My husband used to work for a social media giant, years ago, before we knew the real extent of what social media was doing to people: both on a personal level and global, more political level too. It feels more and more like 2012/13 was a simpler world – though it wasn’t, I was just younger and more naive and the internet hadn’t yet grown the tentacles it has now. He’s a man of the internet, as fascinated by it as I am. We’ve been partners for almost ten years, and part of the reason why is that he is incredibly wise.
I often think about two things he said to me back then, when he was commuting out to Silicon Valley every day to a job he was becoming increasingly cynical of, surrounded by the propaganda of social media all day every day – the pavement, for example, of the campus square he walked through every day was mosaicked in stone with the word HACK, there were posters hanging from walls that insisted DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT. The first important thing he told me is that “you use the internet, it doesn’t use you”, and the second thing – especially when it comes to places like Twitter – is that “you choose every single follow yourself”. While lately, in the year of our lord 2020, we can’t really choose what the internet shows us in terms of advertising (if I am shown another weightloss ad featuring smug women who are thirty pounds less than they were when they started using Noom before any of my Youtube videos, I will scream the house down) – we can choose our follows. I think this is something we forget, or at least, I forget – that I can curate my timeline. I can – and do – liberally mute. Mute people, mute words, mute phrases. Politically, this may seem like covering my ears and singing loudly to drown out interference. It’s not. I still read the news, I still take in opinions that are different to mine and facts that I find disquieting – I just try and make sure that apathy from overexposure to horror doesn’t rise and drown me.
Consuming pictures of delicate, well-cared-for competition ducks right beside glaring headlines about the latest atrocities out of the American presidency must be doing something to me – I can feel it – and I don’t want to at any point destroy my humanity, my reaction to pain, my empathy, by eating too much news-media horror at once, or eating it as entertainment, or eating it without even knowing I’m doing it at all. There needs to be a place for learning about the world and the news, there needs to be a place for the ducks. Splicing it all into one streaming narrative has messed with my wiring. It feels, in short, bad.
Because I will never log off, and have been looking for a new way around the internet, I have been thinking a lot about the strained, uncomfortable-comfort I have in my digital landscape, my timelines. I stopped using Facebook because it was making me miserable back in 2015. Twitter remains my homepage, my lifeline to the outside world, my way of feeling as though I’ve spoken to people even if I haven’t said a word aloud all day. I’ve noticed a swift uptake in private Twitter accounts, the secondary profiles with micro followings and even slimmer numbers in the accounts they follow themselves. A world of whispers. A few people I know online alerted me to their secondary accounts and I followed their anonymous looking profile pictures and oblique names, feeling as though I was being let into a slightly alternate landscape where they weren’t preoccupied with the performance of forced, neutered ‘normalcy’ online. Where there is stream of consciousness, talk of mental health, talk of reality in a way that having a hundred, let alone a thousand people listen to would feel desperately invasive. Harry Styles, when talking to Timothee Chamalet back in 2018 about social media in an interview for i-D, said “Someone once described it to me like a house party, where there are three people who are great and 23 people who aren’t that nice. You just wouldn’t go to that party would you?” and this, along with my husband telling me I choose every follow myself, feels like one of my core tenants of internet use. Private twitter feels like it’s just the three people you like – because it literally is. As I write this, I feel like I’m telling myself to just talk to my friends.
And that’s what it is, isn’t it? Or should be, in some utopian internet – seeking connection, a sense of belonging, a sense of friendship. Shutting out the horror and pulling close and telling stories, and jokes. Being playful. The account I have inhabited for a decade (and trust me I feel that ten years loud and heavy and strange) is a house party. Perhaps a private twitter would feel like the gang out in the kitchen, or on the back patio, entertaining themselves. Removing the public performance from social media and turning it into a closed circle turns it into something else: potentially a place where artifice, to an extent, is stripped away and we can get closer to expressing who we are in reality, rather than who we are in a digitally public capacity. Leaning into the truth that less, actually, is more.
I’ll feel it out, though even approaching it feels like another account is another job to do, another performance to uphold. There has to be a way out of this, or at least through it. But until I work that out, being amongst the seven or ten listeners to the private radio stations of these more human accounts feels like a luxury. Feels like something I want to hear, not like something I want to mute.