I was not exactly trapped. I could leave whenever I wanted, of course. Yet, at one point, missing even a day of checking in with my social media websites triggered extreme anxiety.
Because social media felt compulsive, I would sometimes dream of escape. My thoughts would often drift to the legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Even though he wrote science fiction, in many ways he repudiated technology preferring a simple life; he thought having too many machines crushed passion and destroyed the simple pleasures that made life truly worthwhile: taking a walk, reading a book, or enjoying a peaceful moment of silence.
He drew near-universal scorn when he said, “The Internet is a big distraction. It’s meaningless. It’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.” He also resisted the digitization of books. He refused to have his books printed electronically because he thought a book should be a real object with rustling pages, a physical thing you could grasp, touch, and smell.
Many dismissed him as a fussy old codger who hated change. I like my Kindle, and it is hard to imagine going back to a time with no internet, but there have been times, lately, when I have sympathized with his point of view. The internet is a “world” that does not even exist in space, yet at times it has caused me real pain.
When I first started posting my blog to websites like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Google Plus, my writing was my central focus: the joy of the process, the fun of creativity, the rhythms of sentences, and the vividness of metaphor. But during the several years I spent regularly visiting social media websites, an insidious shift occurred. I still loved writing, but somehow social media had shoved writing aside and stolen the spotlight. I began to feel like I was writing for social media rather than that social media was serving my writing. I had to consciously remind myself that I was a writer first, and a social media user second.
This was vexing because social media seemed to be all about being popular. It was as if the most superficial aspects of high school group behavior had been converted into algorithms, yet somehow, in my mind, writing and social media became confusingly conflated. The boundaries between the two worlds began to blur as I began to imagine, as I wrote, how specific social media acquaintances would react to my posts.
Self-consciousness set in. I worried that getting “likes” for blog posts had come to mean too much to me, diverting my focus from the writing itself. I was living a lot in my head, but not in a good way, not in the creative, productive artistic way that had previously brought joy. I began to feel wistful for things that were real and meaningful. Ray Bradbury is my go-to fiction writer for when I want to feel hopeful but not blindly hopeful, so I reread one of his books, Zen in the Art of Writing. I love that in his books he seems to have an uncompromising grasp on what really matters to him regardless of what the rest of the world is saying.
Looking at my sterile computer screen, I would think about how he loved circuses and how he had treasured, as I do, libraries and taking walks. I would imagine myself taking languorous night time strolls beneath a full moon or breathing the vaguely sweet aroma of books in dimly lit libraries, and I would feel hope.
In his essay on how to feed and keep a muse, he defines creativity as a lifelong chasing after loves.
I wonder what Ray Bradbury, if he were still living, would think about the social media style of loving things, through the touch of a “like” button, with the passions of humanity and all the possible ways of expressing them reduced to facile finger flexing. I suspect he would have thought it was a bland way to express love, awe, admiration, excitement, or passion.
But that is only assuming that a “like” means any of those things. A social media “like” may be approving or compulsive or thoughtful, or even accidental, but a “like” always means “like” to the validation starved.
And this is the key to what made social media so painful for me . While social media encouraged liking, it also encouraged and reinforced my want to be liked. That was not what I needed. All of the “likes,” the “plus ones,” the “favorites,” and the “up votes” may have felt good for a moment, but they also induced a painful self-consciousness and a drive to please.
But as Bradbury suggests, what enriches life and makes it meaningful is not being liked or merely liking, but loving, whether the object is an art like writing, a circus, a cat, a book, or anything else that connects you to the world in a way that intensifies the feeling of being alive — preferably in a good way.
Conversely, concern about being liked detaches me from my surroundings so that I fail to appreciate what is right in front of my eyes.
Self-consciousness is like being trapped at the ticket booth of an amusement park for hours seeking compliments for your ID photo. “Tell me, ma’am. Does my hair look okay in this picture? I used a new shampoo.”
“It looks fine, Miss. Now move along. You are holding up the rest of the line!”
“No, no, I’m serious. Will you look at my photo again? Is that a cowlick? Oh, God! Please, tell me it’s not a cowlick!”
“No miss, your hair looks fine. Now go on through. There are rollercoasters, one of them makes you feel like you’re flying through space on the back of a robot.”
“Do you really mean that about my hair, or are you just saying that because people are behind me? Ooh. Is that a bump on my cheek? Or just a shadow?”
Seeking validation is boring. I am tired of the ticket booth. I want to ride the Ferris Wheel. I want to see monkeys riding unicycles. I want to prowl haunted houses and eat popcorn and turn my lips blue with cotton candy. And the internet, despite its many benefits, is a poor amusement park.
The great thing about the internet, though, is I can turn it off. Is it troubling me? I can make it disappear. Problems with trolls? My computer has an off button. If I feel like I want to live in my head, I can indulge my imagination through writing. The rest of the time I will inhabit a world with cats, coffee, and comic books. Not to mention popcorn. The real kind that inhabits physical space, fluffy, buttery, kernels that sound crunchy when you eat them but make no sound at all when they fall on the carpet.
Internet popcorn, on the other hand, is not crunchy, fluffy, or buttery. It numbs the taste buds; it is flavorless, airless, and popped in a vacuum. It is odorless and bland. It needs more dimension. It needs more salt. It is not good.
It is not there.