A Valediction: Forbidding Posting

A Valediction: Forbidding Posting

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…