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Anti-Social Media

So, the new year is a few weeks underway, and I’ve already made what I hope will be one of the best choices I’ll make all year long: I plan on scaling back my involvement in social media and the Internet in general a lot. As in, maybe a weekly post or two on Facebook, a few tweets, maybe a blog post every week (inner voice says hah, that’s generous). As a replacement for this online time, I plan on writing and reading a whole lot more, with the end result of being more well-read this year than I was last year, and also placing more fiction and nonfiction pieces in various places, hopefully. If you want to call it a resolution, then call it a resolution. Either way, this feels like the logical end result of a lot of my observations and feelings from being online last year, so it’s a no-brainer to me.

The truth is, I don’t really think social media is all that good for me, and I don’t see the personal function it serves for me, not as it is at this time anyway. I really sat back and thought about this at the end of last year, once I reached the winter break from school. There were long stretches of time where I didn’t post anything on Facebook: personal updates, links, shares, whatever you like. It didn’t upset me at all. In fact, it felt pretty awesome, not having to worry about it.

Previously, I worried a lot about posting things regularly and trying to get likes and comments because… because that’s good, right? Getting lots of likes is good, because that means lots of people liked something I said, and I can point to that when talking to other people and say, “See? People like what I say. They think I’m funny/smart/heartfelt/etc.” I suppose retweets and favorites and follows on Twitter work the same way. You say things and share things in a certain way to get people to follow you and share what you say, which you probably got from someone else anyway, and so on so forth. At the end of the day, you get a bunch of followers so you can say you have a bunch of followers.

Now, this is good when you have something to sell. When you’ve got a novel, or a movie, or something significant to show people as a commodity for them to buy, it’s fantastic. I, however, don’t have anything like that, which is why I realized my previously established pattern of online engagement and social media use didn’t make sense. I was marketing a nonexistent product. Some people are awesome at using social media while working on their own original stuff, but I am definitely not one of those people.

Furthermore, I found myself getting sucked into ongoing conversations and (more accurately) arguments going on in the social mediasphere. Granted, there was a lot to talk about last year: global warming, Ebola, Ferguson, politics, feminism, #GamerGate, police brutality, and so much more that it hurts to think about it. Some of the discussion online was thoughtful and smart, but much more of it was stupid. Just, stupid. It was so stupid that it made me think that social media really was making people dumber, like alarmists say it is. I can’t begin to count all the time I spent last year writing hypothetical responses to things online, only to delete it all because I realized I spent all that time writing something in response to something else that was fundamentally, horribly stupid.

AHHH MAKE IT STOP

AHHH MAKE IT STOP

This gets into a much more problematic reason why I’m scaling back my social media engagement for at least most of or the rest of this year, and possibly further in the future: I think it’s constructed in such a way that it oversimplifies discourse and prevents people from taking actual, appropriate action in the non-Internet world. Simplistic, extremist viewpoints are far easier to express in the space of a tweet or a Facebook post than complex, considered ones. The former are also what get shared, retweeted, etc. more often. More familiar statements then get privileged over newer ones. The construction of social media sites actually makes it easier to share what someone else has said, rather than finding your own way of saying it. This turns social media into a colossal echo chamber of opinions bouncing back and forth with little change, because people by and large are less concerned with changing the minds of those who disagree with them and more concerned with simply being louder. And, in social media, the loudest get the bragging rights. I also think that social media just allows people to let off steam and then move on with their lives like normal, when in fact that might be the last thing they should do. That’s not even getting into the people I meet online who present themselves one way on Facebook and then act totally different (and not in a good way) in real life.

Quite frankly, I’m tired of struggling against this noise every time I want to figure out what’s happening anywhere, and I’m sick of getting upset over what people say and do online. That energy would be better invested on my end in reading, for instance. Two hours spent reading a book – like The Kills by Richard House, for instance, or a hundred other books I really want to tackle – would be more valuable to me than two hours spent over the course of a day thinking about something I want to post on Facebook to get the maximum amount of social media leverage. Two hours spent writing things that could then get published elsewhere, and then shared and commented on by others (including myself), is even better spent.

And that’s the thing too: I want to publish stuff in venues other than my blog, for instance. I want to publish in magazines and presses, and websites on the literary or geek culture side of things, and every essay I write for this blog to initially publish here is something I’ve potentially missed out on placing elsewhere. I have to seriously consider the personal economy I’m creating for myself as a writer, and social media makes it way too easy to give things away for free. I want to get paid.

So, for the most part, I’m not really using social media this year. I still plan on using it to stay in touch with people, but no more overt attempts to say pithy things for the sake of it, and no more sharing of links that I think will make people form a conception of my identity that I want them to have. I want to do most of my work outside social media, writing stories and novels and essays that can be published elsewhere on the Internet, perhaps, and maybe then I’ll be able to use social media more often, because I’ll have something to sell. And, ultimately, I want to figure out a model of engagement that works for me. If it takes the whole year, so be it.

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The Problem with #amwriting

I have a confession to make: I don’t like the #amwriting hashtag. I just don’t. It makes me cringe when I see it trend on Twitter. I click to read them sometimes and they’re normally variations on people saying how much they’ve written for the day, or lamenting writer’s block, or simply wishing to tell people that they are currently writing something. My quick reactions to those options are as follows, respectively:

  1. Cool! Get off Twitter and keep writing so you can get more words.
  2. Ugh, I’ve been there. Get off Twitter and keep trying, though. Or go take a walk.
  3. Uh, thanks. Get back to me when you’ve got something I can take a look at.

