Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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Social Media and Digital Narcissism

October 13, 2010

This evening I gave a speech at Media and the Inner World about Social Media and Digital Narcissism –  a topic I may be overqualified to talk about. It was fun. Surreal and disarming, but enoyable.

There were three of us speaking: Me, my friend Galit, who invited me to speak in the first place  and then bravely stepped in when someone else cried off sick, and a psychotherapist called Dr Jay Watts. I was speaking neither as an academic nor a psychotherapist, but as a “social media user”. I went first and read my piece. It seemed to go down well, and after we’d all spoken, there were questions. I fielded quite a lot of them, in the same manner that Homer fielded questions at the press conference in the Simpsons episode in which he’s an astronaut. Amazingly, most of the time I knew what I was talking about. Some of the people in the audience were my age. Some of them were older and clearly had no idea how Twitter worked. (“is that your Twitter? It’s much bigger than I thought it would be. Can I touch it?”) I thought it would be funny to have Tweetdeck up in the background during my speech. I told Twitter this and they responded as I’d hoped by filling my Twitter with swear words and innuendo.

Anyway, for those of you who are interested, here’s the text. If it seems familiar, it’s because lots of it is bastardised from a blog I wrote a few months back. Recycle, recycle:

I should state first of all that I’m not an expert on social media, other than the fact that I use it a lot. And I’m not an expert on the inner mind, despite my mother being a psychoanalyst. But I thought it would be interesting to share my experiences of Twitter and how I use it, first of all as a writer and second of all, as a human being. I suppose it is a basic introduction to social media, identity and how they relate to me. If this speech seems unfocused and lacking in structure – don’t worry, this is a particularly effective illustration of the effects of Twitter.

I always assumed I would become a writer of some kind, although the idea of writing a manuscript in a lonely bedroom and sending it off to some publisher or agent just for it to sit in a dusty drawer for months on end. So when the internet turned up, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to bypass the normal conventions and write directly to whatever audience was out there.

When I first got a PC, 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  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 the forefront of my mind. 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. In terms of the creative process, it wasn’t too different from the old-fashioned process of writing a book. 

Then I got a messageboard on my website, and I found that every time I’d written a new page or chapter, I would alert the messageboard members and they would swoon and flatter me and tell me how funny it was. In fact, it was more fun just writing to my messageboard friends than actually writing fiction. 

Time passed and web 2.0 crept up on us. I got a myspace page and a blog, and soon I found myself writing less and less fiction on my website, because it was easier to write about what I had for dinner or what I’d watched on TV and get feedback (comments! Praise!) straight away. I liked this. It fed my ego immediately. No wait. Instant delivery! Still, despite these distractions, in 2006 I managed to get my first novel published.

Then along came Twitter. And I’ve made good use of Twitter. I’ve befriended celebrities, I’ve done live coverage of Masterchef, I’ve done sex surveys, I’ve been stalked by the ex-wife of an England player. I’ve been blocked by Richard Madeley. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. But if facebook or myspace are cocaine, then Twitter is crack. It is the ultimate distillation of social media. Instant, open, with a global reach, yet also personal, intimate and tightly structured. It turned out I’d been waiting all my life for Twitter and that I was really, really good at it. Suddenly I didn’t have to write fiction. 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. A constant, unending stream of attention and feedback. Of course, the way I use Twitter, there’s 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 spit out a hundred different ideas a day. Of course, the problem is that it stops me doing other things: it prevents me playing the long game. Why bother crafting away in silence, 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, imagery, visions, revisions, editing, correcting, polishing. And it’s something I find almost impossible to do. Aside from work, this speech is probably the longest thing I’ve written in months. And even now, my brain hurts.

This is, I think, the real danger of social media and Twitter. Not that the internet is full of pedophiles or rapists, or that social media users become pallid ghouls unable to have a conversation in real life. Just that it changes the inner landscape. First of all, 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 bits 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, for a status update. 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. 

