It was supposed to make everyone everybody else’s friend. It was touted as the solution to growing fragmentation and a step toward social cohesion. It might have even been the ascent of the first wrung of the ladder toward true world peace. But it isn’t delivering. Social media is becoming an exercise in futility, ennui and crashing boredom. It has lost its sparkle and we’re all just going through the motions, as it slowly dawns upon us all that this isn’t as much fun as it used to be. The shine has worn off.
On social media sites, if we are honest, we’d conclude that we don’t really get to know each other deeply. Who are you really? Is that what you show on Facebook and Twitter, or do you adopt a different persona entirely? Do you wear a carefully crafted mask? Why are you doing that?
Everything you post on a social media site is so public, that we default to being guarded and always present our best and most groomed self. We self-censor. There is no grit. There is no realism. My real life friend, who I have known for nearly forty years, complains that connecting on Facebook is a very different glimpse into my life than a chat over a coffee or even a phone call. She’s right about that and right to express the regret at the loss of what we used to do to connect and stay in touch.
Social media lacks intimacy. Social media lacks privacy. Social media permits too much unwanted, unwarranted and unexpected intrusion and eavesdropping. Maybe our boss, or future employers are watching and they don’t like the extent of your self-perceived freedom of expression. Your expression is not free and you know it. You know that you’re under surveillance and under suspicion, the whole time.
Maybe you need to look a little less radical, free, outspoken and committed to causes that your sources of employment might not agree with. They could be collecting your keystrokes and even your deletions, because your traffic is passing through their firewall and that makes them somehow sovereign over your thoughts, passions, beliefs and character. Who’d have thought you could buy all of that for a simple wage? Astonishing, really.
Maybe we don’t want any more flame wars from people that barely know us and didn’t bother to understand the intricacies and nuances of what we were trying to say. Maybe we don’t want any more arguments with people you used to really like, in real life, over some trivial, incidental, ill-considered, hastily dashed-off post or other. Maybe the risk of a “friend” betraying your posted confidences is too great, when you hardly know some of your followers. You are only too aware that they have the same tremendous mass publication power in their capricious hands as you do and you also realise that they might not use it wisely, with discretion or in your best interests, rather than their own.
This is what is killing social media and making it boring. You must have felt it. The thrill is gone. The same old pictures of perfectly framed, Instagram-filtered skylines, snaps of beautifully made meals and cats with cute captions no longer captivate us, the way they once did. We’ve begun to post re-runs of viral videos that we thought were so funny, last Christmas. Re-runs! On YouTube, where thousands of hours of new material are uploaded every single minute and we can watch anything we like, on demand. And we post repeats! I ask you.
We can no longer connect in any deep way via social media, because you never know who is watching, what it will mean to them and how they will react (often extremely negatively). We’re too afraid to stand up for anything, for fear of being cut down.
Corporations use your online pronouncements, browsing and purchases to construct elaborate personal profiles of you, like some deranged and creepy stalker pasting long lens paparazzi photos into a special scrap book all about you. Then, they present you with ads for what they think your profile tells them you want and you react with horror. They’re either so far off the mark it’s risible, or so spot on, you feel intruded upon. In either case, you can’t get rid of them or turn them off and you know that their diligent activity is not for your benefit – all they want is more of your money. In that sense, it’s an assault, not only on your privacy, but also on your dwindling personal wealth. You’re being milked. You’re being farmed, like some dumb farm animal. And you can’t make them go away.
So we’re all maintaining pretence, or hiding, or remaining superficial and resorting to small talk, rather than revealing our souls, flying our freak flags, standing up for what we believe in or revealing the more vulnerable sides of ourselves. There is no way we can trust our friends, the social media corporations, the government and their spies. They already voted to maintain maximum unwarranted surveillance in the US senate. They’re not giving up their rich glimpses into your psyche for nobody! That’s why we have to be careful about what we show them, isn’t it?
We don’t show our mistakes and are reticent about taking responsibility for our failures. Everything has to go right, even the things that seem like they aren’t. We’ve all become spin doctors, turning every adversity and error into something altogether more desirable and saleable.
Some go as far as to fret about who “unfollowed” them and why. There are free, online tools provided to help them obsess over what is often a random set of events, signifying nothing. What was wrong with me? How do I have to appear differently to stem the tide of desertions? It’s enough to keep you awake at night, tweeting aimlessly.
Every day, more and more, our existences on social media take on that shell like fakery once a commonplace for people living under Stalin. They would lie to your face, pretend to support things that the authorities expected them to support and know that you knew that they were lying to your face, but lied to you all the same. In return, you lied back. Social media has merely increased our sense of social paranoia. As in Soviet Russia, you can never tell who is betraying you to the authorities, for some small reward or even the transitory notion of glory, whether or not actually bestowed upon them.
Social media sites have become Stalingrad on line.
If you are an artist, or serious about making a social contribution through your song writing, music, poetry, pictures, films, prose or any other form of artistic self-expression, this is no longer the place to be. It’s too full of fakery. Too many people are hiding behind veils and curtains. Nobody dares give you a straight and honest answer anymore.
It feels about as connected as commuting on a London Tube train. People everywhere, packed in too closely, but studiously avoiding eye contact, with perfected nonchalance. Nobody daring to converse. Barely exchanging polite pleasantries. Maintaining decorum. Guarding their personal space jealously and secretly bristling at the presence of others. Suppressing their overwhelming urges to run away or shout (or both). Facebook and Twitter are just like that.
If you are an artist, it’s time to reconnect with people, in person, one-on-one. You might start these relationships on line, but to allow them to bloom and grow and to strengthen and deepen, there is a need to actually meet the people you socialise with on social media sites (excluding the nutters, of course). You need to develop a genuine rapport, some intimacy, a shared understanding, discover your common views and purpose and create lasting, long-lived friendships of real quality and character. That’s the only way you can maintain any personal integrity and hence maintain the authenticity of your art, in my view. The rest of it is just a side show. Posting your music, paintings and your serious writing online to a social media audience has about as much to do with art as huckstering for snake oil does.
Bang your own drum, by all means, but if you amass followers merely to sell them something, you’re short changing them and short changing yourself and your art. Your art is more valuable than that. It has more potential emotional impact and affect, than a bit of distracting, ephemeral fluff on a timeline would suggest. Your art is about connecting you, the artist, to other people who feel and think the same things you do and who feel inspiration, affinity, courage, hope or who identify with your struggle, as represented in your art.
It’s not about cute, witty tweets, or sensational status updates. It’s about getting closer to humanity, through shared dreams and visions. It’s as old as telling stories around an open fire, on a cold night, huddled together for warmth and protection. We’ve lost that feeling, on social media. There is no campfire. We don’t hug our neighbours. Our misty breaths do not comingle in the still, cold air. We don’t feel unity and community. We feel isolation and mistrust instead.
For our art to have meaning it’s not about what the audience does for us, in terms of adulation, appreciation or their warm reception of our labours, it’s about what we, as artists, do for them. Do we make our audience feel empowered, encouraged, inspired, included, worthwhile, edified, comforted, connected, protected, hopeful, optimistic, understood, empathised with, desirable, desired and loved? Are we saying what they are thinking, through our art, only more clearly, more powerfully and with greater courage than they can muster? If not, what’s the point of our art? Doesn’t it just reduce to the same self-serving, self-gratification that our existence on social media sites is in danger or becoming?
None of this matters, of course and this is just one of the thousands of blog posts made today that will go unread, in the main, or skimmed contemptuously, at best. If I’m very lucky, somebody will read it in depth and identify with it, but then what? Will we join forces to affect change? Will we all seek to behave differently on line, for the sake of our authenticity and integrity? Will social media suddenly re-energise, with people posting vignettes of their true, deepest and most personal selves, safe in the knowledge that everyone reading, to a man, will look upon this vulnerability, diversity and openness kindly, benevolently and without malice?
Will it heck.
Happy New Year.