Recently I passed my ten year anniversary on Facebook and five year anniversary on Twitter. Both sent notes to celebrate the milestone. At first, it felt a little strange to receive such affirmations from the algorithms of addiction. But soon a darker mood besieged me, one deepened in the wake of this week’s revelations about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. The New York Times’ report earlier this year about Twitter bots and friend buying had not helped, nor Amnesty International’s report about online trolling and misogyny. No one needed tell me it was bad and getting worse. I only had to look to see.
So was my decade online worth it? On balance, yes. I have enjoyed taking part in this extraordinary experiment (even if my descendents will look back and think it strange). I have made friends for life, often springing from Twitter to Facebook to the pub, and spent many hours online with those I could already count on in the world of flesh and things. There is, in principle, no dichotomy between the real world (good) and virtual (bad). The real world is often nightmarish, the virtual may be a haven. I have learned a lot, and read countless words that might otherwise have passed me by.
That said, I have decided to extract myself from social media. As much as possible, at least. For the electronic horse has bolted. The scale and scope of the Facebook breach is vast, yet only the tip of a darker data iceberg. Social media has become – or always was? – an open wound, and our lives are bleeding out. Enough analogies perhaps, yet there is an offline bodycount as well, and it will grow. Online interventions and psy-ops in the USA, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria and elsewhere, are raising fears for the future of our species, let alone the fate of our democracies.
I have sympathy with all who hope the online world may be reformed, and pray that they succeed. Somehow. For now, it seems to me to be broken irrevocably. But who knows? Something new and better may yet rise from the digital cinders.
Or perhaps the worst is yet to come…
We think we have nothing to fear here in Australia, but times change, and suddenly. I’m a writer of speculative fiction, after all, so let me ask you this… what would Nazi Germany have made of all this data? Or the USSR? All those public ‘likes’, as well as all that hidden data. A stroll to the synagogue or kosher supermarket with your mobile phone in tow might be enough to condemn you to death or exile. ‘Liking’ the page of an otherwise harmless group or author might condemn you and your family to slavery. In many times and places, even now, the sins of one become the sins of families. Australia is a liberal democracy still, of course, but we cannot fathom what our land will look like fifty years from now, let alone a hundred. Our great-great-grandchildren may yet rue the things we’ve shared about their families when, one day, things change. As change they will. My new novel explores an Australia in which this has come to pass.
Social media’s defenders continue to maintain that apps and platforms are only as pernicious as their users. The mirror shows the self, they say. If only it were true, then that would be the worst of it. For if these be mirrors, they are mirrors in an ever shifting labyrinth … and the Minotaur is coming. The medium may not be all the message, true, but it remains a significant, oft impossible to quantify component of that message. The algorithms that dictate the form and function of these platforms remain unknown to us, impossible to understand, except for a Gnostic few. Unsurprisingly, many of that same elite are now swearing off the very forces that they have unleashed on us, the lay.
For the rest of we poor homo sapiens, the reality, increasingly, is a sense of data dysphoria at the level of the personal, coupled with growing anxiety about a digital dystopia at the corporate and state level. If an academic named Spectre can siphon off 50 million profiles through a single app, then state and non-state malefactors, cybercriminals, snoops and thieves can too, are, and have been for years. As Steve Bannon shrugged, “Facebook data is for sale all over the world.”
I’m not leaving social media because I don’t “like” my friends, but because I love them.
By way of postscript, some friends have asked me whether, as a writer, I will miss out on opportunities to promote my work now. It’s likely, but I also think online promotion has its limits. At all my signings for Empire of the Waves, I’m not sure anyone was there because they saw an event advertised on Twitter or on Facebook. And I did ask. Mostly it was because I was there. Perhaps that changes when one’s level of fame rises, but I have spoken to a number of far more established writer friends about their use of social media, and most privately expressed scepticism about its value. This is not to say that writers should not engage with each other or with readers on social media, nor that I have not treasured doing so. In fact, social media works best for writers when sales are not the primary purpose of engagement. Indeed, it remains a good place to encourage and support friends and colleagues and to share ideas with strangers (who often do become great friends, despite all the trolls that lurk around each corner).
As with everything that we decide in this fallen world, human choices are about weighing vice and virtue. My sense now is that social media’s great and many virtues may be enjoyed in other ways, without the ever mounting list of vices. Meanwhile, I will continue to update my website and be available by every other means available, both physical and electronic (and there are many).
At the best of times, writing can feel like sending messages to sea in bottles. It’s not clear if anyone will find them, let alone uncork them. Yet the tides can be surprising. Last year, I posted a two part celebration on the life and work of Edward Lear on my website, thinking no one would ever see it. And yet, a few months later, the ABC contacted me to conduct a radio interview about the bearded bard. Like life itself, the work goes on. And words, like bottles, wash up where they will.
Finally, because I can’t resist an opportunity to compose a little doggerel, I went and butchered John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning as the final act of my time on social media. Enjoy!
A Valediction: Forbidding Posting
As Virtual Men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their phones to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The app goes now, and some say, No:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-gifs, nor sigh-emojis move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the Internet our love…