Putting my money where my mouth is: Week 2

The point: You are missing it.

The point: You are still missing it.

Conversation from the future:

“Welcome to your page, Alicia. Here are your recommended friends…”

“Ugh, Mooooooooom! I told you, Lyle is a stupid boy.”

Does that conversation sound strange to you? Or is it all too plausible?

I personally cannot log onto a social network without feeling like Big Brother is trying to get me a play-date so that he can go to the park with his mates.

As I pass the one-week mark of my “Not on FB or Twitter anymore” the boredom starts to recede, and while I still get the urge to browse, it is not as strong. (Being sick probably has something to do with that, as well.) Productivity is not any higher (see previous post) but it isn’t lower, which is a fair balance. Overall, there have not been any grave incidents where friends were unable to contact me, and I haven’t experienced any symptoms that might be associated with solitary confinement. Not a bad prognosis for now.

While there haven’t been serious temptations for me to return to the social networks, I do find myself reflecting a lot on them. Today’s thoughts are expanding on something I wrote earlier, that is: forced sociability online.

As Jaron Lanier says, people give too much credit to siren servers. To put it as straightforwardly as I can: the sites benefit the more we share, and we share more when we have more connections, ergo the sites benefit when we are connected. The algorithms then try to make us notice as many ‘mutual friends’ as possible so that we connect with them ourselves, presuming that ‘mutual friends’ means that you have interests in common.

In other words, social networks recommend friends to you the same way shopping sites recommend products based on your purchases. (Or, as Jamie Varon put it, Tinder makes it possible for you to order a date in the same way you order take-out.)

Setting aside the ethical and moral quandaries that arise when someone treats someone else as a commodity, there is a huge fallacy in this method of making social connections – not everyone you are friends with on social network is actually a friend. A friend (or a follower) is a shorthand term for anyone, from your lover, to your kindergarten teacher, to your mom, to some guy you briefly punched in the face during training, (and then bought them a drink because it’s only polite), to a colleague you don’t get along with. Occasionally, the more technologically savvy employ a stratified approach to whose posts they see and whose they do not — but not everyone is technologically savvy, which is why we hear about recruiters denying jobs based off an applicant’s social media profile. However, this does not resolve all the issues that come from such a simplification of social relations.

An obvious consequence, for example, is the proliferation of what Nancy Baym calls “weak ties” (2010). In other words, we make connections with people we do not know that well and we do not invest much energy into them, and yet those connections exist in our lives. From the outside, we look like we have a wide, thriving social circle, which is presumably good because “bigger is better”, but in reality, we only talk to a handful of these people, and even with social networks, we are not aware of the most basic details of their lives.

Another, much more serious issue is that the algorithm does not differentiate between one kind of friend and another. As such, someone may be forced to connect with people they don’t like or get along with simply because they share a pool of acquaintances and use social networks for organizing meetups, or just talking. In addition to having to interact with people we find unpleasant, this kind of connecting for the sake of the group exposes us because they see our profiles, presumably created for a different audience in mind.

This doesn’t even begin to account for all instances where you share mutual friends with a person who hurt you in one way or another in the past; a person who still makes you anxious by simply existing within your periphery. Again, non-participation in social networks is very difficult, and even without the technological advancements, there is always pressure on the part of peers for one to “just get along” and “play nice” for the sake of the group. Facebook didn’t invent peer pressure, but it does not make it any better, either.

Finally, the unspoken social conventions on social networks do not fare too well with change. Once you are friends with someone, you have to stay friends – to unfriend or to block is considered as a last measure resort, in case someone becomes abusive or makes you feel unsafe in another way (and even then, as I mentioned, there might be peer pressure to play nice.)

But relationships are not static. If anything, they are a living thing in themselves – they are formed or born, they grow and develop, they stagnate, they grow weak, and yes, they also die. Sometimes people move away, or change jobs, sometimes there is a serious event which severs the relationship, and sometimes it runs its course when participants no longer have an interest in common and cannot bring themselves to put in the effort to keep it alive. We may mourn the loss of some relationships – it is, in fact, perfectly human to do so – but some we simply let go of and we move on.

