Lots of things must have happened at the Emmy’s this week, but the part that is blowing up my side of the internet is Michaela Coel’s acceptance speech. Coel, who won the Best Writing award for her show, moved many young creatives when she said: “Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable. I dare you.” she said. “Visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success. Do not be afraid to disappear— from it, from us — for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence.”
It was a rare and beautiful acceptance speech, because it was among a rare few that addressed the people outside the room. It addressed the hopeful artists who long for the kind of singular auteurship that Coel has, against the odds, managed to achieve. But rather than just toss out a “this one’s for all you dreamers out there — keep believing!”, Coel had a clear directive. She wants us all to get offline. To stop measuring our worth against our follower count; to look up from the trough of increasingly similar-looking art that is being poured out from increasingly indistinguishable studios such as Netflix, Amazon and AppleTV.
Ironically, the only reason I saw Michaela Coel’s acceptance speech was because it was shared so much on social media. Everyone seemed to agree with the sentiment but could not bring themselves to disappear in the way Coel was hoping they would. It seemed to only further prove our bovine commitment to liking and sharing. I kept imagining Coel as a lone walker on a hillside, unable to understand why all of us cows were gathering to stare at her.
This is the narrative we all feed ourselves about social media. Or at least, those of us who use it semi-professionally. We want to get off; we cannot get off. We know it’s eroding our mental health; unfortunately it has now eroded past the point of basic self control. We’re sorry Michaela, we’re sorry.
While I love Coel’s speech in theory, I can’t help but feel like it’s not a completely honest or practical piece of advice. I speak from a heavy bias. I would not have my career if it were not for social media. There’s no two ways about it. Whenever I go to parties or media events, whenever I speak to other authors or podcasters who make their living from what they do, they fall into one of two camps. Either they have come up through a system: an elite private school, followed by Oxford or Cambridge or Trinity, followed by a low-paid but highly rewarding internship at a media company, followed by a career. Or, they have come up through social media. They started making jokes on Twitter when they were 21, or videos on Youtube, or blogs on Tumblr, or something. By 25, they had an audience, and by 26, the media companies started knocking at their door.
I don’t have the energy to be angry at the Oxbridginity system. Being furious with a university’s influence on society is like being angry about wasps. We all agree with you that wasps are bastards, but ultimately, they’re not going anywhere. But ultimately, what I’ve learned from observing so many of my contemporaries who have come through these universities is that most of them are not looking to preserve elitism for elitism’s sake. They are simply employing people that they know and have heard of. The human brain has still not evolved past the stage where we all lived in villages. Most of us only have the capacity to know roughly 200 people.
What social media has done is offered a visa to the village; it has democratised networking.
Of all the jobs I’ve got in the last five years — whether it was a book deal, a speaking arrangement, a festival invitation — it has always come with the same comment. “So glad to have you,” they will say. “Of course, I know you from Twitter.” It’s always said with the same sort of tone: friendliness, edged with a sense of warmth and implicit trust. They know I will not burn the village down, because they’ve seen my tweets about my missing earring.
This is all to say, that I love Michaela Coel, and I love what she represents. She’s one of the few millennial artists who have achieved global success without being from a connected family, an elite university, or having to commit to social media. And as much as I would like her story to be a more common one, I’m not convinced yet that it’s possible.