The Cost of Being Contrary

Can a freelance writer survive without social media?

photo: Tom Sodoge on Unsplash

I quit teaching composition to pursue freelance writing full-time about five seconds ago. When the smoke cleared and I swallowed the fear-induced vomit climbing its way up my esophagus, I created a writer website and submerged myself in applicable research.

The first thing I noticed is social media — especially Facebook and Twitter — play a huge role in the success of up-and-coming writers. This discovery poses a problem, since I shunned Facebook a few years ago after realizing it made me loath friends and family who in other contexts seemed perfectly capable of rational behavior.

What started as dislike for a platform expanded into downright horror as I watched students salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at the end of each class when they were allowed to resume cellphone interaction. Not to mention the fear of having my picture taken on the sly one day, skirt hem mistakenly stuck in my underwear, only to become the next viral meme.

Professor anxiety aside, I recently found two artices, “While Everyone is Distracted by Social Media…” by Michael Simmons and “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids” by Richard Freed, that solidified my already well-established suspicions.

The point, then, is to use these articles to explain my trepidation while looking at two long-standing principles — psychological conformity and the consent theory of political obligation — which support my determined if not crippling desire to write free from the constraints of social media.

First, let’s define social media.

Spending time detailing what seems obvious may appear pointless, but hear me out. I distinguish between prolific social outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat) and professional development/networking sites (LinkedIn and Medium). One group encourages social interaction (ironic, isn’t it?) while the other looks to enrich professionals. They both have strengths and limitations (I’m not blind to the positive aspects of Facebook…I think the bad outweighs the good), but growing evidence points to one group more heavily contributing to addiction, depression, and interpersonal discord.

Article 1 — It’s a jungle out there, but we can fight through it.

In this piece, Simmons argues that to meaningfully mature as learners, we must sort through the shit to find the pony, though he says it more tactfully than that. Breaking down the data into manageable bites, he presents readers with the following:

  1. We are inundated with distractions in the form of “media junk food.” That is, there’s a ton of crap out there and if we’re not careful, it will deteriorate our minds.
  2. To combat the “sea of distraction,” he recommends being extra picky about the media we consume. If it won’t change your life, don’t read it.

It’s funny — Simmons’ writing doesn’t resort to fear mongering. His final thoughts are a hopeful call to action, not a battle cry of revolution. So why did it drive me further down this rabbit hole?

Because I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. Most writers crave the same. I don’t aim to contribute to the downfall of human edification by adding more useless media to our overstuffed feeds. True, I think my writing changes lives, but ask others if their work inspires the masses and they’ll likely answer in the affirmative.

More importantly, if I waste precious hours wrestling the mob on Facebook and Twitter for followers, how will that affect my writing? My agenda?

In truth, I fear tainting my work with the desire to be read. What if musicians created algorithms for writing #1 hits, conceiving chord changes and riffs to master the precarious sphere of public opinion?

We’d hate them for it.

Article 2 — It’s not just about us anymore.

Richard Freed’s piece takes an ugly turn, and his findings speak to me because I battle screen dependence every day with my young kids. When he lays out the ways these social media platforms target children, I feel sickened.

Vocationally necessary or not, I don’t see how I can engage with a medium I see as harmful to children. Can I, as a parent, control the effects of technology on my kids? To a certain extent, yes, and for a period of time.

I’m not naïve enough to think my influence will act as a panacea for very long, however. Soon enough, many of their friends will have access to cellphones and Twitter, and I can’t control what they absorb after skipping out the front door.

Ultimately, can I smother moral outrage for the sake of writing?

Psychological conformity and the struggle to think individually

The above video shows the famous Candid Camera episode, “Face the Rear.” In it, we see how our innate pull to conform can cripple common sense. When everyone around us believes and acts a certain way, intuition can subvert itself to popular opinion. Scary? Absolutely.

In fewer than three minutes, this video sums up why I’m experiencing a minute-by-minute battle to trust my instinct.

“The Consent Theory of Political Obligation” — watch out people, this one gets heavy.

This idea — an exhausting study of what it means to be under authority and consent to dominate entities— goes way back, finding its earliest origins in philosophers and political gurus like Socrates, Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke.

Their concepts intended to cover governing bodies specifically, but if you think we’re not being ruled by the internet and its luminaries, you haven’t been paying attention for the last twenty years.

Now — these men’s definitions and applications vary (how intellectuals love to disagree), but their treatises raise significant political and social questions:

  1. If people fail to explicitly stand against authority (governmental, corporate, or otherwise), does that make them complicit in any negative fallout?
  2. If citizens’ permission to be ruled lacks explicitness, is consent implied? This question’s implications are hairy as they relate to governments and their natural-born citizens but become useful in a discussion of technology…which leads to my next question.
  3. When people sign on to the internet and its various platforms, are they indirectly agreeing to all its terms and conditions? We could argue all day about whether users grasp entirely what happens to them online or if they’re given enough data to make informed decisions. Such debates get more complicated when we look at companies like Facebook and their recent privacy practices. Now that a light has been cast, however…
  4. If I use Facebook and Twitter to sustain a career, am I tacitly advocating for their behavior and all its lingering effects?

I’m not here to answer these questions absolutely, nor is my intent to sway anyone else. To do so would be presumptuous, at best.

But this stuff keeps me up at night.

We’ve covered all the moving parts; what does it mean?

It’s been a tough week. I have gone back and forth from one end of the issue to the other.

After presenting my case to a few close friends and family members, I was met with a lot of blank stares. Some comments went like this:

Why would you consider foregoing social media as a wannabe freelance writer? You may as well cut off both hands and see how well you’d write with your feet.

At one point, feeling thoroughly defeated, I resolved to join Twitter and Facebook by week’s end. I sat with that decision for a while, letting it marinate in my system.

This morning, after another restless night, I thumbed through my phone looking for something to postpone getting out of bed. I found Freed’s article and devoured it. Before I’d reached the end, I knew.

I. Just. Can’t.

The thing is, now that pragmatism and ideology are no longer battling for dominance, I feel relieved. I’m also terrified. I want to make a living at this so badly.

Will I be able to survive out there without the aid of 50,000 Twitter followers? I have no idea.

But I’m sure as hell gonna try.