By Michael W. Harris
Perhaps it came while struggling to get through the final arc of Agents of SHIELD season 4, or perhaps it was in the depths of Iron Fist with Defenders and Punisher looming in my cue. Or maybe it was the realization that I was buried under a mountain of anime and other TV shows I wanted to watch on Funimation, Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix. Or maybe it was all the videos piling up in my YouTube “Watch Later” playlist. Or maybe it was all the other things I knew I wanted to do in my life with research and writing and the realization that there were only so many hours in the day. Somewhere in all of that, in between all of the content that I felt like I had to consume to stay relevant in “the discussion” and what I increasingly felt like I wanted to do, that I had a moment of clarity and started deleting things from my various playlists, cues, and checklists.
This was a big moment for me, personally. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when it wasn’t cool to be a nerdy kid reading comics and watching Star Trek, and right now is a golden age of the culture that I grew up consuming. I felt like I had to keep up, that it was my duty to my younger self. Combine this irrational feeling with my already completionist, encyclopedic tendencies (re: librarian) and you have a recipe for burn out. I would make spreadsheets and checklists for proper viewing orders of all parts of a franchise (check out my MCU and Star Wars lists, or read my most ever viewed blog post on the proper viewing order for the Peter Jackson Tolkien films), and I would obsess and theorize with the best of them. I would overthink small details and try to extrapolate what would come next. To what end, though? What was it all worth? I hated on-line discussions that would get nasty so I never participated in them. Most of my friends did not share my level of obsession. The spirt of my cultural identity was withering in what should be its shining moment.
Maybe there was a little bit of hipster-ish “I liked [stuff] before it was cool” in some of my reaction. Maybe there was a bit of exhaustion with the fact that Marvel was treating my beloved Fantastic Four like crap in a stupid fight with Fox and the film rights (now seemingly resolved). But more so than all those things, I was just exhausted with trying to keep up. We are living in a moment when genre franchise properties are suffering from an overabundance of choice, and it was making me miserable because I felt like I was failing at being what I had always identified as: a nerd.
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Part of what I was experiencing can be called the “Fear of Missing Out,” or FOMO. This is essentially feeling like you have to keep up, know everything, and have an opinion on everything so that you can always be a part of “the conversation,” whatever that means. This is what keeps many of us constantly updating our Facebook or Twitter feeds, wanting to know what everyone is up to lest you be left behind. This is what keeps many watching 24-hour news channels and feeding our society’s obsession with wanting to have an answer right now to everything. It is what has caused so many problems with misidentification and bad information entering circulation by TV news reporters treating speculation as fact. It is the reason why for breaking news the New York Times will have sections explicitly titled “What We Know” and “What We Don’t Know.” FOMO is what drives our want and desire to be “first” in commenting or posting, be it on a YouTube video or the media breaking a story, and in their zeal to be “first” people have let their standards for analysis become lax.
The other part of this is what Barry Schwartz termed “the paradox of choice.” We have so many choices that it is causing us to be unhappy because we are never satisfied with the choice we have made. We strive for perfection and we are never sated because we will question if we made the right choice. And while some choice is necessary for us to feel like we have freedom and autonomy, it can reach a point of overload and for certain people it can cause anxiety.
I am one of those people, at least for some things. I do not worry as much about clothes, accessories, food, etc. I am fairly easy to please with good enough and settle in many aspects of the choices I have to make. And my diet is, to say the least, strictly routine. But when it comes to media, franchises, so-called “content,” I know my tendencies. My need to consume all of it. I am never satisfied with just part of it. I have the urge to take in and understand it all, and no matter how many times I might cull my comics pull list, decide to drop a TV show, or unfollow a creator on YouTube, things inevitably creep back in because of a stray recommendation provided by the all mighty algorithm. And slowly, with me barely noticing, my lists become bloated once again.
I have many times attempted to create a personal “collection development policy” because of this. To try and save time, my sanity, and my wallet, I have slowly stripped away parts of my media and cultural intake. But sometimes it feels like I am sacrificing part of what makes me, me. Or am I? By doing this, could I also be allowing myself to grow and change? To develop as a person into something different? By resisting the change, am I stunting my growth? There is a whole other post in that question, delving into if our society is creating a generation of people whose emotional development is arrested because of media over-saturation.
But this question is probably the crux of so much of my anxiety and why I feel like I am being irrational by internalizing so much of this debate; my overthinking of the situation. Why do I attach so much meaning to the media I consume? Why do I tell people that you can really understand me when you know that I was essentially raised on Star Trek, Star Wars, and the comedies Airplane! and Blazing Saddles. I still feel like that that is a good summation of my personality, but why? Why is my identity so wrapped up in these things that the potential of deleting part of it from my life is a decision I struggle with?
Perhaps it is myself thrashing with the passing from one phase of my life to another. Perhaps I am realizing that to become the person I feel like I want to be, I must let go of parts of what I used to be. I must make a choice in order to allow myself the time to become something else. Time is a precious and fleeting resource and there is not enough of it to allow me to consume the media that I want to. This is largely because there is simply too much. The paradox of my choice is in two areas: what do I choose to limit my media/cultural diet to, and what do I choose to become in the making of that choice?
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To realize that my paradox of choice vis-à-vis the over-abundance of “nerd culture” media was causing me much distress was to realize that I needed to take better care of my emotional self. Because, yes, in the end, it wasn’t that important. I needed to practice better self-curation of my media intake, and in doing so practice better self-care. I had already done that to some extent before by switching my news gathering from whatever I saw posted on Facebook to subscribing to the New York Times, reading their morning briefing and also listening to the updates from NPR and BBC every morning. I’ve also added checking in on Ars Technica and WIRED to keep on top of more tech based commentary and news. While this does not keep me 100% in the loop on breaking news (I had to turn off aural notifications from my phone for NYT headline lest I go crazy), it is enough to keep me informed. It optimized my ability to stay connected and up-to-date.
