(a rather long essay about social media and being a writer)…
I post, therefore I am.
Some years back, I went to a photographic exhibition of Barbara Kruger’s work and was struck by the photographic image with the caption ‘I shop, therefore I am.’ This image came back to me recently, when I saw a Facebook friend, who’d been very quiet on social media, post that he was alive, even if he hadn’t been posting. There were humorous quips in response, but mostly, there were warm, encouraging comments, letting this person know they mattered, people cared, that they were happy to hear from this person.
I am friends with many writers on Facebook and I was a reasonably early up-taker of social media. I joined Facebook in 2008. It’s enabled me to connect with writers throughout New Zealand, people I already knew and new people whom I only know through Facebook.
I had a short public spat several years ago on LeafSalon (one of the first on-line blogs for the New Zealand writing community, before Beattie’s Blog) with a fellow writer. I was somewhat pathetically bemoaning my lack of public profile, while trying to appear humble yet seeking recognition. My friend took me to task. She seemed to be saying that after so many years of hard work writing a novel, then it was to some extent disingenuous to not promote your own writing. That a writer should view their work as a product. This jarred at the time and I felt put in my place, but I also felt distant from the point of view that saw a piece of writing as a product. My art, no mere product, but my blood, sweat and tears… resting on some quaint idea that great art will out itself – be discovered – without me having to point towards it. And of course, let’s be honest, it wasn’t even great art, merely good enough to be published. I’m now considering the idea that as a writer on Facebook, if I don’t post links to my published work, or announce upcoming achievements, are they even visible – will anyone know that I have written them?
The idea that you might write a novel, spend several years researching, writing and then launch it and hope that people will find it and read it… now seems quaint and rather luxurious. Of course, there are writers in New Zealand for whom this has been their experience. They were best-selling authors at a time when it was enough to have a high-profile publisher, a few good bookshops and many, dedicated fans. When the writing had to speak for itself or, relied on word of mouth. I recall a saying… it takes six people to tell six people to tell… to make a bestseller.
New writers nowadays maybe less likely to have garnered that kind of following and may have to rely on self-promotion both the free on Facebook sort, or paid advertising, along with the sometimes-feeble efforts of their publishers. They can tweet and hope for retweets, Instagram and generally self- promote. Why not? Tweeting will require dedication. To just create a Twitter account is not enough. You must connect with other influential people for your tweet to be useful. You need to spend time being witty, empathetic, and attempt to look well read, and well connected to grow your list of followers (and er, potential readership). The difficulty is, as on Facebook, if you are a writer, you are swimming in the same pool of posts and tweets as each other. You cannot afford to ignore other’s achievements and it can be time consuming, ensuring you acknowledge everyone else’s achievements, and perhaps lamenting your own current lack of. Cliques of course abound and they both strengthen and depending on your position, inside, or outside, the clique, perhaps even dilute, a writer’s profile.
I am an avid user of Facebook, unable to withdraw from the sense of identity and connection it offers me. There’s a delicate balance between showing off, modesty and faux humility. The humble brag is a tricky beast to manage. You can pull it off successfully once or twice, but if it is your standard guise, you might find it wearing thin. Then again, an outright lack of modesty might also work once or twice and then begin to jar, so why waste time on faux humility? Authenticity is encouraged. I have always hoped that this was what I was achieving, but Facebook has an insidious erosive effect on ongoing authenticity. For some people this means showing their lives warts and all. I prefer to post positive updates, that shine a light on the mostly bright and humorous spots of my life. I am often perturbed by friends who whine, complain or reveal too much of themselves. I censor them privately and wonder why they feel so happy to be so public about what I perceive as so private, or frequently to me, so trivial. But of course, I’m ignoring the fact that my own updates may seem sanitised or inauthentic because I omit the bad stuff. It’s not that I want to pretend my life is perfect. It’s that I see Facebook as a public ‘face’ and not my private face. If I wish to share something deeply personal I will private message a friend or speak (with luck) to them in person. Or, I might text, because I assume this is a one on one chat, ignoring that it may in fact go via more than one ISP provider before it arrives in their in-box.
