I just read the most fantastic article about a problem that plagues me even more than my inability to remember passwords and usernames in times of crisis (i.e. seventeen times per day), and that is:
What Is My Point on Social Media? Why am I on Twitter when I could be doing sit ups or eating Golden Grahams, or both?
Patricia Rossi says (and feel free to pop over and read the whole thing because there's a great picture of her legs, too) the savvy writer will do three things: educate, encourage, and e-something. (I really believed, when I thoughtfully closed the paper, that I could remember three tiny things. They all start with "e"!) Plus her approach seemed so virtuous and positive, like when I used to go to church and we would say hopeful things that we really and truly believed about eternal life and forgiveness. I would do it! I would stop using social media to confuse myself and others, to depress myself and others, and to shame myself and others. I would stop taking screen shots of that post where a person completely unlike myself (I don't brag about my kids or my vacations or my work, do I? I mean, ever?) said that annoying thing about how all of the alumni of her child's prep school go straight to a school that rhymes with Whale. I would educate, encourage, and emolliate on Facebook, and I would furthermore do exactly what she recommends on Twitter, too, and Tumblr and LinkedIn and THIS VERY BLOG: namely, I would write down my social media goal for each weird hateful platform and stick to it.
My social media goal on Twitter is very simple. I stare at my feed. Scroll, scroll, scroll. "Favorite." Scroll. Click. Read. Scroll. Consider saying extremely witty thing to New York Times writer guy. Click "Reply." Type something. Revise. Erase. Start over. Realize it is stupid anyway and too long. Log out.
Sometimes I vary this routine and think of something pithy to say. I type it and realize it's 4,000 characters too long. I erase it. Write shorter. Erase. Log out. Or once in a long while I respond with umbrage and indignation to some extremely arcane literary feud/dust up/scandal in a great white hot flame four words long and then I log out with a triumphant feeling.
Thirty days later, I return to Twitter, determined to master it like Bach's Two Part Invention #13 in C Minor, the one I spent my whole freshman year in college practicing at 6 a.m. on a battered Steinway in the catacombs of BYU, and discover that whoever I jabbed with my insightful comment jabbed me back and I simply wasn't there. Dial tone. Thirty days had passed, so it was completely over and I lost.
But still, there was more cunning stuff here. Patricia Rossi of the leg photo was very clear on something I've been pretty squeamish about, and I know you have, too, if you've published anything at all, like a church newsletter or a book of poems or a photo of that sweater you knitted last year. How much bragging am I supposed to do on these channels? How much about me is too much? I mean, the main reason I'm on all these empty stages in the convention halls of virtual hell is that publishers totally want you to be there. Ideally, you'd be stripping, but since you're not a stripper, you need to do something to Attract Attention to Your Book. This lovely leggy woman, Patricia Rossi (look at her legs! Seriously!), says the proper ratio is 80/20. And she means 80 percent other people, okay? Not 80 percent LOOK AT MY BOOK!! LOOK AT MY STARRED REVIEWS!! AND THEN LOOK AT MY SON'S S.A.T. SCORES!!!!!!!!! and 20 percent "Happy birthday!"
Eighty/ twenty. Educate, encourage, exfoliate. Set a goal for every outlet.
Except for Twitter. Twitter, my friends, is hopeless. For me. Not for you. I'm sure you're great at it. But here on the blog (doesn't "blog" sound exactly like a synonym for barf? As in "I blogged all over his car after I ate a bad taco"?), I've learned a thing or two. My last blog, as I pointed out in my Inaugural Post, has disappeared into the black hole people say doesn't exist in the age of the Eternal Internet. And I don't want to flame out again, so here's what I'm going to do. I'm going FOCUS. Over on Tumblr I'm still going to be a total mess, and LinkedIn is still going to be nothing but that picture of me eating Key Lime pie in Florida 4 years ago, but right here on the blog I'm going to educate, encourage, and extemporize on only one thing, and that will be other people's books. Libros. No recipes or travel stories (except as they relate to other people's books) or poignant essays about my kids (except as they relate to other people's books). And if I manage to get anyone to take a picture of my legs looking really fabulous, I'll add that because, you know, I do get 20 percent.
You know how people say the Internet is forever? As in, once it's on there, you can't remove it?
One day about a year ago I sat down in front of my blog with a deep purging impulse. The essays I'd posted during the preceding years sat there like clothes I'd worn to parties in the 80's when I had feathered hair. To get rid of those clothes, I would not even have to drive to Goodwill. Blip.
There was a certain frisson, like when you burn a photograph of someone you loved that you want to forget. But I felt, deep down, that it wasn't really burned. Teenagers (of which we have two) are always being warned that naked/drunken pictures of themselves will never, ever go away from the Internet. Don't post anything you don't want people to see forever! This is the kind of alarmism I can get behind; plus, in my experience, you can delete your Instagram in a why-am-I-taking pictures-instead-of-writing funk, and then, when you realize you miss seeing a friend's gorgeous baby, you can resurrect it in five seconds.
A few months later, I went looking for my thoughts in the cemetery of the Internet, thinking, hey, maybe I could shorten the hems a little, and I was reminded of a documentary I watched long ago about an attempt in 2001 to identify three victims of the Titanic:
The disinterments began as
scheduled with bodies #240 and
#281, located in adjacent lots at the
lower end of the Titanic section. Following
prayers by Browning, workers
began to open the side-by-side
graves. As they did so, they encountered
large amounts of water, due to
the low elevation of these graves and
the high level of water table. Though
they examined the graves carefully,
they found no remains at all.
This development shocked the team, causing
them to ask themselves, in Parr’s
words, “What are we going to do?”
It's a shocking thing to dig up a grave that's only 86 years old and find nothing. The whole principle of a grave is to preserve the idea of ourselves as a physical presence. We may say "dust to dust," but we don't believe it. The resurrection, the apocalypse, zombie movies, those whirling, waltzing, skeleton-ghosts in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion--they are all based on the belief that if you dig up a grave, you will find the remains of a person, not loam. And as much as we may complain about the everlasting permanence of the worst picture of ourselves ever taken (usually as the #4 image on the Google search page, where my hair looks like Rosalynn Carter's) there's something compelling and deeply comforting about a collective repository that is so invincible.
But it isn't. I'm sure that if I were to become a terrorist, someone in the FBI could find my old blog. Barring that (and I am unequivocally promising you that I'm only going to kill the fleas in my house, on my dog, in the sofa cushions, in the back of the garage--wait, there's one on my thigh I KILL YOU WITH MY TWO SHARP FINGERNAILS), it's not even loam.
This doesn't matter except as a small warning to any of you out there who have, as I do, a certain Camille Claudel tendency, an overwhelming, episodic urge, when you look at your work and it isn't what you wanted it to be, to smash every statue in the whole atelier. Every badly lit picture of you where you have Aqua Net hair or you are naked or you are holding a bong will live until the apocalypse on the Internet, but you can destroy your own work pretty easily.
This is a photograph of Tom and me looking like we're buried up to our heads under something called the Thomas Hardy tree in London. The headstones mark the graves of bodies that had to be exhumed and relocated during the construction of St. Pancras Station, a project Thomas Hardy was forced to supervise when he was an architect's apprentice. His poem "The Levelled Churchyard" can be read here.
Books by Tom and Laura McNeal