I have recently noticed, with immense displeasure, a complication to my everyday social intercourse. After the initial hello-ing and how you doing, the very newly acquainted will almost immediately add each other to their numerous social media accounts.
As they turn to me, already impressed by my charm and wit, I say that I manage to live my life without Facebook or Twitter or any other such thing and that our very promising acquaintanceship must be limited to the offline world.
Such an admission, I have discovered, is something like bad manners. At the very least, I no longer seem so charming or witty. Most of my respondents fail to conceal their bemusement behind an unconvincing ‘Oh, really?’. At no extra charge, they offer a mild jest at the expense of my social life, which is assumed to be less than thrilling. Others are quite generous with their criticism and insist that my behaviour is nothing less than a betrayal of the Millennial generation, which I am condemned to call my own. I wonder if some tactic is at work here, if my interlocutors are winnowing out those who are unfit for inclusion in civilised, 21st century company.
I may be lonely, but not entirely without hope. On very rare occasion, someone will confess that his use of social media is obsessive, yet perfunctory, that the eschewal of such things is rather sensible policy, and that my company is an oasis in a waste of cat videos and appalling syntax. It’s very unlikely, however, that my potential comrade will logout on a more permanent basis.
There is a contradiction here, and it keeps company with a number of others. When asked where he was from, the Greek philosopher Diogenes replied “I am a citizen of the world.” A jolly sentiment, yes, and one that is well suited for our age, when digital interconnectedness can be harnessed to a universal ethics.
At first glance, social media is a useful means to bring about such a world, but the second glance has a more disheartening effect: one can’t avoid the competitive nastiness, the cries of execration, the trolling and bullying. Diogenes, too, often sounded better in theory than in practice. Against his name there are some fairly credible charges of spirited public masturbation as well as a rumour of his urinating on philosophical detractors. He would have been great on Twitter.
A stirring cosmopolitanism must remain the goal, but I doubt that social media will take us there. It has become a swamp in which tribalism and identity politics suppurate and stink, but never die. It is where one declaims a different and sectarian kind of belonging in the world, more along the lines of “I am a citizen of the gender-bendered, panromantic-demisexual, queer-on-the-second-Tuesday-of-the-month community, ya gotta problem with that, ya fascist?”
And so, even the good causes have gone awry and the bad ones have gained strength and recruits. The LGBT movement, through its slow but steady annexation of the rest of the alphabet, has made itself incomprehensible at best and risible at worst. The trainee thought-police of the social justice academy patrol our university campuses, but their digital redoubts, too, are very well manned (If any are reading, I trust they found my choice of adjective bothersome).
Social media isn’t the cause of these crises in our culture; rather, there is a sense that it has betrayed its higher purpose. It has been the bodyguard, and not the conqueror, of a useless identity politics.
There is another contradiction lurking around here. Facebook and Twitter are bloody battlegrounds, where social, personal and professional reputations are defended and unmade. And yet, there is a creepy and chirpy insistence that everyone is a friend, or even worse, with its suggestion of cultishness, a follower.
Yes, I hear you asking, of course I can take this gripe further. The entire project of Facebook, it seems to me, has been to debase the idea of friendship and denude the word of all its meaning. The serious work of friendship is cheapened and coarsened: one merely adds the brand new acquaintance, who, in turn, accepts, and . . voila! The friendship is official. This travesty reaches its peak in the oft-heard boast of having over one thousand Facebook friends. Oh, please. Such an expansive social circle is neither possible nor desirable. Cicero reminds us that “a true friend is one who is, as it were, a second self.” I always agree with Albert Camus, who wrote “there is no Providence, only friends.” If one is lucky, one can read these remarks and just a few individuals will come to mind or meet the standard. And that’s a good thing.
Have you not, Dear Reader, awoken, logged on, and agreed to the friendship request of someone you very briefly met during the previous evening’s revelry? You have, haven’t you? Did you recognise the very limited possibility of your seeing him again? Perhaps this recognition came with a certain degree of relief. You examined his posts and photos and comments and concluded that his boorishness was substantial, or his reserve of platitudes was inexhaustible, or his company, all things considered, was better avoided. You began to wonder if accepting the offer of his friendship was a good idea. It wasn’t.
Facebook isn’t merely content with the destruction of friendship; language, too, is on the hit list. Is there anything more irritating than vogue words like LOL or FOMO, which have crept out of the digital discourse and loiter in everyday conversation? Well, yes, there is, now that I think about it. The employment of friend as a verb, as well as the ghastly neologism, unfriend, are even more loathsome. For some reason, it irks even more in the past tense: “Hey I friended you last night!” Yikes. No more. Enough of this barbarism.
In the company of my few remaining friends, I voice my objections and they usually warn me that I risk becoming, well ahead of schedule, a grump. At this moment, I dispense with all caution and play my grumpiest and most fogeyish card of all: I lament the disappearance of the letter as a favoured means of communication and intimate expression and I allege that social media is, if not the culprit, almost certainly an accomplice.
There is no doubt that the letter, as a medium, can rise to the level of great literature. I’m thinking of Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to Vera, or the dazzling correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John and Abigail Adams. No more, though. Sometime, between the advent of blogs and the present ubiquity of Twitter, we said goodbye to all that.
I expect there will be a deluge of cheap imitations, sooner rather than later. I fear I will one day receive my review copy of Kim Kardashian: The Complete Facebook Posts, or Laurie Penny: Selected Tweets Volume 6. #Demoralising
And with that, as they say, I rest my case. But I do so gloomily. I’m quite aware of my negligible ability to effect a meaningful change. Let’s face it: I’ve lost the argument. Social media is here to stay and my case, as unimpeachable as the Reader may find it, won’t make a difference.
As ever, there are additional reasons for gloom. It used to be said that the careless maintenance of one’s social media could ruin one’s job prospects and, unfortunately, this is still true. A few months ago, I read a vague description for the position of a Content Writer. I proceeded to fill out the online application until I was asked to give totals for my number of Twitter and Instagram followers, Facebook friends, hours spent on social networks, as well as a number of other things that made little sense to me. I decided that the series of zeros probably wouldn’t serve me well and I gave up.
Come to think of it, my social life lacks a certain roundedness. Too much time spent chez Cootes. More and more I seem to resemble the hero of Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever: “In general I see nobody at the weekends. I stay home, do a bit of tidying. I get gently depressed.”
Who knows, one day I may be forced to eat my words, prepare for the charges of hypocrisy and, ahem, sign up.
Well, what other choice will I have? Such are the pressures of social and professional conformity in the digital age; such is the reality of being a writer; such is the . . . you know what, screw you, take your criticism and shove it up . . . oh dear.
I guess I do possess social media’s requisite self-pity and self-righteousness. Hey, I guess I’ll fit right in.
Who’s gonna friend me?