My Struggle With Social Media

Image: John Holcroft

(Reading time: 7 minutes, 1400 words)

I struggle with social media, because it challenges my desire for honesty. I’m torn over whether I should use it for promoting my writing and photography or for connecting with friends. Should I do both? And if so, how?

I’ve used social media for various reasons and in various ways, and regardless of the method I often feel like a fake. I feel fake when I try to promote my work, and I feel fake when I attempt to prove how awesome my life is.

That’s why I deleted my social media accounts last year. Fifteen hundred friends and followers (god, I hate that term) gone. I’m not suggesting that’s a big deal, because it isn’t. However, it was difficult (and liberating) to erase an identity, a social group, and a (failing) marketing plan I spent years creating.

But four months ago my 11-year-old daughter joined Instagram. So, naturally, I did too—for the second time. I followed her and three other people. Then I rejoined Facebook, thinking this time around I might be able to just share honest work. This time, I told myself, I wouldn't aggrandize my life or sweat over how I might build and leverage a social following. But four weeks in and already I feel dirtied by phoniness, distracted by the prospect of followers and likes.

Facebook and Instagram are like a Chuck-a-rama buffet of ego-building proteins.

I guess what some people take for granted, I think over. I think about whom I associate with and what kind of media I engage. But this isn’t easy. For example, I may like you in person, yet have no interest in what you share online (I’m sure this violates social media etiquette). In fact, I’m more inclined to friend and follow strangers who make and share creative work than a friend that posts selfies and pics of all and only the cool shit they do. But connecting with distant creatives becomes empty in time—because they’re not really friends. (On rare occasions, however, they become friends. And that's pretty cool.)

I’m also afraid of wasting time. The more connections I have, the more distractions I have. I’m not sure exactly how friendships become distractions, but they do.

Not only are others' posts distracting, it's those goddamn blue thumbs and orange hearts. My. Bloody. Ego. I'm trying to put the bastard to sleep, and social media is crack for him. One hit and he's wired, addicted.

The ego, to thrive, needs a diet of self-comparison, and Facebook and Instagram are like a Chuck-a-rama buffet of ego-building proteins. Not only do all those likes and loves reinforce the ego, but the pretty faces, the images of the highlife, the massive followings—those aspects of social media that seem to deflate the ego—they reinforce it, too.

Anyway, I set up these new social accounts a few weeks ago and I’m still asking myself why. I’ve even held off on friending and following people, because I don’t want to friend people. And I want to. And I don’t want to.

I don’t want to friend or follow you just so you return the favor, so that you might see and (Please! Please!) like my posts, so I can feel like I’m on a stage under silver lights. I don’t want to friend you because I don’t want to see your tacky viral videos, your cat memes, political rants that you support but can’t defend, plates of food from fancy restaurants, or pictures of your perfect kids. Yes, I’m an asshole. (For the record, I actually love children. As long as they’re blood-related and not annoying.)

And then… I DO want to friend you. WHAT IS LIFE WITHOUT FRIENDS?! I want connection, I want contact, I want love. If a few good friends make life rich, then a bundle must make it grand. So yeah, I’ll connect. I’ll even start collecting friends, and I’ll call them “followers.” They’ll become social currency for me, proving that I matter in the world. And because the whole world is in the business of collecting followers (which, in effect, makes social currency real currency), not only will I be rich, I’ll be prestigious.

But that’s not what I really want.

I want an honest life. I want to make and present honest work for honest reasons. That’s why I often delete my posts: because they come from the wrong place. Who am I trying to impress? Am I bored? Am I hungry for attention? Am I going for likes, or am I sharing honest thoughts and images? Do I have good reasons for my communications?

By now you’re probably thinking, “If you’re so conflicted over social media, why bother with it?”

Because social media seems to be the only place where you can publish creative work to the world without permission, without endorsements, without money. Have you considered the hoops you must jump through to reach an audience in the literary, art, or academic worlds? It’s hoop jumping that looks a lot like dick sucking. And I’m not that fond of sucking dick.

I’m so goddamn mad—because, from my view, we shouldn’t have to be paid artists in order to survive and feel good about our vocations.

