I read Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle recently, which I couldn’t recommend highly enough – a tense, funny thriller set in a silicon-valley company that hopes to get the whole world living all of their lives via its website. When there is total transparency, with everyone filming and sharing their every waking moment, ‘the circle’ will reach ‘completion’. It’s spot-on about how absorbing and exhausting social media can be – the pressure for instant response; the constant sending of ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ and RT-ing of ‘zings’ – and gradually becomes more chilling as the company adopt new slogans: SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT. One character has a scheme for microchipping children to keep them safe: ‘Immediately you take all child abduction, rape, murder and you reduce it by 99 percent. And the price is that the kids have a chip in their ankle.’ It sounds eerily plausible. In fact, just yesterday I went to Pets at Home with Gruff (to look at the bearded dragons) and noticed that all their rabbits are now sold microchipped, presumably to stop cruelty to animals as well as lost bunnies.
And then recently this story about facebook – that they are going to be able to ‘listen’ to your surroundings through your phone.
I’m getting uncomfortable with social media. And partly it’s because of all this – Snowden; surveillance. I have a theory about the internet actually – that it’s filled a void left by the decline in religion. For centuries humanity always felt it was being watched, and this knowledge gave even our smallest actions a sense of importance. Then, for a while, no one was bearing witness. No one was looking and it made us feel trivial and tenuous; utterly disposable to the indifferent world. That’s why we wanted to be on reality TV, so someone would see us. And now social media has filled the void – it is always looking, watching, tracking, saving. No evil tweet, it promises, will go unread and unpunished; goodness will be rewarded with ‘likes’ and supportive Mandela quotes and/or photos of cats. Our whole lives will be archived and remembered: it is our recording angel.
But, although I appreciate as much as anyone how an audience can make life feel meaningful (more, I ‘m a writer), I also love privacy. I think back to some of the best times of my life, and they’ve been when I’ve been completely alone – in Athens or New York or wandering AWOL around London having adventures – with that feeling that nobody knows where I am. I like anonymity. I like having secrets: withholding things, shaping the story as I see fit. I am, in truth, a dabbler in white lies. And I think poetry comes from this place, from darkness and mystery and the hidden inner life. I’ve also always, as a writer, been passionate about civil liberties, and am alarmed at how much of our privacy we’re giving away: so fast and so cheaply. I can’t quite get my head around the fact I now, voluntarily, carry a tracking device (and potential bug).
There are other things too. The fun is wearing off a bit. Maybe it’s my algorithms, but my news feeds have got much duller recently – full of ads and announcements about book deals and shitty Buzzfeed quiz results, with real debate and gossip and photos of people I care about drying up. Poetry and social media actually have a lot in common, so I’ll admit I was fairly seduced at first. The impulses behind both things are the same. All these people taking filtered Instagram photos of their holidays and breakfasts; sharing links and songs; making 140 character witticisms… In many ways they aren’t behaving much differently than professional poets: wanting to capture the world, framing and presenting moments from their lives, editing material, working within forms. Social media is addictive because it’s creative, on some level. It’s making your life into art. I can hardly call it narcissism when I live in a glass house.
But then there is something uneasy about it too. Perhaps because these digital spaces are all shaped around the demands of the money, and that means advertising. If participating in them is parallel to any art-form, it seems to end up closest to writing advertising copy. My favourite internet poem is probably Sam Riviere’s ‘Nobody Famous’:
here are my eyes suddenly in a train window
this is me surrounded by the sounds of cheap suits
these are my reviews they may contain spoilers
this is me smoking a moth for 10 dollars
this is me having my extremely nuanced feelings
All the contents of the news-feed are in there – the faux spontaneity, the posed ‘experiences’ entered into for the photo-op, and most of all, the way the language of professionalism creeps in (‘may contain spoilers’). The personal becoming product. The horrible sense that on Facebook and Twitter we are all selling something, and it is mainly ourselves. Lately, every time I’ve nearly posted something personal up on social media I’ve stopped myself. Something’s halting my hand. A sense of griminess. That I’m using my family or friends, my actual life, to create some kind of ‘brand’. Or maybe a pathetic little rebellion against the all-knowing System (I don’t have any loyalty cards either, take that!)
Except of course I’ll carry on using it to an extent. professionally. It’s part of my job now. I want readers, of course I do, and it’s where they are. And every time I get offered paid work these days, I also start getting reminders in my inbox to tweet (‘this is an example of a good tweet!’) and Facebook and blog and write for other blogs. ‘Selling yourself’ is part of the deal. How and when did that happen? When I started it wasn’t – in fact, the idea of selling yourself in any way, like approaching festivals or sending out press releases would have been considered desperate and unappealing, although apparently that’s now the norm. Maybe that’s my trouble, I’m old-fashioned enough to still find it desperate and unappealing. I like writing this blog – I fondly imagine it functions for me like writing letters did for Hughes or Bishop (‘keeping warm’ I think Bishop called it) – but as soon as anything smacks of self-marketing I feel grubby. I’m not even sure it makes very much difference, all this advertising to the same small group of people – certainly none of my events or classes seem fuller than they used to be, I’m just running to stay still.
That’s what Facebook and Twitter want though: millions of people constantly, frantically selling themselves. When everyone is self-marketing, the circle will be complete. And we won’t be doing it for money of course (we know who keeps all of that). Rather we’ll all be SPENDING money to promote ourselves. Spending money on the web-page, the ‘experience’, the photogenic breakfast, the smartphone to upload the selfie. We’ll be selling ourselves instead for clicks and likes; for someone to watch over us.
As Sam Riviere’s poem ends:
this is me in public putting on a 2nd pair of sunglasses
because I feel suddenly like crying
here I am defining my personal space.