Dear Twitter Friend,
I very much enjoyed reading your ‘Five things I love about Twitter.’ It was a happy read, one that showed, in a remarkably simple way, an easily overlooked truth about how plural people are, how we are each capable of a range of behaviours, how one should not lose optimism in people – especially not now. So, thank you for sharing the piece with me, it was honest and open and positive. It was your perspective. And it was lovely.
But, as I admitted to you already, I enjoyed reading your piece in the same slightly removed manner in which I would read about a writer that I like and admire, giving me five heartfelt reasons why drinking six glasses of gin a day has led him to successful and satisfying writing. That his artistic experience has been greatly enhanced by his discovery, makes me happy, but really, that’s just empathy – I am not tempted to try it. I’m simply not brave enough!
So, as promised, and only because you asked so nicely, here are my ‘Five things I don’t love about Twitter.’
Again, as we already discussed, I’m not going to dispute your arguments, only present my own. I should disclaim that for the purposes of this note, I am using Twitter, perhaps unfairly, as a proxy for all social media, which I have made a choice to opt out of, in its entirety. I should also disclaim that I am perhaps in a very small and out-of-fashion minority of people who feel this way. My ideas on life are perhaps very different (also, uninteresting, outdated, uninformed, irrational)…
Nevertheless, here we go:
1) The problem with “connection.”
We seem to associate social media with the word “connection” in the same spiritual vein as History books speak of the Buddha in the instant he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. It is presented as a kind of sacred relation, the secret to a lifetime of eternal bliss in the 21st century.
But what, please, is a “connection?”
How is it to be measured, this “connection?” By its number? By its depth? By its weight? By its global reach? By the celebrity of its name? By the number of records it’s published? The number of movies it’s made? That it speaks on radio? Or presents a TV show? Or writes books? Or won the last Master Chef Australia? Or can it also be a nobody from nowhere that’s done nothing, never? Is it measured by behaviour? By the clever things it says? By how many times it likes what clever things you think you’ve said? By which “connection” agrees with you and which “connection” doesn’t? How about frequency? Does a “connection” who writes to you once a year on your birthday carry the same weight as the “connection” you are married to? Or to the “connection” you’ve never met, but exchange tweets with every morning without fail, from the window seat of the second carriage of yet another late train, over the fucking disaster that is South Western Railway?
You see my problem.
The thing is, life for me is relational. As in, I exist in relation to other people. People. Blood and bones. A face. Body language. Tone. Intention. Nuance. Eye-contact. I have no problem engaging with people with whom I disagree, whose beliefs and ideas are different from my own. In fact, I enjoy it, particularly in the current political environment. It broadens perspective, allows one to challenge preconceived notions, presents the opportunity to change one’s mind – all of which offer the gift of empathy and a kind of beautiful freedom. But for all of that to happen, I do require, as a kind of necessary thing, that people be involved.
I have no problem with “connections,” as long as it is people I am connecting with. But when people become reduced to data, I become confused.
2) Twitter demands perfection (in other words – I don’t like to be shouted at…)
Social media is one hell of a high bar. It asks – no, demands – that one be clever, witty, politically correct, interesting and basically perfect ALL the time. All the time. From the moment you open your eyes in the morning to the moment you go to sleep at night. Times forever. It’s like being on a reality show. For your whole life! No bathroom breaks allowed. No sir.
Admittedly, there are many who seem to do this with a kind of effortless expertise. I applaud them. Who doesn’t want to be perfect all the time? It’s the impossible dream made possible. For some. My problem is simple – I’m too flawed for this kind of thing. My best performance is on a page – by a long way – crafting stories about imagined people and their imagined lives. When it comes to the real story of my own life, I’m kind of a mess. Too incomplete, too imprecise, too imperfect. Not performance material, definitely not. The fact is that sometimes I don’t feel particularly clever. Or witty. Or interesting. Or politically correct. Sometimes, I just need to be able to pull down my knickers and pee. Without being shouted at. In 280 characters.
