(CN: Social media frustrations and description of a graphic image of violence near the end of the post)
Social media has colonized what was once a sacred space occupied by emptiness: the space reserved for thought and creativity. – Mahershala Ali
It’s quiet and crisp and bright here this morning. The moon is an oval that’s watching over the other house as my wife is (hopefully) sleeping. Yesterday it was warm enough that the puppy and I came out to the little writing house and gave it a good cleaning – well, I gave it the good cleaning, vacuum, mop, and cleaning off and rearranging the window altar-space, and the puppy got to be outside with her ball, though the ground was too wet for lying down, but still – we had the door open and aired the place out.
When I said I was in a creative rut to another artist the other day (I didn’t use those exact words — I think I told a long story about burnout and exhaustion and things, instead of saying “writer’s block” and “creative silence”), he asked about what images I have around me in my studio. I have images I’ve been gathering for decades — that have traveled with me from New Hampshire to Maine to CA and back to Maine again, some of them. I wonder sometimes about the story that someone who didn’t know me would tell about the person who occupies this space, with her little altars and braided rug and rocking chair tucked in a window corner and bookshelves filled with books about writing, about creativity, about queer sex, about fairy tales, about trauma and recovery. About the little stand of poems on the window altar — Christos, Essex Hemphill, Beth Brand, Cherrie Moraga, Alison Letterman, Kitty Tsui, Janice Mirikatani, Joy Harjo, Mary Oliver. About the corkboard completely covered with poems and cards and quotes and images of women and animals and children and the same two girls appearing repeatedly at different ages, like a vision board for the past, a vision board looking backward. Maybe this person would know me as a Queer Woman of a Certain Age, a queer woman who came of age in the 90s and hasn’t let go of that dream vision yet, even though so much of what we thought we were fighting for has turned into the worst kind of infighting, turned in on itself like a dying star and imploded.
A couple of years ago, maybe starting in 2019, I began lurking on Twitter. I forget what drove me there to begin with. Maybe curiosity, or fear, or a sense of hunger. For the longest time, Twitter just looked like an overwhelming flood to me, like in order to use the service you hd to consent to throwing yourself into a tsunami and being drowned while also screaming at the top of your lungs and hoping/expecting to be heard, everyone, millions of people thrashing around screaming not even at each other necessarily but into the void of the internet and calling it engagement, calling it connection, calling it work. The whole internet looks like that to me now, honestly, since social media took over the world.
As a creative person who wants to get their work out in front of other people in this age, though, one mostly has to have at least some presence here in this hellscape (the document I’m typing this into just autocorrected that into hells cape, which I think is even better). I’ve used this analogy before: lt’s as though we’re being asked to promote ourselves in the world’s largest bazaar/flea market/souq/public square and every single person in this arena is shouting at the top of their lungs and those with money can get hundreds of people to stand near them up on raised podia and shout about their thing and the rest of us are kind of milling around in the dust and shadows under the platforms and we are trying to find each other but the screaming is loud and continuous and all of us are screaming about our thing, too, and so we put on buttons or badges so that we can recognize those who might be kindred to us, but when we find some others wearing those badges, we find that they’re screaming the exact opposite of what we’re screaming.
It’s a hard way to connect with a target market.
But it seemed that there were folks who were successfully using Twitter to connect with readers and with other writers, to cast a wider net than seems possible on Facebook with its algorithm that constructs and constricts us into echo chambers. Facebook is like going back to my old neighborhood now, where all my friends are. Twitter is like walking out of my neighborhood and into a dystopian city that is created by the world’s collective id, collective rage, collective need.
I became a little addicted to it, sad to say. In the mid 2010s, maybe while I was still in my MFA program I began to be drawn in to a story unfolding on an old friend’s facebook timeline — someone I’d once known had been accused of being sexually inappropriate with students, and his trial and sentencing was effectively unfolding on social media, in public, in the public square. He was mostly silent — the conversation was among the women in his community: those accusing him and those defending him. And these women were vicious with each other, hostile and accusatory and dismissive.
I couldn’t help wondering — as of course we’ve wondered since we started connecting with each other virtually via these screens and keyboards and tying up our household phone line in order to dial up our internet accounts — about how much meaner we are to each other when we aren’t sitting across from one another, face to face.
It was like reading a real life soap opera, unfolding in real time, like a choose-your-own-adventure story, when you could immerse yourself in the backstory of every character, and then return to the main narrative whenever there was any new action, any new scene (and the audience could continually shout out their comments and criticisms or just yell or laugh or throw tomatoes at the actors trying to get their words out). That’s not a great way to think about people’s lives — of course these were real people. Everyone behind those words, behind those accounts, was wounded, angry, frightened, aching to be heard and actually understood. These were real people talking about and out of real and lived trauma, which was of course being exacerbated on and through the social media “engagement” they were enacting.
Once upon a time we used to say, don’t read the comments section. Now the whole internet seems to be made up of the comments section. We used to say, don’t feed the trolls — don’t engage them, don’t bother, it’s a waste of time. Twitter is entirely made up of flame wars, and trolls, it seems.
I can remember, as a kid, wanting to be able to read everything in the world. Maybe you were like this, too — the kind of kid who read all the time and read everything and anything, not just library books but also cereal boxes and shampoo bottles and anything else you could find lying around.
