Social Media Icons. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Like many people, I came to social media through Facebook. I joined because I wanted to communicate with people whom I knew and liked who were on it. Years before Facebook, I had been a regular reader of blogs, commenting under my own name and, at times, anonymously. So, I was used to casually airing my thoughts in public on a number of topics. Commenting on Facebook was, in a way, just a continuation of this.
The big difference between keeping up with and commenting on blogs and being on Facebook is that the conversations I had on Facebook were with people I knew, and that was decidedly not the case with blogs. Indeed, I considered that the main drawback of discussions on blogs. It’s much easier for people to say outlandish and cruel things when they are talking to people they don’t know. Serious conversations almost invariably turned rancorous as trolls appeared to blow things up. My belief in the dream of elevated discourse on the Internet died pretty quickly.
With that in mind, Facebook’s system of “friends” was very attractive. During the first phase of my time on the site, I kept my “friends” list low, only accepting requests from people I actually knew. That resulted in a friends list consisting mainly of historians, law professors, and family members. With that configuration, discussions rarely degenerated into the kind of conversations I don’t like to have—ones in which people act as if they are not talking to fellow human beings, saying things they would never say in a face-to-face conversation. As the years wore on, I relaxed my rule about “friending” a bit. I accepted friend requests from (and made requests to) people I had met, but really did not know. My friends list is still comparatively small.
I never saw Facebook as having anything to do with my career as such. Keeping in contact with far-flung friends in academia whom I liked, and who I would get to see only once or twice a year at conferences, was one of the things I liked best about the platform. Getting to know some of those people better, not just through our conversations, but being able to see them interact with others, was only rarely something other than a joy. Engaging in discussions that could range from deeply serious to deeply fun and silly broke up the day for me, as I dipped in and out to see what was happening. If I worked in a factory, or a store, or a hospital I would have people around all day to whom I could talk. My life as a writer, and as an academic, places me in solitude quite often. I like that. But it was nice to have a virtual “office” and water cooler to gather around and talk.
And then, disenchantment set in. One by one, my friends began to leave Facebook, many for ideological reasons. The death of Jan Lewis all but finished my active interest in and involvement with Facebook. Even though she and I were in daily—near hourly contact—with one another on email, I had her in mind whenever I made most of my comments on Facebook or shared articles. I still check Facebook because I want to keep up with family and the friends who are still there. It remains a touchstone, but the thrill is gone.
I first joined Twitter to follow a chair. After Clint Eastwood’s notorious stunt at the Republican Convention in 2008, when he addressed an empty chair in an imagined conversation with President Obama, one wag opened a Twitter account for the chair. I liked the joke, and decided to follow it. I wasn’t even sure how Twitter actually worked. I didn’t use my name and had no intention of being active. When reading articles, I would occasionally click on the blue bird that appeared at the top of the piece with no desire to go to the site and see any response. It was not until 2015 that I opened a Twitter account under my own name when my publisher suggested it might help promote my upcoming book with Peter Onuf. I became more active as I got a feel for the platform. The energy I had felt on Facebook I now felt on Twitter.
Although I came on the site to promote my book, my focus immediately changed. I enjoyed making contact with scholars with whom I would not normally connect. Historians of other eras, political scientists, scientists, economists—all sorts of people—came into my orbit. I decided not to do electoral politics on my feed and that I would not do, or tolerate, snark. Serious disagreements, fine. Gratuitous nastiness, no. Anyone who tries it, gets blocked. I want people to be comfortable on my timeline. Humor is important. To make myself comfortable, and avoid the frenzy of Twitter, I changed my location to Senegal to avoid the too often idiotic “trends” that appear on the sidebar to timelines. Seeing them out of the corner of my eye was agitating.
Twitter is habit-forming, and I confess that I don’t think it’s great for people who do long-form writing. Okay, I shouldn’t speak for others. But I do wonder if it hasn’t interfered with my concentration. It strikes me that it’s better suited to journalists and journalistic writing, as it fits with their rhythm. I also think it gives a false sense of the world outside. It can create emergencies that don’t actually exist. And the continuous display of outrage about matters large and small can be a bit too much to take. The greatest danger arises when people in the “real world” use Twitter conversations and controversies as a guide for decision-making and behavior. It is simply not the real world. Almost every other week I vow that I am going to leave the site, but I’m not ready. Not yet.