What Do I Do?: An Illustrated Report On Free Will, A Book Launch, and Companion Nachos

Two years ago, I lived in an airport for 48 hours to promote The Fun We’ve Had. There was no way I’d do that again, so to promote my book, The Strangest, in which the narrator cannot leave the house without running it by social media first, I decided to hand over my free will for 48 hours to social media and do whatever they wanted. It turns out they wanted me blonde. More on that later.

I began with a sort of “Hello World” prompt, one that stated the following:

#thestrangestauthor — 6:51PM — Testing, testing. Am I a) Fine b) Anxious c) Doomed

This one received one like and three people commenting, all of which quickly dismantled the multiple choice format, one choosing A and B and another flat-out negating to directly choose, stating that “I didn’t bring any number two pencils.” Clearly I complicated the format and inherently encouraged people to troll, dismantle, and play it sly. I see this happening all the time, the inherent need to reply with something snarky or humorous, but I worried that the experiment might not make it past this. I threw out the entire format. Every preplanned prompt scrapped. I had nothing.

I also had nothing to lose. I went to bed that night defeated, giving myself up to whatever happened the following morning. I woke up at 6am to a sudden, jolting panic. Predawn, dehydrated, confused — but I reached for my phone and knew that I had to go through with it. I took a photo of my bedsheets and defaulted to the only thing that came to mind:

#‎thestrangestauthor — 6:13am — awake (why?) — what should I do?

The Strangest, Michael J Seidlinger, free will

I sat up in bed, waiting — it took every ounce of effort to keep from instantly deleting the post on Facebook and Twitter and giving up on the entire experiment. Alas, I didn’t have to wait long — within a minute, I received a comment, “Write?” In terms of possible first-prompt comments, this was perhaps the absolute best-case scenario. I replied, “I like this prompt. The current novel is always calling to me anyway.” I stumbled out of bed, dug around in the dark (I didn’t want to wake my partner) for the laptop, and sat cross-legged on the bathroom floor.

I wrote 500 words of a current novel-in-progress, disregarding my inner editor’s need to go back in and comb through every line. Meanwhile, others had commented on the post:

“COFFEE”

A link to an app, “Write or Die

“Get back in bed…”

“Masturbate.”

However, it was clear that I had already been given my command. I listened and the end result was a solid 500 words before the workday. That never happens.

#‎thestrangestauthor — 8:13am — Hair good? Needs more work? THIS IS THE FACE OF EXHAUSTION.

The Strangest, OR Books

As I got ready for work, staring at my face in the mirror, I got the idea to ask social media on how I should style my hair. Within moments, I received a handful of likes (inevitably leveling out at 51 likes) and just as many comments (34 comments). Some suggestions included:

“For your generation the hair is great. If you were 10 years older you would need to own a comb.”

“You look great, just go with it. bend over and touch your toes, then stretch up towards the ceiling with your hands. do that 5 times. look in mirror, give yourself a wink and a thumbs up, then get going.”

“I say go blond for the day.”

“I like your walls.”

“Poor bastard.”

Even though I surrendered free will to social media, I was, like most others, a slave to the paycheck, the sustainable day job. It takes an exorbitant amount of coffee for me to be a functional employee but I almost never drink more than a few cups in the morning. Today was different. I had to ask social media.

#‎thestrangestauthor — 9:54am — 4th K-cup of coffee?

The Strangest, Keurig, K-Cup, OR Books

The post leveled out at 27 likes and 18 comments with the general consensus being:

“Don’t stop at 4… You need at least 6.”

“My literary hero.”

“You are going to wear out your Keurig.”

It was at this point that I realized what was happening. With the current iteration of social media, timing isn’t always everything; the lag between initial posting and first viewing isn’t as instantaneous as one would like. Perhaps it had to do with the algorithms affecting when and how someone saw my content. I noticed that activity staggered over the course of the day, creating a microcosm of commentary. In many cases, I acted based on the first couple and checked up later to see a sometimes dizzying array of notifications, all coming from prompts past due.

The experiment transformed on its own — no need to skew or direct it. The complexities I had intended on controlling disappeared and, once again, the simplest reasons and effects evolved the act into a reactionary performance:

#‎thestrangestauthor — 11:18am — uh oh non social media interaction: what do I do?

The Strangest, OR Books, Phil Hearn, Project MUSE

19 likes, 12 comments.

“Hiss at him!”

“Also going with hissing.”

“Keep repeating “my eyes are up here,” even if he’s staring you in the eyes.”

“Give him my phone number. I’ll scare him away.”

