Secret Library

On Quitting Social Media: A Poem

In lieu of my usual Secret Library column this Friday, an announcement – not a particularly momentous one – and a poem. Yesterday, I made the decision to leave Twitter for good. This is nothing to do with my experience of running the @InterestingLit account (which has, 99.9% of the time, been nothing but positive, and has led to some thoughtful and illuminating comments from like-minded followers), but with the general air of toxicity pervading the site. When I joined in 2009, it was a community of bright-eyed people who wanted to indulge in their nerdy interests and who seemed, universally, to be full of enthusiasm for this new social network which enabled you to spend some time connecting with people you wouldn’t usually meet in ‘real life’.

Sadly, those halcyon days are no more. Not only has the site become little more than a glorified news channel in the age of Covid, but it has had all of the joy sucked out of it. I don’t think the last 16 months of ‘virtual’ existence (‘virtual’ in both senses) has helped. Where’s the fun in connecting with people online when that can no longer be distinguished from your so-called ‘real’ life? Relocating to live and work in the Seychelles would be quite different from a fortnight’s holiday there.

J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), the author who foresaw most clearly what our lives in the age of Covid might look like, once said that everything in our world was becoming science fiction. Now, everything (mainstream media, our default social lives, even our relationships) is becoming social media. And I don’t think that’s a healthy thing for the individual or for society as a whole.

So I’ve decided, after 12 years on the platform and 9 years running @InterestingLit, to call it a day. As I say, I don’t think social media is good for us. Indeed, I think that it’s positively bad for society at large: even those who are immune to its peculiar appeal have to live within the society that is being formed, for good or ill (mostly for ill), on its platforms. The arguments between people on Twitter end up becoming debates on mainstream news (which has also become a cesspit). And that then influences people who have never tweeted and don’t know what a hashtag is.

In Ballard’s 1977 story ‘The Intensive Care Unit’, a man who has lived his whole life without ever meeting his wife and children – like everyone else in this future society, he has only ever interacted with them via a TV screen – goes against government rules and suggests they do something daring: actually meet up in person. They end up attacking each other in a violent and deadly frenzy. Society has become too used to interacting at a distance that people cannot handle being physically in the same space as other people.

In another Ballard story that is remarkably prophetic of our own times, ‘The Enormous Space’ (1989), a middle-aged man decides to shut himself in his suburban home and never set foot outside the house again. He ends up losing his job, eating the neighbours’ pets to survive, and hallucinating that the house is growing into some vast and seemingly infinite space. And that’s without social media to hasten his descent into madness.

Will I miss Twitter? Yes. But I’ve missed it for years: that largely happy, optimistic space that existed between 2009 and around 2014, before things began to take a downward turn. But that site, and that world, has gone. Everything is becoming social media now. So, in that case, what point is there to being on Twitter?

I will say no more about the current state of affairs because that isn’t the point of this blog. Later this evening, I will get back to the literature. But I’ll leave you with a poem I recently wrote about quitting social media. It’s perhaps a bit opaque so I’ve added some notes below the poem.

The Mediums

It took a week for us to stop hearing the voices.
Although they had been our constant companions
for years by then, a steady stream of chatter,
it reached the point where they became unbearable.
Each message had become a death to us. Just a little
to start with, soft like the twitter of birds,
not too intrusive perhaps, but then more insistent
by the day, slowly overwhelming, until
our own voices, thoughts, were lost to theirs.

Eventually, it was us or them. They became
mere shouts and remonstrations, pleas and cries,
a tidal wave of suffering without pause,
of snide retorts and performative assertions –
the whole lot began to drown us.
Turn off your radios immediately.

So we tuned out our frequencies to a dead channel,
fourteen billion years of static, that perfect state
before the first authoritarians came,
a numbness welcome to our battered senses,
and, not without some small misgiving,
we cut the line and left the voices dead.
Thankfully we were not too affected.
They faded like the effects of nepenthe
or the Martian atmosphere in Total Recall.
Already, we wonder how we ever heard the voices.

This poem © Oliver Tearle 2021

Note: A poem about quitting social media.

The title is a kind of pun on the two different plurals of ‘medium’, a piece of wordplay reinforced by the later references to radios and televisions. (The ‘twitter of birds’ is also supposed to be a gentle nod towards social media, combined with the ‘bird’ in Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ which reminds us that humans ‘cannot bear very much reality’.) Mediums hear voices (or claim to), but the media are the voices in the ears of the populace.

‘So we tuned out our frequencies to a dead channel’ alludes to the opening sentence of Gibson’s Neuromancer, a book which foresaw the insidious effect that ‘cyberspace’ would have upon all our lives. The Big Bang, leftover cosmic background radiation from which can be witnessed every time an old television is showing static, actually occurred 13.8 billion years ago, but I was rounding up for metre’s sake. Nepenthe was the fictional drug in Greek myth which enabled the taker to forget the world; the atmosphere of Mars could cause death in minutes, but at the end of the film, once the hero and heroine are able to breathe again, the changes to their bodies are quickly reversed. Total Recall is, of course, a film all about trying to tell simulated reality from the real thing.

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