In 2013 the Psychology Department of the University of Michigan published a research article on Facebook use and its influence on the subjective well-being of 82 Ann Arbor residents. During the first phase of the research the participants completed a set of questionnaires which included the Satisfaction With Life Scale; a 5-item instrument designed to measure global cognitive judgements of satisfaction with one’s life. Dry academic-spiel aside, all this means is that questions included ‘on a scale of 1 to 10 – 1 being negative and 10 being positive – how satisfying is your life right now?’ These questions sat along others like, ‘did you use Facebook to share something good with friends today?’ and ‘did you use Facebook to share something bad with friends today?’ The research showed that the more the participants used Facebook the more their satisfaction levels declined.
Perhaps any social interaction would undermine well-being? I know that I often have as much, if not a lot more difficulty with people in the flesh – in the ‘real world’. Well, according to this study direct social interaction did not undermine well-being. Hmm. Well, maybe people take to Facebook when they’re already feeling down, depressed and lonely? Maybe their well-being isn’t being too well when they log in. Well, according to the results of this study neither worry nor loneliness interacted significantly with Facebook use to predict changes in affective or cognitive well-being. Huh.
‘The human need for social connection is well established, as are the benefits that people derive from such connections. On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling such needs by allowing people to instantly connect. Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive “offline” social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults—it may undermine it.’
I have been one of over 500 million people (as of 3rd October 2013 update) who log in to Facebook every day. I have spent the last seven years since creating my profile embroiled in an internal tug of war between my human need for social connection and what I could clearly perceive as a decline in my cognitive well-being. I am 30 years old – I am very much a part of The Information/Digital Age. I have found great value in social media, not just for the connection that is potentially on offer but for the tools they afford me as somebody who creates and wishes to share his work. Utilising Facebook I have set up pages for my musical ventures; using iTunes I have created a hub for my podcast; using Ustream I have shared live video casts of my gigs; using Twitter I have shared my writing with an extensive online community. I am not clamouring for my flambeau to chase social media up the hill and back into the Dark Ages. What I never wish to be is that guy who says ‘in my day’, denouncing the largely very exciting evolution of our means of communication and language in blind reverence to a time no longer relevant.
Yet, as the research paper from Michigan infers, there is certainly something amiss. When I log in to use Facebook I am cudgelled with such powerful positivity; photographs of studied nonchalance (an oxymoron as fascinating as ‘act natural’) where people pose in flattering light; forever sharing with the world their best side. Updates from friends talking about their latest achievements with such sickly, measured modesty. You’d think everybody was having the best time. Yet it seems, at least according to the aforementioned study that our well-being may be declining when we participate in this world. How can this be? For me, ironically, a decline in my well-being may correlate directly with what these people share of their well-being, being very well. Seeing their good time is bad times.
Why do I use social media? Do I use it chiefly when my self-esteem is low? Where does the ‘online’ me begin and the ‘real world’ me end? What is my usage like exactly and how does it affect my psychological state? I can sense that Facebook affects my well-being yet I persevere because social media are such a valuable asset to sharing my creativity. My worry is that my usage may destroy that creativity before I even get to share any more of it.
Don’t Stop Me
Six months ago I decided to leave Facebook. For too long I had wrestled with the pros and cons; tussled with the merits; grappled with the ‘but whys’ and Greco-Roman-knuckle-locked with those creepy remarketing adverts. You know the ones; adverts for products you might once have viewed on Amazon, either as a remote cousin of something you searched for twenty five hyperlinks previous or as an ill-advised drunken indulgence on payday. The trick is not to look in the first place. I walk, head down on the high street and tell myself simply not to look up at the chuggers who litter my path, but I invariably look up to offer a placatory grin when I hear ”scuse me, do you like snow leopards?’ You look up then and live to regret it just as you look up this nonsense online and rue BT and their fibre-bloody-optic broadband. Because three days later you’re tormented by adverts that follow your every click; tenuously linked via some perverse algorithm that tracks keywords. Nestled in the top corner of your screen, like some jilted lover they return, imploring you to ‘like’ them. Remember me? I’ve got what you need. Go on, give us a click.
Short of donning a trench coat and trilby, I exhausted all investigative avenues when my newsfeed recently began displaying recurrent ads for the movie After Earth. I stared at the screen, sipping from the stale rye in my rumpled suit jacket; private dick in a film noir, plagued by my bête noir, Facebook. What could this mean? This was a flimflammer of the highest order. Pure horsefeathers. Why is an advert for a film that I would no sooner watch than fork my retinas with a chilli-dipped sherbert lolly following me around? Could Will Smith have slipped me a Mickey? It took me some time but I eventually remembered that I’d shared a post regarding Jaden Smith and his latest treatise on Prana energy and now I was being haunted by this Aristotle tenderfoot; the image of him and Big Willy in jumpsuits wedged within a cluster of Facebook friend updates. What is this dark art, I thought. I didn’t understand why or how Facebook was doing this and I sure as shoe-shine didn’t understand a bloody word that little Jaden Smith was saying. Facebook clearly didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand it. I swished my coat tails and rode off into the sunset, leaving a suitably dramatic parting volley in my wake. Words to the effect of, ‘I’m leaving now – to be present for those I care for and love in the real world.’ I felt pretty darn high and altogether mighty, expecting a surfeit of ‘likes’ for my courageous rejection of the system; a chorus of hosannas sweeping me off to a more organic, fruitful and better existence.
I hesitated to write, ‘I’M LEAVING NOW…’ and in an effort to surmount the attendant awkwardness of waiting in the doorway whilst being ignored, I started to talk myself into this major decision. ‘Yeah, this is exactly why you’re going – to focus on the present and what’s real…bloody idiots… you don’t even know half of them anyway…’ It was whilst I waited, desperate to be noticed that reality dug in its sobering heels. A little number one in a red box appeared on the Facebook toolbar and my aloofness flip-flopped into giddy excitement. An update! Somebody was bidding me adieu. This would be the beginning of a tide of fond farewells and well wishes. I clicked. A friend had replied! The beginning of the surge. As the page loaded I imagined the kind of sincere bonmot that my friend would have forged.
‘Wow, what a well considered choice, Mark. Mindfulness is such a worthwhile pursuit. Good luck with your disavowal of the synthetic in favour of something rooted in the real world where you can be present.’
The page loaded; the slow reveal peeling back with greater deliberation than the culmination of a Poirot case. The hollow outline of script materialised on my monitor, like shapes traced in the air with sparklers. And finally, those shapes filled out with all the brilliance of gunpowder strewn across a night sky. My (almost) instant message had arrived, and I couldn’t wait to read it.
‘I’m a real boy!’
And there it was. all of my valour undercut by sardonic irony. Welcome to the Internet.
My expectation, of back-patting likes and sweeping encomium perhaps speaks to the symptomatic issues regarding social media usage. As Richard Appleyard very eloquently puts it in ‘The Happiness Conspiracy (20-26 February 2015, The New Statesman),
‘The relentless cheerleading of the Internet dulls our wits and lulls us into seeing the world as feeding our personal interests.’
I had certainly been lulled. It is my admission that in posting my intention to leave I was very much motivated by my Ego’s bothersome nagging to gain attention – and where else does one go to receive attention these days other than by dropping a status update into the artesian borehole of live updates that is Facebook? Strictly speaking, and if one were to get Freudian about matters, one might say that moreover, any status update I’ve ever shared in the seven years I’ve taken part on Facebook has been at the bidding of my Id. The irony of this update though was that I was rejecting Facebook, acting at the behest of my Superego. I had mulled over my options and concluded that I was opting out; to become a better person, essentially (or at least, what my idea of a better person may be). However, I succumbed to the pleasure principle again and could not simply leave. I had to give my Id rule. I had to make a big announcement with the hopes of gaining gratification, from my friends list.
‘Look everyone!’ I shouted into the sea, ‘I am able to walk away from this.’ Amidst a geyser of competing self-aggrandisement, I thought myself deserving of attention. Go on, give us a like. Call it poetic justice that I was undercut so heroically by my frenemy (who needs enemies?) with his wink and nudge toward Pinnochio. But, I mean, I don’t need the Internet to undercut me. I can do that myself.
I just checked in to see what condition my disposition was in
I’m a lot more dependent on the Internet than I’m comfortable with. For example, I can smash the glass of my framed Google degree at a moment’s notice should somebody drop an esoteric reference into conversation. Ever been for a coffee with a friend and they’ve coolly referenced Ozymandias (look it up) and you’ve offered that dopey, wide-eyed, knowing nod only to coolly slip off to the John to throw ‘Ozymandias’ into a search engine? Have you ever then returned to your seat, your coffee buddy having already consigned any poetical references to memory, and to prove you’re not a Philistine you hark the entirely inappropriate, ‘look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’? Ever been there? Ever been terrified of letting everyone know what you don’t know? Ever donned the Google mortarboard?
Well anyway, despite my dependence I am still Sparticus Autonomous when it comes to certain areas. For one, I do not need the Internet to let me know that out there exists some bizarre characters. Alright, the Internet has verified this for me in a comprehensive manner but that’s not to say I would not have otherwise been privy to this information. I’ve been to Byker. Similarly, I do not need the Internet to undercut me. I am reigning, undisputed champion of that, thank you.
The circuitous emotional spectrum winds through the prism of our subjective experience, and we encounter many vivid hues as we pass through.
My disposition is toward its shadowy terminus.
That’s where you’ll find me; at the outpost – flung far and way out West. Snuggled up on the periphery. Maybe a more upbeat personality would venture that to arrive out there you must have run the gambit and seen some splendiferous colour. Yeah, but this miserablist would venture that the colours, like yesterday, have faded to memory.
What about that complex web of folks that makes up the rest of the wide world? Just as it is my disposition to take a pessimistic view of things, it is the disposition of a great many, it seems to me, to see the bright side, as it were.
As I mentioned earlier Appleyard’s text concerns itself with the terrifying, new force majeure of neo-optimism. The ‘neo’ affixing itself like pleco to fishtank detritus, ascribing it that worrisome notion of hyperactivity. If optimism was bad then this neo-optimism is a whole new kettle of fishtank detritus.
Neo-optimism is the scaffolding that cleaves to social media, when all I want is for the workmen to wrap up the job and tear down the bloody toeboard so we can get back to normality. Before we explore how neo-optimism plays such a dominant role in social media I want to be clear about my definition of what neo-optimism actually is.
Optimism, by my personal definition equates to hope – a word that carries, to borrow a phrase from James Rhodes, a metric fuck-ton of weight. Neo-optimism, however seems to be rooted in the paper-thin idea of nothing more than positive thinking.
Now, you can live under very negative circumstances and still live in hope. I consider myself a exemplar of such a notion, living with a mental illness – in my case cyclothymia. One way my depression manifests itself is via self-sabotage. Whether consciously or otherwise, I have a propensity to undercut myself. I won’t set about the tedious task of discussing at great length my excursions into the no man’s land of psychoanalysis (there I go, undermining myself…), only to say that it inheres in me to ruin a great many things in my life and often without my consent. After all, that’s the nature of depression. It’s not a voluntary process. It is, however, sometimes up for negotiation. Which is kind of what the psychoanalysis I have undertaken is predicated upon. Cognitive Analytical Therapy is very basically all about looking into the past to make sense of the present. Within that pretext, and keeping all terminology strictly lay where I can, the patient identifies the root to problematic thought and behavioural patterns with an eye toward circumventing them. For example, my mother left home when I was a young boy. Ever since I have been ‘snagged’ in thoughts that have proven damaging. In the absence of a ‘reassuring’ maternal voice, I have cultivated a ‘critical’ voice, internally. This is the omnipresent hiss of static that, essentially, tells me I’m no good. That is a terribly glib overview, you understand. Now, as I say, I have undertaken this therapy – again, basically – to equip myself with the tools to manage problems like the critical voice. Depression can be up for negotiation and the negotiation is in the self-regulation of these patterns of thinking and behaving. Depression holds the gun to the bank teller’s throat and I walk in with my bulletproof vest and powers of persuasion. For instance, whenever I find myself appending every sentence I speak with a self-deprecating remark, I acknowledge this and aim to find an exit from this snag. Checked. Do not repeat. Otherwise I would be ensnared in a cyclical behaviour; the remark would feed into another damaging behaviour which begat another and another, thus completing the whole – the pattern. I learned by rote to give myself a ‘fairer appraisal’. Too often myopia would contain me in this small holding; a blinkered nag, snagged – teaching himself to open up his eyes to get a view of the foothills beyond the belt. There were sessions with my psychologist where I really laid into myself for wasting time. I would then be encouraged to take a step back to gain perspective and discuss what I had actually done. More times than not I’d then discover that I’d not wasted time at all (not even on my unforgiving time-wasting barometer) and I would be afforded a view of the reality outside of my ruthless critical voice.
