Retweets, likes, and reblogs shaping how we speak and think

by Mr. Sheehy

These two environments, Twitter and Tumblr, have something important in common, which they share with most social media sites: they invite you to measure people’s response to you. For many people this probably means nothing, but on me it has always had an effect. Over the years I developed a sense of how many RTs a tweet was likely to earn, how many reblogs or likes a Tumblr post would receive – and I couldn’t help checking to see if my guesses were right. I never really cared anything about numbers of followers, and for a long time I think I covertly prided myself on that; but eventually I came to understand that I wanted my followers, however many there happened to be, to notice what I was saying and to acknowledge my wit or wisdom in the currency of RTs and faves. And over time I believe that desire shaped what I said, what I thought – what I noticed. I think it dulled my brain. I think it distracted me from the pursuit of more difficult, challenging ideas that don’t readily fit into the molds of social media.

Alan Jacobs is a smart man and I completely understand what he’s describing. No matter how much I might think the social media themes of Hunger Games apply only to teenagers and those with inferiority issues, I’m much more affected by such media than I’d like. One more reason for moderation.

I also find it interesting how much Jacobs’s (and to an extent my own) experience mirrors what David Foster Wallace describes in his essay “The Nature of the Fun.” Perhaps some of what Jacobs is describing is inherent in writing for an audience.

In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while. Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which – since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow – is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing – your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal. At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you’re writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked. This results in shitty fiction. And the shitty work must get fed to the wastebasket, less because of any sort of artistic integrity than simply because shitty work will cause you to be disliked. At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that’s always motivated you to write is now also what’s motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside yourself for months or even years, during which period you wail and gnash and rue your bad luck and wonder bitterly where all the fun of the thing could have gone.