My Struggles with Social Media
A couple of weeks ago I posted that I was deleting the Queerly Reads twitter account. And then I didn’t. What gives?
In the past year, Twitter has made me feel various shades of uncomfortable, bored, unhappy, anxious, and enraged. Eventually I asked myself basic questions about why I had Twitter and what I was using it for, and I realized that the basic root of my discomfort was a kind of cognitive dissonance: What I was doing was not inherent with my values. I was trying to subsequently rearrange my values but couldn’t, quite, and it was clawing at me even when I wasn’t using the site.
I got social media for Queerly Reads because it’s what you’re supposed to do when you have a website. I tried to tweet nice things or reblog useful information or leave people little replies with the end goal of getting followers, in the hopes those followers would visit my website, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
I was also told that social media can be a place for genuine connection, but let’s be a little real: No one on the Internet would have any way of knowing whether I was dead or not, which is something I do expect my friends to know about me. Living in Japan, it’s unlikely I’ll have a chance to meet too many English speakers from the Internet in-person any time soon, and IRL meetups remain the best way of gauging Internet friendships. So, yeah, it’s been a year, and I’m yet to make a BFF over Twitter. (I have made lovely writing connections on the Internet, but I wouldn’t chalk any of them down to social media—the good stuff happened through email or more focused communities, like NaNoWriMo.)
One of the things that was causing me constant mental discomfort was the message we’re told vs. my actual aims for the Internet. We’re told to want hundreds or thousands of followers, and to always aim to expand our platform. But in reality, I went online because I wanted to maintain access to the kind of book discourse I really enjoyed when I lived in New York. And every great conversation I’ve ever had has happened with 15 or fewer people in the room. Part of me knew that queerlyreads.com could have, like, 10 faithful followers, and I would be happy, while another part of me was getting on the bandwagon of social media promos—talking to book-related PR sites, requesting ARCs and feeling pressured to review them while they were ‘relevant,’ etc, etc, etc.
One of the reasons I have been so consistently unhappy when using social media or thinking about it is because it is impossible to navigate without falling into its script. Zadie Smith in her essay “Generation Why” points out how Facebook forces us all to stoop to the level of Mark Zuckerberg when he was a college sophomore. You can poke girls (like shy boys do); it is preoccupied with personal trivia (because Zuckerberg defines friendship as the exchange of personal trivia); you have to “prove” you have a life (pics or it didn’t happen, bro!); you can say you’re “friends” with someone by just clicking a button (like a sophomore boy who wants to get away with doing the absolute fucking least for other people). We are all Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook; at least a little bit.
Zadie Smith writes, “[B]e attentive to the software in which we are ‘locked in.’ Is it really fulfilling our needs? Or are we reducing the needs we feel in order to convince ourselves that the software isn’t limited?”
We follow different scripts on other platforms, but none of these scripts match my needs or the ways in which I wish to utilize the Internet. Even Goodreads, which I once dearly loved as a reader, is feeling increasingly constricting. The other day I was typing an update about a book that absolutely fired my brain, and my book update overran the character limit. Feeling defeated, I deleted what I had typed and stopped my own train of thought about the book. This is how we stoop down to the level of social media.
The truth is that Queerly Reads has never once generated meaningful discussion of books except between QR’s own contributors and, back when we did author interviews, with authors. Social media is inherently anti-meaningful-discourse, as no conversation in history has ever happened when dozens or hundreds or thousands of voices were all meeping in short bursts of digital characters at once.
One time I made a poll on Twitter asking if anyone had ever purchased a book because of Queerly Reads, and I felt validated when people said yes. Again: I am not a book vendor. Why should I care if you buy a &^$#ing book? But this was how my brain had been nudged into thinking.
I deleted the poll shortly after, as I delete a lot of my tweets, because social media breeds a paranoia about being judged. It forces us to flatten ourselves, which is a huge issue when you let Twitter become your main outlet for random thoughts.
It wasn’t until I became quite sick in August, and immediately fell behind on my ARC to-read list, that I realized how easy it is within the book community to feel like a manipulated sack of jumbled book thoughts, a machine meant to read ARC after ARC after ARC. Free books are supposed to compensate reviewers for the hours of our time we commit to reviews that might sell a couple more copies for authors. I have a job and an income and most romance books cost $2.99, so why?
To be clear, I don’t think anyone is bad or manipulative in this equation (except Jack Dorsey); we’re all just trying to pay our bills while reading and writing or whatever. But I don’t like that my hobby felt economized, and not even to make money for me. I’m not a book vendor. I’m not a door-to-door salesperson. I’m just trying to read some books, you know?
I felt like in order to book blog I had to keep up with my Twitter feed, and with the feed came all of the drama, rage, venting, politics, and sheer idiocy. I literally have never read three intelligent tweets in a row. Tweets by random bot accounts and by J.K. Rowling are equalized in their stupidity. Twitter is not a forum for valuable discourse.
