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The perils of social media

April 7, 2010

Every so often there’s a big media scare about social networking. And it’s always bollocks Daily Mail hysteria rooted in a parent’s fear that they can no longer control their kids or that the print industry is on its knees. And it makes me cringe at the wilful ignorance of editors and journalists.

Nonetheless, I do think social media can be a danger, but it’s not pedophiles or rapists or vengeful ex-husbands that are the threat – it’s merely that some forms of social media change the way we interact with the world.

When I first got a computer, there was no broadband. There were no blogs. There was no facebook. There was no Twitter. I used a dial-up modem and my website was built entirely in HTML. It would take me hours to write/create a page, and when I’d finished it, it just sat there on the net. This wasn’t web 2.0. There was nowhere for me to announce that a new page was up, aside from the website itself. There was no way for people to leave comments, aside from a rudimentary guest-book that rapidly filled up with spam. Once every few months I might get an email from someone who liked my website.

So, when I wrote a page I was dimly aware of an audience, but they weren’t in my face. And as such, I didn’t pander to them. When I wrote a page of fiction, I would allow the ideas to coalesce and gestate in my mind before I uploaded the finished article. If I disliked what I’d written, I would go back and amend it. Then I got a messageboard, and I found that every time I’d written a page, I would alert the messageboard members and they would swoon and flatter me. Then I got a myspace and a blog, and soon I stopped writing on my website, because it was easier to write about my dinner and get feedback (comments! Praise!) straight away. It fed my ego immediately. No wait. Instant delivery! Then along came Twitter, and I didn’t even have to compose proper blog entries. I could just bang out reams and reams of tiny messages and before I’d even started writing a tweet I’d be getting a response about the previous one. Everything sped up. There was no time or space for ideas to develop in my mind. Bang! One idea! Bang! Another idea. No editing, no thinking, just a constant stream. In some ways this is no bad thing. Twitter is particularly suited to my mind. (As my ex-girlfriend and I discussed, different people use their brains in different ways. Her brain fermented over time, like beer. Mine fizzed and popped like coca-cola). Twitter is a brilliant place for me to shit out a hundred different ideas a day. The problem is that it stops me doing other things: it prevents me playing the long game. Why bother waiting weeks or months for feedback and approval, when I can get hundreds of messages a day, all about ME, ME, ME.

In the four years since I wrote my first novel, friends and peers have finished their second and third books. They have stepped away from the pits of instant self-gratification and immersed themselves in things that take time: plot, character, visions, revisions, editing, correcting, polishing. And it’s something I find almost impossible to do. Aside from work, this blog entry is probably the longest thing I’ve written in months. And even now, my brain hurts.

That’s the other way in which web 2.0 is a danger to me: it changes the way I process information. Or to be more precise, I no longer process information – I merely consume it. I speed read hundreds of articles a day, absorbing lots of information, but rarely actually thinking about it. Instead it is simply instantly transformed into a series of rapid-fire punchlines and pithy one-liners. I find myself refreshing pages over and over again, waiting for more news, desperate for change. I find it harder to concentrate. When I’m watching football or a film, I find myself checking Twitter on my phone or looking at Facebook.

There was an experiment years ago – I can’t remember the details, but it involved a mouse. The mouse had a chip implanted into its brain, and when it pressed a certain button in its cage, the chip stimulated the mouse’s brain and gave it a hit of pleasure. And eventually, the mouse just pressed the button all day, without doing anything else. Inevitably, the mouse died of starvation. In slightly less melodramatic terms, that’s how I approach the internet and social media. The buzz of interaction and feedback – of approval – overrides all my other needs and everything else, friends, relationships, family is allowed to wither. And of course, the vagaries and ambivalence of human relationships are never as instantly gratifying as a random stranger on the internet bestowing unqualified approval. The wonderful and terrifying thing about social media is how ruthlessly quantifiable it is. Followers, fans and mentions can all be counted. It’s rarely about the quality of relationships, only the quantity.

This isn’t really a criticism of the internet, it’s more an investigation of how it affects me, and what I can do to stop myself being glued to the PC all day.

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11 comments

  1. One could say flattering things about this post, but that would play right into your hands, right?

    You might appreciate another take on this by Stephen Judd – a truly excellent piece.