Living with a voice that roars over me each time I mouth the words is to live with an unerring negativity. To dare to shout back is to live in hope. To fight to see above the wall within my head to catch a glimpse of a fairer and ultimately truer version of events, unencumbered by the prejudices and irrationality of a deeply persuasive depression – to think that is possible given that the voice is screaming in your ear every single second – that is hope. It is also a realistic hope.
That, as opposed to what neo-optimism proposes. A hollow strategy which essentially looks to duck any real fight; that offers a whisper in retaliation; a means to talk yourself out of the truth of the matter and offer an instant fix of succour. Just keep telling yourself. Say, ‘give yourself a shake, man!’ I mean, how many times in my life has somebody blithely told me to ‘give yourself a shake’, or ‘pull your socks up’? There is no fight – there is no depression! Tom Cruise cured Brooke Shields with a vitamin prescription and a healthy dose of what really matters – positive thinking. Easy.
This is the story of clasped hands and Rosary beads. Where optimism hurtles brutally into delusion.
Optimism = hope Neo-optimism = delusion
Are we a ‘generation of neo-optimists’ as The Happiness Conspiracy contends? Are we that deluded?
There are certain areas for which neo-optimism abides that prompt more panic for me than others; granted the neo-optimism prevalent in social media is of less concern than its suffusion into medicine.
‘There have been many medical studies in which the attitude of the patient appears to affect the course of an illness. In some cases this has inspired yet more superstition; when mood was found to have a marginal effect on the immune system there was a rash of claims that optimism could cure cancer.’
The key word for me here is superstition. This to me is voodoo akin to those pesky remarketing tricks favoured by Big Willy Smith, only this is far more dangerous. There exists a school of thought which advocates the ‘law of attraction’. That by simply thinking optimistically, the Universe will reward you. And let’s be clear here; this doctrine stipulates that you will be rewarded simply for optimistic thoughts. This is not quite the causation of Karma – although karma does cover all voluntary thought, word and deed. Karma is voluntary. Karma is action. But this uptake of positive thinking seems to me to forego any real call to arms action and it basically a very lazy means of looking for affirmation from, what Camus called la tendre indifference du monde. Do you really think that if you go into a job interview with minimal preparation that you can magnetise yourself to the interviewer with a few unspoken, upbeat mantras? Mantras that will the Universe to conspire with you for the benefit…of you? How entitled are we human beings to subscribe to this kind of quackery?
Well, judging by how some people participate on social media, we are an entitled lot. Look at me with my swan song six months ago, expecting to be noticed, cared about and rewarded. Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey in the HBO series True Detective is a veritable index of quotes.
‘We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self. This accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance, that we’re each somebody. When, in fact, everybody’s nobody.’
This philosophy is directly related to Buddhism, funnily enough. As the show’s writer, Nic Pizzolatto, citing B. Alan Wallace, Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic explains the quote and its relation to the travelling merchant Bahiya whom asked Buddha to teach him his teachings in brief:
‘When for you there is only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the felt in reference to the felt, only the cognised in reference to the cognised, then, Bahiya, there is no you here. When there is no you here, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor there nor between the two. That, just this, is the end of suffering.
In other words, our sensory experience is very real but it is not indicative of a self. “All that we actually experience are appearances and awareness; nowhere is a mind, or self found apart from this flow of ever changing appearances and awareness.”’
A bit deep for Facebook you say? Well, maybe. There is no self, but there is the selfie!
I think Appleyard is absolutely right. This kind of thought stretches into countless realms of culture; it’s a pandemic. Pursuant to this, I was recently met with the immovable illogic of neo-optimism in the workplace. I reported to my Manager a problem I was having with a co-worker. I was told that I should accept that this co-worker was not going to change and that I should learn to manage how I deal with them. Imagine if this approach were taken up by anybody fighting for their dignity. A woman who is slut-shamed online, for instance. It nullifies the mobility of social change. It says that the problem is yours, yes – but that it is with you. Now, show some willing and face your burden! And for Chrissakes, smile!
‘Smile’. ‘Be Happy’. Oh sure, no problem! Happiness is part of the emotional spectrum mentioned previously – a winding Möbius strip that weaves in and around us. I believe it is possible to catch glimpses of this feeling; but like a luxury suite at the Plaza, you can visit but you can’t stay. In A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis wrote,
‘One never meets Cancer, or War, or Unhappiness (or Happiness). One only meets each hour or moment as it comes… One never gets the total impact of what we call “the thing itself.” But we call it wrongly. The thing itself is simply all these ups and downs: the rest is a name or an idea.’
Delusion is the unrelenting idea that happiness is a real place where you can, and by God you should by rights, be able to live. For me, happiness is a holiday you might be lucky enough to take, which is something I’m in dire need of when faced with all this bloody neo-optimism. My depression may forcefully impinge on my ability to reason with reality, but I have a medical diagnosis on a bit of paper with letterhead and everything. That’s my excuse. As far as neo-optimism goes there is no excuse, rhyme or reason for what is basically a limp coping mechanism. We all need something to get us through, don’t get me wrong but this is far too irresponsible in my opinion. In the corporate group think arena it is the difference between facing the real bottom line head on with the shareholder’s interests at heart and making one up via some pie in the sky forecast; in the medical sector it is the difference between the right treatment and misleading patients for the big pharma benefactors; in social media it is the difference between fostering genuine relationships and a self-serving, transactional backslapping strategy for ‘optimising your online presence’.
This just isn’t for me. I’ll be the party pooper. Neo-optimism can forget changing me, so it will simply have to find an agreeable way of managing me.
So given all this why have I waited so long to divorce myself from Facebook? Well our relationship was only ever in fact, that of a lavender marriage. I chiefly used Facebook because I create things and I am shamelessly chasing the whitest of white whales; appreciation.
