The Black Social Media Paradox
For a long time I have been trying to parse out what happened with me and social media, but as soon as I realized I was addicted to it I had to quit for a second and step back. The results of this were stunning, not just as a writer, intellectual, and journalist, but as a Black woman, creative and entrepreneur.
In 2008, I was a newspaper journalist and library school student at the University of Texas Austin when I joined Twitter for the first time; the following year, I joined Facebook. I signed up for Tumblr shortly thereafter.
I prefer Twitter over all of these for ease of use and nostalgia purposes. One of my most bittersweet memories of the earlier days on the platform was watching tweets on a world map displayed from an overhead projector during the Virginia Tech shooting. Twitter became the preferred method for sharing resources and breaking news for a reason — though obviously it’s not immune to some of the problems and challenges of other platforms or networks.
It also appeals to the writer in me. Twitter is also the home of #BlackTwitter, a modern day articulation of myriad aspects of the oral tradition in ample evidence throughout the Black Diaspora. For the best, most complete understanding of #BlackTwitter, I direct you to my colleague Dr. Meredith D. Clark has been leading scholarship on the topic since 2010.
Facebook, though, has been more of a mixed bag. Back then, it had just opened up to allow anyone to join — not just people with .edu email addresses — and I had a tiny community. (My community, I must say, is still not that large.)
It could have been that my life was different, too and vastly so, which I’ll get into a little later, because of course (as you would hope) all of this is connected. But I would go on to have, over the course of nearly a decade, approximately three positive real life outcomes fostered by Facebook. Two of those three were with people I already knew in real life but had no other means of bringing together in real time in another way.
In contrast, I have lost count of how many irritating, alienating, annoying, depressing, draining, exhausting, traumatic and in one recent case, scary encounters I’ve faced as a result of Facebook or one of the properties it owns — WhatsApp and Instagram.
Facebook, it won’t surprise you, is central to this story and my discontent because it is the best example of an extremely valuable — As of March 2018, Facebook’s Market Value was reported by Fortune Magazine at $464.1 billion — global multimedia platform that has profited without governmental regulation from the free and cheap intellectual labor of Black and brown people the world over for many years while simultaneously absolving itself any responsibility to any entity of any kind.
This is important for a couple of reasons.
First, I want to be clear that this is not a Delete Facebook screed. I have friends and allies who work at Facebook and I don’t believe we should throw people or organizations away because they make mistakes and fail to learn from them (though it does give me pause that the majority of people in the world now rely on Facebook for news and even when they suspect it might be fake they go ahead and spread it anyway ; it makes me especially furious that Facebook pretends to be neutral and innocuous in light of this reality.)
But that last point gets to the heart of my conundrum. Everyone, especially those of us in the gig economy, relies on these platforms now for information and, to some extent, to make money; some more than others. I wonder: is it possible to completely divest from Facebook and Instagram as a writer, knowing what I do about how central it is in terms of promotion, sales and global commerce? If I can’t divest, how can I protect my mind and my heart while also being productive, creative and engaged in the real lives of the people I love and care about most?
It’s also important and has to be said that completely divesting from any of these platforms or corporations is unrealistic for most of us. As a creative, writer and entrepreneur, I don’t have the kind of following yet of a reality TV star or an actor, (speak it into existence, you all keep saying) but I do OK.
I’ve learned through a combination of self-publishing, via Smashwords and Amazon’s CreateSpace, and traditional publishing, that there’s no marketing without a social media presence. You want to be a writer? You need a blog, maybe more than one, actually. You gotta blog, find a topic. Then make a Facebook Page. But that was ten years ago.
Now you need an Instagram handle, a YouTube channel. Probably at least one, if you’re lucky.
I learned through failure for several years to get literary representation before securing two that in order to make any kind of headway in the business as a beginning writer — no matter how talented or charismatic, beautiful, young and the more of the latter two, the better — the more you need to be invested in Instagram in particular these days.
This story, from the October 2018 issue of The Atlantic, is the best example of what I mean:
“Social-media poets, using Instagram as a marketing tool, are not just artists — they’re entrepreneurs. They still primarily earn money through publication and live events, but sharing their work on Instagram is now what opens up the possibility for both. (Rupi) Kaur, the ultimate poet-entrepreneur, said she approaches poetry like “running a business.” A day in the life can consist of all-day writing, touring, or, perhaps unprecedented for a poet, time in the office with her team to oversee operations and manage projects.
Building their own mini brands, poets can harness e-commerce to supplement their income. Some sell merchandise such as mugs printed with their poetry and, in a mimicry of the aestheticized square of Instagram, “hand-typed poems of your choice” in shadow box frames. Atticus’s website features a shop called the Atticus Collective, where customers can purchase products inscribed with his words, from a massive $35 poster to a $174 “talisman.”
The ever-growing popularity of these poets also makes them valuable to other brands, providing newer and bigger ways to commodify their words.
The implicit assumption is that writers are now expected to be brands.
But not all writers. Not, say, Jonathan Franzen. But he proves my point, actually, because he’s a white guy writer.
Women, people of color, marginalized writers, maybe are expected to be brands. But I don’t really see white guy writers out here branding themselves as commodities as much. Do you ?
Here’s the other thing. What if you’re not trying to be sold?
