Confession: the very first thing I did after deciding to take a soul-searching break from social media was log into both Facebook and Twitter.
I’d announced my hiatus on both platforms, you see, and I wanted (a bit urgently, if I’m honest) to find out how people had responded. On Twitter, there was a string of replies wishing me well, a few virtual hugs, and direct messages from concerned friends. (Thank you!) On Facebook, there were also a few supportive comments… along with just a touch of snark from one or two people. Nothing I hadn’t ever seen several times before, actually, when I’d seen others make similar pronouncements.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not proud I did that. In fact, I think it’s safe to say I’m a little bit ashamed. So why share it with the world? Because I really want to make what the recovery movement calls a “fearless and searching moral inventory” here. I’m crawling into a cave to look for dragons… so I can’t be surprised if I find them, and I can’t really pretend they don’t exist, either. No matter how ugly or scary they might be.
Here’s the fully honest truth about what inspired my little break from les médias sociaux, as I sometimes like to call then when I want to make them seem more important than perhaps they are: I started to not really like the way I was behaving some of the time.
Slowly, quietly, while going about my business and tweeting more than 35,000 (!) times, I somehow managed to forget that there were human beings reading my tweets, not “brands.” In the ever-burgeoning crowd of semi-strangers, furthermore, I lost sight of a few of my friends. People I love and respect and admire and even work with in the real world, not to mention people I’ve met and come to care about in the virtual world. I started to speak somewhat carelessly and broadly, neglecting to consider how my tweets might “land” with people. I wasn’t at my best.
Meanwhile, on Facebook, a similar pattern was beginning to emerge. Even after the widely acknowledged heat of the political season had wound down, I found myself engaging in occasional… well, let’s call them virtual donnybrooks. I commented wildly, sent messages in haste, and once or twice communicated in tones I would never have used had I been speaking face to face with someone.
More importantly, my heart was now and then turning sour in ways that really made me uncomfortable. I just didn’t like the way I was thinking about things, or about people—about fellow human beings. My behavior and my feelings weren’t squaring with my own highest image of myself. And I felt pretty rotten about it.
So… I decided to stop for a little while.
In the first few days of my social media silence, I noticed a parallel silence beginning to form in my mind. It had once been full, I was discovering, nearly all the time, with the flotsam and jetsam of my friends’ thoughts and lives, amassed from both Facebook and Twitter, and suddenly there was just… nothing. It felt lonely. I had nothing to think about. It was unsettling.
I also began to feel like I had nowhere to put my own thoughts. Passing observations about… whatever: things I heard on NPR, articles I was reading, interactions with my son. There were more random bon mots that I wanted to utter than my casual interactions with other human beings during an average day could possibly accommodate. (Though perhaps all those mots weren’t as bon as I thought they might be. With no one to re-tweet or like them, how would I know?)
And then, rather more quickly than I might have predicted, the silence in my mind began to be filled up with what felt like deeper, slower, more substantial thoughts. And the impulse to issue 140-character proclamations of one kind or another dissipated: not entirely, mind you, but enough that I noticed. I felt more present, more connected to the people I was interacting with… especially at home. It felt really, really good.
So I started to sit for a bit and just observe, without judgment, the impulses I still had to tweet or make status updates. I recorded a few things I felt like sharing (but didn’t), without editing or curbing my impulses in any way. Here’s one of the first such utterances I repressed:
This New Yorker take-down of Dr. Oz makes me fall in love with the magazine all over again: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/02/04/130204fa_fact_specter
Now… those who know me well can probably see my hallmarks all over that sentence. It’s about exposing pseudo-science, for one thing; it invokes the New Yorker, with which I’ve had a long and complicated love affair, for another. But what strikes me most about it now is one word I would probably have glossed over before this hiatus: take-down.
Why did I choose that word? Why didn’t I use, say, analysis? I can tell you this much: I actually put very little thought into the selection. What I did put, more than anything, was emotion.
My limbic brain, roiling with feelings about the subject, created that sentiment. Few (if any) higher editorial faculties were involved. What I wrote didn’t gently invite fans of Dr. Oz to re-consider his value as a source of medical wisdom, as “analysis” might have suggested. The word “ take-down” implied that if you didn’t agree with me, you weren’t quite New Yorker-worthy, in a way, in my estimation. There’s a smug superiority baked into the sentence’s grammar that’s just unmistakable. Another dragon hiding in that cave.
By the third day without Twitter, I was starting to feel guilty about not replying to the tweets people were undoubtedly directing my way. I got emails about a few direct messages, too, and those nagged at me particularly harshly. My smartphone popped up with a notification that my wife had updated her Facebook status, too (I forgot I had set it to do that), and I struggled to wait till she got home to ask her about it. Whatever she posts almost always inspires or challenges or delights me.
And I knew there was more to be entertained and enchanted by, too: friends’ big life events, thought-provoking blog-posts, moments of wisdom and clarity and levity, opportunities to connect. You know, the stuff that’s really valuable about social media.
But I didn’t want to go back yet, not for a few more days… mostly because I wasn’t sure I’d figured anything out yet. You can’t make a foray into the dragon cave, after all, and not come out with treasure. Even if it’s only a few rough gems.
A day or so later, I got an email from LinkedIn, the social network with which I’ve had the least engagement. My friend Bob—a well-known comic book writer and editor who teaches and writes fiction as well—had “endorsed” me for… get ready for it… my expertise in social media. I had no idea what to do with that meaningfully-if-accidentally timed message. I quickly deleted it… but I couldn’t really let it go.
A quick look at LinkedIn (which I decided didn’t count as an end to my social media fast, given that I don’t really interact there) revealed that several dozen people have made similar endorsements of me, not only for social media but for the oddly similar social media marketing (what’s the difference between the two?), digital marketing, and blogging. I get why people have done that; I’ve lectured on social media, and I’ve advised a wide variety of fairly high-profile clients (at my day job) on their social media strategies, so my resume makes it seem appropriate. But right now, it rings false.
After my recent rough patches on Facebook and Twitter, in other words, I find myself questioning the scientific validity of LinkedIn endorsements, rather than letting them go to my head. I suppose they’re a lot like Klout scores in that regard; my number’s fairly high there, too—though shrinking, certainly, with every passing day in which I don’t tweet or make status updates—but I find myself wondering now whether one can actually earn a high Klout score without sacrificing… something. (I don’t know what, but something.) I almost wish that whole platform would just go away.
Because here’s what I’m thinking: if I really was a social media “expert” with a high Klout score, I wouldn’t have been so careless on Facebook and Twitter at all.
So maybe that’s the first bit of treasure I’ve discovered here in the cave: a big gold plate of humble pie. I am not quite the expert I thought I was. I’ve been sitting with that one for the last few days and it’s feeling right and necessary and (sadly) true. I have a lot more to learn. More to consider. More to just observe and think about. More care to take when I participate.
And you know what? I honestly believe lots of us do. I’ve seen so many friends—people I love and admire—also behave… well, not ideally on social media. I don’t think (and perhaps I should have made this clear from the beginning of this blog post) that I’m particularly unique in anything I’ve admitted here. We’ve all seen people write awkward things; we’ve all at least thought about tweeting or commenting with less-than-generous sentiments ourselves, and some of us actually do it all the time. And that makes me wonder, rather sincerely, whether social media brings out the worst in us or simply reveals some of the ugly things that are always already there, but invisible. I can’t speak for others, but perhaps in my case, it’s a bit of both.
So… when I do return to social media—which by this time I’ve decided to do in conjunction with the publication of this blog post—I am going to do my darnedest to keep a new sentiment in mind: be your best self. (Not long ago, I published a blog post containing seven steps to success for playwrights on Twitter, and this will be the first of three new tips I want to add to that list.) I want to be my best self in all of my interactions in social media. That’s going to take diligence, attentiveness, and a willingness to admit when I get it wrong and re-think how I say things sometimes. It won’t come easily… but it really does feel pretty important.
While I’m thinking about re-thinking how I say things… I want to share the next revelation I’ve had during the last few days: the “enter” key is much more powerful than I ever realized before.
What I mean to say is this: I give a tremendous amount of thought and consideration to the blog posts I write, both here and elsewhere. I work my way through multiple drafts, editing and re-editing; I get feedback from other readers, consider studiously what they’ve told me, and re-write again; and then I do one or two copy-editing passes through the text before I finally hit that “publish” button. (Sometimes even do another draft AFTER the blog post has gone live, too.) The result may not be perfect, but it’s all very carefully-crafted. And it’s also much truer to that best self I’m trying to become.
So here’s my second revelation: I need to start thinking of my enter key—the one that makes a tweet or a Facebook status update go live—like a “publish” button. The act of publishing feels so much weightier to me, as a writer, than simply making a comment. So much more meaningful and significant and (here’s the important part) considered. In other words, I need not only to think before I tweet, as I suggested in my last blog post… I need to allow for a revision phase, too, even if it’s only a few seconds long.
I need to think of my social media updates, in other words, the same way I think of all of my writing: as damned important, worthy of careful deliberation, and (more often than not) deadly serious.
The final revelation I had during my break from social media came from another suppressed Facebook status update:
At three years old, my dear, sweet son Porter seems to have finally acquired his very first imaginary friend. Nana—his sister, he calls her—lives in “a rainbow house” that’s very far away. You have no idea how much I want to go there with him sometime and see it.
(That was a particularly hard one not to share, I must confess; I’m glad I get to do so now. The other tweets and status updates I collected without posting? Gone: I deleted the file. It’s probably—definitely?—for the best.)
I spent considerable time mulling this new development in my son’s psychology, which I found (as I bet all parents do) endlessly fascinating. How does he know such detail about an imaginary being? How can he speak to her? How do they interact? And it was only after a good long while that I realized (duh) that I do that, too. It’s almost exactly what I do when I write. My characters are extremely real to me. The only difference, I believe, is that I’m perfectly aware that my characters aren’t actually real… and I don’t know, developmentally, whether my son’s figured that out yet.
But maybe, I suddenly realized, I needed to figure something out. Maybe an imaginary friend was exactly what I needed.
I’ve always known this, but it’s hitting me more directly now than ever before: in social media, everybody’s always listening. Anyone and everyone can witness every interaction you ever have. So what if, every time I tweeted or posted something on Facebook, I imagined one friend—a real person I’m really connected with—reading what I was writing. Instead of thinking (while I’m writing a comment) “Here’s what I really want to say to this person,” what if I asked myself “What would I say to this person if I also knew my imagined friend was going to overhear it?” What would that do for me?
I think it would do a lot. So I’m going to try it. And I know exactly who to imagine, too—the person who reads, thinks about, and comments on more of my writing than anyone else: my patient, thoughtful, brilliant wife.
I got an email today from a friend who realized I was taking a break from social media, but who still wanted to reach out to me to make sure I was doing okay. His pleasant, concerned, humane note of friendship made me realize I was ready to go back, if only to sustain connections like that one. But… not right away.
As I write these last words, I’ve queued up this blog post for three more days into the future, just to give myself a little more of what I’ve come to think of as my “quiet time.” (I’ve begun driving home from my office in the afternoons without the radio on for similar reasons; silence has genuinely begun to seem golden.) I’d like to think that I’ve enjoyed this time away enough that I won’t go back to social media with quite the same intensity… but my new-found (and tentatively held) humility about social media means I don’t want to make bold pronouncements right now. Let me just say, perhaps, that I’ll go back and see what I see. I’ll take my three pieces of treasure out of the cave and, you know, do my best.
And perhaps I’ll also take other breaks from social media, too: whenever things begin feel a bit too raw, maybe, or whenever I’m not feeling really connected to people and to my purpose in the world. And perhaps in time I will become the expert that the world (or a small part of it, at least) thinks I am.
We shall see. Hope, and see.