The only thing social networks do in this context is artificially extend the life of relationships we no longer care for, turning it into weak ties, or, as it sometimes happens to me, sources of resentment and envy. There have been occasions in the past where I was so busy feeling jealous for missing 5 different things, that I could not enjoy the one fun thing I was doing now. The truth is that I don’t have the energy to live six lives at once, and I do not appreciate being told that I should by a computer that thinks it knows better.

Or, in other words:

Mooooooooooom, stop trying to decide who I’m friends with!

Spinning on the coin’s edge

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“Presence is a far more rewarding and intricate art than productivity.”

– Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

There is a word that crops up a lot on the Internet, in an alarming array of contexts. “Entitlement”. Entitlement of gender, entitlement of having access to a certain technology, entitlement to an opinion. “Entitlement” might just knock “privilege” off its spot as ‘number one keyword that makes everyone froth at the mouth’.

Yet today, I want to talk about sense of entitlement; my own, to be exact.

For the past week, I’ve been dealing with a nasty illness, a by-product of a congenital condition that has been getting progressively worse the older I get. Needless to say, productivity has been low, and for someone with “type A tendencies” this is pretty much all the encouragement one needs to go down a rabbit hole of self-reprimands and doubt.

Those familiar with seminal works in psychology might have read Erik H. Erikson describe the pendulum swings between the id and the super-ego: on one hand, I’ve got what I wish or could have done, while on the other, I have what I should have done. “I deserve…” vs “It’s my fault.” The pendulum swings and swings, only passing the golden middle for a little while before veering off into the next extreme. (See: Childhood and Society, 1950:175)

The pendulum is an apt metaphor for what the constant swinging between attitudes of entitlement and self-flagellation does to me. It calls to mind a hypnotists’ watch, disorienting and vertigo-inducting. Yet, I find ‘two faces of the same coin’ a much better illustration for what these two attitudes are. I should be productive, I deserve to be productive (and thus have all the positives associated with productivity today, such as professional success and a good work-life balance) – this is essentially the same thing, just seen from different points of view. “I should” – I compare myself to others and find myself lacking and thus I have to compensate. “I deserve” – I see myself as entitled to a certain thing due to some personal quality that cannot be measured, and thus I have to compensate (or the world needs to compensate).

Both are equally frustrating.

The only “cure” as far as I can tell is to spin the coin, slow the pendulum down, and stay as close to the middle as possible. The ego, to use Erikson and Freud’s terms, which looks at everything and has an awareness of reality outside of our own perceptions. (Of what the story is that we tell ourselves, according to Brene Brown, and what the rest of the people around us are actually doing or saying.) Because we have gravity, the coin will eventually fall and the pendulum will swing faster, but if we did it once, we can do it again.

In layman’s terms, this means: I am sick. I will do my best today. It will be enough.

Get off the high horse.

There’s no room for it right now.

Putting my money where my mouth is: Day 3

The point: You are missing it.

The point: You are missing it.

After some deliberation (and alerting the handful of people I kept in close touch with over social media) I went and disabled what active FB and Twitter accounts I had. Findings so far: I am bored.

I use social media to distract myself when I’m in a rut – writing, or copying stuff down, or even when the show I’m watching gets to a dull part. Turns out, I get bored more than I care to admit. I find myself opening the browser on my phone and just staring blankly at the screen because there is nothing interesting there, no feed to scroll down, no interesting quote to like or pin or reblog. I assume that this is just the first stage – perhaps within a week or so, I would have either cracked under the pressure, or have moved onto more interesting projects, having somehow shed my Pavlovian reflex to log on social media whenever I find something I’d rather not deal with.

Or maybe shedding the reflex will take longer. Qui sait?

One might wonder if leaving is as simple as saving your data and pressing a few buttons to deactivate your account. (Note: I’m not taking about full on profile deletion, just a deactivation. Your friends will get to keep your profile picture on their roster and even some of your PMs.) After all, despite having over 200 Facebook friends, I only had to tell five or six of them (+ a large group I frequently posted in) that they will have to email if they want to get in touch – suggesting that, whatever social impact my leaving had, it would be minimal.

