Getting Seen and Feeling Good with Joshua Byron

“I write a lot about what it means to go viral,” Joshua Byron told me somewhere in the middle of our conversation. The question of internet virality – or as Joshua also puts it, the question of being seen – is something I’d been wrestling with personally for months when it came to this very publication. Just as we decided to produce one final issue of Things Created By People, we got an email from Joshua with a pitch for their latest film project, Idle Cosmopolitan. It was a lucky accident.

Idle Cosmopolitan, which was recently re-released by glo worm, stars Joshua as a relationship writer who enters an alternate dimension. Relationships, romance, and their intersection with trans identity lay at the center of Joshua’s work, whether it’s one of their many video projects, their non-binary dating columns, Neurotic Dope and Trans Monogamist, or their book, NB Carrie Bradshaw.

Joshua is often at the center of their own work in a way that is incredibly intimate. It’s easy to believe that the Joshua you are seeing on-screen or in words is the Joshua Byron you’ll get in real life. But Joshua is a self-described “very intentional person.” While I am consistently amazed at how raw their work is, it is also thought out, curated, intentional. If you’re seeing a part of Joshua Byron, it is because they wanted you to see it. What does it mean to be seen? To seek out being seen, to then not be seen? These questions run through the core of Joshua’s work, and our conversation.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Joshua Byron: I think Idle Cosmopolitan came out of this desire to meld the sensibilities that I was exploring. I’d seen a lot of Sex and the City, but I also came out of this very experimental background. I really wanted to combine what I was interested in and the themes I was thinking through, which are usually very immediate, and usually presented in very autobiographical narratives, with something a little bit more abstract, and more like Haruki Murakami.

I think a lot of it came out of a desire to think through sex and love in a way that was more than one-note. It’s an experimental, semi-autobiographical narrative about not getting married at 21. That’s what the press release said. It’s sort of like how life devolves into these endless forks in the road. In this case, it’s about a relationship advice writer who keeps going left instead of right and gets dragged along by no force of their own. And not even just led by outside forces, but just ends up going into a queer world, which is sort of an alternate dimension.

Adam Cecil: I think the other way I saw it described on your website was “a ghost story about the queer world.”

Joshua: Yeah, that’s the easier way to blurb it. It’s a ghost story, it’s about an alternate dimension, and it’s about death, in a light-hearted way.

Adam: You were telling me that your book NB Carrie Bradshaw is not a diary. And it’s definitely not structured at all like that. But the quality of the writing is very much so ripped from the pages of a diary. How do you keep that quality when you’re curating and condensing and editing?

Joshua: I think it’s a very careful distinction, and it’s something that I’ve thought a lot about. Okay, so, vulnerability. How is it different in terms of art, right? Because we always think this artist is giving themselves to us. It’s sort of a strange metaphor that we have when somebody’s being open. But I really don’t think it’s true because they’re giving us an object, and that’s it. I think vulnerability is much more reciprocal, it’s much more unfiltered. But an object, you can’t ask it a question. You can’t get more out of it than there is.

For me, it’s much harder to labor on an object that feels vulnerable, but you’re not giving your whole self. You’re not dumping a diary on somebody. A book, while vulnerable, is not the same. I can give you something, and you can see me, but I can’t see you. And I can still hold back.

Adam: But for somebody who’s reading it, they’re playing around with your vulnerability without you there. To me, that’s terrifying.

Joshua: Right. There were a few things that I took out from the book that I was like, “That’s too vulnerable for this context, I don’t want this here.” But there’s nothing in there now that I would think, “Oh, I hope somebody doesn’t read this.” Different people have said, “Wow, I would never have said that.” But this is just the work that I do, the work that I do requires it. This is the tool, this is the medium. Some people work in shapes and colors, and I’m thinking through vulnerability.

Adam: You’ve created a lot of video work under the guise a vlog. Thinking about your work being diary-ish, I’m wondering how you conceptualize the vlog as a medium or art form.

Joshua: My college thesis was on vlogs.

Adam: Oh, perfect.

Joshua: But I am not good at vlogging. Part of what I discovered through thinking through vlogs is that it’s meant for a certain kind of person, it is meant for a certain type of experience. And it’s not an experience I’m good at giving.

But what’s equally important about vlogs is that they’re diaries. They’re not political. They are easily disseminated. There is an emphasis on production quality, and on the attraction and intimacy that is maybe sexual with the person who’s speaking. And maybe they have an accent. That’s another big part of the vlogger. It helps. It doesn’t hurt.

Oh, and usually they have a vague side-project that they try and launch eventually. That sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The vlog is not the means to an end. It’s always a vehicle for a person or a brand.

My vlogs were more of a means to an end. It was just like, “Here’s the vlog. Here’s what it is.” And I don’t fit a lot of those qualities! But I wanted to see what it was like. Also, I was more interested in using vlogs as a collage space. I was really into Jonas Mekas at the time, when he was doing his video a day project, which I thought was much more engaging than the typical vlog culture.

