are also fans of Lizzy McAlpine) were outraged when Lizzy McAlpine announced she would be going on tour with Swift’s controversial ex-boyfriend, John Mayer. A day after hundreds of hate comments and videos called for her to quit the tour and take accountability, McAlpine stated that she would no longer be touring with John Mayer due to “scheduling conflicts.” In a chronically online society, it seems that no one is safe from the people who threaten the “personal brand.”

At least when it comes to Jesus, the personal brand does not exist. Online haters and cancel culture cannot stand against the gospel that proclaims that it is not our righteousness (or lack thereof), but the righteousness of Jesus, which defines us. When it comes to God, we are not content to be sold or advertised to the world — we are precious, human-beings to be loved and chosen.

2. Has anyone watched the Harry and Meghan documentary series? I haven’t yet, and I’m sure it’s compelling, but I miss the age of documentaries like Virunga, a heart-wrenching true story about rangers who risk their lives to save the beloved endangered gorillas in Africa. Or The Square, a documentary that informed me about the Egyptian crisis in 2013 at Tahrir Square. These were the Academy Award-nominated documentaries nine or so years ago, at the end of what filmmakers consider the golden age of documentaries. What about the documentaries nowadays? Reeves Wiedeman took a dive into the world of documentaries for Vulture:

A genre that had always existed in part to inform and enlighten was now primarily a commercial product. That meant documentarians had more work, which was nice, but the projects often came with shorter deadlines and notes from streamers pushing directors to juice opening sequences with a little extra tension, as if these were spy thrillers that could be punched up rather than representations of real life. A decade after journalism suffered through its own period of disruption, its onscreen cousin entered a kind of clickbait era of its own: Make it fast, see what works, repeat.

All this has left the documentary world suffering an identity crisis. What even is a documentary anymore? There is more money than ever, but it has come with expectations that didn’t exist when the industry was closer in ethics and taste to public broadcasting than to Hollywood. The people agreeing to tell their stories are now asking for control, or cash, leaving documentarians navigating a sense of responsibility (or fealty) toward their subjects; the demands of the algorithm; and their desire to make great work. For the audience, it has become almost impossible to sort works of art or journalism from glorified reality TV or public-relations exercises.

As much as I don’t want to admit it, I am guilty of watching certain true crime documentaries for their shock appeal. I also give in to clickbait. The little computers in our pockets that give us access to entertainment at any moment have made us susceptible to boredom and craving more and more content to capture our ever-changing attention. So it isn’t surprising that documentaries have turned to click-bait tendencies and given into the demands of the attention economy, even if it means making films that don’t tell you the whole true story.

3. Next is a form of confession that I’ve never heard of before. It called “clearing” and it’s what writer Kuang Lee discovered for the first time at the Clown Palace in downtown LA. Lee stumbled upon the comedy club after he got fired from his job and his manager gave him a ticket to their comedy class:

“Sit over here. We’re clearing now.”


“Just sit, Kuang.” […]

One woman got up and simply shouted hoarsely into the mic for a minute, with no actual jokes. Or words. There were some funny folks who got up onstage, but Cash shouted out to them, “You don’t need to be funny! This is just clearing!”

For the next couple of hours, I got to understand what “clearing” was. It was getting onstage and just getting shit off of your chest. As the class cleared, I witnessed the greatest assortment of weirdos I’ve ever encountered. Hollywood burnouts, fringe folks, individuals with serious mental health problems. They were all here at the Clown Palace.

Then Cash himself went up to clear. He told us about how he self-destructed a promising comedy career to end up here, teaching comedy at the Clown Palace. “Here, I’m among my people, my fellow clowns.” Cash smiled wildly, pointing to the eerie jester statues and paintings throughout his studio. “There’s Jack, Devon, and Ulysses. They’re way better company than club promoters or industry people. They don’t talk!” 

Oftentimes, it’s our fear of what others might say that holds us back from confessing the weird ish that goes on in our heads or the embarrassing moments that we need to get off our chest. As Jane Grizzle noted in her Orlando talk, what people really need is to be heard with empathy. The beautiful thing about (good) confession is that no one talks back, unless it’s to offer absolution and forgiveness. Or, in the Crown Palace’s case, to laugh along with you — which is a weird form of absolution in its own right.

