Virtual Worlds Why You Left Social Media: A Guesswork
“Social media hold out the promise of authenticity, but never fulfill it. In this way, they reproduce the craving for authenticity.”
For Kate Zambreno and me
At first I thought you were simply taking a break, as writers sometimes do, to meet a deadline or clear your head. That was before the election. Later, during the election and its aftermath, I thought maybe you left because you couldn’t stand the climate. Maybe you’d been harassed, maybe you hated the polarization, the sense that there was no language outside the logic of rival clubs, or maybe you were just tired, maybe you felt you had nothing to add. Perhaps you were suffering a kind of political depression.
I don’t know what you’re doing, today, with your time.
Later I questioned my use of the word “climate.” When is something a climate, and when is it just weather? I began to think about gathering, accumulation, cloud formation, warm and cold fronts, collectives, crowds, and money. I began to think about gravity, which a teacher of mine once described as “the fact that matter likes to hang out together.” I loved your blog. It gave me a shock when it disappeared, as if I’d expected to land somewhere and then just kept falling.
Sometimes I wonder if you’d still be on social media if you weren’t a writer. I remember you hated the atmosphere of self-promotion. A climate, one could say, of competing storms. Your name attached to your books, the titles of your books attached to your profile, a constant visual noise. Every time I visited your blog, Facebook, or Twitter, there was this hiss, a reminder, an echo, a flash of book. It was there when you were talking about Borges, bombings, or your child. It was there when you were funny and when you were sad. At first each title was linked to a purchase page, then the links disappeared, but the titles remained, as if you couldn’t quite bring yourself to take them down. Of course, I may be reading things into this. You still have a website. And I remember that, as much as you were revolted by self-promotion, it also annoyed you to hear people complain about it. “Before you knock self-promotion,” you said once, “think about who’s promoting you so that you don’t have to.”
A friend of mine once described Twitter as an endless cocktail party. It sounded wonderful. I still like to get ready and I like to go out. I turn myself from side to side in my cocktail dress. I place myself between two mirrors so I can see the back of my hair. I’m not trying to be the most fashionable at the party, or the prettiest, but it’s important to me that I look like myself. I have a certain look. When I scroll through my feed, I’m checking, first of all, to see if I have done justice to this look. There has to be some political commentary, but not too much. I also need a kind of lightness, a sense of joy. Another clip at the nape of the neck might help, or longer earrings. There should be a balance between pop culture and literary references. There are no capital letters unless absolutely necessary. Punctuation is minimal. My colors are black, turquoise, and red. When I look like myself, I feel confident and buoyant. If I make a mistake, accidentally say something that’s not me, I have to go back, take my hair down, start over.
A party where you’re always simultaneously at the party and getting ready for the party. Did it exhaust you?
This is leaving aside the whole question of followers, likes, comments, and so on. You’re at the party, you’re getting ready for the party, and with every passing instant the people around you are reacting to the way you adjust a curl, your choice of shoes. They react or they don’t react. If no one reacts, not even one person, something is wrong. Of course, again, I’m projecting onto you. Maybe you’re the type of person who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Maybe that’s really a type of person.
Matias Viegener composed an entire book on Facebook. He wrote: “In the end, we hear everything, even when we think we’re ignoring it.”
I learned about Matias Viegener from your blog. I learned about Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, Eliot Weinberger, Antoine Volodine. In your absence, I mourn mostly because I don’t know what you’re reading. Because of you, I read Roland Barthes’s lectures on the Neutral. I would describe your blog, and your whole presence on the internet, the way Barthes describes his elusive ideal, the Neutral: as a field of non-paradigmatic intensities. “Non-paradigmatic” is a boring word, but it’s important. It means what can’t be codified, what doesn’t lend itself to code.
The Neutral, of course, returns me to politics. “Neutral” is a political word, and, today, a bad one. But I don’t mean to say you were withdrawn, or lacked principles. I mean you were volatile, impatient with structure. As Barthes says: “something radiant.”
In fact, you defended social media as a political tool. It was your answer to critiques of the networks you used, at that time, every day: critiques of mining companies devastating the Congo, of the brutal gentrification of San Francisco, of surveillance, of privately owned platforms masquerading as public space. You would say: “Certain things are happening online that can happen nowhere else. Affinities are being discovered, ideas generated, resistances organized.” You gave the example of the hashtag #kasaraniconcentrationcamp, which drew attention to ethnic Somalis rounded up and imprisoned in a Nairobi stadium in 2014. This led to the hashtag #kasaraniiftar, which gathered people who funded and delivered Ramadan meals to the detainees. As mainstream media noticed the story and activists showed up at prisons with food, the pressure on Somali communities eased, and those detained were released. You would say: “The problems of social media networks do not exhaust their possibilities.” Privately, though, you weren’t sure where you stood. It seemed like it might be a weak position, to defend social media on the basis of real-world effects. Didn’t that just reinforce the boundary between “online” and “real”? In a series of private messages on Twitter, you told me how you had tried to contribute money to #kasaraniiftar. You rode your bike to a check-cashing and money transfer shop. You stood in line and filled out a form to send the money. However, although you were in touch with one of the activists behind the hashtag, the transfer didn’t go through: You’d mistaken his Twitter handle for his name. You biked home again having breathed in the fumes of the street, having held a blue pen and pressed it down carefully, and with your same muscles, cell phone, and money.
