I knew something was wrong when I lost my temper while trying to do up my shoelaces – it all just seemed too much. ‘God, I’m over it, over everything.’ As I eventually got my act together and managed to leave the house to walk down the street to do the grocery shopping, I did an urgent scan of my life. It wasn’t only the shoelaces that were doing my head in. I was horrified to realise that my morning coffee, a routine that I’d previously adored, the three-stage process, the smell, the taste, had also become a source of tension and anger. Even the simple act of trying to open the back door so I could sit in the sun and watch the chooks for a few minutes had become a chore – the door was in my way and I hated it.
Why on earth was I so anxious and uptight? Sure I’ve had a lot on my plate this year: a new novella, I’m Ready Now, will be published by Blemish Books in November, so there has been polish after polish after polish (and worry after worry after worry); and I’m always working on new stories; and I do freelance writing for The Canberra Times; and I edit Verity La; and I’m an active member of an arts advocacy body called The Childers Group; and I maintain this blog. But I live mortgage-free in a house I love, and home is an easy-going regional town. And this year I’ve said no to things, over half a dozen, and all were good and exciting, but back in January, as a core New Year’s resolution, I promised that I’d say no more often to make sure things stay well-juggled, and I’ve held myself to that promise. But the fact remained: tightening my shoelaces and making coffee and trying to open the back door made me lose my head.
Clearly needing to chill-out I decided to ease back on social media for a week – it seemed to be one thing that I could control. I’m a late-bloomer in terms of Facebook, signing up only last year; I joined because a project in which I’m involved was communicating through Facebook. Soon I was using the thing for my own writing and life – the word missing there is ‘marketing’ – as well as spreading news about Verity La and The Childers Group. I run a Twitter account each for VL and Childers; I’m not much of a participant in the Twitterverse, preferring to simply put out a couple of tweets each week – to me it feels as though I’m sending up a flare to see if anyone notices (they rarely do). In total, across both platforms, I’d probably knock out as few as six posts per week, most non-personal and the majority about people other than myself. But I did check my Facebook ‘news-feed’ two to three times a day – first thing in the morning, at lunch, and before dinner. After I read the newspapers on-line I’d sign in and scroll through, click the Like button every so often, make the odd comment, scroll through some more.
Amazingly, within twenty-four hours of giving up the scrolling side of my social-media life, I felt more relaxed. Much more. My head seemed clearer. Actually it felt as if my head was my own again, as well as my mind, my heart too, perhaps even my soul. I felt more myself, more whole; my natural shape was returning.
I should make it clear that I’m a person who does get anxious at a drop of a hat. You should see me trying to pack up to go away for a couple of days – now that really is too much! And when I’m in the city and have to drive in traffic, well, that’s no good for anyone. Anxiety is in my genes; it’s etched onto my DNA. I can keep everything in check by daily exercise, especially walking and lap-swimming, and listening to certain types of music, and gardening, and being alone – too much socialising knocks me for a six. Exercise has to be a daily thing otherwise I unravel very quickly. If I don’t write for a week (which is a very, very rare event) I start going all wobbly at the knees. So my life is a fine balance. Whose isn’t? But what I realised was I’d upset this fine balance by plugging myself into a – let’s not sugar-coat this – stream of random crap.
As each day went by in my new non-news-feed world I felt more and more at ease. I could go through the back door without wanting to smash it down. I could get together the coffee and enjoy the process. Yes, I can even do up my shoelaces and have a smile on my face. Why was social media having such a negative impact? It is, after all, social, albeit in a vacuous kind of way, and I’m not someone who can be social 24/7 – a good week is one in which I’m able to spend 30% of the time in my own company, not that I prefer my own company, it’s just that I don’t need constant connection and engagement. I also like a single source of stimulus, a book, a film, a piece of music, but not all at once. Facebook is as if life has been shoved into a blender and the slops injected into your veins. At the risk of mixing up too many metaphors, it’s also like the staff-room in an office or the student refectory at university or the common-room at school – I don’t mind ducking in and ducking out, but I loath lingering there for hours. So social media may not be the best for non-social people like me.
But it’s also about the type of socialising that happens on Facebook. The vast majority – 99% – is, of course, banal. Someone saying that they had a good cappuccino, or a bad cappuccino, or an average cappuccino. A picture of a cat with a vaguely funny caption. A link to a video of a song from thirty years ago, a song that we’ve all forgotten and there are good reasons why we’ve all forgotten it. Or those manipulatively demanding status updates where someone writes ‘Wow, that upset me’ or ‘I wish I hadn’t said what I did’ so we’re forced to ask ‘What upset you?’ or ‘What did you say that you shouldn’t have?’ And then there are those who use it as though it’s a counsellor: ‘I’m realising that I’m an okay person’. Good for you. That sounds bitchy, I know, but can anything truly good and long-lasting come from someone who is seriously down in the dumps trying to seek comfort in a machine? Is crowd-sourcing psychoanalysis actually healthy?