    I appreciate very much that both of you are describing the effect that the social Web has on you personally, as opposed to other people. Still, if one were to generalise, I think it’s useful to ask what activities the social web takes time away from, and I suspect it’s not all study and novel writing. Are we spending less time on passive media like television? Are we doing less menial, mindless office work? Are we having more conversations with a broader range of people? Are there spaces where we are able to discuss things that matter to us and that hopefully matter in a more general sense – for instance politics and community? I think that goes beyond the gratification of instant feedback. And with all my personal aversion for Twitter, it is a vehicle for the most sophisticated forms of literacy, as well as all those other bad things.

    Personally I think it’s good to have disciplines, which is what Stephen also alludes to. When I started blogging for instance I decided I would post once a week on the same day, so if I’m tempted to write a quick post about something that rattles me, well, tough. And that has helped me get around some of the problems that you describe.


  2. Great article, Greg. You have articulated precisely how I feel at times; I seem to find it very difficult these days to settle into anything and get distracted far too easily. Have made one or two quality friendships on Twitter though. I am not so bothered by numbers if these friendships remain in my life. Bizarrely, these people seem always to be “there” for me, when people in my “real” life sometimes aren’t. I love your tweets, though. Another ego-stroke, I know. But you literally have me howling.


  3. I seem to remember another study on Social Media about the effects of not recieving feedback. It suggested that when people contribute to the social media swirl and do not get any feedback this leads to depression.

    It seems that if that mouse had a placebo chip fitted, it would keep hitting the button, but when no pleasurable feedback came, he would eventually run off and hand hang himself from his wheel.

    Well, probably attempt to hang himself only to find that the wheel turned and he ended up in an untidy heap on the sawdust. Eventually, it would register that the suicide attempt was not working, so he would sign on to Facebook to seek advice.

    Such is the nature of the Internet, this gruesome post would attract thousands of hits and masses of feedback – causing the mouse to become a happy little rodent.


  4. I empathise completely with the writer’s attraction to the whizz-bang of instant satisfaction and Uzi-spray of ideas.
    It’s no surprise that Twitter has dozens and dozens of stand-up comedians on there and creative types – they probably get the same portions of glee putting out a one-liner – as they do at a gig.
    I’ve had to put my iPhone out-of-reach, when driving, to avoid tweeting and seeing other tweets on the motorway.
    Twitter addiction – and the urge to hoover up an ever-changing and well-covered world – will soon be branded a disease.
    Imagine how many people will soon blame social networking sites on their failed marriages. Jeremy Kyle will probably do a telethon about it.
    And all it really is, is failure to control one’s will.


  5. Quite agree…

    Social networking is WRITERS CRACK!!!

    However, which medium and mode is more of these times???

    Your friends writing novels are wasting their time – novels haven’t been important for 50 years…

    Typing pithy one liners is where it’s at – sad but true…


  6. I enjoyed this little piece a lot more than anything you have ever said on Twitter. And I’ve been following you for a long time. I was sorry to hear about your girlfriend leaving you. But maybe she thought of you as more of a writer, and less of a Twitterer. Heartless.


  7. Very interesting. Interesting because I feel exactly the same. Not that I feel Twitter is preventing me from writing a book, I’m not writing a book, but if I was, I wouldn’t be writing it for the same reasons you have discussed.

    My addiction to Twitter, and it is an addiction, affects my life in different ways. When I should be cleaning the fish tank I’m tweeting about it. When I should be arranging a Doctors appointment about my thumb I’m tweeting about it. The fish tank still hasn’t been cleaned and I only went to the Doctors because my girlfriend saw that I hadn’t sorted it, which she saw this on Twitter. Which is pathetic really.

    I used to read the paper on my lunch break. Now I Tweet. I haven’t properly read a paper in months. I’m not saying I miss the ‘news’, Twitter tends to talk about the news, so I know what’s going on, but I do miss reading articles which aren’t necessarily news, just information that I used to read. Information that gave me knowledge. Knowledge that would give me an opinion. Opinions that would form my character. A character which is me. Hello.

    My character is still getting something from Twitter. Almost everyday I find myself quoting a tweet in the real world about an observation I had carefully tweaked and tweeted previously. This, I like to think anyway, makes me interesting. But I can’t help thinking it’s a little shallow, although funny, I’m worried that I’m just about being funny and I’m beginning to lack any depth or opinion on other issues in current affairs.