The other way in which my inner landscape has changed is that I no longer have any inner monologue. Instead, I have Twitter. If I have a thought, before I am even aware of it, I find myself editing it down to 140 characters and reshaping it, lopping off the messy parts that don’t fit neatly with my established online brand identity. Rather than having a thought and passively reflecting upon it, turning it over in my mind, examining it, I find myself packaging it as a product: a tiny parcel of characters to be consumed by my hungry followers. Which begs the question: what happens to the other thoughts of mine? The difficult thoughts, the ambivalent thoughts, the repulsive thoughts, the thoughts too complicated to be reduced to a tweet. They are labeled low priority and sent to the back office of my mind. And I’m not sure I like that. 

Of course, nowadays, Twitter like so many other things, is mobile. I don’t have to be at home, in front of my PC to tweet. No, I tweet from buses and trains, from restaurants and offices and beaches. I can take my brand with me. Which means that if I find myself on the top deck of the W7 bus and ask myself where I am, the answer, of course, is “on Twitter”. In other words, I can insulate myself from the real world. Wherever I am, I don’t really have to engage with my surroundings. I am not on the bus, I am on Twitter. I might  be tweeting about the man on the bus who is wearing a stupid hat, but more importantly I am creating a wall of narrative between myself and the external world. I am like an agoraphobic who has realised that one way of dealing with the outside world is to take my room with me. I never have to leave the comforting womb of Twitter. 

The other question of course, is “when” I am. Existentially speaking, I’ve never quite felt comfortable with the here and now. I anticipate or reminisce but I rarely live in the moment. And Twitter very conveniently allows me to deepen this mode of thought. Often, when I am doing something I should really be enjoying, whether it is getting drunk with friends or watching a film, I am already actually tweeting in my mind. Rehearsing, editing, preparing my tweets. Whatever I am doing, the event – the moment of truth, whatever it may be – is not when it is happening, but when I report it on Twitter. The event only becomes real when it has been shared online. If a tree falls in a forest and I’m not allowed to tweet it, can I really enjoy it? 

As I mentioned at the start, it turns out that I’m really good at Twitter. Within the limited structure of replies, mentions, tweets and retweets I can be witty, topical, offensive, poignant, cogent, lucid. I can polish my brand. I select only the photos of myself looking half-way handsome. I am never flustered or missing a one-liner. If someone annoys me I can block them. If I say something particularly good, it is retweeted by Charlie Brooker or Simon Pegg and hundreds of thousands of people get to read it. Because unless you protect your tweets, which very few people do, Twitter is open to everyone. Whatever you say, no matter how banal or innocuous, there is a potentially limitless audience. Which is quite exciting. I am in my element. Of course, that makes real life interaction seem pallid in comparison. Whenever I meet a load of people from Twitter in the pub or at an event, I can’t help but feel disappointed. These shiny, glittering pieces of the internet turn out to be human beings. Meat. Flesh. Bad hair and bad breath. With all the attendant awkward silences, drunken laughs and all the other horrendous byproducts of real life interactions. And I’m no better. Instead of a stately, iconic avatar, I am a short, balding man, getting drunker and drunker, and making weak jokes before making my excuses and leaving. And if I do happen to say something witty or profound, the only people who hear it are those in my immediate vicinity. It can’t be endlessly retweeted to an audience of thousands. It just evaporates into the ether. Increasingly I see Twitter itself as the ideal form of communication. I can envision a day when everyone turns up to the pub together, but instead of talking to each other, we all sit in separate booths, tweeting away in silence. 

So, as I’ve said, Twitter takes over. But there are still those moments when Twitter betrays me. When I find myself tired and bored on a Saturday night, at home in front of Twitter, bashing away at the keyboard. But everyone else is out. I tweet something. No replies. Only one retweet. I tweet something else. It dies. And I start thinking: I must try harder. I must be funnier. I shall draw a clever picture. I shall say something provocative – it might be my sex life. Or I may go for the sympathy vote and post a childhood photo. I panic. Because when you’ve migrated all your emotional touchstones over from the real life to Twitter, what happens when Twitter no longer cares. Fortunately, I still have some perspective – finally the small part of my brain that hasn’t been colonised by Twitter takes over and tells me to go to bed.

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Writing and not writing

August 11, 2010

At the moment I’m in something of a career vacuum. I’ve stopped doing my regular freelance work but I have no idea how to turn my skills, experience, and massive internet fame into a regular, well-paid job that gets me out of the house and fulfils me creatively. And a lot of people have told me: “Oh, don’t get a job! You’re a writer. You should write another novel.” 

