One resistance to the technological age I tried to practice recently is avoiding books from authors with active social media presences. Obviously, I have exceptions to this rule, but it seems good writers are struggling to get book contracts without a social media audience. So, to reverse what publishers are doing I can avoid supporting that mindset.
However, one problem I’ve found is that when a writer is a good at social media, they often lose the ability to write in a way that sees more clearly through our times. Instead they write for the crowd or the mob. They’ve moved from writing from a modest stance of how they see the world to a definitive stance supported by the likes and retweets of many. Back when I had twitter writers would be able quote RT about something, they were wrong about, but the likes went up. I’m sure the reasons for this are complex, but my guess is it that the instant feedback offered by social media directs their writing to a momentary reflex rather than wisdom. As a medium it will often celebrate ‘hot takes’ over depth and time spent in thinking. I’m not sure it was always bent this way, but after the 2016 election it has only gotten worse.
Zadie Smith is one of my favorite resistors of social media. She sees and names clearly that many people merely become the product of an algorithm during this time. In a recent podcast interview, she talked about how during the first weeks of the coronavirus shutdown she read Marcus Aurelius and learned about writing for no one. From her interview:
• Aminatou: Even though I could hear the sirens, even though people in my family have had coronavirus, there was just something about it that felt so emotionally removed and I don’t quite know what that is but I’m just like wondering what your experience of reading this in the pandemic was.
Zadie: The first thing was something probably quite childish but I never stopped being amazed by which is the idea that someone thousands of years ago is talking in my ear. Like I find it impossible to get over the miracle of that fact that I am having this intimate it feels to me like conversation, or at least taking in somebody’s monologue of someone dead longer than I can imagine. That part always is stunning to me so that was the first thing.
And then there’s something about the way he speaks which is so unlike most of the writing that we read now which is he is aware that he is writing for no one and so he’s telling the truth. And I thought have I ever written in a way that is for no one? That I don’t even have the imagining of a reader or audience. What would it be like to write like that? And that’s really what I sat down to do. I really when I started had no conception of publishing; I just thought in a very childish way if this is going to be the end of the world why don’t I just write down the truth, the whole truth as it strikes me, and see how it feels to do that? And that was very liberating and very cathartic.
And then as you say the thing about limitation. There’s always a suspicion I guess with stoics that they are politically dangerous because they speak of limitation and when we’re in politics we don’t like to be reminded of human limitation, limitations of perfect states or rulers or citizens or anything. But I don’t really see it that way. I think a sense of limitation is a protective thing. I’m scared I suppose of people who think of human lives as limitless and states as limitless. Aurelius is asking himself what good can be done within this area? What capacities do I have? What do others have? What do I owe others? What can I not achieve? What are my weaknesses? What am I not able to do? And I found all of that useful particularly in a world where you have such an extraordinary amount of information coming at you and the supposed responsibility which is entirely fake but given to you by the tech companies that to be a good citizen you must contain every nudge, every notification, every news cycle in your brain. It felt wonderful to listen to somebody who says “No, you have certain duties that are clear to you that only you can do and there are other tasks to be done by others and knowing the differences is one of your tasks on Earth.
I believe one of the reasons I’ve developed this rule, that may largely have no effect, is because when I read the work of someone who is active on social media it always feels as if they’ve found a writing audience and they know exactly what to say to that audience because of likes, shares, and comments. It’s one of the reasons so much current nonfiction is the same content just in a different outline.
So for me, I’ll continue in my small resistance that leads to reading more academic tomes and old books and hope that good writers will continue to resist our social media driven age.