When I joined Facebook in 2008, it was old home week for a blissful, short time. Reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen in 20 years, catching up, apologizing. It was one of those that knocked me flat. Someone I’d treated shabbily, years ago. In hindsight, I was in the midst of a significant depression, and maybe I was trying to upgrade karma. This is what she said: “I don’t think you’re looking for friendship. You want an audience.” I quit social media for two years.
I’ve since made peace with the idea that yes, I want an audience. Of course I do, I’m a writer. I want to be good to that audience, give them something valuable. I’m their audience in turn – I pay attention to what they share, provide feedback. Once, I would have said that social media isn’t really friendship, but I’ve come to think it might really be the essence of friendship.
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There’s a great picture that surfaces every so often, commuters on a train, everyone holding an open newspaper. A friend of mine likes to bemoan the rudeness of people who check their smartphones in public places. He’s in his 70s, and he’ll admit he remembers when everyone read newspapers – of course, that was OK, because he’d grown up with it. (If I’m lucky, he doesn’t start a new lecture about how people don’t read newspapers anymore.) The unfailing irony is that I’ve never had lunch with my friend where his phone doesn’t ring (he doesn’t use silent mode) or he doesn’t get a text message. He always answers the phone, always reads the message, and responds.
We’re predisposed to distraction. Interaction is hard. I read a “Dear Abby” letter this morning from a woman who complained that her children and grandchildren played on their phones instead of helping clean up after a meal. I remember when it was televised football instead of phones. Grandma was complaining about the latest form of an old problem: some people are just rude (take away their phones, they’ll find another way.) Same as it ever was.
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Recently, This American Life aired a segment about how teen girls use Instagram. Like so many pieces on TAL, this one upended audience expectations – it didn’t mock its subject, although host Ira Glass was a representative head-scratcher. The girls posted selfies on Instagram, and tracked response – the comments were all-important. Ira pointed out that most of those were almost identical, and asked why they didn’t lose meaning for being so generic and apparently insincere. The girls explained that the comments indicated social standing – whether a friendship was secure, fading, or if a new one might be forming. The girls referred to themselves as brand managers; the product is them. Their selfies are advertisements, a critical tool for social feedback.
We did the same thing when I was in school, maybe you did too. We used notes – elaborately folded sheets of paper with mostly innocuous (and probably identical) comments on them. Passed in class, slipped through locker vents, delivered via third party. You’d pass the note, and await the all-important reply. Like Instagram, it’s how we managed our brand and mapped the social network.
The piece on This American Life got me thinking about a friend, call her Diane. She posts a lot of pictures of herself with Sam, another friend. Sam confided to me that he can’t stand Diane, although he regularly appears in her Instagram posts. My internal reaction is, “Diane, you fool! Don’t you know Sam’s not really your friend?” On the other hand, it appears to the world, via social media, that they are truly dear friends. In that sense, I’m the one who’s wrong – I expect social media to reflect my paradigm of friendship (don’t trash your friends behind their backs), but in this case, social media appearance might be reality. It seems to be working for them, no matter how I feel about it.
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Misunderstanding goes both ways, of course. I started an Instagram account a couple of months ago, intending to post a picture each day from my archives. Because Instagram is a picture-driven feed, it made sense for this project. My teenage daughter keeps track of my stats, and she’s concerned. “You follow 200 people and only have 40 followers – that’s weird.” “You don’t really get a lot of likes for your pictures.” “Don’t just follow people who follow you!” “Nobody ever comments on your pictures.”
My goal on Instagram is to curate a collection of pictures, mostly taken by me, all of them owned and edited by me. If that gives anybody pleasure, great. Of course the feedback (likes and comments) is nice, but it’s not the point. I’m presenting a body of work. I can’t be constrained by audience expectations, by clicks or lack thereof. The danger of getting too much attention is you start to let others shape the art. I’ve seen that on Moss Island, as well. Some pieces get enormous feedback, and then I find myself writing more in the same vein, thinking that’s what people expect. (I don’t want to let them down.) My best work comes when it seems like nobody is paying attention, when I’m not looking for approval.