You know what’s sad though? The “work" I keep referring to has hardly happened because of this conflict over honesty and attention. I sit down to write and get all bound up over how I’m going to sell or promote my work before I begin. Maybe that’s a function of the ego (it is). Or maybe it’s a function of having done dishonest work for a decade and then finally getting high enough on the ladder to see I've climbed the wrong ladder. I don’t have time to wait to be picked.

If I felt like I made an honest living, maybe then I could make art for its own sake. But because of the way the world is, art seems to be one of the only ways to make an honest living. I'm so goddamn mad—because, from my view, we shouldn’t have to be paid artists in order to survive and feel good about our vocations.

Fuck, in the end, even our artists get exploited. It’s why I think Kurt Cobain shot himself. Can you imagine fighting your guts out for honesty only to have your music played in every department store in America? In fast food chains? In elevators? At the dentist office? Art can’t be appreciated at that point; it’s consumed. Background noise for stimulation gluttons.

I NEED an honest life. It’s the only medicine that can keep me from spreading disease.

What are we trading in here? What are we racing towards—or from? Death? What purposes do our industries really serve? And who’s running them?

I realize this all probably sounds high-minded, self-pitiful even. But I'm not judging the way you use social media; I'm reflecting on why I feel conflicted when I use it. And this bit about honesty—don’t go thinking I'm righteous. I'm a superb evildoer most of the time. I NEED an honest life. It's the only medicine that can keep me from spreading disease.

I also realize that these aren’t observations about social media at all; I'm merely navel-gazing. In fact, a while ago I read an article entitled "Facebook Isn't The Problem, You Are." The article was shit, but the headline is good. It reminds me that, ultimately, my struggle with social media is one of perspective. And isn't that the case for every struggle in life?

Singer Grace Jones said, “When does one decide to be oneself? I think that’s what it all comes down to.” That's all I'm trying to do. I've decided to be myself (for the umpteenth time). Now I'm fighting to live congruent with that conception of who I am. And, for me, that means escaping corporate life, it means doing work that adds value in the world. But it also means finding a way to do this without feeling like an attention-hungry, self-promoting dick. Patience—that's what I tell myself. Work hard, and be patient.

As for my future social media presence, I haven't made any decisions. I still think social media can foster honest work and real collaboration and connection. I just haven’t discovered how to do that yet in a way that feels satisfying. So if I unfriend or ignore you online, I hope you understand. But if you see me go on some friending frenzy you'll know I found something worth telling the world about. I will have found a banner I can wave that doesn't read, "Look at me!" Rather, it might read, "Look at us. Poor, sorry, beautiful us."

What about you? What kind of life are you trying to build? And (how) does social media play a role?

Comment below, or start a conversation with your friends.

The Surprising Wisdom of a Bearded Tramp

(Reading time: 3 minutes, 200 words)

When I see a 65-year-old man pedaling his home across some godforsaken stretch of highway, I don't see a lunatic, bum, or aimless degenerate; I see honesty, and a man that I suspect knows more about it than most.

That's why I stopped to talk with Mark. He began pedaling three years ago after his wife died. Nothing made sense after her death, he said, so he walked down his front porch steps, straddled his bike, and left everything. He's crossed Texas, Nebraska, and most of the western states at least a couple times since then. A real Forrest Gump.

His bike is a Walmart special (Mark's words), and it weighs over 100 pounds loaded up (my estimate). It has five rusty gears, and sloppy welds on the brake handles and frame—probably the repair work of a sympathetic gas station mechanic.

I gave Mark an orange, a granola bar, and four one-dollar bills. He said that'd go a long way. He eats ramen with hot sauce for dinner, oatmeal with peanut butter and green tea for breakfast. When he can afford it, he splurges on honey for the oatmeal. Gives him more energy for the 50+ miles he covers each day.

Mark struggled to stay with a train of thought, but he didn't seem crazy. He just had a lot to say. Seemed starved for interaction.

"God is everywhere," he said, despite the handwritten "I'm a Witness for Jesus" banner hoisted on his handlebars. "Religion doesn't have anything to do with it. I think god is in everybody."

"So what have you found out here on the road?" I asked. "Have you found what you're looking for?"

"You don't find answers," he said. "You find a way to accept that there might be none."

Dr. Charles Walton: Saving Lives with Medicine and Presence

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