Will the age of social media actually amount to anything? Nigel Jarrett bravely reflects on his experiences of Twitter and Facebook.
During a bout of Australian flu, I experienced one of those shifts of perception commonly associated with fever and delirium: I could no longer come to any accommodation with social media. It made me feel physically sick. Opening the door each morning on to a raging Twitterstorm and dealing (in my case, at least) with the diurnal dribble of notifications on Facebook, I felt trapped by a false sense of community. The changed awareness was clear: it was the fakery that proved most vivid; beside it, any worthy aim of establishing cyberspatial bonhomie with others seemed almost incidental, or as if it had never existed and was instead some diabolical ruse, purpose unknown. My anxiety was detailed and prolonged: I came to believe that, in some vague religious sense, we tweeters and facebookers were being gathered together for some undisclosed event to be the subject of immanent (and imminent) revelation.
I believe that being vouchsafed such imagery tells me a lot about the truth behind it. More or less restored to fitness, I now question the impetus, the consequence, and the nature of social media, as well as the ulterior motive behind those who have gifted me the technical means of taking advantage of them; that’s assuming there is an advantage and not just an unpredicated opportunity, as illustrated by the Allegory of the Apples. One night in a town in ancient Greece, a philosopher attached a basket to a wall in the public square and stuffed it with fruit. Each night he was obliged to re-fill an empty basket. Once the citizens knew the fruit was free, they took it, whether they needed it or not. The motive to take, like the urge to tweet or ‘post’ was not dictated by want but by opportunity and habit. Urgency may have played a part, if one were hungry, but the guarantee of daily replenishment made that almost redundant. In the Greece of antiquity, fruit was commonly plentiful. Perhaps the most important lesson drawn from the exercise was that the fruit-takers acted alone and, for a while at least, clandestinely and without intending to share the experience as an act of communal indulgence. They were clearly aware that others were helping themselves but any idea of the act of taking as a group activity was virtual, not real.
As a philosopher himself before he wandered off to do what his colleague Hugh Kenner described as ‘his own thing’, Marshall McLuhan would have known and appreciated the basket-of-fruit story. McLuhan, once a loner, should have come into his own with social media, quintessentially the vindication of his medium/message theories. In thirty years, maybe less, one of the questions likely to be asked by cultural commentators will concern why a supposedly intelligent person such as myself embraced the infantilism of Twitter and Facebook with such enthusiasm and not a shred of irony. They will note with a snigger the hieratic nature of Twitter status, with its ‘followers’ (pray, silence, for the tweeter is about to tweet), and the army of those followed (pray, wait awhile, for know ye not that there are other voices in the wilderness?). They will observe the pandering to self-promotion, the sly interpolation of commercialism, the deliberate curtailment of utterance and its easy diminution to the glib and the offensive and, maybe above all, the recrudescence of the authority of Babel, and in that noisy ziggurat, the tinkling bells of vanity.
Ever an optimist, McLuhan might nonetheless have predicted all this. His work in the 1960s on how what we say is infected by the way we choose to say it, pre-dated the internet but was justified by the growing technologies of radio and TV. He might as well have been talking the computer into existence. Theorists, though, have no control over the post-accomplishment consequences of what they’ve proposed. But sometimes their prescience is astonishing. Just as perceptive a commentator as McLuhan was Nicolas Tesla, who as early as 1925 was predicting that we would soon be carrying phones in ‘our vest pockets’. McLuhan took satisfaction in medical studies that showed how TV caused viewers to settle into ‘passive’ brainwave patterns, and he was concerned about the possible effects on coming technologies of manipulative advertising.
To return to my epiphanous, germ-induced moment, in the spirit of a less-than-optimistic McLuhan, I saw Twitter as a jostling crowd in which the voices were mostly inconsequential, often childish (today, a picture of a two-yolk hen’s egg and the tweet: A Double Yolker!! – exclamations de rigueur), commonly exclusive, and crying out for purpose. How can a restricted word count be the basis of anything other than promotion or (private) congratulation? It’s fertile ground for the enactment of Godwin’s Law (Argumentum ad Nazium): the tendency of acrimonious online exchanges to descend rapidly into comparisons with Hitler and the Holocaust. With so little space for argument, the admonitory smear comes into its own. There are lots of Godwin-like relatives.
Twitter is reductive when it should be expansive; immaterial when it should be germane; private when it should be public. Jesus-like, I sought my Followers, but evidence of them was there none. Maybe they were lost in the desert with those I follow, tweeting together in the badlands to no avail like a flutter of escaped budgerigars. Each day I count over 140 tweets, the number increasing by ten every hour. Only by devoting inordinate time to research do I discover this. Many are from followers I never knew I had, or are part of the blizzard of re-tweets from those I follow but who don’t have my permission to to tell me what they’ve just read in The Guardian (it’s never The Morning Star, or even the awful Daily Mail.)
Oddly – and this is something Zuckerberg might address – I saw Facebook as the inferior mode, an almost genteel form of communication beyond the garrulous thrashings of the Twittersphere, a game of Patience to compare with Twitter’s Texas Hold ‘Em, and ultimately, a place where I might land my protected Stingray and post photos from a recent visit to Aberglasney. I also saw, literally in my feverish dream, Twitterfolk as chirruping inhabitants of of an avian Noah’s Ark, marshalled to escape some linguistic disaster about which they were incapable of saying much. I opened the door of the ark, and, lo, it was deafening; I closed the door and, lo, there was peace.
Before McLuhan pursued ‘his own thing’, he and Kenner were being taught English by expatriate Oxbridge MAs in Canada, for whom anything that came after Kipling and Chesterton was deemed to be incomprehensible peculiarity. As Kenner stated, from the vantage of Peterborough, Ontario, Oxford and Cambridge as perceived centres of literary debate and activity were well nigh invisible. I feel the same way when, with careless omnipotence, I shut down the facile murmurations of Twitterdom and take a walk along the canal bank. To the heron, poised above the twitching minnow and with one eye on me, I am as real as he is to yours truly.
As the virus continued to do its worst, time unravelled. Could it have been four years since the American novelist Jonathan Franzen opined that, in relation to new fiction, social media was a coercive development in the States, a Twitter following of some arbitrary figure such as 2500 being necessary before any publisher would look at a script from an unpublished writer? (The random tweet word count is typical of social media’s Prosperian magic, its authority residing in its meaninglessness and unrestrained authority, and its emendation a reminder that the power from which it derives needs to be continually exercised.) The point wasn’t so much that Franzen was wrong, but that he was downed by a fusillade of tweets. One of them, ‘Lighten up, Franzo!’ seemed typically Twitteresque in its dismissiveness.
Franzen had written:
What happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?
I see people who ought to be spending their time developing their craft, and people who used to be able to make a living as freelance writers – I see them making nothing and coerced into this constant self-promotion.
Well, we’re not all writers, and one follows and is followed by those of similar outlook. It’s our choice. But it’s the nature of the discourse that’s worrying. Post a contentious statement on Facebook and it often attracts a seemingly endless list of ‘likes’ (surely social media’s great misnomer) and ‘comment’ that becomes frustrating because it represents debate floundering in an inappropriate and unmediated arena. The descent to bitchiness and insult and Godwinian law is encouraged by relative anonymity and lack of shape. Some ‘discussions’ seem capable of going on for ever, and cry out for the intervention of a Prospero, some swish of a multi-coloured dreamcoat, to bring it to an end.
The result is withdrawal, and a liking for videos of surfing dogs in South Devon, the amateurish snippets of YouTube and the sending of birthday greetings to ‘Friends’ whose birthdays one should have written down if the ‘friendship’ meant anything at all. From such a level, there is no way forward. It doesn’t say much for a medium that has a lot to say for itself.
Chamath Palihapitiya, who was vice-president for user growth at Facebook before he left the company in 2011 said a few months ago that the short-term ‘dopamine-driven’ feedback loops that the company had created were destroying how society worked. ‘This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other,’ he said.
Of course, one could just withdraw, as one can withdraw from a moral and political dialogue; but therein lies apathy and irresponsible disengagment.
But am I missing anything? I am missing nothing that matters. Six weeks ago I sent a well-intentioned direct message to a writer who is now following me, to find out who he was and whether or not he thought I might formally welcome his discipular addition to my clan as we trek towards another sermon on the Mount. Answer has there been none. In the virtual world, we enjoy the protection of a soap bubble, and when it bursts there is nothing. That I’ll probably continue to use social media, if to a lesser extent, only proves what a hold they have over us. But they won’t last – not in their ever-expanding and often divisive form.
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published last year. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He also writes and reviews for Jazz Journal.Next year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.