Thomas touches on just that phenomenon in “Here for It,” comparing the possibilities afforded by Internet celebrity — Justin Bieber broke out on YouTube, lest we forget — to the “lawlessness” of 1960s New York, when a “guitar-toting hippie” could land a record deal after strumming a few chords on the sidewalk. So what, then? Are we in a golden age of influencer culture or a unsustainable bubble? “I do think all of that reaches a critical mass at some point,” Thomas told The Washington Post. “Because if not — not to sound like Andy Warhol, but if not, then everyone just becomes Internet famous and makes a million dollars off it. And who’s paying for that?”
Q: After years as a digital-media personality, what’s your perception of Internet fame?
A: I don’t know that it is possible to be famous online. At some point, it has to transfer into the real world where fame actually lives. Which is really disappointing for somebody like me, who’s like, “Oh, I’ve got like 35,000 followers, I should run for president!” No, I should not run for president. The idea of Twitter not being real life is, I think, really hard for some people to deal with.
Q: You grew up in Baltimore in the 1980s, and you write in “Here For It” that you preferred the clear dangers of city living to the eerie what-ifs of suburban life. You even say you RSVP’d to family Christmas with a text that read, “Can’t make it cuz of psychos.” Any truth to that?
A: I didn’t actually skip any Christmases. But my brothers live in nice suburbs, with cul-de-sacs and snack drawers in their fridges, and I don’t feel unsafe there. There’s just a lot of woodland! One of my brothers used to be a police officer and he’s like, you gotta be someplace safe. I’m like, honey, I am safe. I live in an apartment building with a doorman, you live next to the woods where they’re gonna film Halloween part 27, so call me when you’re running from Jason or whoever.
Q: In the book you claim to avoid writing for websites with comments sections. As someone who posts his opinions daily, how do you handle the onslaught of critiques?
A: I take them so deeply personally. I never really thought about reviews or opinions, because that’s not why I do things, but they are part of the ecosystem. Someone can say something mean and it sticks in my head — wild things, like me being a “gay illiterate,” or hate mail saying I hate the president and am un-American. Sometimes people are like, “Is this English?” And I’m like, well no, I write in a particular voice on my column — it’s a character. And I do know how to write English, but also, if it’s not English, all right, well, get some subtitles and move on. But why have I made you angry?
Q: You wrote about the first time you angered people with your writing. You were upset about the way Black History Month was being promoted in a local bookstore — with a poster of Harriet Tubman and Colin Powell, as if to suggest “the history of blacks in this country can be boiled down to the Middle Passage, slavery, and whatever it is that Colin Powell means to you.” So you wrote an op-ed for your college paper, but chose to do it as a satire — and readers took it seriously. How did that experience inform your approach to writing online?
A: It taught me the real importance of context and solidified the idea that if I’m going to write out of frustration or anger, I can write straight. And I do that: I wrote about children in cages at the border, and I was like, there’s no humor to be found in this, but I have something to say. Words have power, and if you’re wielding that power inexpertly, particularly through humor, you’re just gonna do more damage than good. When I’m evaluating what to write about in the column, there’s a lot of things I pass on and say, there’s a joke to be made here, but it is not worth being misunderstood.
Q: Politics has always been ripe for satire, but things seem to only be getting more brutal in terms of fighting words and insults. What’s your take on the current landscape?
A: I think a lot about how much is performance and how much is genuine. The Democrats have this idea of decorum that’s rooted in some weird American puritanical culture. Back in the day, there were a lot of men running government pretending that they were having gentlemanly disagreements, when in reality they were fighting on the floor of Congress and saying terrible things to each other, and Lyndon Johnson would expose himself as a power play —
Q: Sorry, he would what?
A: Yeah. When people bring up Lyndon Johnson, I say two things: One, Lady Bird Johnson planted wildflowers along national highways, very pretty! And two, Lyndon Johnson would often pull out his penis when he was trying to intimidate people in business meetings. And then there’s Richard Nixon, who was a monster-person. So this idea that we have to speak softly and be nice is really just patriarchy asserting itself. “Well, Nancy Pelosi is rude.” But we have Donald Trump as president! It’s not like she’s sinking to his level — we’re allowed to express ourselves and express our displeasure. We’re watching these double standards be reaffirmed, with people saying, “Oh, she shouldn’t act like this. We should be better than this.” Well, who is we? And what is better? Sometimes you have to flip the table over!
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.
Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America
By R. Eric Thomas
Ballantine. 288 pp. $26