Social Media Part 2: User Beware

Two weeks ago, I talked about social media, and the ways in which I’ve used it to create community and build my personal skills. But I didn’t cover anything about the drawbacks of using social media, and whether or not they outweigh the benefits.

I ran across a few quotes this past week that I think apply well to the use of social media.

“Every person needs to learn from childhood how to spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”

–Andrei Tarkovsky

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

–Blaise Pascal

Spending time with oneself, sitting quietly in a room alone, are things that many people are not good at. We need to fill the silence—these days often with social media. When you don’t want to be alone in your own head, you may find that you’re automatically scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, or looking at what’s trending on Twitter. I’ve seen countless people hunched over their phones at airports and in doctor’s waiting rooms, texting or just staring at their screen. If I’m charitable I imagine they’re reading the news or their email or a book, but I don’t always give people the benefit of the doubt. I usually enjoy a hard copy book while waiting for a flight—a good distraction for someone who gets anxiety in busy airports.

At other times, social media is a way to feel part of a community: when I feel like life has become too much and I’m not functioning well, I go online and check in with the people I interact with. I see what everyone is up to and feel relieved when I see that others have some of the same feelings I have.

For example, one of the Slack groups I’m in has a daily check-in, and one of the responses last week was from a woman who was going to tackle an article she didn’t know how to write. That resonated with me immediately, as I’m working on an essay that I’m not sure how to write. It felt good to know that I wasn’t alone.

It’s the same in one of the Facebook groups I’m in. A member posts every evening asking how everyone’s writing day went. There are some of us who respond regularly, and it’s fascinating to see how others structure their days around writing, and how we all have times when we can’t write or feel terrible or just need to take a break from writing.

Checking in with my online groups this way connects me to a community of writers who are all struggling and having successes in their own way. I feel seen.

Elissa Bassist writes, however, that

“this [appears] to be the point of social media: vulnerability in exchange for visibility and dopamine, to show that what we think/feel/go through isn’t for nothing, even as the feed moves on and our words disappear as quickly as they arrive, dying out in tragedy aggregation.”

–Elissa Bassist

Sure, I’ve checked in with my “friends” (can you call people you only know via social media friends?) about my writing status and state of mind, and in some cases that check-in is vulnerable. But will that be forgotten the next day when a new check-in rolls around? Am I just waiting for the dopamine hit of someone reading my post and ‘liking’ it?

During a particularly bad time for me mentally, I stopped responding to the daily check-in on Facebook and actually had an email from the woman who posts them. She asked if I was okay, as I hadn’t responded in a while, and said they’d be happy to hear from me again. This was an unexpected gift, a recognition of my state of mind that transcended social media and moved into the zone of actually caring for someone.

Beyond the social aspects of social media, there’s the constant mantra of what you could be doing if you weren’t online. I never thought I’d quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he wrote,

“When you’re looking at your iPhone, whether it’s social media, email, or news, you’re reading someone else’s story. And that’s time you could be spending dreaming up and writing your own story.

–Arnold Schwarzenneger

Now I don’t have anything against reading the news or email—I think it’s important to keep up on current events and to send timely responses to emails. But otherwise this resonates with me, as I wasn’t as active as usual on social media when I was working on my book. I think of all the tweets I’ve written, 140 characters each, and extrapolate them into number of words, and I probably could have written another book with those words. Should I give up Twitter to devote my words to personal writing? Or does the benefit of Twitter (which has declined significantly since El#n M*sk took over) outweigh the drawbacks?

What exactly is social media’s benefit? I’ll focus on Twitter first because that’s the platform I’ve used the most. It used to be about conversation and sharing, seeing calls for article pitches, and getting updates on what some of my writing friends were doing. I use Twitter DMs to connect with my sister and one of my writing accountability buddies. But I have a friend who isn’t on Twitter (and maybe not Facebook, either – definitely not LinkedIn), and I wonder if she’s really missing much.

When I really think about it, what am I getting out of Twitter? Mostly it’s become a place where I advertise my latest writing. For example, my last tweet was about a book review I just published in The Millions. It had a lot of engagement, tweets and retweets and shares. But that was a once-in-a-month event. Other things I post get no traction at all, falling into the void like shooting stars. It seems as though I’m talking to myself, sharing quotes from different things I’ve been reading and recommending books. The community aspect of Twitter has declined since the takeover, and it’s not the vibrant space it used to be. As I write this, I’m rethinking my relationship with Twitter. Maybe it’s time to let it go, to move on to other pursuits. Maybe it’s not serving my purposes anymore.

Facebook has more benefits for me. I’m part of several writing groups where I get advice and tips about writing and the writing life. I get to peek inside the lives of my friends, some of whom share dog, cat, or rabbit photos. It’s a cozier space, as I don’t have a lot of ‘friends’ so I’m not overwhelmed by content. I rely on the writers’ groups for information and support, and I get it. I’m not talking into the void like I seem to be doing over on Twitter. I’m encircled by a warm group of friends.

One of the things that I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around is the idea of ‘branding’ yourself through your social media. Having a personal brand that says who you are and what you do. On Anna Brones’s Substack I found this gem:

“When a person aspires to be a brand, they forfeit everything that is truly glorious about being human…When we position ourselves as a brand, we are forced to project an image of what we believe most people will approve of and admire and buy into… The moment we cater our creativity to popular opinion is the precise moment we lose our freedom and autonomy.”

–Debbie Millman

When you start generating social media content that speaks to popular opinion rather than your true nature, you lose your creativity and even your self. This is not something I aspire to. I want a balance between a rich online life and a rich creative life. One does not necessarily exclude the other, but we have to be careful in how we manage them. I’m still going to use social media, but I’ll think hard about how I use it and make sure it doesn’t detract from my creative life or take up too much of my everyday life.

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