I must confess (though to do so is to slash
At my own grapevines), we poets often do
Great harm to ourselves — for instance, when you’re weary
And distracted and we bother you with our poems;
Or when our feelings are hurt because a friend
Is brave enough to criticize so much
As a single line; when, uninvited to do so,
We recite all over again a poem or passage,
One of our own, that we’d just got through reciting;
When we lament the fact that people never
Notice how hard we work to create our poems,
So finely drawn, so elegantly spun out;
And when we hope that the very minute you hear
That we are poets you will summon us
Into your presence, command us to write poems,
And forbid us to be poor.
– Horace (as translated by David Ferry)
Gods want offerings. In almost every myth, in almost every religion, the gods desire offerings from humans, and usually they are expected to give something in return. They don’t always, but that’s those mysterious gods for you. Whether they’re the human-like gods of Olympus, Yahweh in the Kingdom of Heaven, or the sprits of animism, they want humans to offer something of themselves, and in reciprocation they might be inclined to grant some sort of boon.
Give some of your crop to the spirit of the harvest in the hopes you won’t starve. Sacrifice a human life to the volcano god so maybe it won’t erupt in anger and kill us all. Send your checks to the televangelist to increase the chances that God might favor you with riches.
The “maybe” is important, because the god (or, more precisely, the idea of the god) has to have some wiggle room for all the times it fails to deliver. You didn’t give your best crops, so there was a drought and we all starved anyway. The human sacrifice wasn’t sufficiently innocent, so the volcano erupted and killed us all anyway. You didn’t give enough of your life savings to the televangelist, so God kept you poor anyway.
It’s important that a god’s followers don’t get to know exactly what the god wants, precisely what it will take to win a specific good in return. It’s all trial and error, but folks we sometimes call priests start to believe they can home in on what a god wants, and followers trust them to get them pointed in the right direction, generally. But even the priests don’t know for sure.
Now, I’m thinking about this after having read Anne Leckie’s wonderful novel The Raven Tower. I’ll do my best not to give away anything too central to the plot, but suffice it to say, some of its main characters, including its narrator, are gods. They vary in their relative size and power, but they can increase that power through humans’ offerings. If you get a small band of hunter-gatherers to make small offerings to you, you suddenly have more god-fuel to do nice things for them (if you want to). If you get an entire continent full of humans to dedicate shrines, prayers, and sacrifices to you, well then you’re probably a pretty big, badass deity, strong enough to fight and destroy rival gods.
But the catch is that the gods always have a limited pool of power from which to draw. A super-god who gets plentiful offerings from hundreds of thousands of humans might be seemingly invincible, but to wield that power — by waging a war, making major changes to the environment, or bringing things into being — drains those resources. A super-god who squanders their power, their “God Points,” can become a puny god rather quickly. Think of it like your “magicka” bar in a role-playing video game. You can cast your most powerful spells, but you need to replenish that resource before you can do it again. In the meantime, you’re probably rather squishy; that is to say, vulnerable.
If you’re someone who, like me, does not believe in any gods or other supernatural entities, it’s easy to begin reading something like The Raven Tower and default to an attitude of superiority or condescension. Ha, well, it’s a good thing I don’t believe in any gods, and I don’t have to sacrifice anything to some unseen being in the mere hopes of a possible boon that may or may not ever come.
But you’re smart. I’m sure you can see that the attitude represented in the preceding paragraph need not solely apply to the supernatural.
That’s what I’m thinking about. Again, you’re probably a really smart person so you’ve probably already thought of a bunch of things you could substitute for gods; ideas or institutions or principles to which we give and give without ever really knowing whether we will receive any blessing or salvation. I bet a lot of you thought of The Market, and that’s a great example, and maybe the best one as far as our global civilization is concerned.
I also bet some of you thought of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, which pits the old gods of mythology against the modern gods of technology and mass media and whatnot. I’d understand if you thought of that, but I’m one of those very few sci-fi/fantasy geeks who was thoroughly unimpressed with that book, but that has more to do my own particularities about storytelling, and less to do with whether the book makes a Good Point or says Something Important. I’m sure it does, I just don’t think it said it very well.
For me, the most salient modern analogue to gods and our offerings is close to what Gaiman was getting at: social media. Social media is our pantheon.
Let me tell you where I’m coming from, so you can decide if I’m just too awash in self-pity to be taken seriously.
I’ve been doing this being-a-person-on-the-internet thing from the moment I got a 2400 baud modem in my Packard Bell PC from 1990 or so, when I wrote album reviews on my friend’s local BBS. I played a character on a Ren & Stimpy-themed Star Trek board on the Prodigy network. I have written thousands of blog posts. I have been a writer for a couple of well-known outlets. I have started dozens of websites. I have launched a handful of podcasts. I have emitted well over 100,000 tweets. I have written and recorded dozens of songs and put them online to be bought, downloaded free, and streamed. I have uploaded dozens of videos of all kinds. I have self-published an ebook. I have shared untold numbers of photos and even drawings. I have established a few Facebook pages. I have participated in several subreddits. Though I have never TikTok’d, I did make a few Dubsmash videos and Vines. And yes, I have a Substack.