4. For some kicks and giggles, here’s some humor we found this week. First up, from Reductress, “This Woman Spent Her Entire Workday Re-Reading an Email She Already Sent“:

“I always like to switch it up a little, you know, to make the email a little more inviting. For this one, it was a tough decision between ‘I hope you had a good weekend!’ or ‘I hope you’re doing well!’ I went with the latter, but it was nice to go back-and-forth even after sending it to confirm I made the right decision.” […]

Reporters also later caught up with the recipient of Marisol’s email, Michael Kang, who admitted he just scanned it for the time and place of the meeting and did not read any of the actual words.

Also in humor, McSweeney’s amazing jab at comparative righteousness: “Two People Who Don’t Have Cable TV Talk About How They Don’t Have Cable TV and How Great That Makes Them” and News Thump’s Company Committed to the Appearance of Being Committed to Mental Health.”

The following New Yorker cartoon may or may not be an actual sentence I’ve muttered to my exercise-loving sister:

5. A recent Ringer interview between Oliver Burkeman and Derek Thompson discussed “The Dark Side of Being Obsessed With Productivity.” I know we’ve written a lot about Burkeman’s new book on the site, but this interview touches on something fresh:

Burkeman: We find ourselves in the situation of knowing on some level that our time is limited, that it’s going to run out, not knowing when it’s going to run out, having the capacity to relate to time as if it were some resource that we had and could make the most of and could save or use well or waste. And yet at the same time, that’s not really the nature of our situation with respect to time, because you can’t actually do anything other than be in this one moment. So I think a lot of our — you talk about regret, and that’s a really good example. I think a lot about anxiety, maybe because that’s been my particular screw-up in life. It’s the desire in some ways to get a kind of reassurance from the future or about the future of your life that you can never, ever actually have because you’re just here and we’re always just here.” […]

Thompson: I’ve never made this connection before, but the way that you described anxiety seems so similar, that it’s our dissatisfaction in being able to answer questions about our future that makes anxiety so sticky. So you end up replaying that anxiety as if on a loop because the song by definition of our anxiety cannot be finished. There is no satisfaction in worrying about the future because the future will never actually arrive and answer the questions that we have about it in the moment. “Will I get into this college?” Well, you don’t know at that moment. “Will this person marry me? Will I make enough money next year?” Those questions will only be answered in the future to come. And so you earworm about it in the present because of your dissatisfaction.

Along similar lines, Erin Carpenter recently wrote for Mbird a letter to her younger self. She reflected, “So we’ve gone through life, you comparing yourself to me, and I to you. We are wasting years of precious living by looking forward and back. Let’s stop chasing the newer, shinier versions of us.” It seems that we are never satisfied with who we were in the past and never content with not knowing who we will be in the future. The hope is that we have a God in the midst of our anxiety, who is with us in our past, present, and future (whatever it may be).

6. Last, but not least, is Arthur Brooks’ recent piece from the Atlantic on the link between workaholism and mental health. It appears that binging Netflix, scrolling the internet, and shopping online aren’t the only things that we use to numb our pain. Workaholism is something that many people may be experiencing, even if they don’t know it. And unfortunately, our efficiency and achievement driven society may not see the issue or impact of workaholism as it’s often rewarded with a promotion or increased pay.

People who struggle with workaholism can easily deny that it’s a problem, and thus miss the underlying issues they are self-treating. How can work be bad? As the Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke, the author of Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgencetold me in a recent interview for The Atlantic’s How to Build a Happy Life podcast, “Even previously healthy and adaptive behaviors — behaviors that I think we broadly as a culture would think of as healthy, advantageous behaviors — now have become drugified such that they are made more potent, more accessible, more novel, more ubiquitous.” If you are sneaking into the bathroom at home to check your work email on your iPhone, she’s talking about you.

What’s more, when it comes to work, people reward you for addictive behavior. No one says, “Wow, an entire bottle of gin in one night? You are an outstanding drinker.” But work sixteen hours a day, and you’ll probably get a promotion. […]

Dealing with a work addiction can make a real difference in our lives. It opens up time for family and friends. It allows nonwork pastimes that are not useful, just fun. It enables us to take better care of ourselves, for example, by exercising. All of these things have been shown to raise happiness or lower unhappiness.


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One response to “January 28-February 3”

  1. David Zahl says:

    That Clown Palace story!! Wow, thank you Cali. Also, “Company committed to the appearance of being committed to mental health” made me laugh out loud.

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