The creative entrepreneur-as-brand is just a weird thing for me as a Black woman working constantly on my liberation in a country with an unreconciled legacy of slavery because I am not for sale, but my work has to be in order for me to live.
The distinction is incredibly important.
In order to survive, I have to sell a version of myself according to filtered market demands without having any control or agency over who sees my posts — these decisions are all presumably made by white engineers inside the Facebook matrix of some 33,000 employees who are paid. I am, conversely, not paid for the time it takes to “curate” my posts, respond to people who “engage” with me there, send direct messages at all hours of the night and day and more and more and more. There are no boundaries in this constant world of interaction.
I’m certain Kaur’s work is lovely, like all the other poets of Instagram, but I don’t have time to read one more thing, for one. And without having that extra time, I couldn’t know, and this is subjective, but I can’t think of any great writers (subjective as that language is) I know who operate at the pace or scale at which you would need to in order to actually make money in order to self-sustain if this were your sole means of making money.
In fact, the great paradox here is that to create work of lasting literary value, you need to stay the hell away from social media because it steals time. Toni Morrison is one of a few writers who has said that she was thinking about a novel — the one I’ve read her say this about was Beloved — for roughly three years, before she even put pen to paper.
I spent fifteen years writing and revising my self-published memoir. From inception to publication, my journalism textbook, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why The Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color, published as part of Praeger/ABC-CLIO’s Racism in American Institutions Series in 2015 took more than a few years. This was also while I was working more than a couple of jobs at the same time, blogging, freelancing, consulting, contracting and before I got addicted to Instagram.
The thing about social media stealing time is important because it’s a thing we all know and hear and sense but for Black women, this is critical and important information. Here’s why: Black women have some of the highest health disparities in the country, including one of the lowest life expectancy rates — our average life expectancy caps out at about 81. That means our lives are the shortest because we are stressed out.
Why, pray tell, are we stressed out?
Because we take care of everybody else. All the time. Why? Because we largely don’t have boundaries. We never say no. We give away our power. We have been taught that this is the cheat code to community. This is how we get affirmed, how we are loved. But this is a lie.
This is what kills us.
Social media is another kind of slow death in a less overt way. It is pernicious in that it seductively steals time through the lie of fostering connection while also reorganizing information in ways that we can’t see so we have taught ourselves not to care about the order.
This brought me way back to my time in library school, when I read a book called Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. He describes a concept that took me a minute to figure out how to articulate in connection with the ideas here:
“Businesses suffer from the effects of essentialism…when they assume they know what their products are for…and when they stick too closely and too long to their mission statements. The very concept of a market smacks of essentialism’s tendency to define matters too clearly. Marketers have acted as if their job is to come up with messages that will appeal to markets segmented by demographics. Particular demographic properties are selected because the marketers believe they define a group susceptible to the same message; hence 18-to-24-year-old suburban males get the “It’ll make you tough” advertising while the females get the “Boys will like you” message. The market exists as something that will receive a message… Thinking that 18-to-24 suburban males exist as a market — as something more than a random slice — gets in the way of seeing the truly random phenomenon: miscellaneous customers finding one another in the digital world and forming real social groups, not because they share essential demographic traits but because they’re talking with one another. The markets that conversations make are real markets, not mere statistical clusterings. Essentialism makes the world seem more manageable, but it can lead us to miss what’s really going on.”
The emphasis on Weinberger’s points in those two bolded areas are mine. They’re about — to me — connection, about what Black people and Black women in particular foster online, why it’s so hard for us to divest from these platforms in particular.
They also made me think of two ancestors — General Harriet Tubman and Ella Baker.
One hundred and fifty-five years ago, Harriet Tubman, who was not able to write, memorized vital intelligence that allowed slaves — in the words of biographer Catherine Clinton — “to trade information for liberation.” The result was leading 150 soldiers in the middle of the night on June 2, 1863 up the Combahee River to free more than 750 slaves. I refer to her as General because she was a strategist even though she was not educated and no white man conferred authority upon her until after this heroic action; Black women are generally not given credit for our intellectual capabilities on par with our male peers but we should be.
“Who are your people?” This was Ella Baker, the civil rights organizer, strategist and quintessential insider-outsider’s famous question to all that she first encountered. For a brilliant overview of her life, you won’t find a better telling than Barbara Ransby’s biography. Baker is also (always) relevant because she believed in a grassroots model of organizing that is only now becoming popular because old hierarchies are falling apart — it’s based on another phrase she’s known for: “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
Though these two Black freedom fighting women were not of the same time or space, they operate on the same spiritual continuum in the Black imagination and in the modern era, as the Black Diaspora continues our quest to make meaning of our lives and the universe around us, we use the tools at our disposal to try to continue their work to discern what information and what communities will connect us to our freedom.
Essentialism, as I think Weinberger means it, and in the context of a business that was defined too clearly in light of markets and social media made me think of these black women because I have heard Mark Zuckerberg talk about wanting to bring people together, now, for over a decade. The mission statement for Facebook, says it gives “people the power to build community and brings the world closer together.”
I have been fascinated by how vague this statement is, how oft-repeated, and yet, how appropriate. By being generic, it explains so much. It also tells us exactly what it is, who Zuckerberg and his leaders are, who they consider the most important communities, and when they talk about bringing the world closer together, who, exactly, they mean.