However, there are still drawbacks – group events and announcements, for example. If I want to learn about the next big regional or writing meetup, I have to either call or email, or, gasp, talk to other people and double-check with them. (Am I the only one who practices what she has to say on the phone before she dials the number?) Despite the fact that the fastest way to get information is to talk to someone, it’s so much easier to send them a message or post on their wall. Why? Displaced mediators, perhaps?

And even if I regularly spoke to a select group of people, they were still a social circle. If anything, social media was where I went to share random observations and enjoy a helpful chat when things got a little tense. Without those mini-interactions, my day suddenly feels long and, well, boring.

Let’s see how many more times I can include boring in this post.

Despite my current dejection, I know for a fact that there will be times in the upcoming weeks when I will be better off not to be on social media. Times that are better off left to go as unnoticed as possible. The build-up to the holidays is especially frustrating – marketing mixed with humblebragging mixed with feverish preparation usually sets one for disappointment. Worse, it makes one especially susceptible to writing passive-aggressive posts about how they’re really not feeling the spirit of the season.

But that’s neither here nor there.

As for me, here are a few more reminders why I can do without social media:

  • It’s a game without winning
  • It’s too much work for what it’s worth
  • I really would rather do with not seeing a certain kind of post on my feed
  • I’m tired of helping Facebook sell ad space

A Gentle Reminder

I sometimes read back on things that I’ve written, either online or in a journal, and I feel incredibly sad. Not sad as in: “Why did I do this, oh, my God, I cannot look anyone in the eye again!”; sad as in: “Oh, honey… sit down. Have a cuppa. It’s not so bad.”

Instant feedback is the siren song of today. I cannot say that the days of throwing bottles in the ocean are over – indeed, I’ve frequently compared my social media experience to pouring water in the desert – but the promise that someone might reply, the very possibility of someone hearing our call and shouting back is enticing. As a teenager, I framed my calls as fanfiction (okay, well, they were less calls and more like demands for my greatness to be acknowledged). As a young adult, I turned to reviewing and snark, developing my critical thinking and literary chops at the same time as purging my poison into unsuspecting websites.

These days, still a young adult (though not that young) I limit myself to the occasional post on social media, and use my critical eye on myself (most often in private, though there is also the occasional blogpost). I try to resist becoming overtly passive-aggressive – I know, from experience, that I will most likely not get the response I wanted, and that would make me even more depressed in turn, but there is something else that needs to be said here, something that I (and I suspect others) neglect when I go on a website to express my feelings.

Those feelings are often transient.

They are not the same the month, the week, the day after I had them. Heck, they might dissipate in the time it takes me to write whatever it is I plan on posting on my FB/Twitter/blog/whatever-it-is-young-people-use-to-get-away-from-their-parents. I might be tweeting about being hungry while making the snap decision to eat the last slice of plum kuchen. I might be writing about my heart still hurting after three months, and then look back another year later, happy in love, or a happy singleton, and shake my head in the same annoying way all adults do when confronted with a child’s youth of experience.

“Oh, honey…”

Growing pains are a real thing and most people are quite sympathetic to them, but there is a difference to experiencing those pains in front of your immediate family and friends, and having them in front of your potential employers, colleagues, and every future lover you might or might not have. So here is a gentle reminder, now, to everyone:

Dear future employers, colleagues, lovers and non-lovers,

I experienced growing up on the Internet. If you read a message from me, please read the time-stamp as well, and then check if I’ve written anything better more recently. I’m not telling you that I didn’t mean what I said way back when. I’m asking you to check if I’ve changed in the meantime.

Thank you kindly.

Quicksands of Connectivity

There is no such thing as a thought born in a vacuum. From the shallow to the profound, they all exist in relation to something – another thought, a person, an experience, a view. And so, the remains of yesterday’s post, little bits and bobs that didn’t make it into the final cut, or were not pertinent to it, kept knocking around in my brain, met some more thoughts, and kept on knocking until I had to give it a reflection of its own.

I sometimes feel like social obligations are like quicksand – the more you struggle, the further you sink in, and unless someone tosses you a rope, you are pretty much done for. There are situations where a few well-picked words can help you cut through the bullshit, but because of the rules of social niceties, those words are often considered rude, and the people using them as antisocial.

And social media isn’t helping matters.

