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?


Another smart monkey


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