A friend was commenting on how active I was on Twitter, telling me how he held back from posting anything online, out of shyness. I answered that that was my default mode as well, and, I suspect, that of most people. I get shy and afraid of what people could think about me, or I self-censor after imagining the worst way a tweet could be interpreted.
(It sometimes does seem like some people make a deliberate attempt to misrepresent what you’re saying. That, or they’ve spent so much of their lives imagining monsters that they now see them everywhere. Speaking to them, you feel like they’re fighting a mental chimera, instead of addressing your points.)
When I find myself engaging in too much self-censorship, I remember one of the most liberating facts I know: that nobody cares.
An extreme example I can think of to illustrate this point is politicians, who seem able to get away with anything. Embezzlement, sex scandals, you name it. They make national headlines, are the shame of the country for a couple of days, and everybody is sure their career is destroyed forever. Then, they disappear, come back onto the scene after a year or two, run for senator, and win (I hear it can even work when you run for President[reference needed]).
I don’t mean you should be an immoral scoundrel — rather, I want to demonstrate how people really don’t care. These politicians’ entire careers rests upon their reputation, and that of their enemies upon making sure that they don’t get back on their feet. If even they can recover from those scandals, what do you think is the worst that could happen to you (whom, again, nobody cares about) after you’ve made some stupid statements?
Nothing at all. I don’t mean that people won’t remember — I mean that they won’t even notice. Most content is already bad, so yours will just be drowned in that ocean of mediocrity that people scroll through all day. Even better: since it’s bad, it’s not going to spread very far. You’ll be benefitting from a selection effect, where your best content will receive a lot of exposure, and your bad content simply go unnoticed.
This is an asymmetrical game where bad moves cost almost nothing, and good moves are worth a lot. Logic dictates that, playing such a game, you should roll the dice as long as they let you. The board game Monopoly was designed to give people an intuitive understanding of the way markets could supposedly tend towards toxic monopolies — I wish somebody designed a board game to make people understand that life is positive-sum; that the downside of most moves is never really as steep as it seems; that the upside can be unbounded; and that the best thing one can do is make as many moves as possible. In Marc Andreessen’s words, “optimize for the maximum number of swings of the bat.”
Adding a bit of nuance: It’s not that people will never notice your screw-ups — they’ll just do so at such a low frequency that it can safely be rounded to 0 when you’re getting started. And, even when they do, their noticing is largely inconsequential. But, sure, you may get slapped on the wrist from time to time if you post often enough, or to a large enough audience.
I’ve been the subject of Twitter mobs at least 3 times — but that’s after 10 years and almost 14,000 tweets (I also happen to be a child-eating monster, which some people object to). That’s less than once every 3 years, and nothing material happened to me or my career; if anything, it’s allowed me to grow a thicker skin. Even without this silver lining, the upside of “thinking out loud” is more than worth the bit of controversy you’ll have to endure from time to time.
By posting more of your thoughts publicly, you get to steelman your theories, meet people who think alike, build more shared context with those you already know, have interesting conversations, and receive great recommendations (you’d be surprised how much better humans still are at making those than machines).
I do wish more people were active online. The whole promise of the Internet was that of an infinite, vibrant, open forum of ideas. Instead, there seems to be a mass exodus towards private communities — they surely are where I get the most meaningful, genuine interactions, and hear the most original ideas today. This makes me wonder how many eye-opening insights we’re all missing out on, uttered in conversations that should have happened in public. Some people welcome this as a natural evolution of the Internet — I perceive it as the tragic entering into a new Dark Age, and find the silence of some of the most brilliant minds out there deafening.
So, the low frequency of backlashes mentioned earlier does amount to a lot, when you get as much visibility as these folks do, or start representing something to the world instead of just being taken as an individual. When you’ll have written as much as they have, inspired as many people, and taken as much crap, you’ll have an excuse to get shy. Until then, remember the good news: nobody cares about you.