This is where, again, I need to put in the obligatory disclaimer that I’m not hating on social media and the social media users. To do so would be horribly hypocritical, and I won’t pretend that I don’t log onto FB and Twitter multiple times a day, to say nothing of more specialized networking sites. This post isn’t about the benefits of the Internet and of general connectivity.

Let us set also aside the frankly dubious ethical practice of Facebook and other social media sites to sell our private data to advertisers. Advertisement pays for all the free content we get online – whether we like it, or whether the profits of it are equally and fairly distributed, is a question for a whole other day. Instead, let’s talk about how the privacy algorithms fuck us up.

Can we agree that participation in social media has become near mandatory for everyone (under a certain age in the Western world)? It’s not just to see your friends’ holiday photos or read their minute observations on their day – nowadys, your friends are exclusively on Facebook. Meetups get organized through the events function rather than via email, or the phone. If you’re part of a group or a team, you go on FB for events schedule. Your coworkers and boss post the rota online. Your coworkers and boss also expect you to like event announcements so that they know that everyone knows. AND YES, ALL OF THOSE THINGS ARE OK IN OF THEMSELVES, but it makes it hard for you to opt out of social media.

And even if you don’t have an ethical beef with companies selling your data to advertisers, there are other reasons why you might not want to be on Facebook. In fact, here’s a short, non-exhaustive sample of those reasons:

  • Privacy is opt-in. Even if you are on a website with clear, simple settings, you have to make sure that your profile is not open to the public and that only certain things are visible to your non-friends.
  • Even when you’ve put your privacy settings at their highest, there is still the risk of a moderator making a forum public, or a glitch happening, or you accidentally sharing something with a wider public, or someone re-posting something you said publicly.
  • Once made public, this information is going to remain out there, easily searchable, for the rest of eternity.
  • You get notifications for everything. Even if you say you don’t want to, you still might get notifications, pings, emails clogging up your inbox. If there is important stuff there, it’s usually lost in the landfill.
  • Social niceties. Oh, god, the social niceties. Not only do you have to endure being tagged in pictures from back before you were in a training bra (some of which you’d rather not see yourself, let alone show to your friends) you also have to deal with friend requests from people you haven’t spoken to in a decade and who, as far as you can remember, didn’t even like you.
  • On the other hand, because you clearly share acquaintances with a certain person, your profiles will get thrown up in the “recommended connections” bar which I still cannot get rid of and is driving me nuts.
  • For some people, so much as seeing a person’s profile picture can cause them intense stress. No, I don’t want to be friends with the guy who bullied me in high school, you stupid site, why do you keep throwing that profile at me?
  • Blocking people is considered a last resort, but only unfollowing them doesn’t guarantee that your profile is hidden from them. I would sometimes receive event invitations or likes from people I would rather not see, ever, but because apparently I can’t escape without giving offense, I have to keep declining and readjusting my settings, as if my Facebook page is a piano that is constantly out of tune.
  • Parents and siblings commenting on photos from your nights out with friends. ‘Nuff said.

As much as people praise social media (and again, I like it. Most of the time) the sad truth is that our privacy is a matter of a mathematical algorithm, which we fight and yet somehow we never completely vanquish. The price of staying connected is more than just a few ads in the margin of our newsfeed – it is a constant, incessant intrusion on our time, and a battle to carve out a space for ourselves and the people we are friends with. Offline, it’s easy enough to walk away from the people we don’t want to see – even the most persistent of mutual friends can be made to understand eventually that we don’t want to be thrown together. They can accept that you know what’s best for you and let it go.

Can you really say that you can argue that with an algorithm?

Smart Monkeys and the Internet

In which I reflect on reactive vs proactive Internet usage through my recent readings, and how that might help alleviate social media burnout.

I spent 6 hours recently on Anti-Social, a programme I got in a bundle with Freedom in an attempt to cut out distractions and work on my grad school stuff. It did its thing. It’s not like it was the most extremely productive day, but when I tried getting on my usual automatic distractions, I was glad that I couldn’t.

And then, the ping went off, telling me my set time was up, and I did my customary browsing. I discovered, much to my dismay, that there was nothing new. I’d missed nothing. Nobody had looked for me. Nobody had responded to anything I’d written. Such a discovery was incredibly depressing.