Due to the immediacy of Twitter, the acceptance rate of the various prompts varied greatly. By the middle of the first day, I leaned more on Facebook than Twitter. On Saturday, I no longer bothered with Twitter. I assumed that it had to do with peak hour(s) traffic, competition with the steady stream of activity, and more so to the fact that I didn’t create a special twitter account for the experiment. I used my own handle and I knew that I had planned poorly in that respect. Yet again, I complicated things, unaware that the importance of twitter handles dedicated to specific events like livetweeting, edited accounts, and so forth.

#‎thestrangestauthor — 2:18pm — Shake Shack — what should I eat?

The Strangest, OR Books, Shake Shack

9 likes, 26 comments.

“Get a shack stack!”

“The fair shake is delicious but it’s like 6 dollars.”

“I’m slightly disturbed by your following through with this. I was weirdly all behind your airport deal, but for some reason this one bothers me. Regardless, good luck, consider a veg option…”

While eating my meal, I remember thinking, “People aren’t going to stand up for this.” I figured there’d be a severe decline in activity; I expected to lose followers and friends. As of my last scan (yes, I use third party programs to scan my social media accounts so that I can examine logistics, find out who unfriended, unfollowed, etc), that doesn’t seem to be the case. People not only stuck with the experiment but I also started getting direct FB messages of encouragement, further suggestions, and more.

#‎thestrangestauthor — 3:25pm — should I just, like, get on this “boat” and never come back?

The Strangest, OR Books, boat, Baltimore

21 likes, 24 comments.

“DO IT!”

“Very life aquatic, so, i like it.”

“No, seriously. I am every bit in the mood to just jump on a ship and disappear.”

The anxiety started to get to me. I felt like I had a camera strapped to me. I didn’t feel as though I could freely move from one act to the next. I had to gain approval, approval from what was essentially a phone clasped in my hand. Moreover, I had continued to gain suggestions outside of the prompts. One leading suggestion was what had been delivered three times through comments in previously posted prompts: Go blonde. People wanted me to be blonde.

I knew that this could take me to an uncomfortable place; I had been relatively lucky up until this point but, well —

#‎thestrangestauthor — 6:00pm — blonde — you bastards wanted me to be blonde. This is all your fault.

The Strangest, OR Books

185 likes, 107 comments.

“SUPER SAIYAN.”

“It works.”

“Welcome to the blonde club! smile emoticon”

“Where the hell was i…sorry, michael…man, I was supposed to steer u right.”

“So Michael’s the main vocalist, right? So he does our screams and our melodies. But we’ve also got this guy who raps and produces, and then like five other guys playing instruments. And we’re gonna revolutionize metal, bro. Our first album is called Chimera Postulate and it’s super-fuckin’ heavy!”

“This is the best picture I’ve ever seen.”

“This escalated quickly.”

Me with my blonde hair wanted to relax. I definitely didn’t want to go out in public, though everyone I knew locally urged me to create a prompt based on drinking. I still had a lot of reservations about drinking, due to having a scare or two due to heavy alcohol consumption, so it was easy enough to ignore the idea and stay in.

#‎thestrangestauthor — 8:34pm — to [name withheld] — I was told, “You should get shitfaced.” — My response: “Books not booze” — tell me which book to read over PIZZA and a CIGAR…

The Strangest, OR Books, FSG, Sloane Crosley

28 likes, 21 comments.

The prompt functioned as an extension of another social media series I conduct — “book porn” — where I post pictures of forthcoming titles I received from publishers. I ended up reading on the balcony with a Romeo Y Julieta cigar, the quiet of a day finally at its end lulling me into the capstone prompt:

#‎thestrangestauthor — 10:26PM — Blonde, caffeine withdrawal, unrequited escapes from life & land… time for a cigar, a book, a disappearance. See you tomorrow. This concludes day one of the strangest.

Soundtrack: Tame Impala — “Yes I’m Changing”

The Strangest, OR Books, cigar

58 likes, 20 comments.

“I thought “spliff.”

“I like the blond hair. Haters gonna hate.”

“Stay coping.”

I turned out early, sleeping smelling of cigar smoke, in the clothes I wore all day. I felt relatively good about the day’s events, but I still had one day left and there’s no telling what social media would want of me.

I learned my lesson — less is indeed more — choosing to begin day two with an equally simple and honest prompt:

#‎thestrangestauthor — 9:03am — this is “sleeping in” for me; what do I do today?

The Strangest, OR Books

16 likes, 23 comments.

“Find some donuts!”

“Go to the zoo.”