As a creative type I have taken vows and accepted the dowry in my use of Facebook. Surely I’d have to be a naif to even attempt to operate as a musician and writer without the arterial structure of social media to help promote my work? There’s an awful lot of convenience to this marriage, but you know, I’m just not that into you, Facebook. Yes, I might be afforded certain perks, chief amongst them exposure and the reciprocal networking between other creatives, but the drawbacks are legion. If I use Facebook because I create and I wish to be appreciated, I must therefore seriously question why I even create.
I say creative type because it seems far less offensive than ascribing the handle of artist to oneself. Creativity in my type translates to a love of making up stories, scripts, poetry, music and just as I’m doing here, essays. I try to write as often as the exigencies of life as a full-time support worker and father will allow. This can be torturous and at its worst relegates something that I feel passionate about to a hobby-horse that I might get to enjoy on the weekend, like a fair weather motorcyclist who breaks loose his Triumph Bonneville only when winter draws back. One of my favourite writers, Raymond Carver summed this struggle up in his essay Fires (1986, pg.33).
‘I understood writers to be people who didn’t spend their Saturdays at the laundromat and
every waking hour subject to the needs and caprices of their children. Sure, sure there’ve been plenty of writers who have had far more serious impediments to their work, including imprisonment, blindness, the threat of torture or of death in one form or another. But knowing this was no consolation. At that moment – I swear all of this took place there in the laundromat – I could see nothing ahead but years of this kind of responsibility and perplexity.’
What Carver is arguing here is that the life of the writer is subject to degrees of mundanity, as is any life. Only writing, like any creative pursuit is so often given the burnished coat of the exotic – conferred upon an elite group who spend their days outside of the quotidian – apart from toil and the everyday. The reality, my reality is one of daily labour. I respect the craft. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King shares his dictum, ‘do not come to the page lightly.’ He then advises that if you are not prepared to do this then you’d be just as well seeing to it that your car is washed. Writing can be as mundane an act as washing your car. One very important distinction however is that writing is a craft and to hone your craft you must be prepared to do the grunt work. The grunt work I class as being part and parcel of writing extends beyond typing out a quotient of words per diem. Grunt work can include research. Research is a broad term for the writer. Research could be anything from sitting down to watch a drama on television to people watching. In fact, almost every facet of the everyday is research to the writer. When I watch television I look for arcs, subtext, subplot, character development, dialogue, idiolect, tone and more besides. When I people watch I am making mental or literal notes on behaviours, conversations, appearance, interactions, ideas for metaphors and more besides. For the writer everything – everything in the everyday is taken under consideration. Boris, in John Donnelly’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull refutes Nina – an idealist – who fawns over Boris’ creativity.
‘Okay, let’s do this. Let’s talk about the magic of being me. You know how a madman will howl at the moon all night, well that’s what it’s like, day in, day out, “I haven’t written, I haven’t written, I’ve got to write, I haven’t written,” and without warning – it’s got you. In its teeth, and as soon as this one’s done, another tears you from its jaws, and on, and on, tossed from the snarling maw of one story to the next, unrelenting, without mercy, so tell me ’cause I’m missing it, does that sound like fun?
That cloud. Like a grand piano – “cloud like a grand piano floats by”. Summer’s day – bang. Those, those heliotropes, I’ll pinch their sickly, sweet smell to evoke the beauty and decay of a late summer evening or I’m at a riverside with a rod and a beer – a moment’s respite, then! Snaggled among the reeds, an idea! – and it’s bye-bye fishing weekend. Even when I’m watching a play, there’s no let up, I zone out, guppy like, start thinking a story of my own.
Or even this. You think this is me? No, there’s a fraction of me here, but most of me is out there, looking at this whole scenario…Continually gathering the pollen from my best flowers, picking them and stamping on the roots, all to ensure my audience is sated – it’s not funny! Like a snake consuming its own tail, my life has no purpose other than providing fodder for my work – I can’t get away from myself. Don’t think you’re safe – I think you’ll make a nice opening to one of my stories, I’ll cut your throat as soon as I look at you, I mean it.’ (pg. 49)
I’m not saying I’m completely akin to the self-immolating Boris; I certainly don’t want to make a martyr of myself by suggesting that writing is a weight to carry. This quote does go some way toward explaining the idiosyncrasies of the writer though, and how it isn’t simply a case of ‘putting pen to paper’.
Writing, for me, is just like going out for a run – you need to exercise but you also need to warm up. Making the time in between the daily demands of life to begin to write something, anything is a good way of blowing out the cobwebs. Another perception I think held by non-writers is that the elite coterie of scribes ordained with mystical writing powers can simply turn the magic on and off. No, no. You need to limber up, like any exercise. The trouble I find is, along with the conflict similar to that experienced by Boris, it can be difficult enough to limber up. Truth be told, I spend a lot more time worrying about creating than indulging in the act. I have a great many saboteurs to keep from my door before I even get to limber up. My exercise has been interrupted too often, if not by the kind of internal saboteurs as, in the case of Boris, the all-consuming mental toil of the writing itself, then by the outward such as beeping notifications from the likes of Facebook. I don’t mean that the notification alone has distracted me to the point of sabotage, it’s the content therein and my relationship to it. I mean, I don’t need the Internet to sabotage my work. I can do that myself.
The way in which I do that is to obsess over every item of minutiae relating to some project or passing idea…hell, idea lends it too much hubris – I’ll pour over a passing thought when in the street (laundromat) and dissect every single aperture. A deconstructionist of my own rootless flowers (stamping on my best pollen). It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Obstructed by a critical voice housed in my head, pulling the rug from underneath me before I even start. But hey, even Raymond Chandler found this writing palaver difficult.
‘I can’t seem to get started on doing anything…Writers even as cynical as I have to fight the impulse to live up to someone else’s idea of what they are.’