In its 2018 Social Media Use report earlier this year, the Pew Research Center noted the persistent trend of Black adults as the majority users on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn and Twitter. Latinx Americans are the majority users of YouTube (78%) and WhatsApp (49%), respectively.
The majority of Americans still use Facebook at least once a day (68%), (though you get the sense they wish they could stop, as if they’re being forced.) This is a trend related to the addictiveness of the platforms which I’ll talk about later: “The share of social media users who say these platforms would be hard to give up has increased by 12 percentage points compared with a survey conducted in early 2014,” the report’s authors say.
For reasons probably having to do with the credibility problems that have taken a toll since the 2016 election, more adults use Instagram than they did almost three years ago. I think people just want to look at pretty pictures — I know I do.
But Black people set consumer trends in excess of $1.2 trillion, annually. We saw this even before the success of “A Wrinkle In Time” and “Black Panther” and several other examples that often are erased in favor of more depressing news about Black pain. The reason Black “content” — a word I despise as a writer because it makes it sound like I sit around making cookie cutter boxes all day instead of thinking strategically about crafting sentences like people in possession of advanced degrees and specialized expertise — succeeds is because Black people build community on these larger platforms and then we go support each other in real life.
This is a time-tested model that harkens back to the Black church, to a centuries long political organizing strategy , and even before that, the strategy of wise Black women like General Harriet Tubman, trading and memorizing information for liberation.We find our people, like Ella Baker eloquently put it, on these networks, without knowing, often, that’s who they will become.
Increasingly, doing so, however, does not come without a cost. It’s always hard to gauge what the return on investment is going to be. I can’t think of a single Black woman in the modern era who has built a team or led something like General Tubman or Ella Baker that is in the spirit of liberation that will be of lasting value for our community while they were simultaneously posting on Facebook or Instagram. Can you? [I actually would welcome push back here, if you can find examples.]
Let me also note this, which I only stopped to think more deeply about in the last six months, because of how much my time as an entrepreneur and writer is worth compared to how I’ve been treating it.
In a recent press release Mark Zuckerberg noted that the “business and the community” continues to grow quickly and that “now, more than 2 billion people use at least one of our services every day.” That these two things can be true even knowing all that we know about how damaging Facebook is for Black people and Black women in particular is what led me to write this after almost nine years of being almost completely loyal to the platform and to the notion of its mission statement as truth.
Of course I always knew and suspected what Black folks know, which is that Facebook is like most other tech companies and diversity is an issue. White men like to hire people who make them feel comfortable and Black people do not. (This is another post; Mark Luckie’s piece comes later.)
But we know these things, and have known them and ignored them as users for years, general corporate longstanding hiring practices and biases aside:
Facebook generally does not uphold the same standards of ethical integrity with regards to Black Lives Matter or abolitionist posts as it does with regards to the posts of white supremacist meanderings or political ramblings.
Facebook allowed for the undermining of our democracy by the Russian government through operatives posing as fake Black Lives Matter “extremists” on the platform.
Facebook destroyed local journalism but even if you thought that was too strong a statement, it at the very least played a bully’s role in undermining it with aggressively bad information about pivoting to video that was completely unnecessary in that YouTube is already killing it in ways that don’t require Facebook Watch to replicate.
Facebook has enabled genocide in Myanmar and chaos, along with news dependency, in the Philippines despite giving the appearance of “trying to bring the world together” or giving people the “power to build community” to no avail, according to the people who have tried to appeal to some of the 33,000 employees who work at Facebook who have been hired to help save some lives or make some lives better in real time.
This is just a partial list. I am not even talking about the summers of trauma when I scrolled past posts of Black girls being dragged by their braids by grown white police officers and it took all my strength to get out of bed and get ready for work and worse before I realized there was research showing that Black women experience symptoms not unlike PTSD from exposure to police brutality online.
Of course Facebook wouldn’t care about a thing like that though. The keywords in an essentialism context is “Our community and business.” And that means, by definition, the “essence of an ultimate reality.” In a non-diverse, unchanging, unrelenting white male engineer’s mindset, that ultimate reality is a white male mental model and we — meaning Black women and what ails us — are not his people.
I have had good experiences on Facebook, otherwise it would have been much easier to simply delete my account.
In April, during a trip to Italy, I posted frequently on Facebook and Instagram, but not too much. I didn’t want to encourage too much FOMO and I legit wanted to enjoy my trip with friends.
But the posting in this case led to the realization that a childhood friend I knew from middle school had relocated to the same Italian city as my sister and I connected with her before my trip was over. Nyaima is one of the few people in the world who is actually, truly, one of my people — and now, thanks to Facebook, so is her husband.
I was able, in real life, to connect them to my sister and her husband, who both work at the same place. Thanks to Zuck, I was able to connect Black Americans who are not quite expatriates with a sister in the Bronx who loves them all.
By May, I was back to reality, though. I was facing my biggest fear and toughest creative challenge: Writing full time in New York. I don’t have a safety net or a trust fund. My parents are no longer living. If I fail, there’s not really a back up plan. I wouldn’t return to homelessness, but I would be humiliated and that feels close, somehow.
I knew I could do it but at 40, in this grueling, ever-shifting media landscape, which I have been a part of now since 1998, now with selfies!…I was not so sure. I mostly wanted to crawl into a ball with a book that would tell me how to best update my master’s in library science from nine years ago (No time for that, I’m afraid.)
Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say I put it off.
Procrastination is kind of my jam — well, it used to be. Back when I wasn’t really my healthiest. I did it to avoid taking up space.
Procrastination is avoidance and I do my best to not avoid things as a healthy adult. Except when it comes to protecting what I love.
Here is the rub. I felt like I loved myself enough to shield myself from what was sabotaging my craft but I wasn’t. Wasting my time online was a way of stealing my life force and creativity from myself. It was a way of staying stuck and small and not finding out what I could make or do.
Under the guise of “cultivating a social media presence” it felt like work, but it also always felt fake and false and not like the real me at all, but a way of hiding my real self. A way of not growing into myself or my power.
It’s not a coincidence that every time I went to a mountain in 2018, I went silent on Facebook and Instagram, but I didn’t realize it until I was writing this essay. And writing this now makes it sound like I’ve been to a mountain range monthly — I’m surprised to report that I went to three mountains this year — but the most transformative trip was the first in Estes Park Colorado with GirlTrek with 400 Black women for #StressProtest Labor Day weekend.
Mountains to me are sacred spaces, like church. I’m a city girl, used to the noise of cars with lights that flash and parts that beep and owners that honk — a world full of things always calling out for attention, threatening my senses with overwhelm.
Mountains just stand. Still, ancient, dark: They have special rules of engagement. Even if you come to them as a sign that you only belong, in the end, to yourself, mountains are a reminder of the particular traditions and etiquette you need to follow to claim even that.
Between the trip at the end of April and when I returned home in May, things were real. They were good.
The second amazing thing that happened was that through posting on a closed Facebook Group, I connected to an editor that landed me my first cover for Backstage magazine writing about John David Washington, who starred in one of the best movies of the year, Black KkKlansman.
It was a beautiful, intense summer. I nearly got heat stroke. I worked harder than I have in a really long time. I was incredibly productive. I met amazing people, I wrote a lot. After being away from home for weeks, I traveled to Colorado to write about this restorative weekend for Black women as a solution to racial stress.
Girl Trek is a community of Black women walking to save their own lives.There are dozens of Facebook Groups in every city in the U.S. that meet up to walk together, to encourage one another’s wellness. Given that Black women have the highest rates of heart disease, breast cancer diagnoses, diabetes complications, maternal mortality rates and so much more, that Girl Trek is working to get 1 million Black women to pledge to walk themselves to health gives me hope and joy that there are people working on community-based solutions that are truly about community and not just lip service.
Every Labor Day weekend, Girl Trek, co founded by Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, coordinates #StressProtest and encourages Black women to unplug. But I was there to record and to write (Disclaimer: Girl Trek supported my trip with a travel stipend, which is not common journalistic practice, but I needed the support and I’m glad that I took it; the day I went the Village Voice, which had been a steady and main source of income for me had announced while I was en route to Colorado that they would stop publishing new content.)
Audre Lorde’s famous message to us all was emblazoned on the rug below our feet where we all danced on the first night. We were all there to try to heal ourselves and walk ourselves back to health, safety and sanity. “I would ask,” Garrison said, “That you break down every barrier and old belief about yourself and other Black women for the next three days to walk away with a new sense of possibility.”
I believe deeply in the healing power of mountains, though I have had a hard time relearning how to unplug. By the time I got to Rocky Mountain National Park, I was using social all the time, operating out of the Insta-Poets model that if I am a brand, I have to operate like a machine, even if I’m tired, even if it’s not sustainable, even when I’m broken down and worn out. I tried to find a middle ground — maybe I would post on certain days but not on others; post some kinds of things on my professional page, but other things on my personal page, but that felt crazymaking.
When you write and work for yourself, these kinds of decisions and negotiations start to seriously feel like a luxury that you don’t have time for. Like there’s no time to complain, especially as a Black woman.
“I just want us to take time,” Girl Trek co-founder Morgan Dixon said, “to be here. Black women rush every moment of our lives to prove ourselves. They have been trying to kill us for 400 years and the fact that you are sitting here is a miracle.”
I heard it. I listened. I wrote it down. It would be a couple more trips to a couple more mountains before I was able to receive it.
The thing that has been hardest for me to grapple with and accept is why.
There’s a case to be made for talking about journalism in connection to trauma because there are similarities that I have felt as a survivor of Adverse Childhood Experiences. The main one is a sense of hypervigilance — constantly scanning your environment for signs of danger. Journalists have to always watch the world and Twitter in particular allows for that, especially when you have a cruel narcissist “leading” the White House who has, time and again, leveled his cruelty against Black women using the platform like his personal news service and has empowered others to do the same.
Untangling my codependent and addictive relationship with social media, specifically Facebook and Instagram has its roots in my specific journey but I think there might be something in it that’s useful for others based on the real world conversations I’ve had over the past six months which is why I felt called to share this here in this way.
Here are the things that I always negotiate within the first 10 minutes of waking up in the morning:
· Should I reach for my phone because — as we joke without laughing — the world is ending, or should I meditate first, because if the world is ending, I’ll need to stay calm?
· Because I now know how much adults touch their phones every day (More than 2,600 times for the average adult, about 5,400 for the top ten percent) I don’t count how often I touch my iPhone, but I am always mindful of my addiction to it and ask myself, “How long can you wait before you touch the thing?”
