“You’re doing great work on this novel, but if you want to get it published eventually, publishers are going to want to see that you have a social media presence.”
That is how my Twitter experience began. I did not want a social media presence. Prior to adding Twitter, my social media footprint consisted of Facebook, and that was (brace for full transparency) a combination of keeping in touch with friends and family as I moved to a new part of the country and a desperate attempt to stay in touch with people with whom I am not actually close but wish I was.
As my wife and I move back to that part of the country and I continue to push my anxious mind to come to terms with, “These people have a life of their own that does not involve me, move on,” I would consider removing Facebook, too.
Spoiler alert: James Keenan is a nom de plume. I’m here as a writer and, if the writing is to gain a following, it can gain the following under a pseudonym and keep my personal life out of it.
Today is about why I did not want to become a presence on social media, why I did, what happened, and where things go from here.
Non-Confrontational (To a Fault?)
I want to steal a quote out of context:
But I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires…
Nick Carraway is not a reliable narrator and we can have an entire piece dedicated to why he’s not the upstanding character he believes himself to be, but let us ignore his character and the surrounding context to allow this quote to summarise my position.
I prioritise cooperation and good relations among people and, as one might glean from my other posts, tend to see the honest motivations behind even the worst people and acts. That perspective causes me to hedge criticism of other individuals, because even if I disagree with what they think or what they’re doing, 1) I do not understand the life that brought them to that point to combat it effectively and 2) positioning myself as their opponent almost certainly guarantees that we will become enemies rather than cooperate.
Now, one might be thinking, “People can disagree without being enemies,” and that is at the heart of my distaste for social media. Can they? How rarely do I see people disagree constructively online. People entrench, engage in vitriol, and sometimes become even worse in the course of disagreement online. I can disagree with those who have established relationships with me, but social media is not about established relationships. It’s about strangers or establishing relationships – they lack the foundation to support disagreement. Disagreements are not a point for discussion, but a reason not to pursue any sort of relationship with a person.
Which brought me to the preemptive question, “What purpose do I serve by throwing my hat into that ring?”
Of course, as time progresses things change. Social media, once an optional aspect of life, has become ubiquitous. Some employers will not entertain a prospective employee unless they can vet that candidate via social media. As I learned, as a professional with a public facing aspect of one’s career the “social media presence” is a pre-requisite for success.
Literary peers cautioned me, “One of the things publishers want to see is that the writer has an established social media presence they can leverage to market the writing.” I get that. It removes some of their risk and therefore increases the likelihood that the publishing house will gain from the partnership.
Still, the warning was clear: if you want to proceed without a social media presence because of how you feel about it, good luck.
I decided to make the commitment but had to figure out how best to proceed.
For those unfamiliar with writing, styles of writing differ greatly the way proficiency in one instrument or martial art does not translate to mastery of them all. One who writes poetry is not necessarily adept at writing novels, and those who write novels may not succeed in writing short stories. The devices and techniques vary, and one must practice in each where one wishes to succeed.
For me, I am obviously not coming to Twitter to share my novels one tweet at a time, nor does it make sense to share my ideas while in progress because they are my intellectual property. Being on Twitter for the professional purpose of attracting readers and then surrendering my ideas for free completely undercuts that purpose.
I considered other things that mattered to me: mental health and gender equality. I would Tweet about issues dear to me that might attract people interested in those things, which seemed sound as the things that are dear to me would seep into my writing and therefore be present in any novels. This blog you are reading was an answer to, “What if my thoughts exceed what Twitter can handle?” I found a platform for longer-form entries and share them to Twitter.
Then It Went Wrong
Before I come to the criticism, I must admit to some positives – specifically, I have met several wonderful people via Twitter. I consider them friends even though the relationship exists entirely online, and I feel pride and happiness for their successes as I would any friend. I feel their pain when they express they are struggling with something. That part is incredible.
It ends there.
Now, I am immune to trolling thanks to (to borrow a phrase from John Oliver) “a pogrom of indifference”. Most of the Internet does not worry about what I have to say enough to bother with harassing me about it, and being a white male does not hurt either. Women I follow have incurred far more grief for far more benign tweets. The point is that vitriol aimed at me has not been an issue, though that may seem the most likely candidate for putting someone off social media.
