I was delighted to have the chance to write about my research for the brilliant Women Are Boring (click here to read).
The role of social media in our lives is an on-going cultural conversation which doesn’t seem to be about to resolve itself any time soon. In the meantime, we struggle to figure out the best, or most healthiest, way to navigate these new spaces and the demands they present. As ever, this results in specific problems for the female of the species. In this feature I hear from parents of teenage daughters and young women themselves about their experiences and perspectives on Instagram beauty culture.
My first proper introduction to Anaïs Nin’s work occurred when I happened upon a tattered copy of her journals in a second hand bookshop. Until that point, the only writing of hers I’d encountered was the oft-quoted observation, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ Young though I was, the insight of those words – which, since the advent of the internet, have spawned many a cheesy ‘motivational’ meme – stuck with me.
The rational, structuralist mind presumes a knowable, evidential truth: if we logically and clinically examine a situation, we can arrive at a clear consensus. There is comfort in this approach. It provides a kind of order that our lives lack and a sense that something is knowable, amongst all the chaos. However, our collective reality, if such a thing exists and can be considered to be ‘shared’, is a mishmash of understandings, interpretations, presumptions, all tainted by human fallibility. For all that empathy allows (and it allows a great deal), we can only ever see things as we are and how we are determines how things appear to be. As a consequence, our vision and the reality that flows from it is incomplete. Truths are not absolute, they are specific, context-driven and oh so messy, just like the selves we harbour within us. To make sense of our lives however, and in order to exist in the world and in society, and in order to change the world and society, we have to buy into, sometimes strategically, ‘absolute’ truths, problematic though they maybe. It’s a messy, messy business we are all doomed to struggle with.
A piece by the consistently excellent Brain Pickings, In Defence of the Fluid Self: Why Anaïs Nin Turned Down A Harper’s Bazaar Profile, recently got me thinking about Nin’s insights in a modern context. The piece references Nin’s infamous diaries, specifically an entry which explains the motivation behind her decision to decline a profile with Harper’s, a hugely popular publication. According to Nin, her decision stemmed from an unease and an unwillingness to be pinned down or explained away, as if the complexities of her creative being – and by extension, anyone’s creative being – could ever be fully realised or described outside of the internal terrain and the dangers of trying to definitively capture or spotlight these precious parts of ourselves for consumption or recording while we are still evolving. As Brain Pickings creator Maria Popova so beautifully puts it, ‘the anguish of having one’s sincerity mistaken for pretense, and above all the agony of being fossilized while still growing.’
Would the fluidity that characterises the internet age – the constant churning of information and opinion, the ease at which ideas and work can be created, shared and altered – have appealed to Nin or would she have balked at the so-called freedom afforded by the likes of social media, allowing us to create our desired selves (or should that be ‘brands’?) within strict parameters? Or would Nin, like Jaron Lainer, see such technology as regressive, demanding we reduce our identity to a carefully mediated/manipulated ‘image’ that acts as little more than a shopfront, obscuring if not downright denying the complexities of true self, a phenomenon which is so fragmented, so influx it is beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated computer program or social network.
Perhaps this remains the point. For our all gadgetry, for all our digital bells and whistles, technology cannot, as yet, replicate the vast, messy oceans within us, capture our multiple selves or remedy the flawed truths that define the human experience. And even if someday it could, would we really want it to? As Nin might ask, where would be the adventure in that?
‘I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not. ‘
Excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’.
On a recent holiday, my iPhone died an abrupt death. While other phones chirped and squeaked into life as we waited at the baggage carousel, mine refused to turn on. When it finally did flicker to life, I had few precious minutes to check my emails before it faded to unresponsive black. Staring at the now piece-of-junk in my hands, my thoughts turned from ‘what’s wrong with my phone!’ to ‘what’s wrong with me?’ There I was, on a sun-soaked balcony in a little Spanish town crying out to be explored, the beauty of its Old Town laid out before me like feast but instead of looking out or up, I was tethered to a fancy plastic box.
My predicament isn’t unique. It’s the subject of countless editorials, articles, probably even a Ted Talk. Anybody given to the slightest bit of introspection has probably found themselves wondering about our fascination with and addiction to technology. Because it is an addiction, this compulsion to be plugged in at all times, to converse or ‘connect’ with people we wouldn’t recognize in the street, the creeping suspicion that our lives don’t matter unless we are sharing them at all times in 140 characters or less.
After about twenty-four hours, I forgot about my phone and everything that goes with it. Time slowed down. My brain rewired itself. I recorded things the old fashioned way, with words and photos I would actually get developed. Sometimes, the only recording I did was in my mind. It was enough.
The passing of Seamus Heaney was a gut-punch. His poetry illuminated the sublime in the so-called ‘everyday’. By being present to notice the little things, Heaney created work that brought and will forever bring joy and hope to so many. As Kurt Vonnegut beautifully put it, ‘enjoy the little things in life for one day you’ll look back and realise they were the big things.’
There is magic in the simple act of paying attention.
In the mad dash to digitize our lives as we live them, are we actually enjoying them? Are we noticing what really matters? Or are we locking ourselves into a cycle of perpetual distraction, half-living, always vaguely anxious, too busy recording our memories to live them fully?
We’re not going to stop having this discussion anytime soon but if you’d like some food for thought on the matter, We Live In Public is a fascinating documentary on Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who was convinced the way forward for the Internet was mass sharing and recording of our lives. Good call, Josh. Zan McQuade’s essay ‘Has the job of remembering been outsourced to the Internet?’ raises interesting questions about collective memory and how we store our personal histories.
