I never thought I’d come to this. In the past year whenever I have shared my plans to transition from corporate lawyer to vagabond writer, a common reaction has been “that’s awesome, you should totally start a blog.” Each time this suggestion has been made, a profuse expression of shock and abhorrence has descended over my face (as is the tendency of profuse expressions), and I’ve felt like running out of the building and down the street, ripping all my clothes off, finding the nearest beach and collapsing onto my knees at the spot where the water laps the shore, screaming “damn you…damn you all to hell!”
But why would an aspiring writer feel so threatened by the prospect of blogging? Because blogging sits in the ‘social media drawer’ in the filing cabinet of thoughts inside my head. And this drawer begins with an internal report that identifies facebooking, instragraming, tweeting, snapchatting, blogging and all similar e-neologisms as being manifestations of a global plague of distraction and consumerist-driven homogenisation. Symptoms are stated to include an inability to wear, visit, watch, marry, graduate from, look at, eat or think anything without the approval of a shiny mind-control unit, usually with a screen between four and five and a half inches in diameter. Sufferers are said to be identifiable by the presence of the distinctive units in either one or both of their hands as they uniformly amble through the streets of our metropolises, often bumping into each other or stationary objects. Yet while the findings of this assessment are appealing in their conclusiveness, I’m starting to question their veracity. Having such a vehement chastisement of social media so easily to hand has conveniently prevented me from feeling the need to pull the trembling drawer of thought all the way out and examine its historical documents. The phobia I seem to have developed towards even talking about social media would suggest that my ‘internal report’ might really be some sort of avoidance strategy for dealing with a repressed trauma. But I’m tired of avoiding. I think the time has finally come for me to take a deep breath and reopen my personal ‘social media files’.
Social media and I grew up together. I was fifteen when MySpace came onto the scene, a great advancement from mIRC and MSN messenger in the cyber-revolution of selfhood. Being an insecure teen with dreams of grandeur and feelings of invisibility, I seized the opportunity to construct a larger-than-life online persona, complete with a wallpaper collage of Picasso works (assembled using Microsoft Paint) and John Legend background music (“Ordinary People”). This first foray into self-idolatry was soon abandoned when the more ruthlessly user-friendly Facebook came along. Status updates. Wall posts. The politics of friending and unfriending. Album uploads. And most crucially, the feed, which, like a bottomless canister of cocaine-infused whipped cream, began pumping our digital gobs full of the fake selves being cooked up by our thousands of ‘friends’.
I embraced this roided-up social media tool with rabid enthusiasm, even becoming an early pioneer of the selfie. Like a modern Prometheus, I usurped the power to needlessly take photographs of myself doing unremarkable things well before the advent of high-res front-facing smartphone cameras through the purchase of a digital Canon with a 1.8” fold-and-twist LCD (with some of my residual Bar Mitzvah money). Looking back at albums that have long since been pulled from the public domain, I seemed to have used this selfie superpower mainly to take and post photographs of myself with attractive female peers who are kissing, or coming close to kissing, the side of my cheek in various settings – the schoolyard, pool parties, the beach, nondescript couches. Whilst the ‘girl kissing side of boy’s cheek’ pose was definitely on-point in the mid-noughties (is it still?), I think the over-proliferation of such photographs on my wall must have been part of my general strategy to make the world believe I was sexually attracted to girls. In hindsight, those same photographs seem to have just bolstered my social standing as the Cady Heron of Emanuel School (and what could be less gay than a male Mean Girl, right?)
When I finished high school, I was a participant in an ‘Israel gap yaah’ program, a deranged mass-pilgrimage that only kids from Jewish schools would understand. It was a pretty traumatic time for seventeen-year old me, much of it spent either resisting indoctrination tactics, blaming myself for the contemporaneous divorce of my parents, or dealing with the increasingly ineluctable reality that, while all around me middle-of-the-road, not-so-attractive heterosexual Jewish boys fornicated with middle-of-the-road, not-so-attractive heterosexual Jewish girls, I was in fact into a different kind of gefilte fish. But my little Canon remained dangling on my wrist, ready to capture and augment the moments of frivolity between the tears, allowing the twenty-six albums posted over ten months to tell a very different story. A story of drinking, dancing, piercings, cigarettes, falafels, shwarmas and hummous, long hair, more drinking, dress-ups, group hugs, singalongs by campfires, long bus trips, shishas, hikes through the desert, volunteering, kibbutzes more drinking, posing in front of monuments, more drinking, and peacefully protesting for the rights of persecuted minorities across the world….