    Like you I find it difficult to watch a film or football match without checking fucking Twitter. Even more importantly I’ve upset my girlfriend because I’ve spent the whole evening with my thumbs on my phone. She will ask me a question, 3 or 4 times and I don’t even acknowledge her. Now this isn’t a problem with Twitter. It’s a problem with me. I’m the stereotypical man who can only do one thing at a time. I tell my girlfriend that if it wasn’t Twitter distracting me it would be something else. It used to be reading, games, MySpace, Facebook and now it’s Twitter. After Twitter it will be something else. Twitter won’t last forever but social media will. I just need to learn when to use it, decide when enough is enough, realise I’m being rude and put my bloody phone down. It’s worth pointing out that most of us can now check Twitter all the time because of the iPhone or Blackberry when previously we had to be sat near a computer. These mobile inventions are as much to blame for time being stolen as the social media site themselves.

    Most Twitter users tweet whilst they are at work, even if they don’t actually Tweet they are checking it. I know I do. Who can blame us? Twitter is much more interesting than work. Well it’s much more interesting than my work anyway. Lucky for me and most others is that I still get paid at the end of the month. This is where you have a problem. If your job is to write a book and Twitter is stifling your creative thought process you need to do something about it.

    If you are on a bus and tweeting that you are on a bus you are not thinking about the next chapter or character in your book. You probably justify it to yourself that, by being on Twitter you are sort of working, you are marketing The Man Who Fell; every extra follower is a potential buyer of your next book. Do you think like that? I know I would. You would probably be right too. I know I would buy your new book. The trouble is you haven’t written it yet.

    I think, and tell me to fuck off if you like, but I think you need to set yourself some rules. For example, no tweets before lunch, even if you are out of the office, on a bus or in a room. Set yourself times when you are ‘not allowed’ on Twitter. Set yourself goals to achieve, like dates to complete a chapters etc. Give yourself days off work, days when you can Twitter your tits off, then back to work tomorrow.

    I’ve no idea about how to write a book, I wouldn’t know where to start, but I do know that mobiles and Twitter are massive time stealer.

    I love Twitter and you are my favourite. I’ve only written this to prevent you going all Stephen Fry on us.

    I do apologise for any mistakes. I’ve written this on my iPhone and I really should be at work.


  8. Your blog has a lot of resonance with me (minus novel writing).

    Twitter is the procrastinator’s tool of choice; the virtual cave to hide in; the virtual library to lose yourself in and soak up information; the virtual bar to chat with like-minded “friends” in – and, better still, there’s a constant stream of “new freiends”.

    It makes me happy, it makes me angry – I can get attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

    I think that’s what I love about it; what keeps me keen. Twitter is my boyfriend and my family – one that rarely judges, so you can push the boundaries and get away with saying things you might hold back on saying in real-life.


  9. I have been thinking about this post most of the day.Twitter is a wonderful addiction. I know I am hooked, as I carry my netbook around the house, constantly checking it whilst I am cooking or watching films. At work I walk away from my desk to go and actually do something work related, then a moment or two later pop back to my desk under the guise of paper shuffling just to see what has been happening.
    But Twitter is not just about the tweets; I then spend time opening all the links people post, I read news stories from all around the world that, without Twitter, I would not know about. I waste hours reading blogs, looking at photos, checking out new books on Amazon.
    Twitter has, by proxy, encouraged me to start a random, rather self obsessed blog, but at least I am writing, for the first time in many years. Unfortunately I don’t seem to be reading as much as I used to, but,when I am, I am reading books that I would have not have picked up before Twitter.
    It is a nicer place the Facebook; you choose who you follow, you are not “friends” with 30 people you haven’t seen since you left high school, including the school bullyre. Instead you a friends with people who like the same band as you, or the same pen. It is nice to know that there are people out there on the same, sightly loopy,wavelength.
    As @WH1SKS says, Twitter won’t last forever.And maybe one day soon I will fall out of love with it, but at the moment it is full of possibilities. And wonderful Masterchef tweets.
    @siansparkles


  10. James Sturm is quitting the Internet.


  11. Thank you all for the mostly kind and interesting comments. I should point out to Joe that my girlfriend didn’t “leave” me because of Twitter. She also uses Twitter. We mutually agreed to separate, and social media was not the reason…



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