When I say “private” and “privately” I mean these words in their contemporary sense: that is, as metaphor.
How to describe today? There’s a white sky layered with blue-gray clouds. There’s a chance of rain in the evening. There’s a stillness, a murky lethargy, to the street. With the right tools I could track the clouds, as I follow the flows and swells of data, what’s trending, what’s popular in my circles, what’s hot. How matter likes to hang out together. Meteorologist of the internet, I read word clouds that map data visually, enlarging the words with the most weight. “One can’t argue with a word cloud,” writes Jodi Dean. “It doesn’t take a position. It marks a moment. It registers aspects of the intensity of that moment: repetition entails intensity, in this equation. But one doesn’t know why or whether it’s called for or what it’s in relation to. It’s just intense.” Did you drop social media because you got sick of reading the sky? Is there a phobia attached to the contemporary—a kind of comprehension fatigue? Weather predictions are wrong all the time.
I was going to end there, but then something startling happened: A friend of mine ran into you at a dinner party. She wrote to me from Brooklyn: “I had to tell you. I know you’re a fan.” She said you were thin, your shoulders more bowed than she’d expected, your hair whiter. Severe behind large glasses, you were peering at the bookshelves. She didn’t speak to you, but later she heard you talking in a group. Someone had asked why you’d decided to delete all your social media and you were answering, or trying to answer, waving your stick-like hands. My friend described you as “kind of incoherent.” You didn’t finish all your sentences. At the same time, you were “forceful.” We were no longer, you said, in the eighties, when “marginalization” meant being erased, unpublished, and suppressed, or even the early nineties, when the black and feminist groups you were part of handed out photocopied flyers at the library. “In those days,” you said, “we were being told to shut up, but now everybody wants us to talk all the time.” You didn’t understand this, and it made you suspicious. How, exactly, are people marginalized in the context of unceasing pressure to speak? What happens to these masses of speech produced day after day and given away for nothing, often at great personal cost? Reading this, I felt cold. I remembered the many times I’d linked to your blog or retweeted you, adding fragments of you to my feed. And turning myself, as always, in the mirror. My coat, my earrings. How you gleamed. But no, I thought, that’s unfair: I considered you a friend. And then, we had so much in common. We shared so many passions, and we were marginalized—if I can call it that—in similar ways. Most of all, I thought, we shared a tone, an outlook, a sensibility: the internet’s version of the timbre of a voice. I felt most like myself when I was retweeting you. At the party, my friend said, you talked too long, you seemed “unfocused,” it was “weird.”
Sometimes at night I’ll spend an hour or more on social media, not posting, just looking, drifting through people’s feeds. I attach myself momentarily to certain personalities. They’re so clever, funny, observant, wise. I just want to be near them. Someone else.
What I don’t know (a sample): How people are being marginalized in the context of unceasing pressure to speak. How to respond to these new, untheorized dynamics. Whether or not these dynamics are new. Whether or not they are untheorized. Whether or not you were right to leave social media. Whether or not I should leave social media. How to write code. How to build a website without a template. Whether, when I say something that’s not me, it’s the accidental slip that’s not me, or the effort to correct it. How to contribute. How to be real. The difference between a word cloud and a field of non-paradigmatic intensities. The precise amount of money a given Facebook executive will make from a photograph of someone’s baby. The precise amount of money social media executives, as a group, and tech industry leaders, and advertisers, have made from my impulses, organizing, sadness, and fears, and what they have done with it.
How to understand the present? Was I a parasite to you, or is this what it means to be a person?
The first time you responded to me, the first time we really talked, I turned silver all over the inside of my skin.
Something ghostly in the air. Clouds gather and dissolve. There’s a bitterness to them today, a faint stench of exhaust. The sky seems wasted, left behind. Once you said: “I think there’s a sense that if you are not online, you do not exist.”
What I know (a sample): Social media hold out the promise of authenticity, but never fulfill it. In this way, they reproduce the craving for authenticity. I’m caught up in this, like everyone else online, but still I want to say: To me you seemed like a person, a soul. I miss you.