Getting off the wheel
Three weeks ago, Facebook bought Instagram. It was one of those deals — thing everyone uses buys thing beloved by hipsters, for a billion dollars! — that really excites people whose job it is to follow technology and tech businesses. At the time, I was in theory one of those people — I was the online news editor for ITworld, a very nice website covering technology. I was supposed to have an opinion about this, but I really didn’t. I should have put something smart up on my blog, something that was just a bit counterintuitive but not crazy. But nothing really came to mind. I had never actually used Instagram. Some people seemed to like it. Other people made fun of it. A billion dollars seemed like a lot of money. These were not the elements of a coherent blog post.
Fortunately, our site was part of a larger company, IDG, that provided a central newsfeed, the IDG News Service, sort of our own internal AP wire. I grabbed an Instagram-Facebook story from the wire and put a link to it on our front page so we wouldn’t look like we were unaware of the day’s big news. We needed some kind of art to go with it, of course, but pictures of abstract entities using notional valuations of stock to purchase other abstract entities are kind of hard to come by. I ended up using a Creative Commons-license picture of a duck from Flickr that had had Instagram filters slathered all over it for what struck me as a very Instagram-representative effect. It was my one creative contribution to the process.
The truth was, I had an excuse for feeling numb about Facinstagrbook: A week earlier, I had told by boss that I’d be leaving on April 28. I was feeling worn out by the constant need to keep up with the news, to react to it, to write the thing or convince someone else to write the thing and then promote the thing and then hopefully see the thing go viral or at least get picked up by a site that would drive us some traffic. I had taken this full-time job 18 months earlier, but I had been doing a lot of this for a few years before that, working freelance blogging gigs that required me to be on top of what was happening in whatever arena, then come up with something smart or funny or both to say about it. Ever since my comics blog had taken off, I really wanted to be funny for a living, but I always had to fit humor and writing projects in among paying (or better-paying) gigs, which meant that usually those projects never happened. Instead, I had hundreds of RSS feeds in my reader, and as the little red number denoting unread items got bigger, my anxiety level would go up. When I took that full-time job, I added even more feeds to the list. Things were always happening, things that I needed to think about. I started to hate that number.
There was nothing wrong with the job I quit. It was a white-collar job where I got to use my skills and work with great people who appreciated me. It paid a good salary and offered great benefits. Lots of people enjoy the fast pace of this kind of work — for some people, it’s exactly what they get into journalism to do. (If this is the kind of job that you might enjoy and you live in the Boston or San Francisco areas, you can apply for it!) But I was burned out. I felt like I was on a hamster wheel. There would always be more things to comment on. I want to work on things that I can take longer to work on, that I can put more craft into. Things that will be a little less ephemeral than the blog post about the thing that bought the other thing or the thing with the upgraded operating system.
I also (despite the somewhat somber tone of this post) want to write things that are funny. Of course, there’s a reactive quality to comedy too; on the day Facebook bought Instagram, Huffington Post comedy editor Carol Hartsell managed the neat trick of commenting on the absurd fact that she was professionally obligated to come up with a timely joke on the subject, and then immediately afterwards actually coming up with a timely (and funny) joke on the subject.
So, yes, I’ll inevitably be reacting to things, hopefully in a funny way, hopefully in appropriate venues (on this very Tumblr, for instance, and on the other social media doodads you can see in the right sidebar). There’s nothing wrong with funny reactions to things. You can do it in a way that you’re proud of. Burnout comes — or came for me, anyway — when reacting to things is your job, when you have to react. There’s a joy to it that first time when the rubber mallet hits your knee and you twitch involuntarily, your body doing something odd on its own accord. But you can only bang on your knee for so long. Eventually your leg doesn’t move anymore, unless you push it.
To review: I quit a steady job in the middle of worldwide financial uncertainty so I can make a go of crafting thoughtful, funny prose for several industries that are total flux right now. I wrote that sentence to make it completely obvious how dumb a decision this was. I am extremely lucky to have a wife who is supporting me (in more ways in one) in my completely insane quest to be funny and interesting for a living; I have promised her copious rewards, assuming something comes of it all. I have a number of projects that I’m going to start on in my suddenly copious free time. Some of these probably will never probably never see the light of day, but I hope to unleash many of them soon, so watch this space! (Or the Twitter, or the Facebook, or the Google+!) And if you yourself are a professionally funny person, and have always thought, “Gee, I’d like to collaborate with Josh Fruhlinger on something,” do email me at email@example.com. I’m betting it’d be a blast.
If you’ve read to the end of this, I’m assuming you’re a fan of my writing from elsewhere — maybe on my comics blog, maybe on Wonkette, maybe even ITworld — and I want to say that the only reason I feel like I can do this is that I know at least a few of you exist. So thanks for enjoying my stuff! I hope to have a lot more for you, soon. And it’ll be a lot funnier than this.