Friday, January 6, 2017

An unusual New Year's resolution: more social media

This might sound a bit like someone vowing to watch more TV, eat more junk food, or spend less time with their family. Social media has become one of those guilty pleasures that people want to cleanse themselves of in the New Year. Some celebrities have become experts at quitting Facebook or Twitter by doing it three or four times. I largely withdrew from social media about two years ago for reasons that I haven't really been comfortable talking about in a public forum. I guess this is a long-winded explanation of what happened.

There's something about the internet in general, and social media in particular, that makes me hedge every time I'm about to say something to the world. "Once you put something on the internet, it never, ever goes away," quipped my cousin LM, a phrase that frequently rings in my head. It's partly the result of my line of work, in which a stray Tweet can quickly turn into a massive public relations scandal. There's always a cost-benefit analysis in my head that tilts toward silence.

I also struggle to turn social media into a place for contemplation or calm discussion. I enjoy the furious pace of Twitter, but it seems to crowd out other spaces where conversations can happen at a slower pace. Erin's recent post about taking a break from social media, and her own observations about what it did to her behavior, made me a bit nostalgic for writing based on empirical observation and honest introspection. Stephanie's saga of moving from Massachusetts to Hawaii and the associated emotional torment has done the same. The 140-character revolution obviously hasn't displaced the overall idea that writing is built on sentences and paragraphs. But writing in the digital age still seems attached at the hip to whatever is trending on social media. That because it's filled with embedded tweets. or it's written in such a way that its conclusions can be whittled into tweets that can be embedded elsewhere. None of that stops me from doing whatever I want on my own blog. But it can make this sort of exercise feel dated and quaint. And it's definitely made me less excited about joining the Facebook frenzy.

There's a more important reason that I turned into a Facebook wallflower about two years ago. In 2014, Isa and I began a foster care process with Jesus and his sister, and posted pictures of the two of them. Things didn't work out with his sister, and she returned to the institution in 2015. It was a difficult experience in the moment - one we've completely turned the page on as a family- but nonetheless one that came with a lot of latent and unspoken judgment from people in our surroundings. I didn't feel like I could casually explain to my Facebook echo chamber that one of them was no longer living with us. Nor did I want to post pictures of only Jesus, as this would elicit questions. So I basically halted my interaction with Facebook, limiting myself to simply "liking" photos. Most folks already know what happened, including anyone that would read this far into one my blog posts (contact me directly if you'd like to know more about it). Fortunately he's doing fantastically well and are overjoyed that we're lucky enough to have him in our lives.

We'd basically kept Jesus off Facebook until a few weeks ago, when he stuffed a couch cushion under a red sweater, put on a Santa Claus hat, and pranced around our living room, hamming it up to "A Rootin' Tootin' Santa Claus." It was exactly the sort of moment when he's in his element, and the video that Isa filmed of his performance made everyone laugh themselves silly. We started passing it out to family on Whatsapp, then stuck it on Youtube and sent it to friends. Then I was by chance talking to KC in Brazil, who I haven't spoken to in years. When I told her about the video of Jesus she said "Why haven't I seen that? Send me that video!" Enough other people said the same thing that a light bulb went on in my head: this is what social media was invented for. That's the first time in more than two years that I've posted an image of my son. I don't know how frequently I'll end up doing it again in the future, but I feel like I've broken something of an unspoken taboo.

I want a middle ground where I don't have to be too cool for Facebook but I don't need to get sucked into it either. I'm not thrilled at how the social media phenomenon has developed or the hagiography surrounding it, but I can't pretend it doesn't exist. One of the challenges I set up for this year was to figure out how to separate the actual impact of social media on journalism from the hyperventilating excitement and flood of buzzwords. How often are journalists using Twitter to do David Fahrenthold-type reporting that revealed the truth of Trump's charitable donations? And how often are we just filling the air waves with promotion of our stories in a zero-sum struggle for the attention span of an already saturated audience? I suppose my phrasing of the question tips my hand as to what I suspect is the answer. But I still want to know how journalists can do more the former while doing less of the latter.

So I guess this means I'm back. This year I'll find out.

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