I started thinking about deleting Twitter last December—less than three months after I opened the account. But it wasn’t easy. Twitter hijacked my time, and increasingly I found it difficult to wake up in the morning without checking my feed. And when I checked my feed at 6:30 in the morning, I was letting Twitter decide my first emotion of the day. Because Twitter is Twitter, I might wake up to a mass shooting, a Turkish dictator’s injustices, starvation in Yemen, Trump’s existence, North Korean missiles, a random serial killing, a police beating, an author being stupid, or a racist book review. It was pretty much guaranteed to be one of those things. By checking Twitter, I was setting my mood for the day, and 9 times out of 10 my mood was going to be anger, hopelessness, despair, or anxiety.
Twitter made me feel powerless, but it also implicitly tells us we can become powerful by tweeting. In Notes on a Nervous Planet, Matt Haig writes, “The temptation to spend our lives tweeting rage at the injustices of the world is a human one, but it isn’t enough. Ultimately, it may simply be adding more wails to the collective wails of shock which aid those in power, or on the political extremes, who want us distracted.” Haig’s mention of “shock” is referencing Naomi Klein’s term “the shock doctrine,” the “cynical tactic of systematically using ‘the public’s disorientation following a collective shock’” to gain corporate or political power.
I have rage-tweeted stuff for a whole year and have never once solved any of the world’s problems. And any time I have done a good thing, like teaching or voting or de-weeding my local rice paddies, etc., I have not done that good thing with the help of Twitter.
I started Twitter about eight weeks before I sought out a therapist for anxiety, and now I wonder whether those two things aren’t related. Matt Haig writes, “cynicism is a luxury for the non-suicidal,” and I would add that, “Twitter is a luxury for the non-anxious,” although I would argue that actually Twitter isn’t a luxury for anyone, it’s mostly just shit. But still. Twitter, at the very least, doesn’t exist for brains wired like my own.
I stopped scrolling down my feed a few weeks ago. It took months of reading about the ills of social media, from Zadie Smith’s Feel Free to Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the Internet to articles on Jaron Lanier. I’ve come to understand why and how social media is so addicting. I read this study that says your cognitive performance can be decreased simply by being in the same room with your phone when it is turned off.
I wriggled out of Twitter by adding two-step verification, so it is now difficult for me to access Twitter without my phone. I now keep my phone, turned off, in another room. I do not bring it to work with me. I turn it on briefly in the evenings to check my text messages.
A few observations of my brief Twitter-free life:
1. The other day my friend and I talked about the great euphoria you feel when your body comes back to equilibrium. For example, if you’re choking on a cracker and then swallow some water, there’s this spasm of joy you get when you’re no longer coughing. That’s how being off Twitter feels. I spent 22 years without Twitter and then I choked on a cracker for a year. It’s good to be back to (mostly) normal.
2. I feel the existence of the QR Twitter account looming over me, which is stressful but not as stressful as scrolling my feed.
3. I am surprised by how little I miss it and how little I feel I have missed. When I do glimpse social media, I see how utterly stupid it is. For example, a book blogger I like recently wrote a lengthy response to an article someone wrote about bookstagram, and then someone commented on the book blogger’s response about how the initial article caused them “blind rage,” and this is the kind of rabbit hole I used to try to keep up with every day, but now I just look at it and feel sorry that so many people feel blind rage over something that is really just an issue of design. Social media is shittily designed.
4. I am subscribed to The Economist and it is nice to read the news only when I want to read the news, on the non-alarmist platform of my choosing.
There’s this half-assed TED talk I don’t like about a guy who gave up Internet for a year in an attempt to be productive. It seems like whenever we imagine giving up modern technology, we fantasize about becoming ultra-productive. This is deeply ironic, because so many of the Internet’s faults have to do with capitalism on steroids.
Increased productivity is not the point of my social media restraint. The point is largely to protect the parts of my life that are not economized, which means not aiming to be “more productive.” I have started playing with a Rubix cube when I want to go on Twitter, like someone chewing sunflower seeds after they stop smoking. I find I enjoy this small, physical activity that I am very bad at because it has nothing to do with me spending money or making money for others. No one pays me to play with my Rubix cube, and there is nothing picturesque or noteworthy about it, so gone is the temptation to put it on Instagram or Twitter. It’s just a small thing I do because I like it. Like reading can be. I literally lost that when I went onto Twitter.
I’m currently working my way through Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig (I also recommend his article in The Economist). In it he writes:
“[W]hile imagining what life would be like without social media I…went to social media to try to find out. I…[asked] my Twitter followers … : ‘Is social media good or bad for your mental wellbeing?’ … I received over 2,000 answers.
[C]onsidering that these are people who are active and regular users of social media, the picture is quite negative. I mean, if you imagine asking regular book readers or cinemagoers or horse riders or hill walkers the same thing, it would be unlikely you would get such a mixed response.”
My responses to Twitter are definitely a mixed bag. I wanted to delete it, but shortly after tweeting that I would, Giorgi wrote up this brilliant queer Halloween story. I felt obliged to maintain a platform as a way to spread our contributors’ lovely work. But I won’t be tweeting my random thoughts on there anymore—and if I do, you’ll know it is because I am unhappily addicted.
I recently got some notebooks. In them I scribble my random thoughts on reading, writing, and anything else. It is amazing how much deeper I can go when I’m not being judged by random strangers or limited to 280 characters or worried about making a typo. I give paper journals two thumbs up.
Here’s a reading list for anyone interested in thinking more deeply about social media:
I Hate the Internet by Jarrett Kobek
Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier