Tuesday, 20 June 2017

My complicated relationship with social media: why I quit, and why I continue to return

Following an aimless day of scrolling at the end of August last year, I stared at the artificial light emancipated by my phone screen and decided to quit social media.

I composed a chaotic message to my friends and then proceeded to deactivate Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Messenger, and Snapchat. On the surface, an irrational, unprecedented moment, I agree. However, digital-binging guilt had been brewing under my skin for a while, and quite frankly, I was fed up. 

The reactions I received were assorted. Most people (unsurprisingly) questioned my rationality, others turned cold on me, most adults were stunned, and some even temporarily did the same. I usually cited academia as the cause, saving them the following convoluted diatribe.

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I have a type A personality: I am painstakingly driven by my goals, I am highly ambitious, self-critical, time-conscious and I find it very difficult to relax. This has predominantly shaped my relationship with the digital world. Downtime feels unproductive to me, and consequently, I feel a pervading sense of guilt when using social media. Yet, having such an intense mindset means that I easily become addicted to things - work; people; concepts. Thus, paradoxically, as much as I loathed myself for it, compulsive social media checking was a very bad habit of mine. I would flick between Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Messenger and Instagram in the hope that by the time I began a fresh loop, a new point of interest would have emerged. Usually, it hadn't. I could easily sit on my bed and let hours pass, absorbed in the tweets of a mutual friend's 2012 thoughts.

This intense, driven personality incites both my best and worst qualities. I can be extremely focused, motivating myself into achieving every single challenge devised for me. However, often to the detriment of others, it means that I become over-worked and abruptly retreat into myself. This too is largely a representation of my relationship with the digital world; I over-invest my energies and then go nuclear, self-inflicting a period of isolation and introspection.

Like many others, I find the Pavlovian thrill of being 'rewarded' by a like, a comment or a retweet addictive. I started to crave such bitty, superficial attention, and my tunnel-vision ambition found an outlet. All of my social media channels were perfectly curated to depict a certain 'interesting' image, with every post meticulously edited. In effect, I started to internalise the "no pics or it didn't happen" mindset. I still use Instagram, and little has changed. My feed, whilst offering me a wonderful platform to share my photography, is like all social media - engineered to provoke engagement. Ironically, technology fosters this need for attention, despite the fact that it forces us to isolate our peers in the physical world. We are all just trying to technologically shout the loudest, often to little avail. This is because technology creates an unprecedented need to be interesting. Yet, the harsh reality is that not everything is interesting. Life is much more mundane than it is instagrammable, but online we seem to forget that.

In November, I attended a debate which questioned, "Have we lost the art of conversation?", which you can listen to here: https://soundcloud.com/institute-of-ideas/art-of-conversationI looked around the room as I waited for it to begin, and noticed that all four people in the seats surrounding me were on their phones; two were texting, one was on Facebook, and the other was on Twitter. I couldn't help but smile to myself at the irony. Ultimately, the debate argued that we haven't lost the art of conversation, but its methodology has simply evolved to fit a new, technologically-driven medium. It is the art of listening which we are losing.

I am a big advocate of this, and it is the reason why I also generally dislike texting. Through our perfectly drafted 'instant' messages, our digital conversations become short, disjointed and false, losing the spontaneous intimacy which comes with conversing in real life. I'm a fervent believer in such real-life conversations - those that are unplanned, intense, delving and driven by the moment. I'll take an hour of deep conversation sitting in a park or an hour on Facetime over a whole evening of messages any day. I think it's impossible to truly get to know a person simply through a series of virtual messages, or equally, to know how they truly feel. I need to hear your voice, register your facial expressions and come to understand your physical quirks. A laughing emoji popping up on my phone screen will never replicate the sound of a a friend's raw laughter, nor will a sad face ever strike me in the gut quite like a somebody tearing up in front of me. A good friend recently remarked how she feels that the cartoon quality of emojis devalues the real sentiment behind a message, causing it to lose any original sincerity. I have to say, I agree. Social media may allow us to feel unified with a person in the moment we're messaging them, but it's rare that we have each other's full attention through a Snapchat message.

Similarly, 'scrolling' only embodies a surface-deep appreciation of ideas. Half-heartedly glimpsing over a thread of unrelated concepts, simply to fill a few spare minutes, creates a fragmented form of engagement with our peers. When we scroll, so much information is being thrown at us, to the point that individual content is lost within the continual onslaught of everyone else vying for their little snippet of digital attention. Simply put, we've fallen captive to a period of mass tech-consumerism.

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When I quit social media back in August, one thing which I noticed was that it took more time to maintain friendships. Before, there was no point in messaging an old friend to see what they had been up to, because it was all online already, though usually in 140 characters or less. Yet, without the instant mutual link of a comment or like after I quit, I was forced to make direct contact with friends. I made actual plans - a coffee date; a meal out. I've always been known to call people rather than text them, even about the smallest of matters (among friends, it's known as 'the Lauryn call'). Giving up my messenger apps meant that such a phone call became all the more frequent. Weirdly, I felt more engaged in my friends' lives than I ever did before.

I realised that social media, despite its name, actually isn't that social.


That's not to say it was easy. At first, I attempted to replicate 'the' aimless scroll by opening random apps in disorganised folders or scrolling through my camera roll, craving even the simplest digital fulfillment. I would check my phone, only to stare at my home screen, a landscape barren of notifications. On many occasions, I almost succumbed. However, I didn't, and soon I started to adopt new habits: waking up and reading a novel rather than the comments on my Instagram explore page, and falling asleep with a book dropping from my hands rather than my phone falling onto the pillow beside me.

Moreover, despite forcing myself out of the online loop - memes and popular content became a little lost on me in conversation - I felt less like I was out of the social loop than ever before. Not knowing that there was a party on and not spending my Friday evenings passively moping in my FOMO over other people's Snapchat stories was refreshing.

Time also seemed to become available in abundance. Of course, me being me, I threw myself into my schoolwork (this was a time of uni applications, mocks, and interviews), and managed to achieve everything which I had ever aspired towards. Yet, I didn’t gain any more time. Rather, my attention span drastically increased and I was able to focus without repeatedly checking my phone like a mother watching over her newborn. Unexpectedly (though in retrospect, quite obviously), my mind gained a new sense of clarity.

Alas, investing so much time into academia led me into needing some form of escape, and so, a little after a week following my Cambridge interview, I yielded, and redownloaded Instagram. I created a new account and embarked on cultivating a better relationship with social media. To this day, apart from Twitter (which I neither use nor check, but on which Bloglovin automatically shares a link to any new blog posts), Instagram is the only active account I still hold.

However, I deleted the app on a weekly basis between January and April when I felt I was procrastinating too much, before redownloading it for a few days at a time. Then, as exam terror gripped me, I deleted it again for 6 weeks - only to redownload it within an hour of finishing my last exam.

3 weeks later, and I have been more active online than ever before. I've binged, I feel guilty, and so once again, the app has disappeared from my home screen. But I know that within the next few days, once my head has cleared and I start to re-engage with the real world again, it will reappear.

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Hence, there is the question of why I return. For all of the apparent negatives in the above diatribe, I do believe that when harnessed in the right manner, social media is a wonderful and powerful tool. Recently, a boy in my local area went missing. Through the collective power of people sharing information and raising awareness online, he was found. I think that is incredible. Likewise, social media allows us to promote a sense of solidarity in times of crisis – the mass online support following recent tragedies only offers a small insight into this. On a personal level, following museums, photographers and educational institutes exposes me to different cultures, ideas, and movements. I'm able to connect with old (and new) friends easily, and through this, I have enlarged my social spheres. Then again, there is the fact that social media does provide a little (if tame) hedonistic buzz.

Thus, I do return; I invest my energies and ambition, I post twice a day and I get a cheap thrill out of it. It's like going back to gorging on fast food when you’ve been eating clean - it becomes very easy to slip into your old routines, despite the internal nagging sense of displacement. And then when I feel I'm spending more time online than in the real world around me - taking photos for Instagram and spending an hour drafting a witty, engaging caption, I go nuclear and delete the apps once again. Hence, the cycle continues.

Social media itself isn't the issue. It's me - I have an addictive, time-conscious and fast-paced mental self. Deleting the apps will only ever be a quick-fix because I know that at some point, I'll end up returning. The real world, in all of its glorious, authentic self, is nice to escape from once in a while.

Alas, it worries me how easy it is to become a passive recipient to every influential network. It worries me that such a mindless self is just a few clicks away. It worries me that I see everybody else around me drawn into the same, endless vortex. Technology might define our generation, but I think we all need to work a little harder at us controlling that definition, rather than the all-too threatening alternative.


