Sympathy for Luddites

Social media creates an illusion that the world is wrapped in layers of information. We start to think and act in accordance with the idea that reality involves posting photos of ourselves, seeing what our friends did on holiday and writing about what we’re thinking. When we abstain from doing this after some years, the world feels like a claustrophobic dream in which everything that happens takes place inside your mind alone, an exhilarating thought that this and only this is your life.

Carrying the world-as-information in our pockets, it’s tempting to believe that what we experience when we watch a sunset or listen to birds arguing in treetops is only part of reality. The other part, we assume, is the part that can be quantified digitally and reproduced. However, these reproductions are a shadow cast by something no longer there. No comparison is possible between the image of an ocean sunset and the reality, unless we reduce the reality to an intention to photograph and share our experience. We should always entertain the possibility that reality is only what is here now, and that this is not reducible.

Another stealth effect of social media websites is the way in which they exacerbate our sense of self. They invite us to write a definitive bio to describe ourselves, frequently in the space of a few sentences. We quantify our friends, close friends, organise people into lists, promote our doings and cleverness, give our relationships their proper labels. All of this information may be true in a narrow sense but made concrete it becomes a castle in the clouds, far removed from the person who is actually living in one moment in time and changing all the time.

The faint blue glow of friendship

As we declutter our house prior to the big move, it’s been interesting to question what I need in my life. This doesn’t just apply to material stuff, of course, but other kinds of stuff too. For example: how I spend my time (temporal stuff). Unfortunately, it turns out that much of my temporal stuff is expended on digital stuff. So I began to think about whether I could slim down or prioritise my commitments to the internet.

It’s surprising how many people I’ve agreed to ‘follow’, how many marketing emails I’ve neglected to unsubscribe from, how many services I have an account for and have never found useful. Hey, it’s all free. Then, yesterday, I deleted TweetDeck and a shiver went through me. It was a physical feeling of relief.

I have this vague idea that social media is useful but it’s very hard to say how, and what the cost is. It’s usually an open ended and very poorly defined activity, at least the way I use it. Not SMART.

There’s also the mental bandwidth it hogs: the repetitive cycle of posting and checking; the fear of missing out. The impulse to tweet about something as it happens to you is the mental equivalent of having a ‘share this’ button embedded in your experiences. I do want to share some of my experiences but in a form and manner of my choosing. Does being retweeted help me to understand myself and others? Does the new Facebook design help me to be present in the living of my life? Probably not.

I know several people who love Twitter and would say it has changed their lives. Maybe they’re more purposeful and professional in their use of it than I am. Many writers use Twitter to build an audience and find like-minded fellows. When Joe and Hugh and I launched our poetry pamphlet, The Inner Sea, it reached people on Twitter who never would have read it otherwise. That was a really positive thing but the results didn’t really justify the amount of headspace I’ve given over to it.

I have some deeper problems with social media and reactions that take place on a shallow, literal level. It’s not always an advantage to communicate by reflex and so publicly. Experiences take time to change us and to reveal their importance. Independence, the feeling of being out of touch, the sense of time passing slowly, patience, possibly even peace. All these are things of value to someone who writes; all are things that could be gained by losing social media or toning it down.

It’s easy to be enchanted by the faint blue glow of friendship. At its best, social media is an egalitarian echo chamber; at its worst, a squawk box for brands to banter through. If I had the courage of my convictions I suppose I’d close my accounts, let time pass as slowly as possible and miss out on everything.