I like establishing traditions. Even when something is young, like this newsletter, traditions (or, in publishing terms, “recurring features”) help provide the structure and foundation that makes it easier to ask readers to just trust me — to follow you down the rabbit hole, to read 5000 words about something you had no idea you’d be interested in, to ask yourself hard questions and ask them of others in return.
The Tuesday and Friday threads — which ask readers to share recommendations (Tuesday) and be introspective in some way (Friday) are part of that structure. But I’ve also found the exercise of returning to an arbitrary signpost to be generative: there’s the anniversary post (One Year, Two Years), the diminishing returns, and now, the Themes of the Year, an attempt at distilling the ideas and postures that guided the conversations here at Culture Study over the last year.
Traffic is a weird thing when it comes to a newsletter, because you have a basic reach (whatever percentage of your overall subscriber list opens an email; for me, that’s around 60%) plus the way a newsletter “travels” (through links on social media, in Metafilter, featured on Pocket, etc.).
The pieces that do the best, overall-traffic-wise, often garner new (unpaid) subscriptions to the newsletter, and introduce more people to your writing and the newsletter in general. They generate more loose ties to Culture Study.
But there’s a second, arguably more important characteristic to pay attention to — the pieces that convert the most people from unpaid to paid (or convince people not in the financial place to pay to send me an email to get on the paid list). These pieces generate or confirm close ties to Culture Study: people subscribe to access more parts of the community (the threads, the Discord, the comments) or to further formalize their connection to Culture Study.
Some examples will help underline the difference.
The three posts that generated the most overall traffic =
What to Actually Do About an Unequal Partnership (234,000)
The Expanding Job (204,000)
The Librarians are Not Okay (stats are wonky on this one for boring reasons, but somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000)
Links posts (like this most recent one) always generate the most conversions, because people love recommendations and cannot resist being walled off from them (particularly if they’re already inclined to subscribe and just need that extra push).
But the non-link-related posts that prompted the most conversions over the past year were:
A Shortcut for Caring for Others (and Being Cared For In Return)
Reading is Important to Me and I Will Prove It
How to Show Up For Your Friends Without Kids (and How to Show Up For Your Friends With Kids)
I can look at those stats — and then look, too, to what people have talked about in the Discord, plus the themes that have emerged again and again in the weekly threads — and arrive at something approximating the themes of the year, which build, in some encouraging and discouraging ways, on the themes of last year.
1.) We’re Breaking, We’re Broken
Entire professions are breaking. The librarians are not okay, but neither are the veterinarians or the teachers or the social workers or the nurses or the caregivers. How do we conceive of the fact that whole swaths of society are still grappling with a stress event so severe that our hair fell out? That we forgot how to concentrate long enough to do something we really love? That hundreds of thousands of people are still dealing with the effects of a virus that, in its acute form, turns the body on itself — and so often turns us on each other?
We’d rather performatively answer emails than allow our bodies the space to recover. We’ve come to loathe our own faces. We have significant emotional responses to breaking word game streaks. Our literal and figurative immune systems have been worn thin, and everyone’s sick and canceling plans and treading water and if you have the time to do the laundry, you’re putting on the clean clothes right out of the dryer, which, again, feels like a metaphor for a lot, for pretty much everything.
The other shoe is always about to fall, has fallen, will fall again. Of course there was a pandemic right as things started to feel stable of course there’s a looming recession right as workers gained a modicum of additional might of course the paltry loan forgiveness program is being struck down in court of course there are heavy metals in the nice chocolate of course the guy with a child named X Æ A-12 is a huge asshole about pronouns of course Krysten Sinema isn’t actually a Democrat of course women are nearly dying after miscarriages in states that have wholly criminalized abortion of course that guy and that guy and that guy and that guy all those fucking guys bought their AR-15s legally.
Some of the feeling of brokenness has to do with demoralization: the feeling that you are no longer able to do your job (as a worker, as a family member, as a friend, as a human) in a way that feels morally right or adequate. And some of it has to do with just how stupid the failings all seem: like the classic Onion headline “No Way to Prevent This, Says Nation Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” only seemingly every corner of society. As in: the richest nation in the world can’t manage the sustainable production of baby formula. That is a soul-demolishing levels of stupid. Same with the ongoing crises around homelessness, and maternal and infant mortality, and acute childcare shortages.
The building blocks for a functioning civilization are all right there, but a bunch of angry babies who refuse to take naps keep throwing them at our heads. My heart is broken but I often feel like my mind is, too.
2.) We’re Floundering Forward
To flounder is to understand, in some capacity, where you’re trying to get to — a destination, a goal, a different way of being — but struggle mightily as you figure out how to get there. We know, for instance, that the current way of organizing society is not working. There is a generalized mismatch between the care needed and the care we are able to provide, which results in a whole lot of coerced (and ultimately deeply fraught) care. The path to societal stability demands crippling amounts of debt that lock people in jobs, relationships, and situations that make them miserable.
Most people want a softer, kinder society that acknowledges, values, and cares for the most vulnerable amongst us, but find it difficult to impossible to resist the wheels of commerce that incentivize the sort of behavior that ignores or invisibilizes their needs.
There are too few leaders and too few waypoints to rest and recuperate for the continued work. Instead, there is a deep, abiding sense of burnout. There are also tremendous eddies of feeling that get reactivated with each new tragedy or ruling or abject unkindness but have nowhere that feels safe to go. Caring is all we seem able to do, as Tressie McMillan Cottom put it after Uvalde, and it is not enough. Maybe this is just how things are now: flailing our fists at such obvious societal regression.