All of this has set me to thinking about what it means to be a writer and indeed why I write and who I am or wish to be. When I first found writing, late in life, it was the great elixir. A potent antidote to the quotidian, it felt as if my life, post children had suddenly become meaningful. Each new small triumph, a story in Sport, or Takahe, a novel with Random House, an essay in Landfall, articles and a poem in the Listener… seemed to shower upon me, personally, some golden cloak of achievement. I wore this cloak secretly, proudly and I knew no one else could see it, but it warmed me through to a part of myself I never knew. More recently, I noticed my golden cloak no longer warmed me the way it had… it was mysteriously absent and unreachable, possibly even out of fashion. I thought it was going to warm me through to the end. I saw it now for what it was. My unseen gold cloak was hubris. I realised that I couldn’t just wear this golden cloak, I had to continue to write.
Peter Wells, a well-known Kiwi writer, wrote a series of Facebook blog-like postings about his journey with cancer, subsequently published on The Spinoff. It became an unmissable almost daily update as he explored his deeply personal response to this disease, along with stirring memories of his life as a young Gay man in New Zealand. One of the more poignant and striking posts was a moment of cultural alienation (and later he felt, for his parents, shame). In a moment of personal disappointment at not having his own achievements recognised in a public arena (the 1987 Gofta film and TV awards) he took umbrage at the ‘sexist’ cliched portrayal of a Gay man by John Inman of the legendary British sitcom ‘Are you being Served?’ What Peter described as the ‘campest caricature’. He admits in his posting to being angry at being nominated for many awards and failing to win. The accumulation of this being his yelling out ‘fuck off, sexist shit’ at John Inman and the ensuing scandal that he had dared to do so. The poignancy is the shadow under which this cast Peter for many years, not just in his artistic endeavours but in his own sense of self. It is both sad and beautiful to see the healing in his writing about this time but tragic also, that in the conservative era in which this all took place, the impact was so unnecessarily harsh. He found a voice to express this, through Facebook and it resounded.
A famous local children’s writer recently blogged about being transgender, posting intimate details of their overseas surgical facial reconstruction. I haven’t named this writer, because it occurs to me that although I am a Facebook friend, maybe this experience was posted only for Facebook friends. The writing was personal, intimate and interesting. It wasn’t sensationalised in the way that perhaps a tabloid account of a similar journey might be to garner click bait. But, it was indeed, an important story and self-published. Facebook is a natural medium for writers. I try to imagine the same encouragement and support for this type of journey prior to social media, knowing people who endured these journeys in self-imposed privacy, wishing to pass from one or other gender without the transition being public. On alert, antennae tightly tuned to any hint of a sideways second glance. Imposing restrictions on not just themselves but others within their circle.
Recently, I had a poem rejected by a journal I normally have success with. I was disappointed of course, but then decided, why wait? I posted the poem on my blog and a link on Facebook and Twitter. The poem boosted my blog stats over three days and I have convinced myself that more people viewed (and hopefully read the poem) than might have, if I’d waited for it to appear in the journal. I had a positive response. I could have waited and sent the poem off to another journal, but this would mean a long wait and who knows, another rejection. Through posting links on social media (Facebook, Twitter and my blog), I was able to self-publish and receive almost immediate and positive feedback. Of course, the risk is, that through social influence, art is applauded simply because you are ‘friends’ (the clique effect). In traditional publishing, the poem would land on the page, wait to be read, and then perhaps a few months later, if fortunate, a thoughtful critique in another paper publication. Or, indeed, it might have been rejected, by a discerning editor. Facebook has made us all greedy perhaps, for the more immediate. There’s a clamouring for attention. In the scramble, and due to algorithms, the more ‘likes’ a posting gets, the more likely it will be seen by others. Does this mean a piece of writing is good or just more likeable?
Facebook, for me was originally about a sense of community. The water cooler for writers who spend a lot of time on-line writing. It connects us in ways not possible before. Distracts us too, in ways not possible before.
Kirsty Gunn was quoted recently in ‘The Scotsman’ about a conversation she had with Ali Smith at the Katherine Mansfield Symposium in London, in an article entitled ‘The wonder to be found in Katherine Mansfield’s letters’. In speaking about the letters of KM, Ali Smith and Kirsty Gunn spoke of
How they open up our sense of what writing can be, those pages and pages of communication from a writer to her friends and family and world, that we may use them to look about us with a greater sense of wonder and astonishment and sense of possibility.