When I worked for awhile at the storage library at my undergraduate college, one of my jobs was to fulfill requests from the main library for copies of articles in books that had been retired from the main stacks. So my job was to take the request and go back into the dusty shelves and locate this book (while somehow being expected to bypass all these other books without stopping to pick any of them up and flip through them just out of curiosity, which: no) and then bring the book out to the main room and locate the chapter or section requested and gently photocopy that section (so as not to further damage the spine of the book) and then return the book to the stacks. Every step of this task meant exposing myself to more things I could be reading, and I often took much longer than necessary to get those copies done because I was busy reading the requested article about esoteric religious practice or pre-1950s sexuality studies or etymology or whatever it was some grad student or professor needed.
And then when I was online at night, searching for something that would help me make sense of my life, I would get lost following link after link, diving into rabbit holes, immersing myself in long texts that some stranger had taken hours to type and generously chose to share. It really did feel like we had the knowledge of the entire planet available at our fingertips, like being in an infinite library to which new texts were constantly being added. It was exciting and also devastating — how could one ever Read All The Things now?
And then someone brought the public square into my infinite library and all the screaming began. I know, the screaming was there before social media— it just seemed like the screaming was contained, and was avoidable. You actually could choose not to read the comments sections. Maybe you couldn’t avoid trolls, because of course trolls have always been with us, even before there was an internet, but it was possible to side step them and continue engaging with saner people. Now, it seems like the trolls have taken over.
I began reading the feeds of feminists on twitter. I was thinking a lot about cancellation and purity of thought and what opinions get to be shared and and promoted and what opinions are shut down, because I was creating a lesson plan about this topic for a composition-education class I was taking in grad school. I would get online every day, multiple times a day, to check in on the feeds I was following, to see if these women had posted any more takes, or were taking on any more trolls or attackers. There was so much to be angry about in the world, and these folks were actually able to take it on, respond to everything. How did they have the energy for it?
And I watched as opposing sides used the exact same language to make their arguments: ones opponents are misogynists, tools of right-wing patriarchy, women-haters, white supremacists, homophobic, transphobic, fighting against progress, and on the wrong side of history. These are unwinnable arguments, and yet we can’t seem to stop fighting. We get addicted to the adrenaline, maybe, or we believe that if we stop fighting then the terrorists will win.
Twitter became another way for me to distract myself from the work I wasn’t doing, couldn’t do, like streaming shows or playing solitaire — but, of course, mostly, when I played solitaire, I didn’t come away outraged and horrified at the state of the world and ready to take a machine gun to every man in the world because what is it actually going to take to get men to stop raping women and children and even other men? That question doesn’t come up in solitaire, at least not in the versions I’ve downloaded on my devices.
Yesterday was the first day in awhile that I didn’t spend any time on Twitter. And at the end of the day, I felt a little more open, a little quieter inside.
It’s true that I’ve found some things there that bring joy — stunning and surprising images from nature, a feed of women’s art from around the world and throughout time, useful details about what’s happening with Covid (maybe that doesn’t bring joy, but at least it’s points the way to a time when there can be more joy shared among us back out in the world together again), pictures of ferrets being ferrets (which are always yes), and, of course, videos of unlikely animal friendships that make me weepy with happiness every time.
(skip this paragraph if you don’t want to read a description of violence to a woman.) But those things are tucked in among hate and violence and visual/visceral reminders that women around the world are still being harmed and killed every minute of every day just for the crime of being women. Last week it was a woman — actually, I think it was a 17-year old girl — who’d been beheaded by her husband, and there was a picture making the rounds of the husband standing there holding her head and smiling. I know this not because I looked at the picture closely; every time it came up on my feed, I scrolled past it quickly, and just read descriptions or responses to it. I didn’t want the actual image in my head, in my body. Some things we don’t need to see. It’s not that I don’t want to know this young woman’s story — but what I have actually, is not her story: it’s her killer’s story, and his story is making its smiling way around the world.
Here’s what the internet, what social media, asks of us now: just scroll past the horror thing to the cute thing that you really wanted to read this morning. You don’t need that horror thing in your mind. You can just leave it up there, hidden now, and far away. Except it’s a real thing that’s happened to real people and we are learning, have learned, to push aside our human, visceral, authentic responses to human harm, human violence.
We teach ourselves to ignore, as we teach ourselves to ignore the pain in the street when we walk from the BART station to our offices (as we used to do), because the pain is too much for us to bear and we don’t know what we can do to help. What’s the word for this besides desensitization? And what’s the word for when the whole world gets desensitized to human suffering?
Spending very much time on Twitter is self harm for me at this point, like stuffing myself with too much food (too many feeds) so that instead of feeling grief or rage, I’ll just feel physical pain, which is psychologically easier for me to focus on, and has an actual solution.
Maybe I’ll keep making attempts to navigate this wasteland, attempts to find kin among the hollerers and memers and all the hot takes and all the rigid, righteous certainty. Maybe I’ll find people who still have questions, who still live with the questions, still live in the questions that make up our human existence.
Marge Piercy wrote “I will choose what enters me, what becomes flesh of my flesh. What we read, what we watch, what we consume becomes part of us. Twitter, of course, is the opposite of the creative silence that Mahershala Ali describes above, that “sacred space occupied by emptiness: the space reserved for thought and creativity.”
Putting Twitter down for awhile means opening myself up to a space of silence that I think I’ve been afraid to visit. This little candlelit morning writing space can hold that sacred silence, though, can be a container for what seems to be too big, too sad, too hungry. Twitter is no place to go looking for sustenance, at least for me right now. I have been so hungry for so long, as so many of us are, but I need a different kind of fed, like the kind I get here with these words, this dangerous and necessary silence, this reaching out.
Be easy with you today, ok? And I will try and do the same.