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My own thoughts aside, here is an excellent Youtube video which I feel reinforces my own attitude:





Lastly, you can read more about the type A/B personality distinction here (on wiki of course, the ever-trustworthy point of info): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_A_and_Type_B_personality_theory 

Lauryn

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

A Tabula Rasa


3 weeks ago, I finished my International Baccalaureate exams. 14 exams in two weeks, the culmination of two years of constant academia, is a period now behind me. And that feels really quite odd. I have suddenly deviated from an intense, constant workload with 14 hour library days, to quite simply, nothingness.

Thus, I am highly ambivalent about this title. Currently, my life does very much embody a blank slate. A state of emptiness; one of freedom. Yet, I remain governed by my own ideas and goals, perhaps more so than ever.

I know that 'freedom' is what I have been working towards. A period of calm and quietness is what I need, in fact. But I am having trouble adjusting to this fissure in purpose. I am in limbo.

There's 3 weeks until results day. As I wrote before my GCSE results back in 2015, "I'm a victim of archaic academic success, and as much as I despise to admit that fact, I need the reassurance of ink on paper." 2 years later, and my mindset has altered little. I know that this attitude propels me forward and motivates me to stick to the books when life is calling. However, solely defining myself through academia has meant that I've shed many other qualities which should define me - hobbies; life experiences; relationships. 

The next four months sprawl out before me; in theory, yes, a tabula rasa. Ready to be imprinted with the memories of hazy summer days, hard-hitting literature, windswept beach trips, stupid 18 year-old recklessness and wonderful, wonderful friends. Alas, the very fact that these days seem so endless terrifies me. I have had a set purpose for the past few years: work hard; ace your exams; get into uni. I've been in control, academically, at least. Now that the unchangeable looms with results day, I can only wait. My mind is, quite frankly, in a state of suspension.

Thus, this is my challenge to myself: to discard the academic trademark (or at least attempt to forget its looming presence for the next three weeks) and throw myself into doing unplanned, goalless, spur of the moment things. Academia will always be an integral part of who I am, but I have plenty of time to embrace it at uni in October. This is a summer not so much about re-creation, but development.

Nothingness is bewildering. It's surprisingly exhausting to have broken out of what seemed to be an endless routine, and to have to think spontaneously. Likewise, it feels bizarre to write again; simply thinking about where my mind is currently at is very peculiar.

Yet, as ever, I enjoy a challenge. Writing back on here seems like a good place to start, I suppose, if anywhere.


Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Yellow.



Yellow

Under my feet, the thinly-threaded leaves curl, like crackling slowly warming in the oven. My bedroom is drowned in the dappled light of drawn out days, seeping through emptying amber-veined trees and finding refuge in golden patches on my walls. At 17:31 on this Tuesday evening, the sky pales; gold seeps through the clouds and the expanse of sky seen through my window turns a jaundiced yellow. In the mornings, the bus is filled with a deep optimistic glow which casts light on flecks of dust floating in the air. When I return home, and turn my lamp on, the artificial light is honeyed upon my work.

I am cold, aching, and tired, but my mind is saturated in yellow; I am deeply content.

The trees are turning red, and the sky a deep navy. The yellow is fading, but the mundane imprints remain.


- A note stored in my phone, written last Tuesday evening.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Poetry is dead and we have killed it: my thoughts on literature and post-modernism.



Image result for god is dead and we killed him
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science








Nietzsche published this idea in 1882, long before post-modernism, or its earlier counterpart, modernism, had emerged. Yet, to me, the idea holds pertinence to my own views on literature in today's society.

I am not saying that poetry is pointless, or unworthy of our study. Rather, I think the very opposite. However, it is with the cultural revolution of technology that I believe our previously held conceptions of poetry, likewise of theists, are being annihilated, whilst a new paradigm of literary thought is proliferating. 

Poetry is scary; poetry asks us to pay attention. We have to examine poetry, look for its quirks - an inverted foot here, a hypermetrical beat there - and interpret it. Attributing a single truth - giving a fate to a poem - is terrifying.

I believe that this fear is the product of two things: the first, post-modernism, and the latter, technology. Moreover, in my view, the latter has only augmented the first. Perhaps late-modernity is a more suitable word here, or perhaps the irony is that no word carries the 'truth' of post-modernism (or late-modernity, or whatever you want to call it). 