Aside from the fact that sitting at home for six months writing a book would drive me insane (I am not good at managing my time) I don’t do a great deal of writing these days. I’d love to write constantly, to churn out novels and screenplays, but it’s not something I’m capable of doing. And one of my key frustrations is that the kind of thing I enjoy reading is not the kind of thing I enjoy (or am capable of) writing. 

When I’m reading a novel, I enjoy a large dose of escapism. I’m more than happy to read books set in ridiculous places, with hammy dialogue, unrealistic characters and unbelievable plots. I am not a book snob: as long as a book doesn’t bore me I can read it. 

Whereas when I am writing something, I need it to reflect life as I see it; I expect it to be realistic: and not in the sense of urban, kitchen-sink drama where the realism is a surface texture. I expect it to be realistic in that it follows the patterns, thoughts and mood of my internal life. So I can only write about a life in which there is very little plot, where the dialogue is mostly internal monologue, where the mood is one of entropy and anger, where there is no visible link between cause and effect and where there is only one important character: me. 

As you can imagine, this makes writing anything other than short navel-gazing pieces quite difficult. 

Over the last few weeks I’ve been watching Sherlock, the entertaining but slightly schlocky BBC TV drama that updates the Holmes and Watson characters for the present day. And my experience watching it gives me a good insight into what happens when I try to write something. 

I think: Hmmm, I enjoyed that show. A good, distracting romp. I’d like to write something similar. But of course, there aren’t really geniuses like Sherlock; most deduction is a painstaking slog through hours of evidence, with as many false leads as there are revelations. And the killings wouldn’t be done by serial killers, they would be senseless, stupid murders by kids in gangs who don’t know what they are doing and end up stabbing someone in a dispute over crisps. And it wouldn’t be set in central London because no-one can afford to live there, so it would be set in Edmonton or Neasden or somewhere. And most of the time the detective would just be filling out paperwork. And he wouldn’t be recognised as a genius; in fact he wouldn’t be in charge of the investigation at all – he’d be a desk clerk or something. And most of the investigations wouldn’t be resolved in any kind of way, they would remain unsolved. And a lot of the time the detectives would get it wrong. And if there were a genius, he wouldn’t be skinny, he’d be fat and bald and socially inept, and not in a cool way. Just in a smelly way. And the London it was set in would be an anxious, dysfunctional but middle-class London, rather than either posh London or council estate London, which is all you ever see on TV. And most of the time the central character wouldn’t do anything at all. In fact, he wouldn’t leave the house most days. He wouldn’t see the point in a job. He’d get bored and start asking why he was doing things. In fact, he’d be aware that he’s a fictional character and would constantly be questioning his role within the drama and railing against its restrictive conventions. He’d start deconstructing the narrative and trying to resolve it from within.

In other words, as soon as the plot enters my head it starts to deconstruct itself: first of all on a superficial level, but then very quickly on a deeper level. The basic template of my life is this: clever but not genius man, emotionally conflicted and unsure, self-obsessed, refusing to engage emotionally with real life, constantly picking away at the boundaries of his existence. And at the moment I project this template onto everything I write. I take a perfectly healthy specimen of a story and inject it with my own faulty DNA until it’s some horrible shambling Greg zombie, unable to walk any way other than in circles before collapsing on its knees and expiring.  

The way I’ve gotten around this in the past is to write very short pieces. I managed to get a decent novel (which just yesterday got a new ONE STAR review on Amazon.co.uk, with the subtitle “Worst book ever” on it) out of this. I know I’m a decent writer. I’m capable of a good turn of phrase and I’m very good at coming up with funny, original ideas, but I can only sustain them for a few hundred words before they start to eat themselves. This results in lots of tiny, implausible paragraphs with very little plot or character interaction, which I can get out of my system quickly before my big, nasty brain starts applyting its corrosive acid and everything starts to deconstruct

And that is fine, but I’ve already written one novel like that, and I don’t think anyone (myself included) wants to read another. So I either have to find a different way of writing or I have to resolve my worldview so that it’s not as plotless and self-obsessed. Either way, I can’t see myself writing that hit TV series in a hurry.

p.s if anyone in advertising, PR, film, newspapers, media or porn wants to offer me a job, get in contact.

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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.