I saw this image on Pinterest a while ago and thought “that’s sounds about right”, pinned it, and forgot about it until recently.
When I was a teenager, before I had a laptop or a smart phone, before I had Facebook or Instagram, and before I knew what blogs even were, I would get on our family’s desktop computer (which was out in the open where everyone could see what you were up to) and I would get lost down Wikipedia rabbit holes sometimes for hours at a time. Now I have a small portable device always at the ready to tempt me down the far more appealing rabbit holes of social media. Not for two or three hour long blocks (although sometimes after Leo’s in bed…) but as a default for the frequent small pockets of empty time in my day.
A couple things happened that made that Pinterest quote pop back into my head. I couldn’t manage to text people in my life back but I could manage to fill lots of time with glimpses of other people’s lives on their blogs or Instagram accounts. I kept getting ideas for making this blog better or pursuing other projects bound up in the internet, but the idea of any more obligations to social media in my life made me feel sick and stretched thin (and I realize I’m way behind and do far, far less on social media than professional bloggers or Instagram “influencers”).
Instagram can be a really wonderful place. I’ve found so many artists whose work stuns and truly inspires me. I’ve found so many people there that I’m sure I would be great friends with if we met in real life. I’ve followed so many people whose rosy-cheeked, vintage-dressed flock of children make me think #familygoals. And I’ve made connections with kindred spirits who actually have reciprocated warmly. But it’s also a weird place when it starts making you wish you could unrealistically be bosom friends with one hundred other people. And it’s weird when you start desiring to be more like someone based on the fact that their children only have wooden toys rather than for some real virtue they possess.
And blogs are really wonderful and weird as well. They’ve been useful to me–before I had a baby, mom blogs made me less scared of motherhood. And when I first started reading blogs in college, I became engrossed with them. I adored these hilarious, warm, and wonderful bloggers and their families. I wanted to be friends with them. But I have never been able shake a weirdness about blogging: we create spaces on the internet revolving around our lives for strangers to read and look at. It’s always been strange to me how much I know about these people’s lives who know nothing about me.
I know the defense of these things usually has to do with finding or building community and I get that and I think it can be true. But the more I’ve followed and read and liked and commented on Instagram accounts and blogs, the less I’ve actually felt a part of a real community. Because at the end of the day, is simply being one among a sea of thousands of followers of a single person who will never invest the same amount of interest in your life, really being a part of a true community?
I do like the escape to beautiful images that Instagram affords me. But I’ve been realizing more and more how such a seemingly harmless thing as infinitely scrolling through lovely images can fill up your mind leaving little room for more important things. How beautifully styled pictures of bloggers homes and children, these little pieces of beauty from everday life, can in fact create an aesthetic glut. Along these lines, I recently read and was gripped by Maria Popova’s commentary on Susan Sontag’s collection of essays, “On Photography”:
“the social media photostream — the ultimate attempt to control, frame, and package our lives — our idealized lives — for presentation to others, and even to ourselves. The aggression Sontag sees in this purposeful manipulation of reality through the idealized photographic image applies even more poignantly to the aggressive self-framing we practice as we portray ourselves pictorially on Facebook, Instagram, and the like:
Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.
Online, thirty-some years after Sontag’s observation, this aggression precipitates a kind of social media violence of self-assertion — a forcible framing of our identity for presentation, for idealization, for currency in an economy of envy.”
There’s nothing wrong with reading a blogger’s tips for surviving the newborn phase or seeing a beautiful image of architecture with some poetic caption or reading a meme that makes you laugh. But dozens and dozens of mildly useful blogposts and hundreds and hundreds of decreasingly inspiring Instagram squares and thousands and thousands of sort of entertaining Facebook statuses and memes can make for a fractured, poisoned attention and soul.
I’m not writing this as an admonition for using Instagram at all or for following someone who has a large following. I don’t think every Instagram account I follow needs to involve a tangible friendship between me and the person. And this isn’t a completely cyncial diatribe about the impersonality of the Internet. I absolutely believe true friendships can arise out of the Internet. And I think those friendships can form without you having to hand over your entire attention to the mercy of social media.
But because it feels like I have been handing my entire attention over to social media and have come out exhausted by the aesthetic aggression of it all, I’ve been making a few resolutions for a smaller circle and a clearer vision:
-Cutting back on the sheer amount of instagrammers I follow and the amount of blogs I read no matter how harmless or even helpful they are. If I’m not really compelled to what the person is saying, I need to silence that source of noise in my life.
-Delete Facebook. I’ve deactivated it for now but I think I really need it dunzo. I know people who have either completely deleted their Facebook accounts or have never had one and their lives don’t seem lacking in any way.
-Carve out a specific block of time each week for writing letters and thank you notes.
-Actually work on some sort of prayer life.
-Read or clean or memorize poetry or do Slovak language flashcards while Leo’s playing independently instead of being on my phone.
-Write, paint, or practice self-care during Leo’s naptime or after bedtime rather than just vegging on social media or watching Netflix.
-Become more involved at my parish.
I’ve been listening to Emma on audiobook these days and I’m so struck by smallness and the intimacy of the communities Jane Austen creates. There’s certainly more occasions for annoyance or frustration with a small community of flesh and blood people than a wide community spread thousands of miles apart hidden behind or filtered through smartphones. But there’s also so many more occasions for growth and real affection for one’s neighbors. And that’s the sort of community I want to be more a part of.
So since I like to pick other peoples brains: has social media improved your life or has it been more problematic? Have you developed worthwhile friendships through it? How do you keep it from being an energy-sucker? And do you think there’s something necessarily artificial or aggressive about it?