Working on the internet in 2021 is really hard, and it’s getting harder.

The past year has introduced us all to new routines, new ways of working, new forms of anxiety, and new sources of grief all delivered via the web straight to our periphery. On top of that, we’ve also seen the increasing commercialization of online spaces in recent years. Instagram no longer feels like a place for sharing photos with friends, it feels like a venue to monetize your brand and commodify the attention of others.

The times we find ourselves in have only accelerated the degree to which we are turning to the web to find connection, do our jobs, and spend our time. I personally love the web, and have chosen to build my career around it—but even if that wasn’t true I wouldn’t be able to escape this new, frequently virtual reality.

Despite my love for the web, I’ve realized that the time I spend online today is frequently more draining than it is nourishing. Moments that I would prefer to spend creating and learning are instead spent comparing my output and value to someone else. And when I say “spent”, I mean it more literally than you might think—this is what we pay when we pay attention. When we choose to give energy to things that don’t serve our goals we are trading against our own creative well being.

Technology is supposed to exist to serve humans and human goals. But increasingly, so many of the technologies that we rely on have goals that are counter to our own—the primary one being engagement for profit’s sake. Tech companies don’t care whether our engagement is in pursuit of a personal goal, they only care whether they can sell that engagement to advertisers. Our technologies have their own agenda and definition of success that is frequently at odds with our own. So many of us are now beholden to something that was meant to serve us, not the other way around.

A painting titled "Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter"

Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter, 1645, courtesy of The Met

I’ve been struggling with how creatives are supposed to thrive in this environment, and how we might separate the web that connects and nourishes us from the web that is trying to profit off of our distractedness. If this truly is an attention economy, how can we engage with the web without paying a toll in the only currency that is truly required for creative work?

And to be clear, I don’t think this is just a problem on the web. So much of our value today is derived from what we produce and share with the world, often done in order to justify some mysterious idea of a “work ethic” in a society where production is seen as a goal unto itself.

But a creative who judges the value of their work by what they produce and share with the world is missing the point. The “why” of our work is in the process, not the result.

I’m writing this because I need a reminder for myself, and maybe you do too, that our creativity is fickle and doesn’t work at the pace of the internet, and that’s okay. The real value is not ultimately in what we create—it’s in the space we carve out for ourselves to be creative, and the things we learn about ourselves and the world within that space. And yes, that includes all the struggles and tensions that come along with the work.