Of course, there’s also the whole trans vlog community, which has its own collectivity. But it also has that sort of self-destructive, like, certain people are privileged more, certain trans bloggers get more views, etc. So it’s a more contested space that still has all the things about the internet that are controversial. One of the things I discovered, which I don’t think is that surprising, is that white vloggers are getting the most views. It’s also usually the ones who look like they can pass the most, or who have the most inspirational story while looking good doing it. Which is kind of wild!

There are people who have the inspirational journey video, where they show pre-hormone, post-hormone videos. A lot of people feel comfortable doing that, and the people who feel comfortable doing those videos are not wrong for doing it. If that’s how they feel good about their journey, that’s totally valid. But I think for people who don’t transition, or who don’t have the money to transition, or who feel really volatile about pre-hormone or pre-coming-out pictures, those are not the kind of videos they’re going to put up. But those are the videos that the average viewer wants to see, because it’s spectacle. The kind of videos that get privileged are the spectacles, which have this tie to sex.

Adam: Let me back up a little. Thinking about what makes you a bad vlogger – you list out these qualities that go into a vlog as a medium. How did you tackle it knowing that you don’t fit these qualities and knowing that what you’re doing is not what everyone else is doing?

Joshua: I was really interested in the idea that it was a way to keep working. It was a great way to be like, “Okay, this doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be great.” But it’s a great to keep cutting those artistic teeth.

Some were much more interesting and engaging than others. There’s this one where I’m just walking around my living room, and I’m just yelling at things. And then it’s cutting between pictures that I drew. Then there are a few clips of the outside. I think part of it was that I was thinking about domestic and non-domestic spaces, and how are we authentic in different spaces, and how does that change when you collage them together.

I was super into Steve Roggenbuck at the time, so I was thinking through things like who gets to be viral, and what is viral. I wasn’t viral for a number of reasons. But I think that became less important as I was experimenting with collage, and experimenting with, like, “This vlog feels good, this vlog doesn’t, and why is that?” If you’re going to adhere to the rubric, then what makes a good vlog?

Adam: When you started, did you want to go viral?

Joshua: I don’t know if I wanted to go viral. But the goal wasn’t to just have them sit there on YouTube and not do anything. Which is kind of what they became. I did it for six, seven months, and then I realized that it was not how I liked to work.

Adam: If you had gone viral or achieved some level of superficial success, do you think that would’ve changed the way you thought about it or approached it?

Joshua: I think I would’ve done it a lot longer, but I would’ve had to do it for a year or two before anything like that could’ve happened, so that’s already a huge block. I’m also not traditionally attractive, and I don’t mean that as a slight, just you know, in traditional beauty politics. So, it’s hard for me to imagine what that would have been like. It would have felt radical, and not in a political way, but it just would’ve felt like a very big change.

Adam: Do you feel like any kind of work that goes through social media, whether it’s YouTube or something else, is just inherently unsuccessful if it doesn’t achieve some sort of virality?

Joshua: No, no, I don’t think that’s true. But I also don’t think failure is a bad thing! I think failing at one sense of success isn’t the worst thing in the world.

I think people are heralding social media as sort of a democratizer – everyone could have success. But I think it’s actually just the same replication of publishing and media theory that we’ve always seen. Maybe more people have access, and there are great things, revolutions and scary things like that, but there’s still a level of capitalism. Lighting is money! I think that a big thing that Instagram has is that the right lighting is money. That’s a big of part of it – to either have the money to have great lights in your house, or to go to a space that has good lighting, which poor places don’t.

So, I think I’m a little cynical about how social media works.

But I don’t think it’s always bad. I think it has definitely given us things that allow more people to have platforms. Who’s getting that platform and how they’re allowed to use it, I think is a question that has kept coming up in my own work.

I think a lot about the practice of how I’m disseminating my work, and in NB Carrie Bradshaw, I write a lot about what it means to go viral. What does it mean to be visible? How is that connected to identity politics? How is it connected to emotional vulnerability? What does it mean if somebody wants to be seen, and then their Instagram only gets five likes? I think there’s something interesting there.

People may say, “Well, that’s dumb, they shouldn’t care.” But it’s a lot easier to say that than it is to feel that. I think being visible is one of the big human questions that we all want. How do we show up and get seen by other people in a way that feels good? I think social media can kind of twist that question into “How do we get seen?” Not, “How do we get seen and it feels good,” just, “How do we get seen?”

“I don’t think of social media as a medium that I use,” Joshua told me. “We’re accelerating, and my work is not fast-paced.” I admire this quality in Joshua’s work – in a world that is constantly moving forward, it can be nice to sit down and watch a video about a person walking around their living room and yelling at things. But it’s also the fact that the very thing that Joshua is working with – vulnerability – requires us to slow down. It’s not a recipe for massive viewer numbers on the internet, but as Joshua says, there’s more to their work than just being seen. “What does it mean to be seen, and what does it mean to have fun? Can that be the same thing?” Joshua asked themselves at the end of our conversation. “I think it can. It’s a less tangible but more inviting idea of success.”

Find more of Joshua’s work on their website.