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May 20, 2011 / missmarymax

One Week, No Tweets: On My Temporary Separation from Social Media

It started with a tweet; it ends with a blog post.

I’m speaking, mind you, of my week without social media, the pre-summer vacation I took from Facebook, Twitter, and blogging.  Full disclosure: a few @replies did find their way onto my phone near week’s end, my automatic daycountr did continue unchecked, and I did update my Goodreads feed here and there.  So, let’s not get caught up in images of me curled up in Thoreau’s cabin, cultivating my Luddite sensibilities.  This was a week without television, but not without video games.  A week without Twitter, but not without texting. 

I did not take a week off from social media in homage to a world without it. (Spoiler alert: I’m a huge fan.)  But I wanted to reconsider my relationship to that media, the way that I use those tools. I want to trust that I’m guiding them, at least as much as they are guiding me.  I want to resist the force of habit, to ensure it’s not a coercive force.  This concern, for me, started with uneasiness about why I blog (and microblog) so often, why I feel pressured to blog and microblog more often than I do, why – as Keyke puts it – I feel “the need to record everything/ as if [I’ll] forget tomorrow all the things [I] felt”…

That desire to archive, in order to hold on, to digitally encapsulate experience, is only one of the reasons I take photos constantly, blog constantly, post constantly to Twitter.  The other is more difficult to define, and more difficult to manage: it’s the need for those photos to be seen, blogs to be read, and tweets to be viewed.  My use of social media relates directly to a need for others to validate my existence.  If I post words on the Internet and no one RTs them, do they make a sound?  Without comments on a blog post, how will I confirm it was written?  Quick, look in my direction, be my reflection.  Make me exist.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the notion that interacting with social media makes my experiences “real.” (I’m also reading Sherri Turkle’s Alone Together, currently, so this is probably not the last post you’ll read on this topic). But the first thought, the thought that inspired my week sans Twitter, was a memory of that old bold-faced psych term: imaginary audience.  Imaginary audience, for those of you who got your behavioral science creds elsewhere, is that sense that everyone is watching you, that – whether you’re brewing coffee or interviewing for a job – you’re the star of your own drama.  Like most phenomena we don’t think much of, it’s associated primarily with teenagers, but I’ve long suspected it extends further – particularly in an era so rife with status updates, YouTube stars, and “reality” television. There is very little time we spend fully alone.

My week without social media was largely about re-considering how I relate to the imaginary audience, finding out what meaning my day-to-day life has, sans broadcast.  Solitude tends to strike me as a dirty word (something of a blasphemy, from a writer, but true).  Still, I wanted to reconnect with the imaginative possibilities erased by the imaginary audience, to consider what uncommon sense I might have lost, by adhering to common-sense practices.  What ways of thinking, understanding – hell, even “being” – have I lost by interacting with the world as I do?

Not surprisingly, one of the clearest lessons from my weeklong experiment was that it’s far more difficult to escape the age of social media than it is to turn off updates and quit checking feeds.  I can quit tweeting, but I can’t quit thinking what I’d tweet.  Like my friends, I remember signing up for Facebook and suddenly—during nights out—thinking, “boy, this will make a great status.” Likewise, my week without social media immediately felt worthy of a True-Life-esque vlog: what would I say to the documentarians if they were present?  What words did I have for the imaginary audience, who were—of course—watching all this unfold?

Throughout the week, I wanted to report back, to discuss, to continue engaging through media. (Pretty clearly, I still want this now.)  In some ways, this felt like a failing.  I did not crave solitude, but I also knew my obsession with media was not wholly deliberate nor without desperation.  I despaired, for a short time, over the inescapability of my historical moment and my own tendency toward conversation.  Even my personal journal tends toward a process of “dialoguing,” a conversation between facets of myself.  For the first time, this struck me as just another discussion with an audience.  Can I relate, even to myself, without conversation?  How long would I have to withdraw from new media to feel grounded in my identity?

To my surprise, seven days was long enough to begin answering that question.  My answer may be rationalization or it may be epiphany; in all likelihood, it’s a combination of the two.  But after losing sleep over the possibility that all my media-use is pathological, it finally occurred to me that there’s a difference between an imaginary performance and an imaginary conversation. Most of the writing I do depends upon the latter.  I always write in conversation with a reader who does not yet exist – a person I can’t predict, my future self included.  I fell in love with playwriting at sixteen because it was the most social form of writing I’d discovered; it provided an opportunity to interact with other people—actors, directors, audience—around the words.  I love blogging, spoken-word, and social media, for largely the same reasons.  Writing into the black hole of a white page, writing with no reader, has been my number one complaint about the practice.  I am not a girl who could live in a garret, penning works that will become canon after my death, while knowing no one and remaining unknown in life.  There is a reason that narrative always ends with the oven, the ocean, the pistol. It is not a livable — and certainly not a desirable — narrative for me.

But imaginary conversations , used cautiously, can facilitate real ones.  The ways that I most enjoy writing and social media reflect this.  They allow the other person to participate as a co-conspirator, co-creator, equal.  I find the @reply more fulfilling than the RT, although I have a tendency to forget this when I don’t get RT’d.  As I return to social media, now, I continue to consider this.  How can I use these tools to form real intimacy and create real dialogue?  How is that different than the uses of them fueled by frenetic energy, by that need for others to make me real, worthy, good?  How can I curb my interaction with an imaginary audience and re-cultivate that space as a place to deliberately interact with others as people in their own right?

These are not rhetorical questions.

I don’t want a world without social media.  This historical moment and its possibilities excite me.  I have no desire to live alone at Walden, but I share Thoreau’s desire to live deliberately. I want to engage consciously with life, online and off.  This media is new, and I want to consciously shape it, and consciously consider how it shapes me.  I cannot — and wouldn’t want to — remove myself from culture.  But realizing that some cultural exchanges are more fulfilling for me than others raises questions about why I give in, so easily, to practices that don’t fulfill.

What would I give up, if I shared less on-line?  What would I gain if I wrote more letters, made more phone calls, spent more time sitting – in person – with friends? 

These questions started for me with a tweet, but — come to think of it — they’ve yet to end.

More interesting thoughts on similar themes: Krista Tippett’s interview with Sherry Turkle, Kendra’s post on actively participating in your life, and Mara’s response to said post.

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Ily / May 21 2011 12:11 am

    “I can quit tweeting, but I can’t quit thinking what I’d tweet. ”

    THIS!! I’m not as active on social media as you are, but I find myself often thinking “I wish I could tell Person X about this thing I’m doing”. Somehow the thing itself doesn’t seem like enough.
    And when I eat out, I have an extremely hard time NOT writing a Yelp review in my head while I’m eating. I’ve always had a very strong “internal monologue”. As a child, I remember narrating myself as if I was in a TV show. I’ve always talked myself through tasks, as a means of self-organization. So social media definitely taps an underlying tendency for me as well. I definitely feel like I spend way too much undeliberate time on the internet. I want to figure out: Why is being on the internet so much more pleasant than any other use of my time? It makes me feel less alone for a time (I suppose), but when I step back, the sense of isolation is even worse.

    You know, maybe I should do a similar experiment.

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