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On turning away from all those posts
Recently I’ve fallen into some very, very odd corner of Instagram where I am being served up the same bizarre content again and again and again: sickly sweet reels of mothers with, like, 7 or 8 kids, doing some sort of fancy things to show them all off, or, more specifically, show off the sheer volume of them. If you are unfamiliar with the genre: the kids all line up so the little ones are hidden behind the oldest; then, one by one, they step forward signaling what number child they are on one (or two) hand(s). There are so many of them, truly so many, so close in age. I swear some are five and some are four and 3 1/2 and two. At the end, the mother invariably pops out with the final reveal: she’s pregnant again! Lucky #8! Or whatever.
I have vowed to myself that once Summer School (which has truly been amazing, and is very un-Instagram-y at all!) is over I am going to take an enormous step back from social media in general and Instagram in particular, and focus on, you know, my real life and the real things and people and books and food and writing and work in it, rather than the ones that just pop into my feed willy nilly. Obviously I did something to be fed these mothers of twelve over and over again — clicked on one thing one too many times and now Mark Zuckerberg’s minions know where my curiosities lie, what kind of train wrecks I like to watch, fuck them all — so I do take some responsibility. But it’s incredible how many times I am willing to click on some reel that feeds me the same general thing, that enormous, mysterious, alien family again and again, the smiling mother at the end of it. And all I can ever think when I see these is, why?
Not, like, why have so many kids (no judgement on that — please, have the family you can, want to and are able to have, as long as it is entirely of your choosing and with your bodily autonomy at its core), but why am I looking at this stupidity? Why is a line of eight kids numbering themselves off with big pasted-on smiles (surely from take 143, with much screaming we are not witness to) something worthy of my (or anyone’s) attention? Why? Why why why why whyyyyyyyy — the age old question of our time: why am I spending all this time with my neck craned over strangers on my teeny tiny screen?
Sometimes I am grateful for these ludicrous internet rabbit holes because they are the only things that call me back to myself. These posts are the ones that make me wake up and notice how much of my life I am wasting on “mtpromiselandfarm” (they are on their 12th! kid! And making reels about it!). How dead wrong it all feels.
I am hardly the first (or thousands) person to write about how social media is corrupting our brains and our lives and — most frighteningly? — our souls. I’ve watched The Social Dilemma and read so many of the books (this one and this one and the next up is this one), but somehow it often feels benign enough and helpful enough to my career to me to keep me at it. I love connecting with long-lost friends and other writers and readers; I love sharing work (mine and other people’s, and especially my students’) and finding wonderful writing online, and have actually made some lovely writer friends over Instagram (hi, you!), people with whom I would be absolutely elated to actually sit down with in the flesh, over an actual cup of warm coffee and cake and chat with for hours — about books, about motherhood, about marriage, about raising young people while the world crumbles, about bodies and ambition and that one line in that one mind-blowing poem and laugh until our sides hurt. This does make it worth it to me. My life has been enriched by all these small-scale interactions through our stupid phones.
But the rest? What a fucking waste. And yet, unlike my husband, who has the discipline of a monk (he’d disagree, but it’s really something to behold and envy), I am, let’s be frank, an addict. She’s on Instagram again, my daughter complains to her dad, and it’s downright embarrassing because she’s mostly right. This is what I want to model?
I am not someone who sits down and hours later wakes up realizing she’s burned away much of her life. What bothers me is all the interstitial time I am losing — all the time between activities when I take a “quick look.” Time that should be blank. Empty. Open. Nothing. Time for narrative threads in a piece I’m working on to cohere seamlessly while my mind is loose; time to recall someone’s birthday; time to just take a few breaths and stare out the window; time to have an uninterrupted thought all the way to its end.
I am saying nothing new here; we’ve all longed for freedom from our phones, freedom from the ghosts of each other (if not each other), freedom from book sale announcements and baby announcements and we’re moving! announcements and all the false cheer we present online, and frankly, all the complaining, too. We make declarations and then break them (I did this, once, and it was laughable). I’m going off social for a month. I’m turning off all notifications. I’m going into a cave where there’s no internet! A friend and I often laugh at these public declarations. The need we have to announce our “departures,” as though any of us is really tracking each other online? Would I really notice if any one person disappeared for a while, unless said person was my best friend and I also lost contact with her in real life? No, no, I would not, because the app is set up for us to simply find someone else to track.
It only speaks to how desperately we want to be in the conversation, even if the conversation is a one-way street. This is perhaps what bothers me most, when I seem to know so much about someone’s life who knows nothing about mine because that person doesn’t know I exist (or vice versa). (This is, of course, at the very foundation of most social media. Hello, Kardashian followers.) I once said to a friend something along the lines of, how do I know that Lauren Groff just got a new cat? (Okay, reader, this is a made-up example, but it was something this banal and unrelated to my life. But, of course, my friend knew that, too!) Why is this taking up space in my brain, which fails to hold onto so many more important facts?
I’m not making a big announcement here, or even some sort of overarching statement about the evils of social media. The truth is that many of the connections I’ve made online are not ones I would have been able to make any other way. And it has, like so many artists, maybe (?) helped (?) my career (?). (This is questionable. One of the main reasons I started this newsletter 800 years ago was to connect with people online in a way that was outside capitalist forces and ads and algorithms and word limits.) But I am feeling, more and more, that it is pulling me away from the deeper work I’m interested in doing; that all of our time is limited and how much more of it do I want to squander? It seems to only be people like mypromiselandfarm who enable to see how oversaturated I am with strangers’ lives. That this kind of scrolling is rotting my brain and pulling me from myself.
I have zero answers. Only the feeling that something needs to change and that simply saying it won’t help. Almost six months ago I locked myself out of Facebook by accident and have not longed for it for a single second. Twitter I can do without. I wonder what a little time directing my attention toward other things — real things?! — might do to reset my brain and my sense of time. Whether I might think more about the bigger writing projects I have in mind and less about someone else’s, someone who posts about it constantly. I wonder what it would be like to turn my love and curiosity and deep focus inward instead of outward.
I guess more on that soon?
ALL THE THINGS
Last week I inhaled Lynn Steger Strong’s incredible Flight, which you must, must preorder. Now I am onto Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, which so many people have recommended and I now can’t put down. I also preordered Kelly Yang’s Key Player for my daughter. It’s the 4th book in the Front Desk series, which she has devoured. “My Abortion at 11 Wasn’t a Choice. It Was My Life.” This Anne Helen Petersen piece, about division of domestic labor, is really worth a read (thanks, Kathleen). It makes me want to read Kate Manguso’s Equal Partners (with fear).
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