There is still so much will, but the way — it seems irrevocably blocked. I know how I’d build if our democracy wasn’t hamstrung. I know how I’d design if, as a society, we were able to think in longer blocks. I know how I’d dream if I could even begin to imagine a scenario in which governments forfeit profit in the name of those whose names we don’t yet even know.
The inertia of the status quo is so intense — and it seems to gain speed with each passing year. But the desire for a different way of doing things, a different way of arranging ourselves in relationship to others — it endures. We know there are others out there, we see them in the comments, in the shares on social media, in yard signs and in voting results. But precarity, fear, competition, and ruthless self-optimization direct us away from the sort of solidarity and small and large sacrifice and patience that would enact change. And so we flounder, eager and anxious, wondering what it will take to actually act.
3.) We’re Remembering — Or Learning, for the First Time — How to Build
The only way out of this quagmire is with and for each other — especially and including those whose lives, decisions, and histories do not mirror your own.
I know what you’re doing instead. You’re trying to shore up your own life raft. Putting on your own oxygen mask and worrying about others’ later. But there is no such thing, not in this moment, as amassing enough capital to actually feel secure. You reach one foothold and start scrambling for the next, always focused on you and yours, forgetting that what you really need is a safety net. You need community that won’t immediately use you as a footstool and bitterly and violently sack all you’ve diligently amassed, because that’s what happens to lone wolf families: they bare their teeth, they might draw blood, but they live and die alone.
But there is another way. As we continue to flounder and clumsily agitate for a safety net that serves everyone, we are becoming safety nets for others. We are trying to make our partnerships more equitable, because enduring gender inequity (apart from being bullshit) monopolizes energy better sent elsewhere. We are figuring out how to help others take better care of us and how to take better care of others. We are participating in pretty monumental mutual aid efforts ($36,837.37, just this past Fall).
We are trying, even when it’s awkward and painful, to show up for people whose lives and rhythms are not the same as our own. We are creating intergenerational communities, because those are the ones that are the most resilient; we are resisting over-scheduling; we are putting in the time; we are trying to communicate more clearly; we are figuring out how to celebrate each other in all of the ways; we are remembering that the nuclear family is scam.
We are so hungry for each other and humbled by just how much work, consistency, and patience it takes to arrive at that place where caring for others, and being cared for in return, is praxis. It’s so annoying, isn’t it, that the weightlessness and safety we crave requires more work. That to remember we are beloved, we must also do the labor of loving. It is particularly annoying to those of us obsessed with conceptions of fairness that there is no scoreboard to community, either, and that reciprocity is never straightforward, and rarely takes place within a designed period of time. We’re not talking about Giving Tree self-abnegation here, we’re talking about the real difficulty, when you’ve spent your life trying to get ahead, with letting go of keeping score.
Sometimes I read the comments on a piece, in a thread, or in the Discord, and feel overwhelmed with the amount of sorrow we hold — the anger, the regret, the contempt, the shame, fermenting and souring. There’s something about being strangers on the internet that allows some of the exhausting performance of okay-ness to melt away, for people to speak clearly about themselves and their lives. An internet community can do many things for people: it can send mail, it can help erase a debt, it can listen, it can offer advice, it can shitpost and distract and make you feel less alone. But apart from the connections it can and has fostered off-line, there are practical things, things that really do matter, that it cannot do, and will never be able to do. It can approximate them, but it cannot be them.
I know this, and I know others know this too. But what an online community can do is model a way of caring for one another that makes its existence offline feel possible. It can encourage and scheme and troubleshoot our attempts at building communities of care — in friendship, in our neighborhoods, with both loose and strong ties. It can be the springboard, the wellspring, the snack closet, the trail mix, the aid station, the lighthouse, the thing that reminds us, again and again, that the work is hard — and I believe this more than ever — because the work is worth doing.
Thank you all for navigating this year with me. If you’d like to join us in a more formal way, here’s how to subscribe.
If you don’t have the means in this moment, as always, just send me an email (annehelenpetersen @ gmail) and I’ll comp you a subscription, no questions asked. I’m grateful to the paid subscribers who make this policy possible.
And finally: if you have general building-communities-of-care ideas you’d like to see the Culture Study community work through in the year to come — please post them below.
Subscribing is how you’ll access the heart of Culture Study. There’s the monthly asynchronous book club (this month’s pick: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow); there’s the weirdly fun/interesting/generative weekly discussion threads (this week’s is Friday thread on ‘what type of friend are you’ brought up A LOT), and the rest of the Culture Study Discord, which is what one reader once described to me as “it’s own little town.” There’s a dedicated place to talk about your plants, and your DIY projects (with experts who will tell you how to do things!!!), and all your various movement pursuits. There’s a place to ask for advice, and talk about how to navigate a sticky friendship, and find help in your job hunt, and get support as we all deal with our weird and wondrous bodies. Plus there is so much more — I promise, if there’s something you want to talk about, there’s a space for it, and if not, you create it, and people will come.
If you’ve never been part of a Discord: I promise it’s much easier and less intimidating than you imagine.
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Building-communities-of-care idea: a friend in her 80s moved into a new co-housing community this year and it has been, no joke, life-changing. This particular iteration is pretty white and well-off, but I know there are all manner of creative co-housing set ups that range from hippie communal living to a cul-de-sac of neighbors who share lawn mowers and cookouts. I'd love to read an AHP essay on it all.
Really grateful for all the work you do to keep reminding all of us that things aren’t just “like this,” that life doesn’t have to be this way, and that there are specific power structures stopping change. There are plenty of models and organizations for finding ways to do things better; they just need to stop being stymied. Bit by bit, work like yours might help chip away at the barriers.