I really enjoy Neal Stephenson. Along with William Gibson, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell, Stephenson’s fiction has been incredibly important in the formation of my political beliefs, especially where my political beliefs intersect with technology. Therefore, it is important to note that I am deeply biased in his favour and have difficulty critically dissecting his work. Because of this, I strongly encourage you to read the post that this article is based on and form your own opinions before you place too much trust in mine.
In this article, I would like to focus on two things. First, I would like to focus on productivity in the age of social media. And second, I would like to focus on what engaging in social media does to us on a deep, emotional level.
First, a quote from the article:
Though I never became a heavy poster on social media, I did reach a point last year when I was checking Twitter and my personal Facebook every few minutes. When I found myself manually refreshing the Facebook window in the hopes of dredging up posts I hadn’t seen yet, I decided it was time to think a little harder about the effect that this was having on my ability to get things done. (Neal Stephenson - Why I am a sociomediapath
This is one of these difficult moments in writing when one of your favourite writers says something that mirrors your own experience. My instinct is to stand up and cheer because, “Holy shit, someone cool has the same experience as me!”, but my inner journalist and scientist wants to get to the truth.
In this case though, I can’t criticize Stephenson’s words for his experience exactly mirrors mine. There was a point where I was highly active on Twitter and, those years correspond to my least productive years ever. When I was in University, I never used Twitter, and I found time to work nearly full-time in a local small business, keep my marks high enough to get Millennium scholarships, maintain an active social life, work in open source, write at least four blog articles a week, and even invent a few cool things. Somehow though, when I started using Twitter heavily, my productivity dropped. I met some amazing people, but I stopped achieving what I was used to achieving.
Rather than spend five or six hours at a time working on something, I started breaking up my work day and checking Twitter. Most of the time, I would open up my Twitter app, read the new tweets, click a few links, and read two or three articles. Then, usually about 45 minutes later, I would go back to whatever I was working on before. Usually though, it was like starting from scratch and I would end up spending another hour getting back to the point that I was at before my break. But then, rather than actually do some productive work, I would check my app again, get involved in a conversation, read some articles, retweet something interesting and otherwise ‘waste’ time.
The biggest problem with working in marketing and technology is that personal branding is so important. I was able to justify spending time on Twitter by referencing my brand. Hell, I wasn’t achieving as much as I should have, but I was building up my personal brand. To back up this hypothesis, I turned to vanity metrics on Google Analytics. All of a sudden, whenever I would post a new article on my blog, I would post a link and blam - 100 visits. My efforts at personal branding were clearly working - all it took was a tweet and I’d get 100 visits.
Unfortunately though, I was stuck in a really bad routine and I was finding data to justify this bad routine. Being conflicted, I failed to look at the bigger metrics. My word count per month dropped precipitously, my traffic per month dropped, and my shares on useful social media sites (like Hacker News) went down to almost nothing. Sure, I got retweeted a bunch, but aside from my immediate 100 visit bump, I only saw one or two tweets go viral for generations beyond my initial tweet.
Even more damaging, I began having troubles attracting new visitors. Historically, about 65% of my blog traffic comes from first time visitors. After two years of heavy Twitter use, that percentage had dropped to less than 40%. Twitter had become my personal echo chamber and I think that I started tailoring my content towards my fans and followers. There is nothing particularly wrong with that and some self-described gurus use that tactic to great success. But, it isn’t how I operate and it isn’t how I want to write.
I write to challenge myself and my readers. Writing is a way for me to try on ideas, try on arguments, and learn new things. Sometimes, when I am at my best, I will write a long article espousing a point of view that I disagree with. That seems dishonest, but for me, it’s a rhetorical tool to better understand what I really believe. If I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I’ll try putting out some satire. One of my most popular articles ever was a remix of “A modest proposal” and suggested that instead of reforming the youth justice system to account for the fact that crime is the best opportunity that some kids have, we should eat the kids who commit crimes.
Note that by ‘popular’, I mean ‘received the most death threats for publishing. And y’all wonder why I like writing under pseudonyms so much.
Giving up Twitter was the best selfish decision that I have ever made. Selfish because I was part of a genuine community on there. But best because I am so much more productive without having that service weighing me down.
Giving up Twitter also freed up more space for me to read books, and one of the books I have read the most provided an especially interesting lens through which to view social media. T.S. Eliot is likely my favourite poet of all time. The Hollow Men inspired my first tattoo. The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock is just a perfect example of how some masters play with words. The wasteland is a painful read, especially after you’ve done some research into Eliot’s struggles with mental illness.
Whenever I have run out of his poems or run out of the patience to read poems, I turn to his letters. Thankfully, many volumes of his letters have been published for public consumption and these letters have been incredibly influential upon me. For me, the most striking thing is that T.S. Eliot was hardly an easy person to deal with, but despite this, whenever he would argue with someone in letters, both parties seemed to actually learn something. Eliot’s long form arguments always stayed civil and constructive and never denigrated to the kind of harsh negativity that we find on services like Twitter or Facebook.
I like neuroscience, so I tend to blame the brain for everything. So, I can look at this trend towards extreme negativity as a function of our amygdalas routing scary inputs to our limbic systems when in reality, social media should stay in our cerebral cortexes. Because of this, I tend to argue that when you get an email or read a nasty tweet, it’s usually better to read it, process it and then walk away for about half an hour, but I digress.
Our brains aren’t necessarily equipped for the 21st century and its rapid-fire forms of communication. We react emotionally, we get angry, and it is far too easy to fire off 10 nasty tweets while our brains are still flooded with adrenaline. This worked for us when we were hunter-gatherers who spent our whole lives within our small tribes, built serious relationships with everyone we were regularly exposed to, and needed sharp bursts of energy to survive against predators or other early humans. But, applied to the 21st century with its rapid-fire communication, this is a deeply dangerous example of our cognitive evolution.
Perhaps the secret is to go back to being anonymous so that our identities are no longer tied so closely to our words. Perhaps we can do a better job of separating personal attacks from ideological attacks if they were directed at an avatar, not ourselves. Or, perhaps social media is genuinely a negative force for humans. I’m not qualified to make any decisions.
All I know is that, with the exception of highly regulated communities like Hacker News, in general, I find social media way too negative and destructive. I have too few years left to waste my time writing 140 character bursts out of anger. So, I have decided to leave.
But, I wonder what it would be like to be as famous as Neal Stephenson. Comments on his writing tend to be extremely pedantic as highly technical people seem unwilling to let small leaps in logic slide in order to consider his grander point. For that matter, I wonder what it would be like to be even more famous.
I recently read Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon and reading the sections on her divorce from Thurston Moore was especially painful for me. Reading about their daughter, Coco Gordon Moore, made me absolutely grateful to have grown up a relative nobody. My parents split up when I was the same age as Coco and frankly, it sucked. But, I didn’t have to experience the horror of hopping online and reading thousands of people I didn’t know speculating on what caused the divorce. Nor did I have to read legions of people attacking my parents because of the divorce.
Frankly, I was lucky enough to be able to mourn the death of their relationship in private. For that, I am grateful to the extreme. But still, I feel genuinely sad for Coco and will always be a huge fan of whatever she does in the future.