Future, scholars may well be sourcing some of their material and inspiration from the Facebook and Twitter updates of famous writers. Stories arrive in fragments, images, or in the case of Peter Wells and my other Facebook friend documenting a surgery to reconstruct identity, by way of blog-like Facebook updates. Other writers’ responses are frequently eloquent, lyrical or poetic. In this way, Facebook and Twitter have opened channels of written communication to a wider clique. Whereas, letters or emails sent might only ever include the two participants. In some sense this has democratised the written word, but there are still pitfalls. New Zealand is a very small writing community, so many of us are connected. It is difficult to resist ticking ‘like’ when someone links to an achievement. It would be churlish not to, and too, it can be insincere to tick ‘like’ simply because everyone else has. There is the risk of a herd mentality. Following and liking a popular or perceived to be ‘famous’ writer, could be seen to enhance your own status if one wishes to be cynical. Then too, access to people otherwise out of reach, can be rewarding and widen your circle and sphere of influence. And then there is the over-showing, over-sharing, that begins to tarnish your view of someone. I recall my initial excitement in following Stephen Fry on Twitter, and then my fading interest, as the Tweets kept coming, his incisive wit and originality, fading before my eyes, familiarity as its wont to do, breeding if not contempt, then eroding my awe-full admiration.
Sometimes, I find myself on Twitter, unable to negotiate some threads. People can be oblique, witty and sarcastic, and reference events, or use cultural signifiers that have no meaning for me. And then I find myself in a thread that takes me to the Paris Review and a recorded conversation with Simone de Beauvoir that I undoubtedly would have missed otherwise. There is the frequent opportunity to lose hours following literary Twitter links, admiring others’ achievements, losing yourself in a sea of creativity, but not your own.
There is at times a noticeable lack of empathy. I read a tweet from an otherwise insightful editor, who, when an old school friend ticked like on Twitter after one of her postings, tweeted almost gleefully, that her memories of this old school friend conjured up the stink of urine. Many people ticked like to this scoffing. I was struck by how hurtful and thoughtless this tweet was. Why would anyone deliberately and in such a public way, shame someone? Of course, we were not to know who this old school friend was, but she would know… Yet I don’t believe the tweeter intended to be cruel, it was for her, comedy. It’s the licence we take as writers. Other people are our fodder. I read an essay by Ashleigh Young in the Paris Review about her short stint at the Katherine Mansfield House in Tinakori Road, managing volunteers. She relates conversations with others working at the house, to illustrate her points about the obsessive nature of some KM devotees. These conversations or reported communications are revelatory and very personal in tone. But there’s no personal harm to anyone. The writer has crafted a thoughtful, interesting essay and we the reader, can glean from reported conversations or excerpts from such conversations, her impressions and draw our own conclusions. The difference with tweeting an experience can be the lack of thoughtfulness and craft even within the limited word count.
I was reading the memoir of Christopher Hitchens and he mentions that Bill Clinton’s statement that he did not inhale, was more than likely accurate, as from Christopher Hitchens’ memory, Bill instead ate hash cookies. He also goes on to extrapolate about threesomes in which he implicates both himself and Bill (ah but not together). And although it is the written word, a crafted memoir, one can still, I imagine, read with a certain cautious sideways glance taking into account, memory, hubris and a somewhat misogynistic viewpoint. Look here, folks, the fun we boys had back then. It made me think about Twitter or Instagram back then, and whether an image of Bill either eating or inhaling would have settled the matter. Or Christopher himself abed with whomever, and would the participants be objectified, or delighted to be part of history. But too, we have such sophisticated technology that whole heads can be transferred to other bodies, thus making all images, susceptible to manipulation and requiring a good dose of caution in observing and believing.