· “Are any of these notifications urgent? What is your definition of urgent? Is it more important than the 15 minutes of meditation? Why?”
This used to happen, until recently, before my writing, which, thankfully, I’ve been able to make my priority again in a way that is far more productive.
But then there’s the engagement with others — my literary friends, my community online. As Ruth Whippman put it in a recent New York Times Opinion piece, there’s the sense that we are obligated not only to cultivate our brands and platforms as writers on a consistent (read: 24/7) basis, but that as good literary citizens, we can’t just create, share and engage about our own work — we have to, at the minimum, engage and share about the work of our friends, too. This is especially important since the gig economy is where nearly half of millennials now make their living and this is, we are told, the future of work:
In this cutthroat human marketplace, we are worth only as much as the sum of our metrics, so checking those metrics can become obsessive. What’s my Amazon ranking? How many likes? How many retweets? How many followers? (The word “followers” is in itself a clear indicator of something psychologically unhealthy going on — the standard term for the people we now spend the bulk of our time with sounds less like a functioning human relationship than the P.R. materials of the Branch Davidians.)
Of course a fair chunk of this mass selling frenzy is motivated by money. With a collapsing middle class, as well as close to zero job security and none of the benefits associated with it, self-marketing has become, for many, a necessity in order to eat.
But what’s more peculiar is just how imperfectly all this correlates with financial need or even greed. The sad truth is that many of us would probably make more money stacking shelves or working at the drive-through than selling our “thing.” The real prize is deeper, more existential. What this is really about, for many of us, is a roaring black hole of psychological need.
After a couple of decades of constant advice to “follow our passions” and “live our dreams,” for a certain type of relatively privileged modern freelancer, nothing less than total self-actualization at work now seems enough. But this leaves us with an angsty mismatch between personal expectation and economic reality. So we shackle our self-worth to the success of these projects — the book or blog post or range of crocheted stuffed penguins becomes a proxy for our very soul. In the new economy you can be your own boss and your own ugly bug brooch.
My sense is that I’m not alone, though I wish that this was actually one of the ways in which I were unique. It feels terrifying to be addicted to anything, to me, because it is the absence of freedom.
But we’re all addicted to something. Fear of missing out, of missing each other. Fear of being alone. Fear of intimacy. Fear of ourselves. Fear of our potential. Our fear of what we could create if we could stop thinking about everything else that is not the present moment.
It helps to understand how I got this way, so let me explain.
My first exposure to computers was around 1991. I would have been in seventh or eighth grade at De La Salle Academy, a school for gifted disadvantaged minority youth.
These were likely donated first-generation Macintosh 128K computers — Apple’s predecessors — narrow gray boxes donning rainbow apples like lapel pins. Before the introduction of computers into my life, I lived mainly in my head and heart and on paper.
We were kids, and our connection to the new World Wide Web as everyone called it then was monitored heavily in middle school, as it should have been. We mostly used the computer to learn simple computing concepts. I would be exposed again to these computers in night classes with my mother at Career Blazers; as I learned how to type on a fun program called Typing Tutor to the pass the time while she tried to get retrained to get work, to no avail.
As long as I was living in the Bronx, and as my mother and I moved around a lot, as poor women do because there is no security, especially in a city as expensive as New York, we didn’t even think about computers. No one I knew had one at home or even talked about getting one. This was an era of being largely unplugged unless you had a pager.
People who had pagers or beepers were drug dealers. Or something else that I had no business knowing about so I didn’t; but other than that, we were all always off the grid. This is how I became a writer. I spent a lot of time lonely and alone with no money to do anything else but read or watch television. I chose the former, which led to writing when the latter bored me after too long.
It’s important to note that when I was a kid, my boredom and loneliness were aligned. They felt, in some ways, like the same emotion, even though I knew they were different, in my mind. I could feel, in other words, that not having anything to do in part because I didn’t have any money felt like an especially isolating thing. It gave me a restless anxiety that I didn’t have words for.
But I was always really curious about the world around me, wanting to find the next thing. I didn’t actually think that boredom was a condition that could apply to me so much as I worried that the world would forget about me. I did not want to be forgotten forever by time, by my mother, by the world. When I spent too much time by myself, and without something to really feed my mind, I occupied the space in my brain with these thoughts.
For the sake of time, I’ll fast forward to the next time I felt extremely lonely and alone and this merged with the Internet as I connected to a kind of social media for the first time.
The summer after I started working my first adult job in Texas, as part of a two-year newspaper fellowship with Hearst Newspapers where I moved every six months for two years, I landed in Beaumont, Texas.
Beaumont is not far from Jasper, Texas where James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death by white racists. Nobody likes that this is the first thing that you bring up about the area — they would prefer that you talk about the fact that Janis Joplin was from nearby Port Arthur.
Parts of the area were (and I’m sure are still) home to the Ku Klux Klan and I was warned that if my car broke down in Vidor — an exurb, of sorts — I should abandon it, stat.
There are not a lot of places in Beaumont with sidewalks and nothing to do in the city if you don’t have family there, so I spent a lot of time eating with my one friend at the paper, a septuagenarian named Marie and her boyfriend Herb at McKenzie’s Pub during $5 steak night every Thursday for roughly five months or, when I got really stir crazy and couldn’t take my cat Heathcliff trying to claw his way out of the second floor window (and basically destroying every dollar of my much-needed security deposit) by way of the window screen, at the 24-hour WalMart.