None of it has made a dent. None of it has broken through. None of it has “gone viral.” None of it has validated my existence.
My latest attempt to be a Relevant Person on the Internet is on Twitch, streaming myself playing the games I love while chatting with the folks who are watching. I’ve been doing it on a regular schedule for about five months, and apart from a couple of truly kind and delightful people who have graciously given me their time and attention, almost no one watches.
I have no illusions that this will make me “famous” or even provide a meaningful income (I don’t even qualify to make money on Twitch yet), so what is it I’m after? When I began, I think I was sincerely more interested in Twitch becoming a kind of substitute for real-world socialization. As someone with Asperger’s/ASD and no real friendships in my geographical area, I was feeling genuinely lonely (regardless of the pandemic). Having recently become obsessed with a couple of PC games, this seemed like a great way to find that kind of connection without having to, you know, go to dinner parties or whatever the hell it is you humans do.
And let me say this, those two or three of you who do show up to my Twitch streams? If you’re reading this, I can’t tell you how much it means to me. Thank you.
So why isn’t that enough?
Let’s get back to the whole social media pantheon thing.
There is a Twitch god. There is a Twitter god. There is a YouTube god. And so on. Maybe each platform has several gods attached to it. For example, maybe there’s a “Just Chatting” Twitch god and a Fortnite Twitch god, as well as a Journalist Twitter god and a MAGA Twitter god (but I guess that one might be too literal).
With every selfie we share; with every sub-256-character joke we tell; with every rant we vent; with every second we livestream; with every retweet, like, upvote, and upload; we are offering ourselves to the gods. We are sacrificing to those unseen forces that we believe control our destinies. We may not give them our crops or our corporeal bodies, but we do give them those things we value most and have in limited supply — that’s what makes it a sacrifice. Our time, our efforts, our attention, our images, our faces, our stories, our identities, our preferences, our connections to others, our feelings, our supplication, our gratitude, our fear, our personal information, and our deepest thoughts. Every stream is an offering. Every tweet is a prayer. We are feeding and refueling the gods.
And the priests — sometimes we call them “influencers” — try to guide us in how best to maximize our relationship to those gods. They can’t make promises! We know the false priests by their claims of “10,000 followers overnight!” They can only tell us what they have learned from their years of scrying and exegesis and, yes, sacrifice, and we can follow their lead or not. We can never know what is enough. We can never be sure whether an offering will be accepted and what blessing, if any, will be granted.
So we pray harder, and we offer more and more of ourselves. Favor me! we cry.
What do we want? Some want fame and fortune and, seeing that some have achieved this through social media, we know it to be possible. Some want to become priests themselves, to be shepherds to those who were once, like them, lost. Some want to right a wrong or defeat an enemy, and each prayer or offering is akin to a complaint to the manager or a report to the principal: Did you know what that person just did? We demand retribution!
Some — and I suspect most — want to feel like they matter. They seek to justify their existence. I seek to justify my existence. What more important question does anyone ever ask of a god than Why am I here? We seek the answer through the metrics of retweets, shares, likes, follows, and subscriptions. We don’t know what counts as enough, what number equates to an existence justified. But we keep offering and praying all the same.
Or, at least, I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing.
Now you, who are very smart, might expect me to talk about how I need to stop this nonsense, how we all need to wake up and realize, Eureka, there are no social media gods, and that we sure as hell don’t need them to tell us we matter! And that is entirely correct, we don’t need them. You are indeed very smart.
Because if, as in The Raven Tower, the gods have a limited supply of power, a pool of magicka that can be spent, well, we can simply refuse to feed them! We can starve these gods of their sustenance and in so doing free ourselves. We can diminish them to demigods or sprites, such that they can no longer control us. Others can be wished out of existence by our determination to ignore them.
But that’s not what I’m going to talk about.
Instead, I’m wondering if it might be better — for me, anyway, probably not for you — to give in to this idea. To just go with it. To own it. Maybe there is more sanity to be had in conceiving of these unknowable paths to personal validation as gods — as beings, persons — to be appeased and appealed to. Maybe if I stop thinking about whether real people are paying attention or assuring me that I belong to the human family, and instead think of these platforms as supernatural forces, the failures won’t feel so personal. The unanswered prayers won’t feel like a rejection by the tribe.
The gods are, after all, mysterious! There’s no way to know what they really want. A mere mortal like me can’t be expected to divine their unfathomable thoughts. Best I don’t try, and just keep offering. And maybe I’ll stumble upon a blessing, and, like Skinner’s pigeon, keep doing that one thing over and over again, like a rain dance or a mantra or a holy rite.
I’m tired of trying to get other people to care. But maybe I can please a god.
And then I’ll matter?