One last thing…
When you write (with the phone and Internet off, naturally) you indulge in some pretty antisocial habits: daydreaming, weird timekeeping, drinking alarming amounts of tea or wine, depending on the day or the deadline. So, it is really nice to get a little recognition in the real world for your endeavors. On that note, I’m delighted to be on a shortlist of ten writers for the Penguin/RTÉ Guide Short Story Competition 2013 and also, I’m delighted to be on the long list for the 2013 Over The Edge New Writer Award. Scribble, scribble, scribble. When the writing force is strong within you, that’s all a gal can do.
This morning I read a really wise piece from mashable.com entitled Social Media-Based Public Shaming Has Gotten Out of Control.
The writer (Todd Wasserman) does a good job of getting to the crux of why social media shaming makes so many of us feel uncomfortable, namely because it often sidesteps properly addressing an issue in the real world and instead opts for an online tête-à-tête, the fall out from which can be really unpleasant for all concerned.
When I first joined Twitter, I remember being transfixed by the tweet-fights that would pop up in my timeline occasionally. I couldn’t believe that some people would argue so publicly and viciously with strangers or even their peers. It made entertaining reading for a little while but the novelty soon wore off. I wondered, ‘how can you adequately debate anything in 140 characters? And why debate in the first place when your positions are so polarized there isn’t a hope on this green Earth you’ll find common ground?’
It was also plain to see that while these arguments were happening in the digital world, they were upsetting people in the real world without achieving very much except, in some cases, providing fodder for the grind of the 24/7 news media we’re surrounded by.
When it comes to social media Twitter is my drug of choice and while I enjoy it, I’m very aware of its weaknesses, which I’m reminded of almost daily. Sometimes, though it pains me to say this because I know it plays into the mindset of social media ‘haterz’, social media sadly becomes little more that an echo chamber of negativity and cynicism. Other times, it tips over into an ‘angry mob’ mentality that leaves me scrambling to log out, even when the subject of the rage is entirely deserving. It can feel like a group feeding frenzy – everyone trying to out do each other with their outrage – and that makes me uncomfortable and also a little confused as to how all this digital rage makes a real difference to the actual issue.
For me all these issues with social media come back to one basic rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t write it, say it or do it in the real world or to someone’s face, then don’t do it online. Consider it the Golden Rule of the Internet, along with this one aka Wheaton’s Law from Will Wheaton of Star Trek: Next Generation fame, who simply says, ‘don’t be a dick’. And what could be easier than that?
Image via curlysar on Flickr.
So, my blog has been shortlisted for Best Personal Blog at the Blog Awards Ireland 2012, which is just lovely. I’m also nominated for Best Blog Post and, as it is a public vote, I would be delira and very thankful if you could kindly give me a vote here.
Thanks a million. I always said you were deadly.
Well done to all the gang at Grafton Media who are organising this year’s awards and best of luck to all those shortlisted.
You can read my nominated blog post, On Blogging, here.
Just before Christmas I called time on Facebook, something I ‘d thought about doing for months because I rarely used my private profile and my reasons for having it in the first place (family members off travelling far flung lands) just weren’t there anymore. Deactivating your account is not the same thing as closing it entirely. As soon as I log back in again my account – somewhat miraculously – will reappear, as if I had never been away. Similarly sinister is the last thing you see before you deactivate: a collection of photographs from ‘friends’ who Facebook claim ‘will miss you!’ while demanding to know why exactly you’re leaving. Doesn’t that just smack of Hotel California? You can check out any time you like but you can never leave….
As Facebook has become so enmeshed with the fabric of our lives people’s reactions when you suddenly disappear from digital view are interesting. There’s a presumption that you are in the middle of a major life crisis, for example or that your emotional/mental well being is compromised. While none of these were the case, thankfully, such reactions made me see that for many people when life really does get tough the last place they want to share their woes is on their Wall . To me, that seems like a natural response. There’s only so much comfort comments can provide and scant privacy. There is also no digital equivalent for a hug.
Facebook’s pros are numerous and I wouldn’t attempt to deny them but there is also no denying that it can be a dubious vortex that sucks you in and spits you out a few hours later stressed, discombobulated, with nothing scratched off your to-do list. There’s the friend requests you don’t want to respond to, the photos that make you gag, the asinine status updates… when you don’t have an account, all that nonsense just vanishes. You are free.
Are you ‘out of the loop’ when you deactivate? Yes, a little bit. Instead of emailing or texting, lots of people use the event function to send out invites, something I always overlooked, suddenly panicking when I noticed that the party was yesterday. My rationale now is that my closest friends know I’m no longer on Facebook so they’ll throw me a text or call. I haven’t missed a party yet and anyway, I like old fashioned ways of keeping in touch, like email (har har) or that Gmail chat all the kids are raving about.
Facebook’s new Timelime and the gold rush frenzy around the IPO are more than likely going to give people pause for thought regarding their relationship with the biggest social networking site on the planet. Part of the reason I said ‘goodnight, Facebook’ was my dissatisfaction with the precious nuts and bolts of my life – or anyone else’s – being uploaded freely into a corporate realm that stands to make billions on the back of that content. I wasn’t thrilled with the privacy policies and the repeated format changes just annoyed me. Being annoyed by something as unimportant as a website built on voyeurism, showing off and gossip is not something I wanted to do anymore, especially because I don’t think anyone lying on their death bed wishes they spent more time playing Farmville.
Facebook should only ever be a compliment to life, not a replacement for it. When the fun stops, it is time to get out. You can get more information on how to do that here. And before you ask, yes I am on Twitter but that dear reader is a story for another day…