There’s something really interesting in that last line for me. This is where my mentality veers into ‘funny if it weren’t so sad’ territory, because I’m essentially standing shoulder to shoulder, in my mind, with the Raymond Chandler’s of the world. Whereas Chandler is referring to a vast assembly of genuine arbiters, because, well, he’s a very famous and successful writer who commands such an audience, I am referring to a Quixotic fantasy. Because I’m not famous at all and the only success I have is at writing these bizarre fairytales in my head. One hurdle I immediately set up before the starting gun rings out is what others think of me. As if I have an established readership and some lucrative publishing deal with Faber and Faber! This is me swinging a sledgehammer into my own metatarsal. I can’t take my writing exercise with these irrational concerns ping-ponging around in my mind. I can’t sit down to limber up with some freewriting when I’m already panicking over what some unquantifiable, intangible – imagined – audience is going to think. This makes the point of the freewrite, to be loose enough to write any old nonsense, impossible. Because nonsense just won’t do for my imaginary audience, no sir. I’m aiming to pierce into their souls and everything– even the hesitation marks have to be perfect.
This leaves me paralysed. Blocked.
Which leads us to a deeply contentious issue; writer’s block. Now, is writer’s block even a thing? Some would say that it is, some that it isn’t. Those on the side of the latter will tell you that you can simply persevere through any block. I’m on the fence. I know there are measures I can take to buffet my pillows and make my environment more comfortable – but by virtue of suffering the block and taking measures to remedy it, I suffer moreso when I can’t immediately find the solution, thus habituating myself to the misery of trying and failing. That’s when the block eats its own tail.
‘In many of these cases, you can successfully work your way through the problem. Discipline will get you going again, and a jumpstart is all you need. Altering your emotional state can even make the discipline come easily.’
I found this on The Writer’s Store. It is important to note the word ’emotional’ here. The type of block I am speaking of experiencing is at its core on a mental tract. I am being met with snags in my thought processes, but a block to writing could be defined as something circumstantial in your life and not just an abstraction. This could be a divorce, or anything that would logically take precedence over your writing. So when I talk about my emotional state and refer to the above quote I refer to the mental block and not the many vagaries of life that can aft gan aglay.
What alters my emotional state? Well, a list the length of Kerouac’s On the Road parchment. Both my participation and non-participation on social media affect my emotional state, in opposing fashions. When I take hiatus I alter my state to the betterment of my creative output. My creativity is stymied by my participation on social media. The block does exist for me. The block is fortified by social media.
How does social media block me? By throwing kerosene all over the tyre pile of my own deranged bitterness and lack of esteem, I’d say. How? I obviously don’t think it does this on purpose (well, you’ve caught me on a good day) but I recognise that it is not an environment conducive to pulling myself out of a pre-existing block of my own construct. Discipline will get me going again? Is a jumpstart is all I need? How much of this is the fault of social media? If I find the environment so influential to my mood – to my emotional state – what is it about social media that so affects this? Facebook was not conceived so as to systematically peel away the flaking strands of my confidence. How accountable is my disposition for the fractured relationship that I share with social media? Is it all my fault? Well, if anyone were inclined to say so it would be me, naturally. Perhaps if I gave myself a good shake I could re-enter Facebook-society without the worry that I will prove to be a recidivist. Maybe we could get along if I could, to lend from corporate group think rubric, ‘take ownership’ and allow for a fairer appraisal of social media’s part in all of this.
In E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction author David Foster Wallace could be talking about Facebook when he says, ‘In a real Joe-Briefcase’ style world that shifts ever more starkly from some community of relationships to networks of strangers connected by self-interest and contest and image, the people we espy on TV offer us familiarity, community. Intimate friendship.’
I cannot deny the value of the relationships that Facebook can sometimes foster. I certainly don’t wish to sound like one of those sour-faced technophobes, totting up their Co-op divvie on an abacus whilst chewing on baccy in a tin bath in the front room and lamenting the bygone glory of their gold-gilted past. Not that I think there’s anything particularly wrong with being a Luddite – the Luddites after all were only trying to preserve a commonality of Man by destroying the technology of the Industrial Revolution that threatened to usurp the workers of the day. Speaking of television, one of the chief reasons I watched a lot of terrestrial TV in my younger years was because of this sense that if I didn’t I would be missing out on something. School, already excruciating was made insufferable when all my classmates compared notes over the previous night’s TV. Work, already harrowing, was made heinous when the three people sitting at surrounding workstations bonded over that week’s Desperate Housewives whilst I felt as left out as the chubby kid in school who never watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. My own use of Facebook is entirely analogous to this longing for a water cooler moment.
So I certainly don’t begrudge anybody who would find some sense of belonging from their use of Facebook. Whereas television only provided a limited selection of shows for us to commune over, the Internet provides a library of material that would outnumber the clay tablets of Nineveh. Alain De Botton writes in How to Disagree (Without Starting World War Three), ‘If you are a Marxist but also a Christian fundamentalist, you can inhabit a corner of the online universe in which it is taken for granted that this is the only intelligent way to see the world.’ Thanks to the Internet we can now participate with people on whatever subject that takes our interest, no matter how niche and feel like we’re a part of something. That’s a very powerful facility of Facebook (particularly if missing out on Buffy still haunts you to this day).
However, as Botton goes onto say, this also leads to exposure to the ‘uninhibited disagreements of other people’ as well as the ’emboldening reassurance of fellow tribal devotees’. So whilst people might find their home in some niche corner of the World Wide Web, is what they’re participating in a simple exercise of confirmation bias? Perhaps. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with finding a spot online to enjoy agreement with a collective over say, the best album of the year. In fact, whilst this forum-discussion-inspired by commonality might be reduced to an exercise in confirmation bias I’d maybe take that over the fervent disagreement that anonymity can give rise to. This leads us to the Commentariat.
One major roadblock in enjoying my usage of the Internet at large is the Commentariat. Bit of a roadblock alright, considering the Internet could be defined by the Commentariat itself. The web is very basically the sharing of information by people and then their subsequent comment upon and interaction with said information. This was maybe less of a problem Pre-Social Media (PSM) but now with digital news sites inviting ‘your say’ and celebrities leaving themselves exposed to Tweets from all and sundry, there now exists a means for anybody anywhere, shielded by anonymity, to disagree in a very uninhibited manner. Look at the members of the Twitterati who decided to tweet into Kim Kardashian’s mentions photographs of the flag bearing an image of her fellating ex Ray J. that some festival goer decided to take along to Glastonbury. This is an extreme example of uninhibited disagreement and a very ugly one at that. There are moments where the Commentariat really dig their boot heels into my gut, to wit, their comments on YouTube videos. Many’s the night I’ve settled down after a long day at the coalface to enjoy a video by somebody who has a solid track record of providing enjoyment for me – say, Louis C.K. – and I’ve thought ‘golly, this oughtta ameliorate the excavation that has taken place in my soul today. This’ll sure make me feel better!’ And then, cruelly, the cursor will slide ever so slightly too far south of the video itself, revealing the the underworld of comments. The trolls beneath the bridge.