There’s plenty of room for hubris on Twitter… A theme starts with post a picture of yourself age 16 and of course, no doubt about it, we all look pretty lovely age 16 and suddenly Twitter is filled with sixteen year olds… the old humble brag abounds… look how gorgeous I was once (of course, the photo is dated, and you are supposed to look a bit gawky perhaps in dated clothes, but once can’t help but think how very weird, that you imagine the internet needs to see these photos)… having said that, I am guilty of posting retro photos of myself on Facebook, looking younger and thinking how cool in retrospect, I did look (although at the time, of course, that wasn’t so at all… we never really measure up do we?)… perhaps this retro posting is a way of finally measuring up.
The metoo# movement on Facebook and Twitter cannot be underestimated. It was a defining moment with the naming, shaming and downfall of Harvey Weinstein. It made it easier for women to speak of what had previously been their unspeakable experiences. It without doubt, kick started an enquiry into the largest Law firm in New Zealand, the mores of the workplace in which misogyny as a normalised sub-text played out over many years and no doubt continues to do so in many other workplaces. But, the downside is that the prolific number of hashtag metoo responses, in a perverse and insidious way, can begin to normalise what is horrific. The way we read about war casualties from the safety of our laptop. And then when it becomes all too difficult, we disassociate. There are moments on Facebook and Twitter when I recoil from too intimate a revelation, shocked, empathetic, but preferring not to know. On Twitter, people spill their guts in 140 character, speaking of abuses, demanding empathy in soundbites. I am overwhelmed, and I choose to restrict my empathy, rationing it to the most deserving (which in my case might mean the cleverly subtle spilling of subtle guts because I cannot face such confrontational gore). What does this say about me? Am I the reason these perpetrators have gotten away with this stuff for so long?
I’m fixated when the rescue mission begins for the Thai boys and their teacher, trapped in caves with a rising tide and monsoon predictions. It’s a gripping story, although I know that in Japan, simultaneously, up to one hundred people have died in floods. Somehow the smaller tragedy is rendered more personal, because a story has been generated about the boys that I can relate to. I keep refreshing Twitter to stay ahead of the story, counting each rescued child. I’ve invested my empathy in this story. Watching the rescue mission for the Thai boys, guarantees me an outcome, whether good or bad and I can cheer knowing that almost everyone would agree and be on the same side as me. I sign on-line petitions, consider myself a passive activist, but from the comfort of my keyboard. I took it personally in 2014 when the Chibok girls were kidnapped. My outrage meant I changed my Facebook profile in solidarity, assuming that of course they would be rescued. My outrage did not last the length of their kidnapping and quietly, admitting defeat, my commitment to standing with them until the end, lasted but a few months at the most.
Increasingly, with the abundance of words on the net, the value of good writing is both valued and trivialised. The deeply private thrill of going to the library and finding a book you’ve never previously heard about, plucking it from the shelf and taking it home to read, to uncover its worth and revel in its beauty without influence or prior expectations, is a joy I miss. The closest I got to this recently, was reading ‘The Transit of Venus’, a book gifted to me in the early 1990’s by a book club friend. I couldn’t engage with it then, and on impulse, after packing up our home of thirty years, I popped it into my suitcase for an overseas holiday. What a profound and beautiful experience it was to finally sink into such extraordinary prose. It was my own specially found treasure. I knew Shirley Hazard was a ‘rated’ author, but I had no idea what joy and amazement would ensue in the reading. Of course, I promptly turned to social media to announce my find… to discover many other people I knew had read and loved this novel.
So… when my Facebook friend, after a long absence, posted a short quip to say they still existed, what were we meant to make of this? Was it a toe in the water to see how warm it was? Was it a line cast into the deep to see if the fish were biting? Was it a weak moment, the person now regrets, because, they find the whole Facebook thing an utter bore? I feel this every day, and I keep dipping my toes back into the water… casting my net, wider and wider, attaching sinkers by way of clever updates to go deeper and deeper and perhaps it’s becoming shallower, and shallower.
Frequently, I decide to eschew Facebook and Twitter… to settle down to write, to take myself seriously, by turning off social media. But then I am reminded that I am writing to be read, and Facebook and Twitter mean that I have a readership. I am also a naturally gregarious person, and social media enables me to engage in conversations with other writers whom I normally would have no access to. And too, the gnawing feeling, that if I don’t post links to my writing achievements, will anyone ever read them… is there any point to having written them at all?
I post, therefore I am.