When I returned to Australia, I managed to effortlessly transition from my social media-mediated teenage existence to a social media-mediated adult existence. I wasn’t aware that any other sort of adult existence was possible. I remember when my much older first cousin, who was working in London in the movie business, accepted my Facebook friend request. I was eighteen, and really excited to trawl through his wall to learn about how cool his life was and to feel proud by association despite my having played no hand in his success aside from sharing 12.5% of his DNA. It was with an acute sense of bewilderment that I beheld his almost entirely blank wall and a goofy profile picture taken with an iMac’s Photobooth application. How could someone have a cool, interesting life if there was no evidence online to confirm its existence? I was overcome by existential panic. But then the truth dawned on me – that my cousin was, in fact, a loser with no life at all. And it served him right for pantsing me in front of my extended family when I was seven. Little did I know that this particular cousin was actually too busy making blockbusters and hobnobbing with celebrities to waste his time rubbing his enviable lifestyle in the faces of his considerably drearier relatives.
The next major milestone in my social media journey came at the end of 2009. I had the first of a series of ‘life wobbles’ that almost reached Plath-point-zero on the psychological Richter Scale. In hindsight, it seems it took an avalanche to clear away enough detritus for me to locate a path forward. But as soon as I dug myself out from under, I thought I could see the way straight to lasting peace and happiness. I came out of the closet, which was a big deal to me (but not so much to everyone else – apparently my particular closet was made out of Perspex). I moved out of home and away from my Eastern Suburbs bubble to the ‘edgy’ Inner-West of Sydney. I broadened my social and cultural horizons. In my head, I was leaving behind the claustrophobic ‘sense of community’ and stifling ‘values’ of my sheltered youth and heading towards an emancipated adult life of unbounded and unapologetic liberalism and gayness. And Facebook, soon joined soon by Instagram (after a brief fling with Hipstamatic), would be the chariot that would take me there. All I had to do was wait for my inner self-image to catch up with the fabulousness of my refashioned social media projection. I waited for a few years for this change to take place, all the while subjecting my friends and family to a nauseating stream of idealised images of my shallow lifestyle.
It did occasionally occur to me during these years of Facebook infatuation that a strategy of shameless social media self-aggrandisement could backfire. I would feel genuine pity for the girl who posts a selfie from the driver’s seat of her Volkswagen Polo clearly thinking she looks fiercer than fierce when she can barely scrape a 7/10, or for the soccer-mum who posts a status update about her unremarkable children that is entirely incomprehensible thanks to its number of typos exceeding its number of words, or for the journalism student who posts a link to a blog that’s more enervating than erudite. But it took me until the age of twenty-three, after another life-wobble, to realise that this externalised ‘pity’ was really a manifestation of my own profound internal embarrassment. This realisation took place about the same time that it dawned on me that all the fancy clothes, fancy trips, fancy parties, fancy dinners and fancy fags (read that how you will) that I had spent the previous three years flashing all over Facebook hadn’t made me any happier and had just left me with tens of thousands of dollars of ‘real life’ credit card debt.
The list of reasons just why I was still so profoundly unhappy could fill a book, and indeed some day it is my intention that they will (as fun a read as that sounds!) But here are a few. I had bought into the ‘happiness myth’ of a ‘fake it until you make it’ society. I was seeking happiness through external validation, and was seeking this validation by conforming to what I thought would impress others rather than trying to genuinely express myself. I was too obsessed with documenting my existence to, excuse the cliché, ‘live in the moment’, and to engage in an experience purely for its own enjoyment. Social media in and of itself was not to blame for these failings. One could trace most of them back to deficiencies of personal character, the influence of the maligned values of twenty-first century consumer culture, or a combination of the two. But social media was most certainly an enabler. So I decided that if I wanted to kick the habit, it was time to kill the dealer.