Plenty of comedians have riven whole routines out of comments left on their own YouTube videos even, so I think it’s redundant to give any examples of the ‘this guy sucks dick’ vs. ‘if you don’t like it why are you watching it?’ debates that go on beneath the work itself – like a critics’ Hades where the argument rages on ad nauseam. Suffice is to say, all this activity only serves to spoil my enjoyment of something that I would usually find some enjoyment in. Heck, I don’t watch TV nowadays, but if I did at least I wouldn’t be at risk of having this papyrus of poppycock peeping out from under the screen to ruin my viewing pleasure. Everybody has a platform to speak now – which in the case of the marginalised and otherwise voiceless, is a very powerful tool – so how sad to see this platform routinely shat upon by attention seeking avatars.
Where best to find these shithappy bastards? You guessed it – social media. Newsfeeds backed up with the effluence of a million inveterate gobshites all hellbent on attaining the great white whale that I too chase – validation.
When I log in I feel like I’m immersed in the sticky heat of a rainforest; my synapses swamped in the densely thick murk of overgrown vines (Vines not just metaphorically, neither). It’s all I can do to breathe in the face of this sensory overload – which is an overload of the sensory experience of others reduced to cheap PR, effectively. What I read by and large on Facebook and Twitter feeds is a public Curriculum Vitae (heck, this actually exists in LinkedIn) for everyone to get over just how marvellous they are. We all have that platform now and using a torrent of words and photographs that we can instantly share, we twist and mould our lives into the digital arena, compartmentalising so much ephemera into a narrative expertly contorted by the great architect at the desk.
Author! Author! Who’s that babbling on about their holidays with an accompanying snap of themselves on a beach in Dubai? Why, let’s look up this fascinating specimen. Ok, load up their profile page. Wow. This person is doing really well for themselves. Oh, and lookee, here I am sat in my crusty pyjamas eating last night’s leftover crusts. Gee, I don’t feel so good about my life now.
The above is sort of how I feel when I see all of this – the Commentariat peering in to spoil any enjoyment I might have had. If I try to counteract (albeit petulantly, I freely admit) by posting a PR statement of my own then in wade the Commentariat to shit on my good time (as in the Pinnochio incident). I can acknowledge that these are my own feelings of insecurity and envy at play. Mea Culpa? Perhaps. However, who could gainsay that the artifice of social media doesn’t leave us all susceptible to these feelings of insecurity? What is the artifice? Well, for me the clever trick is in the continued presentation of the Spectacle.
‘The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images,’ Guy Debord writes in The Society of the Spectacle. Of course I’m going to question my position in life when all I have to compare my experience to is this Mount Rushmore-rictus-grin-postcard imagery that hurtles toward me every time I log in. That’s because I am presented with a veneer that forgoes any substantial contextualisation. That is, when I see the sunny faces of my ‘friends’ that is all I am seeing. I am not seeing every facet of their human experience – merely a very attractive representation thereof. I discussed this with a friend recently and he gave me a dose of that old chestnut, the fairer appraisal. I had spent the morning prior to said discussion trawling Facebook. I confessed to my friend that the act of doing so had left me feeling absolutely rotten about myself. When he enquired further I qualified this feeling by saying I’d seen a post by somebody (a musician friend) who was sharing pictures from a tour. Seeing this friend ‘succeed’ had made me feel inadequate. My friend rebutted that my recent posts regarding an upcoming gig had lead a mutual friend of ours to ask if I’d been signed to a label. This brought a hearty laugh from me but then I realised the two way street that this experience is. It is interaction after all. I might be sitting feeling jealous of somebody’s pictorial representation of their life but I’d never stopped to wonder what picture I was painting. Isn’t all of this Capitalism in perpetuity? The edifice of marketing and (self) promotion evincing a need to ‘keep up’ with – compete with – those in the sunny postcard with the rictus grin?
It can be a very defeating experience to somebody with the already acknowledged writer’s temperament and problems with esteem therefore to participate on social media. When I see an Instagram image that conveniently circumvents the historical back story of the subject’s life I can’t help but compare it to those highly dangerous memes that select some arbitrary image and tack on a very misleading quote (something political, usually), neglecting to consider any historical back story whatever. People see these memes and draw illogical conclusions on matters that far exceed such glib analysis (here’s a Muslim male and a piece of text about how he built a Mosque on top of a Fish and Chip Shop – like if you think England should be restored to the English, otherwise all Fish and Chip shops will explode and the Queen will shit her knickers) and that’s precisely what I do when I see some other user’s photographs. This is because the photographs forgo the many constituent parts that lead up to and make up the subject captured in that frame– I am only seeing what that person wants me to see; them at their best. They are the author and this is their story. Of course, their head might too be beset with doubt and anxiety; they might also feel insecure and scared; heck, they might, beneath the postcard be going through a very black spell and when they review their uploaded photos they feel none of the gratification that my jealousy covets. But I am not to know that. All I can see is a brilliant white smile and the sun on their back. This is their narrative.
All sunshine and no back story. Neo-optimism, any one?
I fall for this every time. I admit it, I compete. I see somebody, a musician say, doing well (by my definition) and I either completely shut down out of a hyper-insecurity or I will resort to a state of mild panic and scramble to do something of my own in an effort win over the admiration of whomever is left. Morrissey was asked in an interview for Venerdi di Repubblica what life would look like in his ideal world:
‘We would do things for the love of doing them, not the fear of not doing them.’
This cuts to the heart of the question I posed earlier. Why do I create? It doesn’t seem like I’m a reflection of the ideal world according to Morrissey (a terrifying proposition to many, I’m sure) as it seems much of my endeavour stems from fear. Fear of not doing them. What if I don’t do them? How will I be noticed? I need to remind people that I can do this thing. I need to do something to show them that I deserve their admiration.
I am in good company though. Comedian Marc Maron remarked on his WTF podcast with guest Richard Lewis:
‘The only reason I’ll do shows is to receive love that I will reject.’