Let me clarify my own understanding of what this term means to me - a task that scares many just as much as analysing, or even reading poetry (for pleasure - the horror!) . My philosophy teacher described postmodernism as "a pick 'n' mix" society. To me, this surmises exactly the kind of truth-farming that postmodernism popularises. There is no longer any universal truth in post-modernism; there are no predominant world views; there is no longer any meta-narratives. Hence, Nietzsche seemed to be writing long before his time. The very idea that "God is dead" is relevant to 'the now' more than ever: religious pluralism and multiculturalism have promoted a society of relativism. Religion, likewise literature, has become a cultural construct, grasping onto the very last threads of a slowly disintegrating truth claim. 

Now, let me bring this all back to the written word: how has post-modernism affected our literary paradigm?

Firstly, I want to propose a tentative disagreement with Barthes' 'Death of the Author' (which I previously wrote about here). Barthes' argues that the author is dead, and we, as the readers, have taken on autonomy. Rather, I think that the author is a proliferating phenomenon. With technology, we are so involved in the author's own life. We follow their Twitter; we read their articles; we visualise their own world-view through the pages of their Instagram. Authors themselves are concerned with a virality (i.e. going 'viral') as opposed to quality. In fact, the reader is not controlling the work, it is the author. The reader becomes lost in the mass of information on the modern author. Authors are being endorsed into celebrity culture and we are losing the essence of interpretation - no longer can we question what the author meant because it is likely that they've spelled it out in 140 characters on Twitter. Technology has forced itself into the supposedly intimate relationship of author and reader, necessitating a violent reconfiguration of interaction.

But back to poetry. In our "pick 'n' mix" society, we choose what we interpret. There are no truth claims to 'good' literature anymore - it's all relative. Yet as much as in my mind, this is a good thing - I want literature to be freed from its elitist shackles and made available to all - I can't help but feel like we are losing the essence of what poetry means. I have no experiential knowledge of it, but I can only liken this feeling to the public consensus to the rise of the novel: what is this controversy, this middle-class weapon? Where has our flavour for form gone, our fancy for ambiguity? The novel made literature accessible to both authors and readers. Likewise, I can't help feel that this has come at a cost. Shakespeare, in the literary world, is more-or-less on par with God. Similarly, there hasn't been a 'Second Coming', and there has been no 'Second Shakey'. We are losing our literary absolutes in the same way that religion is losing its moral absolutes.

It might be liberal and modernistic for everything to be in free verse, but where is the challenge of poetry? Where is the moment that we realise we have found a rhythm that mimics the basic rhythm of human life - of our heart, of our breath, of our footsteps? That moment after which our heart speeds up with excitement and the poem adds a spondee to mimic our own triple-increasing anticipation?

Indeed, there are some contemporary poets who do write in 'traditional' (I write 'traditional' with caution, because in a post-modern world, does tradition really have authority?) forms. Seamus Heaney and Don Paterson are two examples. Yet, these are for BBC Radio 4 listeners and people (like me) who prefer to sit in bed flicking through an anthology rather than scrolling through social media. A few months ago I deleted social media (which I will be writing about in the near future) but when I did use it, most poetry shared by popular channels stretched about as far as Rupi Kaur. I think that Rupi Kaur is an excellent writer and proposes some interesting ideas, but for me, Kaur's simplicity and use of simple, free-verse, often made her feminist agenda almost too easy to grasp. After all, she is known as an "InstaPoet" - technology has made everything free and quick, and so such poetry must also be possible to consume quickly and easily. This has made us appreciate 'good' poetry far less. By the same token, in terms of broader 'literature', many, including myself, are dissuaded from reading news articles online when a fee is asked for, such as on The Times - if half of the article is cut off and asks for a subscription, I simply turn to another news outlet. We are consumed by a habit of consumption; the internet is like fast-food: if it is not fast enough, or greasy enough (i.e. extremely hyperbolised), we often complain. 

Nietzsche himself questions, "must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?" The internet has created a similar culture of I, I, I. We are obsessed with the self and more than often, the mind loses substance. We are concerned with virality, not vitalityPoetry has lost the element of ambiguity in a world where information is so abundant.

It is not the reader's, nor the author's fault. We live in an age of technology, of late-modernity, an age wherein choice is so emphasised. But yet, for all of the apparent positives, we have not only slashed the shackles of tradition but run away from the greats, on a line that lacks the very rhythms of life. 

We are experiencing a revolution, and it is not one which I warmly welcome: poetry as we knew it is dead, and we have killed it.


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This post was inspired by my philosophy coursework which explores the impact of the internet on language, and to what extent it has empowered the disempowered. As a result, I read some interesting articles which I believe hold a particular value to this rant of mine: