Crusty intellectual types are fond of expressing disgust with what they see as social media’s corrosive effect on our culture of Letters. Recently, we heard about it from deposed New Republic sage Leon Wieseltier in a mostly maddeningly opaque New York Times Book Review cover essay about disruption. “As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements,” he wrote. “It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.” (The latter sentence would fit fabulously in a tweet, I thought ashamedly.) Soon thereafter, Emperor of the Luddites Jonathan Franzen, in an interview that exasperated many, for many reasons, piped up again about the dangers of social media. “I think it’s a really badly suited model of literary culture, social media,” he said. “Writers are alone. They work alone. They communicate through the finished page. It’s gruesome to force them to self-promote on a gregarious medium.”
Of course, each of these sallies provoked thousands of exasperated tweets.
At The Millions yesterday, Sarah LaBrie further explored the questions these writers have raised. She asked several prominent novelists to disavow Twitter, and none of them would; they all love the form to various degrees of healthiness. “Love/hate, but tbh mostly love. And we all know love hurts, love bleeds, love kills, love is a battlefield, etc,” said novelist and Twitter favorite Porochista Khakpour. LaBrie, reluctantly suspicious of social media, concludes that the web is useful for entirely different reasons than books — which is why books have perversely survived, long and physically cumbersome as they are, to the point that social media users find them sexy. “Twitter and Facebook are great for quick blasts of dopamine or adrenaline, but not for creating sustained waves of happiness or fear or maintaining the kind of cumulative tension upon which good stories rely,” she writes.
As a writer who spends hours a day combing and contributing to social media precisely to spark the productivity of my fingers on my keyboard (and simply as a chatty person who fires off many a tweet in rapid succession), I should be the first one to cry out against this assault from the old order. Trawling social media is the primary way I find subjects for topical nonfiction. It’s effective as a predictor and precursor to writing. If I fume about something online and the rant seeds an essay, that essay will almost always be informed by passion and momentum, and will likely hit a chord with readers too. In short, I unequivocally love social media and consider it to be a net good.
But maybe, just maybe, a small thought in my head insists, this echoing lamentation conceals a small, shining gem of truth beneath its dusty layers of cranky griping. Because as much as I love to tweet, I don’t want all my observations about the world I move through to be only destined for Twitter. If I start thinking and measuring and even shaping my own thoughts to be ideal for that particular medium, I believe it puts a strain on my creative ecosystem, which is far from an endlessly resupplying wellspring. Creativity isn’t finite, but it does demand nurturing: time, distance, freedom from structure and critique. Perhaps there exist some clever, half-formed thoughts we should save for ourselves, tuck into a notebook or newly re-ascendant diary where it will sit on the page, ready to feed future essays and stories and great American novels. Or maybe their only audience will be ourselves, in which case rereading them can boost our own creative self-esteem, irrespective of external validation. And we all need to at least partly wean ourselves from external validation — that alone will make the project worthwhile.
One of the reasons this thought has dogged me is my most significant criticism of Internet culture, which is that it has had a deleterious effect on the personal essay. Certainly, it’s helpful to allow people to share their personal experiences with an online audience that understands and offers consolation. But time, and real art, are so crucial for personal writing, and the demands of the Internet make those two qualities hard to come by. “I’m grateful that I wasn’t a young writer with a blog or a massive following on social media,” writes novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro in an excellent New Yorker post titled “A Memoir Is Not a Status Update.” “The years of silence were deepening ones,” she continues. “My story burrowed its way deeper and deeper into my being until it became a story I could turn inside out, hold to the light like a prism, craft into a story that was bigger than its small, sorry details.”
“Oh!” I thought upon reading Shapiro’s post. “I totally want to craft a luminous prism rather than a flat status update.” A funny observation about snow in New York that could get me 12 favorites on Twitter today might work even better, in 12 years, as a scene from a brilliantly wicked short story wherein the snow symbolizes the character’s frozen ambitions.
So this January, when I upgraded my phone, I didn’t download anything except Nook, Kobo, Instapaper, and Instagram — apps for reading and photography. No Twitter, no Facebook, no Tumblr, no Foursquare. And then I took a notebook that had been given me as a gift and put it in my purse with a few nice pens. Instead of checking my Twitter notifications on the subway, I decided, I was going to channel my observations into that notebook, where exactly zero people would “like” them and favorite them and even know they existed. I would also try to cut back on having social media open while consuming other media, or while eating food. I was fairly convinced that this small series of adjustment was going to result in an explosive geyser of creative expression.
No such outpouring has occurred. Instead, of course, what’s resulted is something in between a trickle and Old Faithful. Specifically, I’ve filled half a notebook with a scratchy scrawl, a good deal of which is simple fretting about my winter fatigue, the ice that’s coating New York City, and other quotidian problems (honestly, Twitter can do without these complaints anyway). But I’ve also turned my eyes outward: I now have created a running series of descriptors and speculations about the people around me on the subway car, who could maybe provide character details for future projects, and a ballooning list of ideas for those writing projects.
Have I, Twitter-bereft, suddenly found the time and energy to pursue those new projects? Reader, I have not. That might require a Hemingwrite or, you know, willpower. Now, if you follow me on Twitter, you may be laughing at the idea that I’ve cut back on social media, because in the past three weeks I’ve inundated you with Grammy, Oscar, SNL reunion, and other live-tweets and the usual mix of snark and self-promotion for which the medium is made. My social media output hasn’t diminished; it’s just more concentrated, time-wise.
Mostly, without the constant buzz of tweets on my phone every time I’m somewhere within service range, my mind feels relatively unleashed. I don’t feel like I need to consider and respond to things all the time. Rather than always thinking about which of my thoughts will make a good tweet or Facebook post, I’m just, well, thinking. We’ll see where that leads.