Despite this Golden Fleece quest for admiration it is also commensurate with my personality to become suspicious of any praise I do attain. Admire me! You shouldn’t admire me! I have questioned my motives for writing this piece throughout the writing of this piece. Am I writing this scrutiny of social media so as to share it in a profligate manner on social media? Am I really only purely motivated by this fervent need for admiration? I don’t know if this speaks in any way to the culture of social media; this selective sharing of experiences to manipulate the audience into believing the author is truly, remarkably relevant. The ‘humblebrag’ is an excruciating exercise of faux-modesty that I myself often fall victim to. It is the curious method of sharing your achievements whilst simultaneously putting yourself down. Harris Wittels (of Parks and Recreation fame) created the @humblebrags Twitter account to shame those who simply cannot resist the need to brag, humbly. The best humblebrag works on two levels; it achieves the communication of an achievement whilst assuring anybody about to accuse the humblebraggart of being a show off that they are in fact NOT showing off. To me that’s a bit like somebody quite clearly acting like a dickhead toward me and then thinking it’s completely acceptable as long as they say (when it’s not for them to say) ‘but I’m not being a dickhead’ – it’s a self-satisfying Jedi mind trick. An example might be a tweet that reads, ‘I’ve been nominated for a Grammy – are they deaf?’ The information is conveyed and then played down, so as to make this obnoxiously impressive feat more palatable. I often do it (I imagine I have throughout this essay) and usually in a more abstract sense. I take to social media to make outpourings relating to my emotional state almost as a means, if I’m bluntly honest with you and myself, to ‘brag’ about the experiences I’ve had; to couch myself in a chrysalis of – not sympathy – but perhaps empathy from those who read it. Plainly, so that those who read it might pardon my worst behaviours because I’m (very admirably) deconstructing the turrets that I have raised. I am taking them all down and placing sandbags in their place. Or maybe I find that it negates the need I feel to ‘prove’ myself (through creative pursuits) by candidly cutting straight to the chase and expressing exactly how I feel.
Or perhaps I do it because I’m really looking for somebody who feels the same. Maybe that’s why most of us take to social media. Are we all so insecure and scared that we need to brag and blag our way into some esteem? Are we so scared that we don’t matter? As Riggan is told in Birdman,
‘…you confuse love for admiration.’
We all want to be liked. On Facebook, quite literally.
‘The “Like” button on Facebook is one weapon of the neos…Social media, with their chattering pursuits of “likes”, followers, comments and shares, are overwhelmingly biased in the direction of an airheaded, cringe-inducing positivity.’
I have a hard time figuring out why we like what we like. What does it say about us when we click on that little button? Do we truly like what our incessant clicking would have you believe we like? I click like as a way of showing agreement (perhaps like should be re-branded ‘hear, hear’? Like this post if you agree) and often as a conscious means of showing to others (outside of whomever has posted in the first place) that I agree with it. I don’t know that I fully understand the psychology of this but I do think that I (I can only speak for myself) like posts to show that I am onside as it were, and therefore I have no need to further elaborate. For instance, if PETA share a video highlighting cruelty to sealife at SeaWorld, I will probably like it and then people will know, without any words needed from me, what I am about. It’s a means of leaving a breadcrumb trail to your online audience without having to do much by way of the grunt work of say, opening up yourself to the online world and entering into a reciprocal relationship of getting to know one another. The semiotics of the like function are very interesting to me. We seem to me to be a generation, not defined by what we do even, but very simply (and some might argue, rather pathetically) by what we like.
When we’re trying to attract attention (as I do with my music page) the word ‘like’ makes the whole process seem terribly desperate (well, it is). At the time of writing my page has a meagre 106 likes. I’m not even sure what likes equate to in this context, especially when there is this trend of buying likes through third parties to cook the books in your favour. It’s common sense that an A & R person looking at my page will be immediately more interested in what I’m doing if I have 1000 likes as opposed to 106, no matter how they were accrued. However, how many likes my page has is completely inconsequential to my life as a musician. I no longer have a dog in this fight; which is a good job considering my books are in the red and I’m not prepared to fiddle them. Concerning myself with amassing likes takes my attention away from creating anything to like in the first place. Liking something only really acts as a curatorial device for the system; you like a page and then the algorithms suggest something else for you to like. Those creepy remarketing ads return. All you’re really doing is feeding information to a marketing executive so he can establish what demographic you are and what products to therefore subsequently share with you. Facebook can be a handy, curatorial resource; after all it contains friends and friends are great at curating things for you, whether that’s recommending music or films or restaurants. But I personally don’t ‘like’ a friend’s newsfeed post with the hopes of being turned onto similarly veined threads. I do so largely to show support and, honestly, to display outwardly that I am in agreement. I don’t see the use in me participating in a desperate race to obtain 1000 likes on my music page.
What about Twitter? It’s interesting that Twitter utilises a similar approach but employs a subtly different word in place of ‘like’. On Twitter you are invited to ‘favourite’ an item. This translates to a less flippant click when compared to the like, for me. When you favourite an item you essentially bookmark it and so it remains on your Twitter page for all the world to see. That’s a big commitment. Basically, if you’re going to consider favouriting something you had better give it some serious thought beforehand. When we share something and it is liked or favourited there is a positive (Appleyard, above) reinforcement at play – the pat on the back, or rather thumbs up we’re given may be then coaxes us into relaxing and sharing even more. We’re giving ourselves away. I think this is dangerous, especially because we’re acting without being aware of this. For instance, the way in which I use the favourite function is like that of a bookmark. It might not necessarily mean anything to ‘favourite’ (it’s a verb now) content – it just means I want to archive said content for future reference. Which is, funnily enough how some of us regard our social media usage – an archival of content.
This can be a useful approach for the creative type. If I were to limit my usage of social media to a basic way of archiving my songs, my gigs, my photographs then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? The social media I employ would in effect serve as a scrapbook of my, for want of a better term, career. Well, I’m also wary of this. The thing is – and I think this gets forgotten – the Internet never forgets. You thought elephants were good; the Internet has an infinite memory. Every step you take, every move you make, you leave a footprint. There is a potent amount of unease for me here, especially with the Conservative government last year trying to rush through the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIP). Every time you tweet, your metadata, i.e., what time you tweeted and from what location amongst other information can be accessed by various intelligence agencies (fortunately, at the time of writing this act was ruled as unlawful by the high court). Personally, I want to guard my privacy – yet we’re willingly relenting and offering up every single detail of our lives – and for what? To be, not even loved; to be liked? As Stewart Lee said of Twitter, it’s ‘a state surveillance agency staffed by gullible volunteers’.
