The Tyranny of the Faceless Other

Apr 11, 2021

Behaviour

Life

There is a set of thoughts I always battle with when I sit to make something.

“What will people think?”
“Will people want this?”
“Which parts should I keep and which parts should I remove?”
“What should I even write about?”

When I want to make a video, I start thinking about all the possible videos I could make and all the reasons why someone wouldn’t want to see it. When I come up with ideas for coding projects to make, they’re usually for a large group of people with loads of features.

I think all these problems have their root in the same issue- creating for an imaginary group of people. You don’t know this crowd of people, and at best, have a vague idea of who they are and what they want. I call this group of people ‘the Faceless Other’.

The Faceless Other is a group of people you’ve invented in your head who are going to use or judge things you do. This group is vague, doesn’t have any clear objectives, and its size is unclear. It also goes by the names ‘other people’ or ‘potential users’.

The vague size and needs of this group means that you can invent as much criticism about the thing you’re making as you want. You can think ‘hmm, people might not like that,’ or ‘hmm, people might find that part boring,’ for any part of your creation.

The Faceless Other doesn’t have any real needs, problems or personality. It doesn’t give you any specificity about what to make. You can constantly shift the goalposts in your head, and because of that, you have no idea what features to focus on or what to write about, or what to edit out and what to emphasize. When you create for the Faceless Other, you create for no one.

And because it doesn’t exist, you can’t beat it. You can always conjure up a new thing to get confused about, or something else to criticise about what you’ve done. And that means being perpetually confused about what to build and whether people will even like it. It looks like writers block, or being a perfectionist, or being unable to ship what you’ve already made.

The Prevalence of the Faceless Other

Today’s world is full of people living for the Faceless Other.

Many of my high achieving friends had an underlying anxiety and discontentedness. Before University, they spent their time wondering what to do to get admitted, be it taking up activities, overloading on classes, or any number of things that weren’t 100% true to themselves just to pander to what some admissions officers would think, several years in the future. But now that they’re in, it’s about where they’ll go for grad school. And then, I’m sure, it’ll be about where they get a job, and then their position in that job, and so on. A perpetual state of keeping up with the Joneses.

But I see a variant of this in almost everyone. There were several people in high school who’d follow hundreds of Instagram accounts just to be followed back, and then their sense of self worth would be determined by how many likes their posts got, despite the fact that they didn’t know half the people liking them. These followers they didn’t know were their version of the Faceless Other that they created.

I have a theory about why this performance culture is so prevalent- instead of worrying about the people in our 24 person tribe like we evolved to do, social media allows us to compare ourselves with the entire world. Every time we see someone on social media doing better than us, we’re hit with FOMO. Each scroll is a whisper in our head- ‘surely you could be doing better.’ Every action is now a performance that will increase or decrease our position on the global leaderboard. Eventually, we internalise this voice, constantly doubting whether actions will improve our standing, and create our Faceless Other.

If making for the Faceless Other produces confusion and anxiety, living for the Faceless Other will give you a confusing and anxious existence. You won’t be able to discern what you want to do, or ever truly know whether what you did was valuable, because you’d always be worried about what ‘people’ will think. What will people think if we drop our degree to pursue our passion? What will people say if we work on that idea that ‘everyone’ laughed at? Your judgement will also be clouded, making you ask questions like - what should I study in university? What do I really want to do in life?

Beating the Faceless Other

The solution to this is simple, but not necessarily easy. You need to completely stop doing things for the Faceless Other. You need to stop and really think about the voices in your head, and whether they are truly yours. Once you’ve identified the voice that causes confusion and anxiety, get rid of it.

What’s left are your preferences. If you really listen to them, they’ll provide a clear path forward for what to work on, and what parts of your creations are worth keeping. And if you’re creating something, you don’t necessarily need to listen to just your own feelings. It can also be the feelings of someone else whose preferences you know well. This gives us a useful heuristic. You need to create for an audience of one that you understand well.

An audience of one is specific. Whether it’s you or someone you know well, there are clear preferences that you can cater to. They have a manageable number of needs and pieces of feedback. Which means that creating for an audience of one is specific and attainable. You have a goal post that can tell you whether you scored or didn’t, so failure and success are both explicitly defined. Now, you know what to make, but more importantly, you know exactly when you’ve failed making it.

This makes creation much easier. You can’t find out what an imaginary crowd of people wants, but it’s not impossible to find out what you or someone else wants. And even if you don’t know what you want, you can quite easily identify what you don’t want. Admittedly, if you’ve spent a long time living for the Faceless Other, understanding what you truly want won’t be easy. You’ll have to pay a lot of attention to how you feel about things, not necessarily what you think about them.

But the task at hand, in a way, becomes harder. Because now, you can’t beat around the bush with nothing to show, because it’s very clear when you’re falling short. The only way to succeed is to actually create or do something you or someone else wants, and you can’t bullshit your way out of it.

Pay Attention to how you feel

Any time you get confused about whether you’re hitting the mark, you’re getting swayed by the Faceless Other again. Ignore that voice, and get back to paying attention to what you, or what someone you know well wants. Create for that specific audience of one.

If you’re confused about what to do, you’re probably getting confused by the Faceless Other, and not listening to your own feelings. You have the answer to what you want to study, whether you should stay with those people, or whether you enjoy what you’re working on.

Given that you now have a clear goal and no unnecessary extra work, you can focus your attention on the small details. Instead of treating what you’re doing like a product on an assembly line, you can treat it like a single piece of art, and add special touches that wouldn’t be possible at scale. You can follow your intuitions instead of your anxieties. Instead of a machinistic, static tool, it can be like a painting that grows with intention.

And I promise, when you stop listening to the Faceless Other, life becomes a lot calmer. You aren’t as worried or anxious all the time, and your decisions are a lot easier. If I had to give a simple formula to convey, I’d say - pay attention to how you feel about things, not what the voice in your head tells you you’re supposed to care about. And then listen to those feelings. They’re smarter than you’d think.


Special thanks to Mini for her feedback on drafts of this post