Thus, I needed to create a similar strategy for cultural media, and I began by deleting all the Marvel shows and House of Cards from my Netflix cue. Next, I went to Hulu and removed most of the active shows from there, including Agents of SHIELD, Runaways, and Inhumans—I never started the last two and never got started on season 5 of the first. It was like a weight was slowly lifting off my shoulders. I could continue to enjoy the MCU films, but I wasn’t being oppressed by my anxiety over making sure I was caught up with the other parts of the franchise before going into the latest movie. It was similar to a decision I had earlier made about the “satellite” books surrounding major comic events or keeping up with the novels and comics once Disney announced the new Star Wars films. I know, other people are not nearly as bothered by this type of FOMO, but my personality, that completionist, addictive aspect of mine makes it really hard to disengage. But if I was going to truly practice good self-care then it was a necessary step.
Knowing my personality like I do, it is not surprising that I prefer a lot of limited shows, or shows that have a predetermined endpoint. This is part of why a lot of anime and British television appeals to me. They usually are shorter seasons and have fewer seasons overall, if more than one. This is why in anime I avoid franchises like Dragonball (so-called “long-running shonen” series that have no endpoint in sight after 700+ episodes). For me, being a more stringent self-curator of my cultural media is to practice better self-care. I can be satisfied with just the MCU films and avoid the DC media (including the CW shows). I can limit my comic book reading by following a handful of creator-owned titles and whatever the Fantastic Four characters are up to. I can limit my anime to certain genres of shows and not try to keep up with the current season of shows airing. And in limiting my intake in this way, I can even allow myself the time to re-watch a few shows that I have been wanting to give a second or third pass through—I am looking at you Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5.
And in doing all of this, I am optimizing my enjoyment of the type of cultural media I watch while also being satisfied with a more limited slate of media that will keep me engaged while not overwhelming my time. And most especially, it allows me the time to really engage with other things I want to do: writing, researching, exploring who I want to be. Asking the hard questions about myself and trying to figure out at least some of the answers. The type of self-exploration that so much of modern culture and media try to keep us numb to in its attempt to commodify our information and turn our attention into a product to be sold to advertisers.
More on that in a later essay.
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Part of what has made this process easier for me than perhaps others is that I never truly engaged in the conversation surrounding these media properties. Outside of Facebook, I never took my fandom to on-line message boards. I never fell down the rabbit hole of Reddit or various other corners of the internet. I never used the tools of social media to engage with fellow fans of the media I enjoyed. So, in this respect, my FOMO was never actually being compared to others except in my own mind.
And what so much of this boils down to is that I need to stop comparing myself to others. This holds true for so many aspects of my life, but it is very relevant to this. I cannot compare myself to the friends in my life who can spend hours playing the latest video games, go to opening day screenings, or keep up with “all the things.” To some extent, I think I was always comparing myself to them because that is what so many people consider me to be, so I felt obliged to play to play the part of a rabid fan, an otaku. It was an identity I cultivated to some extent, and still do, because it was the way others viewed me.
In many ways I did everything I could to keep up with this media. I would produce lists and make sure to post my opinion of the latest whatever on Facebook and try to stay current with the latest developments and news. But slowly, little by little, that drive has eroded in my life. The overabundance of media was a large contributor, but I have also been enjoying most of it less and less. This is not to say that it is not of high quality (most of it is), but I think I was enjoying it less because I was doing it more out of some feeling of obligation rather than true enjoyment. When you feel like you have to keep up with the Joneses, your problem is not with the Joneses but rather with yourself. You are drawing your sense of self from an external identity and not from within. Realizing this was step one in my rehabilitation, step two is succeeding in constructing a new identity around what I really care about and what matters. To feel like I know who I am and am actually confident in expressing it.
* * *
As I look ahead to what lay before me, I do wonder what role social media and a new sense of identity will play. I stopped posting on Facebook for most of 2017, for reasons not related to the musing here, and I found that I stopped caring as much about trying to get to the theatre opening weekend. And while my usage of the platform has crept back up in recent months, I do think I am going to try and limit it again in the future. However, this creates another paradox.
I want to do more writing in the coming year, beginning with posting to my blog and then trying to parlay that into a steady side gig writing for other on-line sites. However, in this day and age, you have to self-promote using Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, and probably a half-a-dozen other apps and platforms I have never heard of. So how do I engage in an on-line social media driven conversation to promote my work when that is exactly what I want to avoid? I have never enjoyed on-line discussions, though I love talking face-to-face. To me, the perfect “conversation” is to read someone’s well-crafted essay on a topic and then just ponder and discuss in person and then maybe craft my own response. I guess I am just old-fashioned that way.
* * *
There has been a long-standing rule-of-thumb of mine. Not an actual rule, but rather and observation: I usually don’t get around to listening to new music until ten years after the fact. For some reason, this seemed to be the cycle I followed. Maybe I need to try and make this a rule for the rest of my media intake. For music, I always said that this allowed me to avoid the crap and see what rose to the top to stand the test of time. I avoided flash in the pan trends and one-hit-wonder artists. And while I have violated this “rule” a number of times in recent years in an effort to make some of my examples in teaching rock history more relevant, there is something to be said for it.
As a would-be cultural commentator, I feel the need to keep up and “commentate” immediately on something. But perhaps, just perhaps, I can find a niche of being the one who is always late to the party, looking back on how media from one, two, five, ten or more years ago can be resonate with something today, or perhaps give something that was overlooked a second chance. I would already have missed out and can set my fears aside, and in doing so, I believe there is much to gain.