How To Do Nothing’s Jenny Odell on balancing political burnout with engagement

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, the Oakland-based artist and writer explores ways to mindfully stay informed during the whiplash age of social media.

September 10, 2019
<i>How To Do Nothing</i>’s Jenny Odell on balancing political burnout with engagement Melville House
<i>How To Do Nothing</i>’s Jenny Odell on balancing political burnout with engagement Jenny Odell   Ryan Meyer

Three days after Barack Obama was voted into office in 2008, The Guardian published an article titled “Obama's win means future elections must be fought online.” It was a largely positive piece, hailing the internet as “a perfect medium for genuine grassroots political movements...transforming the power dynamics of politics. There are no barriers to entry on sites like Facebook and YouTube. Power is diffused towards the edges because everybody can participate.”


Even today, that statement bears truth. The level at which Obama’s 2008 campaign focused on social media raised nearly half a billion dollars; last year, Beto O’Rourke’s sudden ascendance into the Twitter spotlight made for the closest race the Texas Senate seat had seen in 40 years. But engaging online during the last few presidential cycles has felt more disconnecting, chaotic, and futile than ever before. Picking up on the dystopian chatter-voids that social media has morphed into, Oakland-based artist and writer Jenny Odell makes a cogent case for potentially abandoning social media as our society’s primary communication tool in her eye-opening book How to Do Nothing

Although Odell’s self help-cum-activist guide tackles general online grievances and the inevitable commercialization of Being Online, How to Do Nothing also makes a potent argument for the ineffectualness of Twitter and Facebook as amplifying tools for political engagement. She writes that the platforms suffer from “context collapse,” a term originally coined by technology and social media scholar danah boyd that explains why Twitter or Facebook can simultaneously induce whiplash while feeling emotionally vacant. As everything appears on your timeline simultaneously, Odell warns that “instantaneous communication threatens visibility and comprehension because it creates an information overload whose pace is impossible to keep up with.”


How to Do Nothing captured how I’ve been feeling the past few years, especially as I’ve grown increasingly detached from the political process and overwhelmed at keeping up with the pace of conversation. It also got me thinking that there must be an alternative way of participating in the current age of politics that’s mindful, healthy, and accessible. I wanted to know Odell’s strategy, and during a phone conversation, she explained that even though she’s still figuring it out, above all else prioritizing context comes first.


JENNY ODELL: Twitter has become this context of hell where we have so much information and no context. It reminds me of when I was an artist-in-residence at the “dump” and I’d go into “the pile” and see objects that should never be next to each other. Normally, you see objects arranged by use or some kind of theme, but this is just a jungle of completely unrelated objects, which makes them appear very surreal. I don't think it's a good thing.

I treat social media the same way I treat advertising: with morbid fascination. Sci-fi movies imagine ads in a horrible future world, and I look at current ads as cultural documents. When we start taking them for granted, we aren’t able to see their boundaries and all the things that determine them. When wading into Twitter, knowing what you're getting into and having a giant grain of salt the whole time is one way I've been able to maintain some kind of separation from it.


I recognize that being able to communicate online has been a huge deal for people with disabilities or people who live in a place where everyone is politically opposed to them. It is really important, and what's useful about in-person meetings is something that you can also achieve in something like a forum or a group chat, where the only thing that's important is that people are recognized as individuals in the group. Besides preventing some of the toxic elements of something like Twitter, being in a contextualized space changes disagreement. In a forum, if someone is being a bad actor, they get kicked out. If it's important to you to be part of this forum, it means that you'll express your disagreement in a way where you're not burning the whole thing down. Everyone feels some kind of responsibility to the group and the group dynamic.

I'm in the process of trying to figure out my online strategy for the upcoming election. One thing I've decided is important is consistency of context. One place I've been looking to a lot lately is KPFA, which is a community activist radio station in Berkeley with a perspective that I'm inspired by and align with — and they cover everything. I like the idea of choosing a handful of specific places that reliably cover a wide range of things. I'm still interested in what conservative people think — it's very dangerous to not know what your opposition is doing and talking about, and how they're saying it. Also, there might be a sort of weird area of unexpected agreement or crossover.

KPFA is a community radio station that has a guiding vision and obvious perspective that I’m aware of. The experience of news on social media is having things thrown at you and not necessarily thinking about context — whereas it's very different to say, "I want to know what so and so thinks about this," finding that information, doing the same thing with a different outlet, person, or perspective, and triangulating to figure out what your opinion is.

I really want to plug community radio and public radio. I was talking to a friend the other day about how the “call-in show” is a funny kind of form of temporary social media. I love this idea that people around the Bay Area will say, "I was doing my laundry, and I heard the show and had to call in." People are doing different things, they're all listening to the same thing, and they're all calling in to express their opinions, sometimes agreeing or disagreeing with the last caller. The fact that it's geographically bounded and about issues that matter to people who live in that place is really lovely.

Another helpful thing in terms of feeling burnout is historical perspective. The time loop as it's experienced on Twitter is so small. It gets harder to think about things from the ‘70s or ‘80s that have a direct bearing on what's happening right now. It's like getting obsessed with the leaves of a tree and not looking at the rest of the tree and thinking about how the leaves even got there in the first place. Even with Wikipedia — you have all of the information that's not being thrown at you that's also not very far away and easily accessible at any time.

Watching Ken Burns’ The West documentary, you look at this stuff that was happening in the 19th century and all of these times it seemed like the country was just gonna fall apart. There's a lot of stuff in the documentary that I wasn't taught in school. There's no way I’d know about that, and it totally changes my perspective on what's happening right now. At the very least, it ties these very granular details of the present to a longer story in which they aren't any less horrible, but they start to make a little more sense. That's a very valuable feeling right now.

How To Do Nothing’s Jenny Odell on balancing political burnout with engagement