But you know what is even more depressing? Needing a nanny software to keep your butt in the chair and doing your work. Like you are not a grown-ass adult who can handle grown-ass responsibilities, like considerate social media usage.

Of course, there is a good reason why we’re on social media, and why we check it compulsively. In “It’s Complicated”, danah boyd describes how teens’ social lives is progressively moving online thanks to the changes in culture and demographics, but I think the very same argument can be made for writers, and other individuals. We go online to spend time with friends, or in a community. We get used to having instantaneous access, and then we get anxious about missing out on something, hence constant twittering and facebooking and bloglovin scrolling.

Writing is lonely. People who frequently attend meetups will tell you, it is fantastic to see others just like you, and to freely bitch to them about your MS – characters not behaving, problematic scenes, lack of motivation – #WriterProblems, to use Twitterspeak, which, try as you might, you cannot explain to non-writers.

Unfortunately, going on Facebook and Twitter isn’t like sitting down at some cozy cafe with a cappuccino, talking shop with other writers. Rather, it’s like being at a stadium before a game or a concert starts, getting shoved this way and that, having cold beer spilled down your back, being distracted by colorful costumes, or something suspicious seeping into your shoes, and having to shout to talk to your friends. (What? Just me? Where do you guys go for your concerts?) Only it’s worse, because at least when the band or the teams go out, everyone is joined in their mutual appreciation and enthusiasm for the activity. Seriously, when is the last time you got the entire Internet to agree on something? 

Now, this is the part in the blogpost where I have my major sour grapes. I could say that back in the day, the Internet was a revelation and it wasn’t such a hindrance – I had supportive friends, I had a huge community, and I got to read writers’ blogs and learn about actual writers’ lives. For example, an essay on the financial realities of being a writer convinced me that I was better off studying business so that I had a fallback career. Following a writer’s progress as she created her bestselling novels made me realize just what kind of work goes into making a novel. Reading blogs like Query Shark got me thinking about all the aspects of publishing. It was amazing. Now, my friends and community are gone, and it’s just scandal after scandal and accusations blowing up on Twitter which you know are ridiculous but you cannot look away from.

*deep breath*

Yeah, no, guys. Just no.

Truth is that there has been drama for as long as the Internet’s existed. Truth is that friendships and social networks are not static, but rather, a living network – one that grows and develops and breaks and expires, just like any other organism. Maybe my community would have survived if not for X, Y and Z; but maybe I would have left it anyway. Maybe my friends could have done a better job at keeping tabs on me, but maybe I could have put in more effort, too. And maybe, just maybe, my career trajectory would have been completely different if, at the tender age of 19, I’d read a blogpost by someone who only wrote and who loved their job and who made do with their book advances; knowing myself, though, I would have dismissed such an article as the exception, and looked for those that confirmed my worldview.

See, the grand majority of articles on Writers and the Internet that I’ve read portray us – bloggers, academics, writers, journalists – as a distracted tribe, torn away from our Very Important Work by the siren call of cat gifs and Twitter fights. The Internet is some kind of force of nature that we can only shelter against, or else be swept away by the tide of our (positive and negative) reactions.

What we often forget is that our Internet experience depends on us, as well. What we look for, what we choose to take on board, what we share and how we interact with others. You don’t like your newsfeed? Change the channels you follow. You’d rather have a more private experience? There are forums for that. You want to bitch about something only other writers will understand? Go for it, but remember that privacy means something completely different online than it does off it. Be prepared for someone reading what you wrote completely out of context because it will happen – it’s Murphy’s Law of social networks. Don’t write anything you’re not willing to stand by, and if you don’t stand by it after a year, say so.

The Internet is not a force of nature. It’s a technology that we smart monkeys came up with, and, like Jaron Lanier says, the information shared on it requires other smart monkeys to interpret.

In fact, because I liked “You Are Not A Gadget” so much, here are some of Lanier’s recommendations for content:

  • Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
  • If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
  • Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
  • Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
  • Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
  • If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.

    Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, page 21, paperback edition

Let’s put sincere effort into our Internet experience and see where it takes us, okay?

Love,

Another smart monkey