“I think I might get a gun,” I said, near tears, in one of my first conversations with one of my friends from back home.
“Oh is it really that bad?”
“Worse than you can even imagine,” I said.
This is when I discovered BlackPlanet. I don’t remember if I found Friendster before or after. But I was lacking a real-life community, and I didn’t need more white people in my life, I needed Black ones.
I went back to what felt like home, even if it was virtual. On BlackPlanet chat rooms, I discovered, quickly, that I had less in common with 90 percent of Black people in BlackPlanet chat rooms than I had in common with Marie and Herb. But there was still that ten percent where there seemed to be some overlap.
That ten percent was the group I was looking for. I didn’t even want them to be my friends in real life — I had those. I didn’t need any more. I just wanted to see and read what other Black people were talking about. I wanted to be in conversation with my people online in some kind of protected peace.
I was single, and on the second six-month segment of a two-year fellowship when I would be moving again to two different cities. I did not make a connection between the virtual world and the real world until I moved to Seattle six months later.
That Music Site
There’s a really popular band that I love that was a pioneer in online message boards which I discovered through an acquaintance in Seattle when I moved there for the third stop on my fellowship.
This site, which I won’t name but some of you will know because we’re friends, is and was the closest I think I’ll ever get to being in a sorority or a secret club with special rules. One of the unspoken rules of this group is that you don’t really talk about it by name and drive outsiders to the message boards because they mess up the dynamic and it gets weirder before it gets more fun and that’s awkward for everyone — mostly the old heads.
But I found this site right after I got to Seattle right before September 11th. And that was why it was especially important.
The distance that I felt from New York, my hometown — emotionally and physically — on the day our nation was fundamentally changed has always been hard to describe adequately. I won’t try here.
What is most true about it is that what shifted for me was understanding my loneliness. I was 23 and suddenly felt that dying in a terrorist attack or losing someone I loved in one was a real possibility that had not occurred to me before. I was not connected to anyone in the States — my sister was abroad at the time — so it would take days, if not longer, for anyone to know if anything happened to me because of how much I moved, the nature of my work and my private, secretive, (but winning?!) quirky personality.
I was a full year into working full time as a newspaper reporter. I was the furthest I had ever been from home. I was in a very beautiful place that I had driven to myself. I had never felt so alone in my life.
When you become a journalist, no one tells you that you never stop being a journalist, it’s just in you. You are a witness to everything, even your own experience. You report things, you ask questions, you gather information, even about your own life, as a reflex. This is where social media can become dangerous for Black women like me, Black women who seek connection and belonging as a validator, as healing, as a life line.
The message boards of this music site became more than what they were for a host of reasons. They were a portal to another world, another life. They let me begin to shape a different version of myself, since you could post your thoughts and ideas without a picture. You could see how many people viewed your post, and you could post and lead topics, and get your fix through engaging with others by seeing how many people responded to your post.
I made friends this way that I still cherish. I also made some quick enemies because of my own bad decisions, my own selfish and narcissistic actions. There were moments when I forgot that people were flesh and blood and not just screen names. Sometimes, by the time I remembered, it was too late to undo what I had done. Sometimes, I was afforded more grace. Sometimes I afforded them some, too.
The most important thing to know about this site at this point in my life, though, is that I was becoming as addicted to it as I was to anything else in my life. I was a smoker and a heavy drinker, but to give you a sense of where I thought my addiction to the Internet message boards, these precursors of social media fit in comparison, I was certain that I could quit cigarettes or give up booze whenever. I didn’t think I could give up the boards.
I was so firmly in denial about my addiction to social media even in its nascent forms that I didn’t even consider it to be a real thing, so I let it spiral out of control. The boards had gotten me in trouble with ladies and gentlemen alike so I stopped posting. I had friends from there and then I didn’t.
It was around this time that I was informed, by a social worker in Philly where my Mom lived at the time, that my mother officially had bipolar disorder and possibly borderline personality disorder. These would have been helpful things to know growing up with her, since her disordered thinking led to our poverty, multiple evictions, homelessness and a lot of chaos and sometimes physical abuse. She also, at one point, when I was a teenager, threatened to kill me in a pretty pivotal moment that took a long time to come back from.
As a result of living with these things for an extended period of time, and not really processing them correctly, I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, though no one told me that for awhile and I wouldn’t have language for some of the reasons for my addictive behaviors (the smoking, the drinking and potentially the social media) until years later.
One of the symptoms of PTSD that manifested for me time and again was hypervigilance, a state of heightened arousal. It can become like paranoia. It can manifest physically, in the form of sweating palms and emotionally as anxiety in response to perceived threats that usually aren’t real.
Journalism maps to trauma in this way, in that it rewards you for being hypervigilant. The more hypervigilant you are, the more likely you are to break news, for example. To get the story first. To have an emotional, evocative hot take. I did all of these things, repeatedly and I was good at it.
And then, I began to feel that I was in a profession that didn’t value me for who I was and that bothered me. But I wasn’t sure if that was a real emotion or not until I met mentors and friends who confirmed that those feelings were valid.
I didn’t know what to do about them. I couldn’t just quit. What was I going to do for money, I thought incredulously. Work for myself!?
