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Internet as Practice
Four ways of being with the internet
Computers and subsequently the internet started as machines for answering questions: first, “1+1 = ?” and then, “Where’s the closest Walmart?,” “Give me directions to Fenway Park,” and now, “ChatGPT, write a 20-line poem on the nature of capitalism in the style of Robert Frost.”
When we try to locate the “internet,” we speak in tangible and material terms: a web of cables, database servers and Silicon Valley engineers plucking away at their keyboards to maintain our precious APIs. We can point at these components, and yet they barely begin to capture the totality of what we’ve collectively created.
Behind the cold, mechanical glass of every laptop sits a warm, complex human being with depths as deep as the universe is wide, and the lines between the human, the glass and the internet itself grow increasingly blurred each day.
As the internet evolves, especially for us “very online people,” there’s a deepening sense that we are, together, becoming something beyond the scope of our original intentions. We are rapidly approaching a sum far greater and more mysterious than what we often perceive as its cold, mechanistic parts.
While we conventionally think of ourselves as “using the internet,” we are simultaneously and undeniably a part of it. We are both creators and the created. We are man and machine, becoming a new kind of man-machine being, beyond any one person’s conceptualization. This has never been more true than today, as each of our actions and words train sophisticated AI, which increasingly co-create the stories we consume. The man-machine line is dissolving in real time, right before our eyes.
Each of us has our own relationship with this ever-evolving thing. I’ve recently come to deeply question my own relationship with the internet. I have been an internet addict, logging on for daily doses of dopamine, a storyteller exalted through progressively liberating expressions, a CEO with a detailed content marketing strategy optimizing for legible metrics, a writer doing my best to share myself wholeheartedly, and nearly everything in between.
Nothing has felt quite right.
At my day job, I work with writers. These writers share themselves online with a wide variety of hopes and dreams, intentions and reflections, goals and metrics, and ways of being.
Through pattern matching hundreds of writers at Foster, observing my girlfriend who hosts a popular YouTube show, and through my own experiences online, I have come to understand four ways of being in relationship to the internet:
2. Outcome Orientation
3. Process Orientation
4. Internet as Practice
I’ve watched up close and personal as dozens of creators travel, journey or even “progress” through these modalities as if they are “stages” on a ladder. Each stage transcends and includes the previous, opening up to possibilities unthinkable or unknowable at prior stages, and deepens the fullness of our engagement online.
Each stage involves a particular kind of relationship with the internet, a relationship with self, and various degrees and dynamics of trust, control, abstraction and humanity.
Many of us yearn for a way to be fully online without all of the mindlessness, passivity and addiction that often entraps us. Some of us oscillate between fully online and fully offline in a sort of mad dance to establish what feels right. Others have lost hope that it’s possible to engage in a way that feels true and alive, and have resigned to using flip phones or retreating to a cabin in the woods.
It’s common today to inquire about developing a healthy relationship with the internet, but uncommon to dig deeply into what exactly that means. Ultimately, doing so is a personal affair, one that’s embodied and takes many months or years of practice, but we might kickstart and speed up this process of inquiry by understanding common patterns. These stages are, of course, an approximation, but I’ve yet to talk with a writer or creator who hasn’t been able to see themselves in at least one of them.
Stage 1: Unintentionality
These days, few people actively engaging with internet media and community are fortunate enough to experience an unintentional way of being with them. Most of us start our journeys on various platforms with a goal or outcome in mind, which we’ll revisit in the next stage.
Those who do begin their online journeys unintentionally benefit from a spirit of play and naivety, logging on and just kind of doing things, without much sense for consequences. Using the online writer as an example, and indicative of all forms of expression, a natural tone and voice emerges from the lack of concern for who’s watching, how they may be misconstrued, whether or not their boss will find their posts, or stepping on other “internet land mines.”
We’ve seen a number of cases of this unintentionality, naivity and subsequent naturalness result in profound results on the internet, with writers just “fucking around and finding out,” more or less, only to shortly thereafter wake up to thousands of followers, readers or a meaningful community of humans forming around their unfiltered and unintentional selves.