I’ll take it one step further. Amazingly, I am A-okay with making mistakes. In fact, some part of me wants to make mistakes because I have this terribly old-fashioned idea that if I don’t, I will never learn; if I don’t fall, I will never get up; if I don’t fail, I will never succeed. So actually, incredibly, I want the luxury to be able to make mistakes; I want to indulge myself and fall and fail and then get up and try again. Is this bad? Is wanting to be wrong so wrong? See, the way I think about it – as long as the mistakes get progressively fewer as I get progressively older, which hopefully is the whole point of living and learning (another provincial notion), I’m cool with that.
But twitter, oh twitter, twitter, twitter. Man, that thing is UNFORGIVING! Mistakes = Not Allowed. God forbid you fall. Even just once. One small lapse of judgement, one small slip up, one “wrong” thing said… uh oh. That show’s over folks! No room for error. No accidental fuck-ups. No second chances. NO likelihood of getting up if you fall. Especially if you’re a connection that’s not a nobody from nowhere that’s done nothing, never. Then, man. Then, if you fall…
Well. You’re probably going to lie there, in a scrap heap of your own carelessly transcribed mess, with your ears filled with the angry tweets of broken “connections.”
Yeah. Like that.
3) Twitter is a time-hoover
I don’t think this needs much expounding upon. Basically, I am wary of anything that takes me away from my work, which itself I view as an indulgence. To do what I do and to do it well, takes up my every waking moment, sometimes at the cost of the REAL people in my life. Virtual people, then, are a luxury I cannot afford to commit to, in any meaningful way, and I admit this openly.
It’s entertaining, I’ll give it that. Social media is certainly entertaining. But life is entertaining enough, isn’t it? Think of the times we live in. Brexit is a word. Trump is President. Some unfairly beautiful people in The Times are telling me that I’ll attain ‘satori’ (and good skin) by drinking bean water and chanting mantras. I’m already entertained out of my fucking mind. In my spare time, I’ll have some boredom then, please. With an extra side of boredom. Thanks.
So, I am okay-ish to use Twitter on a limited basis for my limited purposes, i.e. to scan it like I would a newspaper (but who is monitoring the quality of the news?), gain some insights, make some (supposed) ones of my own, retweet a particularly impertinent entry from Susan Sontag’s diary or a photograph of New York City from 1940. Or even to respond to people I like, with small but deliberately positive sound bytes. But not to dispute. Put down. Argue or debate with. I simply don’t have the time. Basically, I am happy to be openly superficial. In tiny doses. But to be anything more or deeper, is something I opt out of, not only from choice, but as a matter of survival.
Put another way, Twitter can be a dangerously addictive place, and knowing myself as I do, I prefer to stay away from anything that is either dangerous or addictive…hand me something that offers both, and we’re suddenly in the territory of Class A drugs.
4) Quality Control
“It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!” Tweets the President of the United States, a statement that is so wrong for so many reasons and in so many ways, that you’d run out of numbers if you tried to count.
We speak of openness. Open platforms. It sounds grand, but here’s the thing: there’s freedom of speech. And then there’s anarchy. People going at 100mph down crowded city streets with no traffic lights. Free for all. Anything goes. Sounds like fun. But it’s reckless as hell.
Same deal with social media – anything, it seems, does go. Anyone can say anything about anything, at any time, and then simply vanish, unchecked. Anyone! Yes! Anyone can jump into whatever conversation they like, whenever they like, bully someone out of their thoughts, hurl a few personal insults and then, when they no longer “like,” they can disappear behind a picture of a fluffy white tail and a screen name that says, ‘Kitty Kat Meows.’ Enough said. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is outraged. Everyone MUST speak. ALL the time. Cat is spelled with a C. Just saying.
So, we speak of “connections,” but we don’t stop for a moment to think about the quality of those connections or the quality of insight being imparted by those connections. Because there is none. There is no quality control. A tax-evading, real-estate magnate is President, OK. We, the American people, allowed that to happen. I have to accept that. But on Twitter, he’s also a scientist. Also, an expert on global warming. Also, a weather man. Also, a wall man. Twitter allows that to happen. I don’t have to accept that.