I really hope I’m not just being a contrary bastard with this. I have friends and mentors who participate in #amwriting when they’re working on their latest story / essay / poem / script / whatever. Of course, I don’t think they’re stupid or narcissistic or anything negative or wrong to use #amwriting while they’re working. It’s their decision, and I respect it by and large. It’s just not a decision I share for my own work or social media persona. (As always, if you have counter-arguments or just want to share why you like to use #amwriting, feel free to leave a comment. I want to hear your POV.)

If someone wanted to accuse me of just feeling sour grapes for the #amwriting thing, well, they may have a point. Sometimes I just don’t write anything, for a variety of reasons, and sometimes my feelings of groaning distrust for #amwriting coincide with these periods of null activity on my part. I don’t feel jealous when I see people who are writing when I’m not, though; everyone has different methods of working, regardless of discipline, and seeing someone who is #amwriting doesn’t make me feel a lack of validation or usefulness for my own method.

My distrust, in other words, is not in the individuals who use #amwriting, but rather in #amwriting as a performative signifier that writers might feel they have to use in order to prove to others that they are in fact writers. This feeds into one of my biggest problems with social media in general as well: everything becomes performance for the sake of gaining an audience or social influence, or worse, for simply proving you exist.

I’ve had these feelings for a long time now, dating far back to my days as an undergraduate at Missouri State University. I remember telling people I knew about all the plans I had for my writing – essentially verbally enacting #amwriting in person, pre-Facebook/Twitter – but the more time I spent telling people about my writing, the less I actually did it, and the less I had to show for completed work. In performing myself as a writer for others, I didn’t do the real work of writing. That was a realization that I didn’t have until my senior year, when I decided to just shut up when it came to talking about my writing and instead focus on producing completed work. I don’t believe it’s coincidental that my writing made a quantum leap in quality that year. Now, that probably isn’t every writer’s experience, which is why I don’t judge other writers for using #amwriting, but it’s impossible for me to completely divorce my feelings on #amwriting from my own experience.

I suspect that what finally pushed me to write about this is the recent collection of people’s #amwriting tweets, Working On My Novel by Cory Arcangel. I will not buy this book, and if anyone tries to gift it to me, I will refuse it. For starters, I could always read it online for free if I wanted, on a weekly basis, or I could just find a copy of it in a bookstore, read it in ten minutes, and put it back on the shelf. Beyond that, though, the existence of this book in the first place rankles me, even as I agree with (what I interpret to be) the point of the project.

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The joke of the whole enterprise, of course, is that by taking time out to tweet #amwriting, these authors aren’t actually working on the project that will hopefully develop their careers as writers – which I don’t disagree with, per my earlier statements. I suspect that by using this book, someone could (and probably has) made the point that in the contemporary era of social media persona/identity development and cultivation, you can build an audience for yourself before you’ve even completed anything for sale or ready consumption by “performing” as a writer through social media. They’re also doing the work of networking with other writers, editors, and publishers who participate in #amwriting, which is an admittedly positive side effect of the practice. I do sincerely hope the people who use #amwriting actually develop audiences for themselves; otherwise they’re just tweeting into an echo chamber alongside thousands of other people doing the same thing. They all wind up bouncing off each other. It’s like sidewalk salesmen selling their wares to each other.

As such, Working On My Novel is the moment where the emperor has been stripped of his clothes, so to speak, for many of these people – especially for the people featured in the book, unless they actually do have novels or other works getting published (in which case, rock on, people!). They’re caught in a moment where their performance is revealed as exactly that. The distance between simulation of work and actual work is totally collapsed. Hooray. And, of course, the more someone has to convince others that they are actually working, the less work they do. (Which is what makes the cover art for the book rather brilliant: a pot that hasn’t yet boiled. Well played, Penguin Books.) It’s bad enough that we as writers have to turn our work into commodities to be consumed, but now we have to become commodities ourselves.

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Ultimately, however, my sympathies do not lie with Arcangel, even as he collects some rather egotistical tweets in his book. Instead, they lie with the authors. I would love for every author collected in this book to take this moment and own it, saying “Fuck you all, I’m going to finish my novel.” I’d love to see a new hashtag follow up on #amwriting as well, maybe something like #writingdone, soon to be followed by #newproject.

As much as the constant need to perform as a writer bothers me, I understand why it exists. The work of a writer is invisible until publication – and, quite frankly, no one really cares that a writer is writing or has been writing (aside from other writers) until they see the finished product. They work in solitude, and social media gives them a chance to not feel so lonely in their work. I get that. And so, I think the mission of Working On My Novel hews too closely to mockery of the authors, which I don’t support. If anything needs mocking, it’s this constant demand to perform our work even as it distracts us from our work, so we can show society we’re worthwhile. Everyone meets that demand in different ways. My chosen method is to turn my back on #amwriting and do my work in secret, so no one suspects what I’m doing until it’s done. If your chosen method is to use #amwriting, fine then. No worries! Just make sure to get your work done and put it in someone’s hands in the real world in the end.

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