In these cases, they did not aim at those followers, and were rather surprised with what unfolded every step of the way. This can be an incredibly enlivening and enlightening experience, but it’s not one we can go out and deliberately make happen. Unintentionality, of course, cannot be created intentionally.
Despite the benefits, unintentionality does beget problems. Using the dark forest theory of the internet as our metaphor, haphazardly frolicking through the woods at night can be cause for injury. You might stumble into a cancellation, a harsh critic that stings a little deeper than you were ready for, scammers who take advantage of your naive disposition, or something worse. Naivety eventually meets knowledge, and usually in the form of reckoning. We have seen writers share vulnerable, personal parts of themselves that are subsequently used against them by internet stalkers. We’ve seen people stumble into Web3 communities only to have their wallet hacked and life savings drained.
Even in the case that one stumbles upon beginner’s luck, they might quickly find reproducing it to be difficult. This is because, sadly, no one stays in the unintentional stage for very long; once they get a taste for what’s on offer online, they inevitably begin to aim at this particular result or that one, and outcome orientation creeps in.
Stage 2: Outcome Orientation
Outcome orientation is today’s “default stage.” Most people who engage with the internet are outcome-oriented in that engagement: there for a reason; trying to get a specific result.
Outcome orientation encompasses all forms of “using the internet,” as if it were still (or ever was) simply a tool for entering inputs and receiving outputs. On social platforms those outputs can be as innocuous as garnering some information by posting a question on Facebook, or as pointed as achieving your first viral TikTok with 100K views.
In the case of a writer, the canonical outcome orientation is 10,000 newsletter subscribers. We hear this goal more often than any other at Foster, and it’s achieved least frequently. That’s not because it’s all that challenging, as some might lead us to believe, but rather because aiming for the goal directly often hinders reaching it.
Before getting into that though, we must acknowledge that outcome orientation can “work” in the sense that there are plenty of people who do set a goal, do whatever is required to meet that goal, and indeed achieve what they set out for. We’ve seen a number of people do exactly that with Foster by their side. Many of them even go on to transcend outcome orientation after having achieved their outcome. (Others go on to sell courses on how to do what they did).
Far more often, though, creators (and I use this label broadly) get captured by their outcome, captured by their audience, or captured by their own relentless expectations of themselves, and they burn out and quit. It’s so common, we might as well call this the default creator path.
The primary issue with outcomes is that humans are fallible, and they all too easily make sacrifices of integrity in the pursuit of their goal, whether consciously or not.
The writer hunts for the best headline strategy to optimize clicks, instead of speaking from the heart. The YouTuber slaves over the right times in their video to ask their audience to subscribe, instead of obsessing over quality. The podcaster spends more time on partnering with big names instead of characters whothat elicit the best conversation. It’s a deeply ironic process; as we become obsessed with results, we drift further from the heart and soul that most reliably creates them.
Sacrifices in integrity produce bullshit.
“Bullshit,” as we define it here, is any expression that holds outcome in higher regard than truth.
In conversation, we can feel someone is bullshitting us when they aren’t exactly lying, but their entire way of conversing is more centered on making a point or achieving a certain outcome than it is about accurately representing what’s true for them.
Bullshit is so pervasive in our society that it can be hard to detect. Most people aren’t attuned to it, and are at this moment drowning in whatever bullshit they are currently telling themselves. “It’s in the water,” as some say, and so, unsurprisingly, it transfers into our internet paradigm, too. In a lot of ways, our internet and society are defined by the phenomena of bullshit.
One example of modern-day internet bullshit are soulless Twitter threads:
It’s not that these threads are dishonest in and of themselves, but rather that they originate from a place of outcome prioritization (follower growth) and therefore don’t hold reverence for the truth of what the creator actually cares about or thinks is beautiful or meaningful. It’s obvious that this is bad for the internet and creates a low ratio of signal:noise, with many of the same tried and tested stories being regurgitated in a never-ending soulless echo chamber, but it’s also terrible for the creator.
Bullshit production distances us from ourselves.
Anyone who’s walked an inner work journey knows that the person we deceive most often is ourselves. Outcome-obsessed creators deceive themselves so fully that they forget what they actually care about and love on an intrinsic and intuitive level. The world misses out on what could have been a passionate and original creator and instead gets more lookalike Twitter threads as shown above.
Bullshit production begets audience capture too. After having lost sight of who we are in the pursuit of an abstract objective like newsletter followers, we might give into who our audience wants us to become. If I can’t stand on my own ground, perhaps I’ll stand on theirs.
In “The Perils of Audience Capture,” Gurwinder details the journey of several creators as they are captured by their audience and lose themselves:
“When influencers are analyzing audience feedback, they often find that their more outlandish behavior receives the most attention and approval, which leads them to recalibrate their personalities according to far more extreme social cues than those they’d receive in real life. In doing this they exaggerate the more idiosyncratic facets of their personalities, becoming crude caricatures of themselves.”
The pitfalls of outcome-oriented bullshit production don’t stop there. Most creators never get to the point of Nicholas Perry, whom Gurwinder details as traveling from a vegan-violinist to a mukbang YouTuber with six million subscribers, and destroying his body in the process. That’s because…
Most creators burn out from their own bullshit.
Humans can only last so long showing up to work that isn’t true to their highest possibilities. Every bullshit-producing path ends in burnout eventually. It’s true that many outcome-obsessed people do achieve their outcomes, but all must reckon with the sacrifices they made to get there, and that reckoning often comes in the form of not being able to lift another finger toward the creation of something they don’t actually care about.
At this point, once there’s no way we can possibly look at the metrics dashboard, or create one more video, or, in Nicholas Perry’s case, our body simply can’t take it anymore, there's an opportunity to step into a new way of being with the internet. “Focus on the process,” as they say.
Stage 3: Process Orientation
After drifting far from themselves, being captured by their audience’s wants and desires instead of their own, and burning out along the way (or some combination thereof), creators often turn to a process-oriented way of being instead.
We tell ourselves, “Okay, I’m no longer wedded to the outcomes and will simply focus on the craft.” Perhaps they’ve switched from “10,000 newsletter subscribers” to “publishing once a week,” which we’ve seen happen countless times for writers at Foster.
This often has the side effect of more publishing, better outcomes and results that were previously unimaginable in the myopic 10K-subscriber orientation. The creator is no longer using short-term hacks like soulless Twitter threads or catchy out-of-integrity headlines to bait their readers, and is simply focused on the work.
Or so they think.
Process-orientation feels really great for a while, until the bullshit starts creeping in again.
The problem is that the process is actually an outcome, once again, in sheep’s clothing. Publishing weekly is a better goal than 10,000 newsletter subscribers, but it’s still a goal.
And again, being fallible and gaming human beings in pursuit of a goal, we almost always end up making out-of-integrity sacrifices in the pursuit.
In this case, that looks like the writer starting to publish work that they scraped together an hour before their self-imposed deadline, which is derivative from something they read the other day, but which achieves their new outcome — publishing weekly, at any cost.
That out-of-integrity piece is another form of bullshit. It’s subtler and less obnoxious than the Twitter thread designed from the ground up for clicks, but it’s still bullshit, in the sense that it was written for the sake of the outcome, instead of, for example, out of a deep reverence for truth, good or beauty.
Instead of becoming captured by an audience as outcome-obsessed creators so often become, we become captured by the process itself.
Here’s the good news: the more “pure” the process orientation becomes, the less bullshit, and the closer we approximate a sort of liberated practice.
A writer, for example, might progress from “publish one piece per week” to “write 1,000 words per day,” and in that progression feel less captured, end up writing more words than they were previously, and have those words be truer to their underlying creative and artistic potential.
The cycle repeats as the 1,000 words per day becomes itself imprisoning and we end up writing bullshit to ourselves just to reach the 1,000-word mark. I’ve seen this happen in my own journal entries, where I was so obsessed with reaching 1,000 words per day that I ended up ranting with words that no longer felt true for me, and just filled the space. It’s since become clear that fewer, truer words are far better for my writing. Ironically, I’ve ended up writing more words this way, too.
But how do I put that into the process? What’s the step-by-step guide? At some point, we stop trying to dictate a process and give up on the whole shabang.
And then we can start practicing.
Stage 4: Internet as Practice
In the “real world,” through thousands of years of wisdom traditions, and more recently modernized Buddhism (which we call “mindfulness”), we’ve become more acquainted with the concept of “practice,” esoterically, as a regular and intentional engagement or ritual of some kind.
From the outside, “process” and “practice” might look identical, and this causes a lot of confusion.
Sitting down to write words as a process or as a practice are, materially, the same thing. They are both, ultimately, a person at a desk typing some words. But in the realm of experience, the two phenomena are quite different. Person One and Person Two, both typing at their desks, might actually be worlds apart.
For the practitioner, process as an object, has completely dissolved; it has ceased to exist, and been replaced by subjectivity itself. The practitioner is truly writing, the process-oriented writer is merely acting out the steps of writing. The difference is subtle, but profound.
“Practice” made its way into our language by way of the Greek word praktikē, meaning “active,” and the Old French pratique, which actually means “experience.”
Process, on the other hand, originates in Latin as procedere and in French as proces, which mean something more akin to “a methodical series of steps.” Those steps lead toward something, as the Latin root processus denotes, showing, as we discussed above, that ultimately process is rooted in outcome, and although certainly less so, subject to all the same pitfalls of outcome orientation.
Practice is only pure practice when we are completely and entirely consumed by it. When there are no longer any steps.
Many people are familiar with this “being consumed by” as a phenomenological experience; “when the dancer becomes the dance,” as Stephen Mitchell calls it in the foreword of the Tao Te Ching. And as Lao Tzu says himself:
“Less and less do you need to force things,
Until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
Nothing is left undone.”
This ancient proverb describes perfectly the progression from process into practice. We approach pure practice asymptotically, perhaps never fully arriving, but always inching closer.
Ironically, at some point, it’s no longer an evolution that can be approached in a methodical, step-by-step manner, and instead must be contemplated or, perhaps, “inhabited” like a Zen koan that one chews on for years.
After all, we are left in stalemate when we attempt to make a goal out of goal-lessness.
There must be another way.
We’ve had thousands of years to develop the practices of yoga, meditation, chopping wood, carrying water and so forth, but only a few years to develop Internet Practices. It’s not a surprise we are, societally, caught inside outcome-orientated ways of being, captured by our own and each other’s bullshit, mindlessly scrolling, vomiting our self-deceptions all over the web, and making our internet nearly uninhabitable.
Imagine if instead of approaching our computer as a cold, mechanical piece of metal and glass that receives inputs and delivers outputs, we saw it as a relationship with the emergent, ineffable internet mystic that we’re collectively creating.
How might we approach that device differently?
Perhaps we’d sit down to our computers as we would a meditation cushion or a yoga mat, without expectation of what might occur or without outcomes in mind, and with a reverence for the ritual that we’ve chosen, for its own sake.
Slowly but inevitably we might come to see the outcomes and steps we previously set for ourselves dissolve into an enlivened and liberated practice — and a new kind of internet unfold before us.
The calling for this new internet has never been more dire. As you're reading this, machine learning algorithms are being trained on the billions of gallons of bullshit we spew online each day.
AI-powered document editors, then, among other tools, use all that training data to make it even easier to write outcome-oriented garbage that moves us further and further from the truth of ourselves and each other as beautiful, complex, experiencing beings.
This feedback loop may have disastrous consequences: AI leveraging up and compounding our own inauthenticity to the point that we’re all drowning in sewage and can no longer remember what it was like to swim in clear waters.
That’s not a future I or any of the writers at Foster want to be a part of.
That’s why we exclaimed our Unmistakably Human stance, and are stewarding writers, one Season at a time, toward writing as a self-actualizing practice of progressively truer and more beautiful expression.
If you feel called to join us, you can start that journey here, or just show up a little more thoughtfully the next time you sit down at your computer. Each one of us, each day, has an opportunity to be the change we want to see online.