You Can Survive and Thrive Without Social Media…Yes, It’s Possible
Let’s Get Physical
I used to be the woman who worked a room. In my 20s and early 30s, I would’ve gone to the opening of an envelope if invited. Social media hadn’t been born, so you had to occupy a physical space. People had to see your face. Friends in book publishing used to introduce me as someone who was good to know. The concept of FOMO was non-existent back then, but I had a bad case of it, and I thought the more I was seen, the more I was out there, the more people I accumulated in my contact list, something would happen. Although I wasn’t entirely certain what that something was.
I suppose it worked because when I published my first book in 2008, it was everywhere. Blogs covered it. Podcast hosts and website editors interviewed me. My book was featured in USA Today, Vanity Fair, Elle, Entertainment Weekly. While the world was smaller back then — we didn’t have the tweet swarm, Pavlovian status updates, fingers that habituated to scrolling and swiping, and the alarmist, yet addictive, notifications — I still believe that technology has made my world infinitesimal. I feel smaller in contrast.
Although my book wasn’t a bestseller, it earned out its advance and was well-received. All that hustling, all that networking, all that work paid off — but at what cost? I’d wear the mask of an amiable extrovert who connected people and made the crowds laugh at the expense of myself; I gave so much of myself at the cost of myself. I knew some people laughed at me behind my back. The now-disgraced Paris Review editor who sized me up at a book event and walked away. The Brooklyn book famous author who was the toast of all the blogs, the guy who wrote self-absorbed stories in my Columbia workshop pretending he didn’t know me. When he published a novel about a self-absorbed guy living his life, he experienced some minor celebrity. And every time we were introduced, he would smile and act as if it was the first time we’d met. There were those whose insults were disguised as compliments, and there were those whose barbs weren’t so thinly-veiled.
Still, I’d smile and show up. Still, I’d ride the subway home in tears.
Often, I’d come home from book parties, events, coffee catch-ups, and chow dates depleted. Catatonic. Unable to speak. I spent time with writers, editors, and agents I didn’t know much less like, but everyone told me that you had to surround yourself with people who were good to know. Still, I felt empty, hollowed out. I couldn’t breathe. The mask I’d been wearing tightened and smothered and soon became the shape of my face.
Then in 2009, I torched the joint. Closed shop on my revered literary magazine, resigned from a lucrative job in book publishing and stopped spending time with people who didn’t make me feel good about myself. I issued barbs of my own. I receded, fell out of the frame. I took a senior role at a burgeoning social media agency and threw myself into my work.
And then the internet took off. Everyone was on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Instagram would launch the following year. All the physical spaces morphed into digital ones. We lost the ability to speak to one another, to gauge body language, and tone. The new mantra was you had to network online to thrive. The motley lot became apoplectic, on the verge of frenzy, if you weren’t on social media. What’s wrong with you, they chorused. So, I tweeted pithy things, posted photographs of my food on Instagram (because people really wanted a documentary of your lunch back then), and posted the happy parts of my life on Facebook.
While I was good at building brands online, I struggled with mine. My personality is polarizing. I have opinions. I write short, clipped emails and tweets. I write raw essays about clinical depression (I was diagnosed at 40), and people don’t know what to do with that. Possibly they wish they could unsee it, unknow me. We’d greet each other with the perfunctory how are you and I would nod and smile and say I’m fine, just fine. People find me cold and intimidating when the people who know me know that I’m the opposite. I’m just shy until I know you. I’m guarded because I’ve been hurt and used and laughed at and I’ve much to protect. But perception is everything. Regardless, I thought if I spent enough time online, I would find an agent to replace the one I’d resigned and get that third book off the ground. I’d blow up my consulting business. Again, I was after that elusive something.
Instead, I had a public online breakdown a month ago. It happens.
I pulled a 2009 and receded, but instead of torching the joint, I formulated a new plan. I read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and saw its plain, simple truths. I created a life for myself that reminded me of my pre-internet days (I was born in ’75, so I wasn’t online until after college) while selecting parts of the web that I deemed healthy and productive. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram = bad for Felicia. Linkedin and Medium = good for Felicia. And before you give me the line that Medium and LinkedIn are social networks (no shit, Sherlock), how, and how often I use them, are demonstrably different than the others. There’s a veneer, a wall to LinkedIn that I like, which keeps everything professional and on an even keel. I’ve been on Medium since 2013, and I see it as a place where I can write and share essays and long-form fiction. I don’t get caught up in the claps and notifications because I’ve been writing dark literary fiction for decades — I’m used to being unpopular and not widely read. Medium is a place where I understand the geography and social order and know where I fit.
After I sorted out my social network situation based on Cal Newport’s book (buy it — I made an impulse $27 purchase at an airport bookstore, and as Edith Piaf so sagely sang, I’ve no regrets), here’s what I did:
I set up weekly Skype dates with old peers and friends I hadn’t spoken to in a while. There’s no agenda other than to talk to a human. I miss that. I miss cues and decoding body language. I miss vibing off of someone’s physical energy and breath. We talk about our respective careers, lives, and children (my cat’s my kid, so there’s that). I take long walks with a few friends in L.A., people with whom I can be myself. I go out alone without my earbuds and phone, armed only with a pen and notebook.
I spend time writing and sharing work that means something to me and moves and educates people. I oscillate between my two storytelling worlds — story writing and marketing — and I love the feeling of switching off one side of my brain and firing up another. I chat with a few via email and friendships form even though I’m shy and new people scare the fuck out of me. I buy cookbooks and make food that looks inviting to eat without posting pictures of it because I’ve nowhere to post. I share useful articles on LinkedIn and have real, engaging conversations with people about the contents.
I write emails to people whom I admire and want to work. I create presentations delivering narratives about how I work.
And it’s paying off.
I’ve had more new business calls in the past two weeks than I’ve had in the previous six months. I’m closing on two new clients. I’ve ceased discounting my work. I have the shape of my third book in my head, and now it’s about getting it onto paper, but I feel good because I’ve got a third of the book written and the pages are good. I’m firm about contract terms. I create the best work I possibly can because now I have time. No one tells you that. No one tells you how many hours of your life you get back when you’re not mindlessly scrolling. No one tells you that you’ll find what that elusive something is when you open your eyes and see.
That’s the something — being able to see.