That is part of the problem, but not my personal experience. I despise having to watch others experience that, and while I do intercede at times as a show of support for the person on the receiving end it seems pointless to respond in every case. One, they are capable of responding independently and do not need me speaking them down (I usually hold off until it’s clear the harasser has no respect for the speaker on the basis of something beyond their control, like gender: men, it’s not mansplaining to tell other men who do not respect women enough to listen exactly what the women are saying. They may listen to you). Two, why? It’s a full-time job, another one always exists, and many of them thrive on the idea they enrage others.
It’s a feeling of powerlessness watching people be horrible to others.
My personal experience has little to do with ideological opponents launching vitriol my way though – those individuals do not see or read what I post.
That brings me to my first personal issue. My following comes from a clear place: those who agree with me or, perhaps more accurately, believe they agree with me. We have all seen the #Resistance follow-back parties on Twitter, and because I have spoken critically about the Trump administration policies, I find myself included in those. It encourages a lot of Resistance tweeters to follow me on the basis that I am one of them.
They do not engage with my posts and I rarely hear from most of them again beyond “So-and-so is following you”. The decision to follow is not one based on finding my posts interesting, which, to me, was the whole concept behind Twitter. I follow people who share things of interest to me.
The first issue might be summed up as “creation of echo chambers”, and the second issue relates directly to that: I might best describe Twitter as a mutual masturbation platform. People follow others who follow them, they engage with others who engage with them. In other words, “If you stroke my ego, I will stroke yours.”
This confuses me because I follow people who post things of interest to me, but that does not mean that my posts are of interest to them. Contrariwise, people follow me (hopefully) because they find my posts of interest while I have not seen anything of particular interest on their wall. I do not like the interplay of the two accounts, the idea that I must engage on someone else’s account to encourage their engagement on mine.
I find this most evident in the implicit understanding among “lesser” Twitter users like myself that a follow warrants a follow back. Substantial Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers (or more) need not worry about this, but the understanding is that I ought to follow any user who follows me because that count serves as a sort of currency. The mutual following drives up the count, which lends a sense of legitimacy to an account. Other people help to boost my platform in this manner with the understanding that I will help boost theirs.
My issue is: I do not know you. Even when I like a person’s posts frequently enough to follow their account, I do not know the person. My “brand”, and by that I mean my character, is one of accountability, transparency, and honesty. If I endorse, or am perceived to endorse, someone who then engages in something horrible, that reflects on me. This idea of reciprocity concerns me greatly.
Issue number three is the outrage machine. Not only have we built a series of echo chambers and blind reciprocity, but also have we built a platform that loves to weaponize both in their outrage. People will QT (quote tweet) responses to their followers to highlight a transgression and call for them to descend upon the transgressor.
Sometimes this sort of public shaming may be appropriate to correct terrible behaviour. Other times (all too often), this process ignores context and directs outrage incorrectly or at the wrong target, and sometimes the degree of the shaming far exceeds what the situation requires.
The echo chambers and reciprocity, much like the buildup to World War I, obscure the notion of “who shot first” and can lead to a series of these events, with people on various sides pulling tweets out of feuds and calling followers to attack that user, with new feuds arising on those threads and so forth.
Much like an ice hockey fight where the team expects everyone on the ice to grab a partner, these feuds can also involve bitter infighting when members of a group recognise that a member of their group is not doing their part to attack others, such as Resisters who feel that #Resistance users are not targeting “MAGAts” enough or Trump supporters who feel other supporters are not targeting “snowflakes” enough.
Then we have the trend of applying this group-think to individuals who are not members of the group. Name a term used on Twitter to describe a group of users and I guarantee it has been used incorrectly and in a derogatory manner to target another user, which defeats and derails the purpose of engaging that user: to disagree. It’s not a civil disagreement and that is because the person responding decided to vilify the speaker out of the gate.
Which brings me to the fourth issue: the fanatical nature of these groups. People are well aware of the scourge of bots, trolls, sea lions, and the like on Twitter, but people do not give enough consideration to the degree of damage that members of a group can do to “one of their own”.