“Spend today staring into the eyes of your own insignificance in a rapidly expanding and indifferent universe, as reflected in the pool of terror at the bottom of every human heart.”

“Bring the donuts to the zoo.”

In Baltimore, sure there’s a zoo within a reasonable distance but even better is the National Aquarium. I had my sights on the location but I didn’t want to go alone. I drove to my partner’s apartment, coffee and donuts in tow. Sure enough, as I arrived, she was awake, watching some ballet movie. I sat down with a sigh and, like the best prompts (and social media posts/tweets), I reacted on impulse:

#‎thestrangestauthor — 10:23am — she tricked me into watching a ballet movie; help me — what do I do?

strangestauthor11

17 likes, 33 comments.

“You have to perfect a plie and put proof on Facebook.”

“Sneak out and go to the zoo.”

“It’s two against one Plie.”

“Accept your fate Michael. It’s easier that way.”

“Jeté your way to the store and eat some gummies.”

Within moments, people eyed me doing a plié or a jete, a ballet move that I had no business doing. And yet…

#‎thestrangestauthor — 11:54am — you all made me do it. Shut up

The Strangest, OR Books

66 likes, 30 comments.

“Hahaha what r u doing.”

“Where does the tea come out? not a very good teapot. looks like that ballet movie got to you.”

“Nice form.”

Oh god, someone, somewhere, something save me. Thankfully the National Aquarium was on tap to prevent this from becoming one big “Teach Michael ballet” trainwreck.

#‎thestrangestauthor — 1:54pm — Baltimore Aquarium — what should I do/see?

Baltimore Aquarium, National Aquarium, The Strangest, OR Books

32 likes, 31 comments.

“Jelly fish!”

“Octopus.”

“Find the biggest fish and sing it Happy Birthday.”

After a bit of an embarrassing series of events, I ended up at the aquarium where the prompts and reactions quickly delved into a sort of “secondary audience” sort of paradigm. It felt like people started requests to see certain exhibits, as if they were living by proxy, through the narrow viewfinder of my experience.

#‎thestrangestauthor — 2:08pm — Baltimore Aquarium- I hate these things.

The Strangest, OR Books

39 likes, 25 comments.

“What are those?”

“Is there a chambered nautilus?”

“Jellyfish — still better than some humans.”

During the chance filming of this video, I really felt inspired and outright enthusiastic about the fact that both myself and my partner were not only enjoying the National Aquarium but also doing it in a sort of strange, reality-TV sort of spin, where every minute or so, we had to check our phones to see who posted what, to see our next requests.

#‎thestrangestauthor — 4:46pm — should I be jealous? — with Alyssa Weinstein

#thestrangestauthor — 4:46pm — should I be jealous? — Alyssa Weinstein

Posted by Michael J Seidlinger on Saturday, September 26, 2015

233 views, 11 comments

“Oh, it’s just another literary critic.”

“Offer it your soul.”

We had to leave the aquarium sooner rather than later to attend a reading and subsequent dinner where, at some point, I ended up with leftover nachos. Nachos that I carried around for hours. I’m not joking. Hours. It got to the point where I no longer realized that I was carrying them and those around me referred to the nachos as my “companion nachos.”

#‎thestrangestauthor — 7:41pm — been carrying these nachos around the city for hours; I can’t get rid of them.

The Strangest, OR Books, nachos

16 likes, 18 comments.

“Open the container. Resume.”

Nacho Rat.”

“At this point they aren’t a snack, they’re a companion. a man and his nachos: coming soon to TLC.”

But that was all beside the point that the day was nearing its end and everyone, including those online — remember, Saturday night on social media is a dismal thing, an echo at best — felt the need to end it soon. Though a number of other prompts existed and had a decent amount of activity, I felt as though it had found its natural conclusion.

The Strangest book cover

Looking back, I really wish I hadn’t planned so much. I didn’t need to orchestrate what would happen. I must have written up two-dozen prompts, each with their “perfectly conceived” multiple-choice options. I didn’t have time to interpret or direct. I simply acted. When I couldn’t be in command, I was forced to react. I had no time to see where exactly I was going. I simply leapt and hoped that the people caring enough to be a part of this experiment cared at least a little bit about the fact that I would leap. I would. I did.

The moment I tested what I had created on paper, it was all denied. Even so, I gave social media the keys and though they could have easily denied this experiment, they still let me drive. I’m learning. Still getting used to the idea of baring it all.

Click here to listen to an Electric Literature mixtape inspired by the book. To purchase a copy of The Strangest, click here to be redirected to the publisher’s website.

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