It was like a form of online-suicide. In the case of Instagram and Twitter, self-erasure could be achieved with a quick shot to the head – a press of the “delete” button, followed by a conciliatory “sorry to see you go” frowny face. But it wasn’t so simple with Facebook. A Facebook account can only be deactivated, your manufactured self made to slumber, waiting patiently for your fingers to mindlessly veer back to the seductive blue log-in page and inadvertently electrify your selfie-spewing ghoul back into life. But I found a workaround to the seeming invincibility of a Facebook account, one which was particularly appealing to someone with a propensity towards frenzied and obsessional behaviour patterns. When you manually delete an individual piece of content on Facebook, though it may sit gathering dust somewhere on Zuckerberg’s hard-drives (which I imagine look somewhat like the human battery fields from which Neo ejects himself in The Matrix), the content becomes not only invisible to, but also unrecoverable by, the user. So I set about dismantling and decimating my own digital monster, post by post, photograph by photograph, comment by comment, riding a wrecking ball across eight years of cringe. I was forced to confront the person I had been at each step of the way and ask the questions I should have been asking at the time. For the love of God, would I post a video showing off my Ford f**king Fiesta having been successfully parked it into a smaller-than-average parking space, or of a law textbook sitting on a café table at midnight flanked by a full latte and an already-consumed latte, or a status update on how well (or badly) I had slept? Who was I talking to????
But the farther back in time I travelled, and the more distant I felt from the iterations of myself being exhumed, the more the self-berating began to soften into something more like compassion, and even understanding. I started to view what seemed initially like contemptible examples of pathological exhibitionism more as pitiable fragments of cyber-prayer. Let me explain. The truth is that I struggle to sit comfortably with my own little self. I always have. I suspect most people do. It’s not particularly nice that we’re born alone, live our whole lives alone, and then die alone, when our nature constantly yearns for connection. It’s also a bit disheartening that were are so trapped within the limits of our own realm of comprehension, when our natures yearn to understand the world around us and in turn to be understood. We can use external frameworks to gain a sense of how we fit into the infinite universe, like religion, community, or family, but these frameworks are fallible and increasingly so in the modern world. An individual ultimately needs a way to reconnect to their own ontological centre of gravity. I’m not the most spiritual person, but I acknowledge the power and importance of prayer, not in connecting an individual with some elusive ‘higher being’, but in creating a deeper sense of connection to oneself. When feeling uncertain and disconnected, opening up a line of communication with ‘the universe’ can be extremely helpful. If you believe that the universe has all the answers you seek, then praying to it can actually make it so. The process of prayer forces us to confront our doubts, fears and dreams through the process of their articulation, and then if we sit with these questions long enough the answers we’re looking for tend to rise up to the surface through the medium of our own intuition. Whether intuition is the invisible spiritual sense through which the universe is heard, or is merely an unconscious neurobiological process for processing and communicating accumulated experience-based knowledge, depends on who you ask (just don’t ask me – I’m a Platonist one minute and a Materialist the next).
So how does the power of prayer relate to social media? I would argue that a gratuitous selfie or status update originating from an empty, silent bedroom or car interior is motivated by the same niggling doubt, the same unwelcome reminder of the alienation of the individual, that precipitates the urge to prayer. The most immediately helpful answer to such a prayer would be, “you’re doing great, keep it up!” With old-school prayer, this answer is never forthcoming, so one is forced to find solace within oneself to achieve some sort of meaningful resolution. But when a prayer is sent out to the digital universe, social media is indeed capable of coming back with a shout of reassurance, almost instantaneously, and sometimes thousands of times over. It looks like this:
This little upright pollex is the perfect defence mechanism against any sort of angst or self-doubt. No matter where you are, when that insidious little voice finds a crack through which to let itself in, you can just swat it away with the snap of a skeuomorphic camera-shutter and swipe of an upload button, and wait for an intravenous boost of affirmation to start flowing from your little finger right up to your endorphin-seeking brain.
There are a few issues I have with this wiz-bang cybernetic form of prayer, as opposed to traditional metaphysical prayer. Firstly, it only provides a very short-lived hit, requiring the user to shoot up again as soon as the next hint of existential malaise comes along. Another problem is that it works through a kind of exchange system. You have to pay for your dose of affirmation by in turn dealing ‘likes’ to the indistinguishable, pointless uploads of your friends (though glassy-eyed scanning through square fragments of the meaningless lives of others can also provides a useful distraction from reflecting on one’s own life’s meaninglessness). But perhaps my biggest concern with cyber-prayer is that it requires the flattening of oneself into a vacuous image of social conformity to fit into a very narrow digital prayer post-box slot (no lever for bulky items!) as opposed to traditional prayer, which allows, nay requires, you to plunge the depths of a vast inner universe. Whilst it is possible to achieve affirmation through social media posts that exhibit intelligence, insightfulness or creativity, content which has any sort of substance tends not to be the product of knee-jerk ‘cyber prayers’, if for no other reason than it requires effort. No – the most expedient and sure-fire way to generate ‘likes’ in a moment of self-doubt is through a race to the bottom – through self-objectification and self-commodification. Through branded clothes, branded cars, branded hotels, branded bars, branded parties. Bikinis, tits, asses, pecs, abs, biceps. Airbrushed, filtered, unimpressive, undifferentiated, pointless, desperate.
It’s now been over three years since I kicked my social media addiction. All I have left is a gutted Facebook account which has all of its friends set to ‘unfollowed’ and has been retained purely for the messenger application (too devilishly convenient a function to relinquish). My journey of spiritual development, towards accepting the present moment in all its banal glory, rather than continuing to chase some illusory future idea of happiness, has been haphazard at best, but trying to like myself has definitely been helped rather than hindered by not having to worry about what I do being ‘liked’ by anybody else. This is why returning to social media is such a big deal for me, and it is not a decision that I have made lightly, as evidenced by this never-ending blog post, which you’ve possibly already given up on finishing.
But I am returning, and the reasons are twofold. Firstly, I think I’m finally ready to approach social media use with an attitude that is alien to me, one known in psychological circles as ‘moderation’. I’ve become aware that there do exist tactful, self-aware users of social media who post content which serves a ‘real world’, non-existential purpose, with social media serving as an ‘after the fact’ facilitator. This is content which is born from creative impulse rather than desperation. It is crafted carefully rather than excreted instantaneously. These sophisticated users exploit social media as an adjunct to their professional lives, not as a medium through which to live their personal lives. Maybe, just maybe, I have matured enough to become one of those users. I also may have reached the point of maturity where I can look at a person’s social media account and not interpret its content as the sum total of their worth as a human being. Maybe.
Secondly, I do have to consider my flailing literary ambitions and how they can have even the slightest chance at fruition in the singularly unromantic digital age in which we all live. I don’t know any Gertrude Steins and, despite my intermittent delusions of grandeur, I’m no Joyce. This is the twenty-first century, and my best chance of locating a readership for my ‘work’ (if anyone is actually bored or undiscerning enough to read it) is to broadcast through the channels of social media. That’s not to say I’m going to write purely in order to be read by my Facebook friends but if I do get read (and maybe even shared!) by them, that can’t be a bad thing.
Jumping back on the social media bandwagon is just like being back on that other sort of wagon. You have to control the poison rather than letting it control you. This means maintaining a clear boundary between authentic self and social media projection. It is my hope that the more self-announcing a piece of content is of its own artifice, the easier this distinction is to draw for both the composer and his responder. A blog that is un-ironic and too confessional in tone risks being received as yet another social media-projected cry of desperation, but blogs that have at least pretentions of artfulness might be able to avoid this pitfall. So consider this a disclaimer – I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at. I am not what I blog.
P.S. please do not let my earlier diatribe against ‘liking’ put you off liking the link to this article (if you did actually like it. If not, then fair enough. I understand my particular brand of windbaggery may not be for everyone). I won’t mistake your ‘like’ as a signal of affirmation from the universe as to the correctness of my spiritual path, but I will gratefully receive it as an expression of approval from you, the corporeal human person, of the content of the preceding blog post and an indication that I should post another entry next week (and one that does not consist entirely of the justification for its own writing).