The truth, and deep down I believe most people recognise this, is that once a group identifies a person as a member, that person may not have an idea that deviates substantially from the ideology of the group. If a member of the group, even away from the eyes of the “opposition”, suggests that the group is not going about things the “right way” or that they may need to consider the nuance of the subject, the group can turn, aggressively, against the member. It’s the “not a true Scotsman” attitude taken to the grossest extent of the Internet.
Yes, this includes groups I support, like feminism. I am not supposed to say things like that, especially as a man, because to say that is to undercut the effort for gender equality so significantly as to make me a non-feminist. The nature of Twitter (and social media in general) is that one must tow the group line or stay silent, and staying silent is a risk as described before.
Where From Here?
The point is, having a discussion is essentially impossible on social media, and one basically has the choice of cooperating with that or leaving social media.
Here is the anecdotal finding of my social media experience:
I can state what I believe, and it will attract like-minded followers who proceed not to engage with the content from that point forward. If I do not follow back, the user frequently opts to un-follow rather than continue to consume the content that attracted them in the first place. To drive engagement, I must engage with other posts whether they are of interest or not – that appears to be how the algorithm works. To engage, I must engage in a particular way or it will incur the wrath of those who disagree…or those who agree but not in that exact way, which is somehow far worse.
Yes, exceptions exist to all of this. I posted a few weeks back about abortion and some people did not like the phrasing of the tweet. Surprise – it’s a polarising issue. What was a surprise is that the vicious response did not come from people opposed to abortion. In fact, they had nothing to say about the post (not a surprise, because the algorithm of Twitter does not draw many of this type of my content anyway). Rather, it came from pro-choice activists. Only three users bothered to engage me about not liking the phrasing, stating that they understood the statement of support I sought to make, that the wording did not meet that objective, and how I might do better in the future. I engaged well with those three and we arrived at a better place. For most of Twitter, it became an aggressive distraction from the actual matter. That is the Twitter that I know.
I have resisted an idea for years because I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules. The only thing that matters more to me than my principles is going about them in an amenable, graceful, respectful way – I don’t like those who are so engaged in their beliefs that they spend their time looking for a head to smash with a baseball bat in defence of it. I cover this often – I idolise people like Emma Watson and Chelsea Clinton who appear able to stand by their convictions in the most sociable way. They rely on the strength of their conviction rather than yelling, threats, name-calling, or other forms of pettiness to convey their disagreement. I adore that.
The reality seems to be that some people are intent on provoking these differences because they profit from the ensuing chaos, and the majority subjected to that chaos are incapable (or violently unwilling) to rise above it.
I am not perfect. Go dig back through my Twitter account and I am sure you can pull up some example of, “So, uh, James – this is the best way you could have handled this?” But this is perhaps issue number five: what-aboutism.
I do strive to do better. The failures that you find upset me deeply, on a spiritual level. I expect others to hold me accountable, and that’s as simple as, “Is this the best way you could have handled this?” The answer is no and that bothers me – I want to take responsibility for that and make the situation better. I do not expect those around me to ignore it, nor do I expect them to resort to public shaming to correct every perceived failure. Falling back on, “Others are imperfect” is also an unacceptable response.
The idea that I have not been flawless in my pursuit of principle is not the reason why others may neglect those principles and it cannot dismiss criticism of that neglect.
Where does that leave me? I am not sure. It’s nice that my posts offer support to some who need it. Of course, I am being liberal about “some” because the engagement is quite low. The overwhelming negativity though…does it justify engaging at all? I’m not sure that posting one thing that makes six people feel support for a few moments is worth contributing to the dumpster fire that social media often is.
I have gotten to the point where it becomes difficult to trust most things. People on all sides are guilty of these behaviours (which itself, because of how things have progressed, invites criticism because it “morally equivocates” the two opposing sides). It’s not a moral equivocation to say that a behaviour is wrong as a blanket statement. To say that degrees of engaging in a behaviour are the same would be, but I do not care that one side is being worse than the other. I care that it’s wrong. Not that I can discuss that though, because the mere hint of it promises to enrage one or both main sides of that discussion and distract from that point altogether while hordes engage in vitriol.
Feeling this cynical is antithetical to my values, yet I am shoved into that corner time and again. I refuse to stay in the corner, but it definitely occurred with enough frequency that I know change must happen, and that involves this inane social media front.