It’s doesn’t surprise me that an app now exists, Spirit, that allows you to set a timer, not unlike Snapchat, for your tweets to self-destruct. They may be elliptical, but the 140 character updates can get you into bother. Are we somehow cajoled into thinking that we can send out our every passing thought into the great wide web and for there to be no ramifications? By virtue of their 140 word limit we are given licence to share glib insights instantly. How many times has somebody in a high ranking position been called into question owing to some late night foray into Twitterland? The fluidity of information can be your undoing. It’s OK to arrive at an opinion and then express it in conversation. That opinion floats off in an updraft with only your friends’ memory to depend upon for its preservation. If you react instantly and post an opinion online then that is OK too. However, it is writ large on an Ed Miliband-like tablet that everybody can see…nigh on forever. That’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell ya…this is how our methods of communication have evolved. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, just something that we need to be more mindful of.
As a musician the chief reason for using social media is to gain exposure – to share my work. When you’re shouting in a chorus of hundreds (figure dependant upon friends list/followers) of voices then chances are you’ll go unheard. So when I come to use social media to ‘promote’ my music page or obtain likes, I’m a maraca competing with an orchestra. I have a very modest amount of ‘fans’ on my music page, 106 as I’ve said, but my last post linking to a live performance of mine, only reached one person. This is no real fault of Facebook as far as I can tell. Given that there is a far greater volume of users and that every user is liking more and more content, reaching people organically is, using basic mathematics, much more difficult. In fact, there is potential for upwards of 1500 stories to appear on users’ newsfeeds in any given day. Facebook employs something called Edgerank – another one of those creepy algorithms – that looks for indicators of what content users will find engaging and respond to. My little post from my music page has all that to contend with in order to be seen. Which is fair enough – that’s just the way it is – but goes some way toward making me feel utterly hopeless about my creative endeavours. And as far as how this impacts on my creative output I think it’s that all of this ancillary work is ultimately exactly what I view social media as a whole to be – a distraction.
During the writing of this essay I returned to Facebook. Truthfully, I found it a lot less troublesome than the previous 10000 words suggest. I found some use in creating an events page for one of my gigs, in fact. However, it remains to be seen how reliable people who click to show their attendance are at actually showing up out in the real world. I must admit though that I have felt quite a bit better about my social media usage. Maybe this has been some way informed by my writing this essay. Much like unburdening my emotional baggage online is often a useful move for me in , has getting all of this off my chest now given me enough respite to actually enjoy logging in to Facebook? I wouldn’t go that far. I may not be quite the covetous neighbour anymore – perhaps I may even be at peace with the whole thing and willing to accept that a lot of people – creative types indeed – find it useful. Even so, this alone is not enough to convince me that I need social media. Despite having come to terms with it all I am almost demob happy to say that once I have performed at the aforementioned gig I will be resuming my status as a Facebook apostate. How can I say I’ve come to terms with it yet express happiness at leaving it behind? Well, in this The Information Age, we are overloaded with, funnily enough, information. Choice is crippling to me; we now have a million variations on the same theme when it comes to our products. How do you ever choose between the countless versions of muesli in the cereal aisle? Can’t we just have one? How do I settle on a programme to watch when I can now stream everything? Where do I go when I have a World Wide Web to trawl through? I’m overloaded, overwhelmed and overdone. I can’t just log in to Facebook and use it to promote a gig. I while away hours looking at variations on the same theme, over and over again. People posting passing reflections; trivial musings; selfies; YouTube links. I don’t know why but I can’t limit my use to a reasonable amount of time. That’s on me.
A large amount of this is on me. I can’t really fault Facebook nor the fact that I am living in the Digital Age. I accept that and in many ways I embrace that. It’s just that on the lead up to the embrace I sort of raise my fists and swing a little. I am certainly not like my brother-in-law who refers to Facebook as ‘sad bastards dot com’. I know plenty of people who write off these platforms, saying ‘who really cares what I have to say?’ Well, who is to say what is worth caring about? If you carried this philosophy through into your real life, why would you ever dare to speak? Why would you ever even attempt to express yourself?
Social media are a conundrum to me. They exist synchronously in a virtual landscape and a very real one too. It’s actually a lot more real than we realise at times; especially when people take to apps like Snapchat to share risqué pictures only to find that some times that doesn’t mean they will remain in the virtual landscape only. It’s a dangerous turf to navigate, not unlike the real world. Unlike the real world though, the virtual world tricks us with its positive reinforcement, constantly rewarding us for our continued participation and lulling us into a false sense of security. Share. Like. Share more of yourself. Like. Share it all. Unlike the real world though you can opt out of this one without much repercussion besides, for a creative type such as myself, potentially losing touch. I can live with that. Granted I might be forsaking some of the more valuable perks of social media; I may not be able to cull friends in the real world (at least not without facing a stretch in the tomb), but that’s my sacrifice.
My social media usage just isn’t, well, useful. Like Boris can’t watch a play without zoning out to think of a story of his own, I cannot watch my feed fill up with fellow musicians and writers sharing their work without going all ‘guppy like’ and thinking up my own. It is my depression that forces irrational comparisons to how others live and bludgeons me with its brutal critique. It is my disposition that makes it nigh on impossible to comfortably exist in such an (neo) optimistic land.
I leave, this time not believing that I’m returning to ‘the real world’ where I will enjoy a superior level of existence free from Facebook’s frippery. It’s all part of the real world. As wary as I am of Facebook and Twitter, there are far greater dangers ‘out there’. But, if I can lessen that danger by abandoning something that I find useless and moreover, a contributing factor to the decline of my well-being, then I will take that course of action. If I can spend more time enjoying myself by creating rather than making myself (more) ill then it makes sense for me to do that. And that is what I am sharing with you here. Why? Much like when I share thoughts on social media platforms I’m not entirely sure why. Why share anything? Here it is though; I’ve created something at least and for now I feel better. This is my last great update. My last footprint in the snow, whether you like it or not.