Crazy. I needed a plan. All grown Black women have a plan that involves a job with a steady paycheck and benefits. Since newspapers seemed to be doing a lot of things I didn’t understand, and because I felt like I needed to find a different career trajectory, I decided to leave my gig in San Francisco to move back to Texas.
I loved libraries. Audre Lorde was a poet and a librarian. I could be a poet, a writer and a librarian.
I became a lurker on those boards — one who reads, but doesn’t post — and then I stopped doing that.
I learned to meditate. I stopped smoking at least for a long time, anyway.
I started running — a lot. I felt freer. This continued, more or less, through 2006, when I went to the University of Texas School of Information.
I wanted to spend less time on the Internet and more time offline. It worked, more or less, until my mother received a Stage 4 cervical cancer diagnosis at the end of 2011. My father had died by suicide the year before in the spring, which I was working a couple of jobs, and I had not really made any space to grieve. When I learned my mother was going to die, I hit a wall.
I left my newspaper career. I started writing novels longhand in the middle of the night. I didn’t post much online except on Tumblr, which felt safest. I quietly started writing an e-book about Single Black women in the form of a blog to keep my mind occupied. I also started to reshape the memoir I had been working on for much of my young adult life at that point, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans.
I would self-publish the memoir about four years later, encouraged by my people, especially my dear friend, mentor and amazing writer Frank Bergon who had seen so many different iterations of the thing and understood that it wasn’t good to have so large and significant a project “fester inside you” for so long without having it out in the world.
But the second most amazing valuable thing Facebook ever provided for me was truly astounding. It was so moving and memorable, I would be remiss not to mention it.
My mother passed away in January 2012. I posted pretty frequently about my grief and for the most part, my people were able to hold me and make space for my grief. But then I sank for awhile and it got harder.
As Mother’s Day approached, I posted a request — the rare invitation to my home, a modest place on the “bad” part of town. I think I offered some Real Simple Key Lime pie recipe made with avocado and Shiner Bock beer, but I literally didn’t have the energy to offer anything else.
Dozens of my colleagues and friends, their babies and their dogs, showed up that Sunday. They filled my little house with their love, their sarcasm, their hugs. They brought snacks (I freakin’ love me some damn snacks!) they brought beer, they stood with me on my sunken back porch slab in the sun with my overgrown lilies and petted my dog Cleo who was excited to have more company than me to look at for a change and the house didn’t empty until sundown. That was six years ago. It was a moment I will cherish my entire life. Maybe I could have made it happen with an email, but I don’t think so.
I have never had a totally normal reaction to anyone suggesting that I completely unplug, but not for the reasons you might think. For one thing, writers have always been told, in one way or another, that we’re brands, even if we are rebellious and distinctive.
I can’t even remember the first time I heard or read this advice, but it must have been within the first decade I spent working on my memoir. Nonfiction proposals asked for the number of followers I had on the major platforms, which, back then, numbered a little more modestly than they do now in the low hundreds.
I’m curious about when this began — I imagine it tracks with the rise in popularity with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram usage as platform builders — the truth is that we are both brands and human beings. There are also deeply problematic connotations that come with positioning yourself as the site of profitability and marketing as a Black woman whose ancestors were slaves in this country on platforms where the majority of people who create and manage the infrastructure are white men in Silicon Valley.
Because what this then looks like is that the majority of people who are providing free emotional and actual, tangible labor on Facebook and Instagram are Black women and femmes, women of color and others who fall outside of the very privileged and already well-compensated sphere of those who benefit most from the platforms. This is putting aside the very important irony of the fact that Black Lives Matter activists and leaders are often censored on Facebook while posters who are sympathetic to white nationalists are not, demonstrating either a pervasive and systemic conscious or unconscious bias.
Nonetheless, being the analytical person I am, I wanted to know how best practices for building followings have changed over time. At some point, it was common practice, when blogging was the way you did things, to get the party started as early as possible in the morning. You posted first thing, especially if you were a journalist, and then you followed up with updates if there were breaking developments or other news. But at the very least, to remain in the stream of growing content, you posted daily.
Remember what I said earlier about not wanting to be forgotten by the world. This was, to me, like catnip.
What’s fascinating to me, is that by and large, all of the writing advice that suggests that writers should be positioning themselves by posting multiple times a day in selfless ways — “Don’t make it all about you!” “Give away advice for free!” — appear to be privileged non-marginalized writers who can afford to risk promoting themselves and their brands in this way.
The writers that they hold up as evidence –quality writers — are often not consistently or strategically, shrewdly active on social media because they are following their own personal wisdom — the wisdom that wins out over over everything, and taking the time to create quality work that they will promote when it’s time, instead of posting anxiously all the time like I used to do until I recently realized what I was doing and made myself stop.
“It feels like we’re all addicted to a drug that doesn’t get us high anymore,” she said of the decision. “So I wanted to make space for something that really does.”
This is the kicker quote in a November 13th article from the Washington Post from Bailey Richardson, one of the original creators of Instagram who deleted her Instagram account on September 26th.
The article goes on to say that Bailey Richardson is one of 68 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, who has quit or taken a break from social media this year. It notes the departure of 4 million users from Facebook, the notable departure of the people who started Instagram.
This is happening even as a majority of Americans who have been polled by Pew Research report getting news from Facebook, even if they (understandably) expect that news to be fake.
Over a year ago, I read this piece by Paul Lewis in the Guardian about the guy who engineered the Facebook ‘Like’ button and wondered about this reflex that we have as humans to comfort ourselves with the illusion of connection in the so-called “attention economy.” This was October 2017, before I read the follow up this year by the New York Times reiterating it, talking about Silicon Valley nannies reinforcing the same values: “It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned.”
It was also my first reconnection to myself, and my intuition, the quiet still voice inside of me that said, If the people who made these addictive features and technology are abandoning them, you definitely should, too.
I don’t have an answer for what that means in terms of branding and marketing my work. I hope that my fellow writer friends will not think me less of a literary citizen for not liking, engaging, sharing, or posting when instead, I’m writing, reading and trying to show up for myself and them in real life. If, in the end, that’s the case, I have to say, I have a feeling it will be worth losing those so called friends for the sake of my mental health and the future of my work in the world.
Time is like money — the more you have the more you can afford to waste. This is why rich white men and women are by and large not on social media even when — and, increasingly, it seems — when they have built it.
I am both hardwired for procrastination and tender about protecting my impulse for escapism. This makes me the perfect target to be addicted to social media, which allows for interaction without intimacy. Low stakes adjacent-to-community curation of a persona that looks like a life. Sometimes the impact follows you offline, in real life. The protective positive aspects of this for Black women are the best. The part where IG stories and Snaps “disappear” and FB Groups are “private” and you can “hide” different posts or “delete” them if you want.
But the reality is that nothing you create in the cloud belongs to you — not even yourself. I thought of this as soon as I read about Mark Luckie’s public description of anti-Black practices at Facebook both internally and externally even while Black folks are some of the most active users on all of its platforms.
I read the comment, “Stop supporting what hurts you” on a story about Facebook from a woman who was saying that even though everyone seems to understand what Facebook does, they still act/seem powerless to stop it, but they have agency. And that felt so empowering to read that it gave me pause.
It made me think of the wounds of low self-worth, how devaluing our time is devaluing our worth, how devaluing our time and wasting it away is a way of wasting our lives away, the very opposite of the Movement for Black Lives. I think about what kind of role model I am being for the children around me. I think about what my ancestors think.
There has always been a part of me that has been ambivalent about a long life, which is not the same thing as being ready to die (with all respect to Biggie) and not the same as being suicidal, which I am not. Living is hard, living well is harder and living well as a Black woman in America is a miracle still. Lucille Clifton said it better than anyone: won’t you celebrate with me/ that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed. Amen and 100 percent.
But as the most courageously vulnerable among us have remarked and said, sometimes you just don’t have it in you to be strong. You just want to give up. And there are a lot of days when I just don’t want to fight other people’s battles even though (or especially because) I can see them. I don’t want to know what I do or see what I see. I would prefer to be ignorant. I am not talking about avoiding the world, I’m talking about avoiding myself and there is no escape. This is the origin of my self sabotage, the root of my fear: That I am my worst hater, the cock blocker of prosperity, the one who will keep me from getting the bag, from having to negotiate what it means to be seen, to thrive instead of staying small.
Living a curated distant life is a fascinating psychological project for this very reason for someone who has healed from childhood trauma and the sources of the trauma are gone. Life can appear one way but all that matters in the end is how you feel and little else because that determines what you are capable of really doing on behalf of yourself and on behalf of others.
When I realized that most of my IG posts were a performance for one or two people and that neither of those people were myself, I could have decided to be mad at Facebook. But I have been with myself for a long ass time and I knew that I had to go get with her in a serious way in private, away from addictive feedback loops. For my own sanity. To actually feel influential in my body. To discover what would make me feel all the things I went to IG to feel: inspired, relaxed, reassured.
I don’t know if I am going to delete my Facebook account, but I’ve changed the way I interact with Facebook as a writer and a creative. It was helpful for me, for instance, to make it very inconvenient to post and take the apps off my phone so that I am not tempted to scroll when I take writing breaks. I have friends and family on IG and FB and I don’t want to abandon them, there are accounts I like to look at for fun and inspiration occasionally but I don’t want to get hooked again so I need this distance to discipline myself.
I don’t think it’s wise from a business perspective but also from a spiritual practice perspective to cut off things that you’re not sure how to navigate because they raise questions when you know that there are broader segments of your community — yourself included — that benefit from aspects of the platform. But it does help to reclaim agency and keep IG off my phone.
I will never go back to posting every day or on any kind of regular or consistent basis — I’m a human being, not a corporation or a machine. I think and sense that this is what my people respond to: authenticity. Personally, I am in search of serendipity and what is real and what helps me be present in this moment. Everything else is located somewhere else — the past or the future. I want all these moments before there are no more.
Trauma is a series of stories about the past that victimized you. Freedom is a series of stories about the endless possibilities unfolding for you in the present and in the future.
Back on that mountain in Colorado, Morgan said, “Stand in your power. The truth about freedom, the miracle of freedom, is that you have a choice. Practice a kind of freedom our ancestors never even dreamed about. Our bodies are healthier in freedom than in slavery. Be embodied on this planet. Right now.”
In 2018, I had an incredible year, but I also stole a lot of time and moments from myself.
2019 is the year when I begin to take all of them back.