However, even thoughtful posts from my more erudite ‘friends’ (those inverted commas are necessary because I haven’t met these people) become annoying after a while – it’s like being stuck in a world where the only program on offer is the ABC’s Q&A. Or posts from very worthy organisations pleading for me to send an email to a politician, or to take action against some kind of abuse. It all adds up to a bombardment. It feels like I’m forcing myself to scavenge in the tip. Worse: it feels like I’m allowing myself to have the tip poured over me on a daily basis. (These metaphors keep coming.) It’s not just about feeling dirty; it’s about feeling as though I’m being buried alive. And then there’s the sense that the boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’ are being eroded, so much so that identity is deformed before lost altogether. Some commentators like to say that social media is a great aggregator, but really we’re just being mashed up into oblivion.
And then there’s the addiction. You know you’re in trouble when you’re in a mad rush, you have to be out of the house RIGHT NOW, in fact five minutes ago, but still you check Facebook to make sure there’s not something there that you really need to know about, even though you know that there isn’t going to be something there that you really need to know about, so now you’re even more late, but – hang on – one last check. Or you find yourself simply scrolling through, not reading, not engaging, just scrolling, like the smoker who simply needs something to do with his hands. (That’s it: I’m done with the metaphors.)
Sure, there are good things to be found in the social-media world. One morning a radio-producer friend put up a post saying that he was going to cover for a presenter who’d come down sick so was looking for news items to fill the program. My first novella, Fall on Me, had recently been published, so I sent him the publisher’s media release and that afternoon I was on-air talking about the book. Another example: a page I ‘liked’ which highlights publishing opportunities in North American put up a post saying that a particular literary journal was looking for a certain type of story; I submitted a piece and months later had a story published overseas. And it’s true that sometimes someone will post a comment or a photo or a video that is genuinely poignant and memorable, but I can count these experiences on one hand.
It’s also true that social media can be worthwhile for a project like Verity La – if a well-crafted post about a new story or poem or review can draw a couple of hundred people to the work and the writer then I’m more than happy to do it. Similarly with The Childers Group. Recently I was astonished to receive from Facebook a statistics update on Childers page which claimed that the potential reach was 18,000 people, even though only 50 people have actually formally connected with the thing. For a voluntary body that’s trying to increase discussion about the value of the arts it’s hard to ignore the possibilities of these figures.
As I write I’m in the second week of my Approach Facebook With Caution way of getting through the week, and I continue to feel more relaxed and clearer in the head. I’m still posting things about Verity La and The Childers Group but am no longer posting personal status updates, you know the ones, those that are put there simply to fill the void. When I bring up the Facebook login screen and see that there are no little red marks in the left-hand corner indicating activity I simply don’t enter – like the alcoholic outside the pub, I’m learning to walk away. (Damnit, another metaphor.) I know that this isn’t really in the spirit of Facebook: if I want people to engage with my posts I should engage in posts by others. It’s also hypocritical: I don’t want to be polluted by my news-feed but I’m more than happy to pollute other people’s news-feeds. Rather frighteningly, Facebook seems to have noticed that I’m no longer accessing the site on a daily basis so it has given me login-free access, meaning I’m taken into the site as soon as I click on the Facebook icon in my list of favourites. Perhaps this is a coincidence, but it does make you wonder if the machine is becoming too intelligent for our own good.
A quick Google search of ‘Facebook’ and ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’ and ‘mental health’ reveals a potentially endless list of articles quoting peer-reviewed research into the negative impacts of social media on quality of life. No doubt the worthwhile mantra in this context is everything in moderation. But what I’m suggesting is that for some people social media – which can be defined as a perpetual and invasive onslaught of random and mostly meaningless ‘thoughts’ and ‘observations’ and links and images – is as potentially harmful as trying to walk across a six-lane freeway at peak-hour. Clearly I’m not done with these metaphors: they’re starting to feel a lot like a Facebook news-feed…and I’m getting the jitters.
So why don’t I just quit? While I’m writing books and editing a literary journal and being active in an arts advocacy body, I will continue to use social media to communicate (although I doubt that communicate is the right word to use in this context) things that might be of interest to others. It’s reported that up to 10 million Australians are on Facebook – 45% of the population – and 6.6 million people check the site daily. And we’re just one tiny country; it’s probably impossible to know how many people there are around the world who are regular Facebook users. It can only be assumed that many enjoy it. So that’s a massive audience who are willing to be engaged through this medium. Writing and literature – any kind of creative practice – is a tough game, and all tools have to be seriously considered if we want to cut through to the general populace.
However, I do wonder if for many, including myself, the personal cost of being immersed in this environment could reach the point where it’s fatal. I’d certainly like to be able to keep doing up my shoelaces without wanting to ram by head through a brick wall.
So far, so good.
Update: here’s a very interesting article from The Sydney Morning Herald about how some high-profile novelists are dealing with social media and its impact on their writing.