As for the rest of us, we too are everything on Twitter. Not much different than our Mr. Trump. Everyone is a writer. Everyone is a musician. Everyone has an album. Everyone has a book. Everyone has an album and a book. Everyone is both model and (their own) photographer. And these days, everyone, but everyone, is a politician.
There are more ‘eyes’ in the world than ever before. Except they are not seeing, only speaking. A cacophony of “I’s” everywhere you go – slick, self-promoting, brilliantly disingenuous. It’s hard not to find it deafening, seriously deafening, permanently, irreversibly deafening.
5) The performance of being loved
Time passes, technology evolves, but our souls do not change. From the beginning of time, we have wanted to be loved. In fact, even the idea of the opposite is intolerable. There cannot, possibly, be anything worse, can there, than to be *shudder* unloved?
And so, like a debutante in a 19th century coming-out party, we play our part; the slimmer the waist, the tighter the corsage, the greater the prospect of being loved. The 21st century version of this isn’t that different. The form is different; the formula is much the same. We’ve figured it out. Like we’ve always figured it out.
And so we live on walls and in profile pictures, in this fake-happy pleasure palace with its infinite Keats’ chambers. It’s dazzling, the choices in front of us, just there for the asking. One room has ‘friends.’ Another, ‘followers.’ A third, ‘fans.’ All you have to do is put on the show. Play the part. Perform. A good performance wins you likes! An extra good performance, and you may even get loves!
Who doesn’t want love?
So, I understand the allure. It’s not so simple to resist the temptation to choose five thousand superficial connections over five meaningful ones. We might feel that something isn’t quite right, but the math is telling us otherwise. It’s the clever brilliance of social media. It messes with you. It fucks with your brain. It’s designed that way. To sell you things you don’t need, from people you don’t know. And all under the illusion of love.
The scary thing is asking yourself this: how long does it take before the lines blur, before you cannot separate, even in your own mind, the difference between performance and reality? How easy is it not confuse the character with the person, the avatar with the real you? How long before we start believing our own lies; becoming our own fools? How far can you resist buying into your own carefully crafted version of yourself? And once you buy in, can you then get out?
Is this, then, what we call freedom?
But in order to answer this question, first we have to answer others. For e.g. – What is personhood? What is beauty? What is friendship? What is love? Does having five million followers on Instagram make you beautiful? Does having five million followers on Twitter make you successful? Does having five million friends on Facebook make you good? Does having five million “connections” on the internet make you feel loved?
Suddenly then, at least to my deluded brain, this bright new world seems less like freedom and more like a particularly insidious kind of entrapment where you are impossibly stuck inside your own head, playing games with yourself, calculating your next move, knowing that eventually – finally – you will be checkmated, because whatever you say, at the end of the day, we are our own most formidable opponents.
This is the thing, right? You want to understand what’s going on in the world around you. You want not to be fearful of it. You want to embrace change. But when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
To love and to be loved in real life is tough. This is a pretty freaking hard thing. We spend most of our life chasing love; love spends most of our life evading us. In short: love doesn’t come easy. Friends. Same. Having friends – real friends – friends who will bear arms for you, even two, this is also tough. This takes a lifetime. Of work and effort and sacrifice and unconditional, sometimes-very-uncomfortably-unselfish giving. And even then, after all that, it can fail.
So when someone presents me with something that gets me – by virtue of one witty remark – twenty ‘friends’ just like that, when one semi-smart “insight” or one funny joke or one flattering picture, opens up the prospect of being adored and worshipped, followed and friended and loved, I get suspicious.
So I understand the allure. But I also fear it. It makes me uneasy.
As uneasy as it makes me feel when I stop and look – really look – at the smile on the face of a mannequin that stands at a shop window, with its impossible curves and its stylish clothes, beckoning me in with that beautiful smile. Perfect. Painted on. Inanimate.
(And that’s it, folks. Show’s over. Do I get a ‘like?’)