When I was at school, we were told to keep our identities hidden online. Never disclose your address or your school or your phone number, not even your suburb. Keep the facts of your life secret and you will keep yourself safe. It’s easy to take this further, to apply it to other facets of your life. My friend’s mother once said to me, ‘don’t put it on social media if you wouldn’t want it painted across the sky’. And I carry this, I think – keeping vast tracts of my life well away from social media (the majority of which is filled with pictures of my horses, goats and cats).
But scrolling through my Facebook or Twitter feed, I have learnt which acquaintances of mine are furious at their parents; which ones are freshly divorced; which ones have a doctor’s appointment for blurred vision or headaches or a lump somewhere along the arm. I have learnt about their children’s mental health and how their parents died; I know what clothes they’ve just bought during a shopping binge. I know where they live, where they work and the day they came into the world.
There’s something voyeuristic about reading the feed of someone who shares so much. Some people seem to treat social media as a diary; every thought, every time they’ve been wronged, every moment of their lives typed into a computer or a phone, and sent out into cyberspace. There are so many people I have never met in real life, but who I feel, through Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram, like I already know. It can feel unsettling, greeting someone for the first time when you know intimate things about their lives. There is a question, always, of how much to acknowledge, whether to feign a sort of polite detachment or to be upfront and ask them how they’re finding that new anti-depressant, and how is their sister going since her divorce? This can be particularly difficult to navigate when these acquaintances are not just exciting new internet friends but also colleagues – writers, editors and publishers who are moving around the same industry circles as you are. In other places I’ve worked, colleagues were colleagues first and friendships developed over time. In the world of social media and writing, these two things happen in tandem. The edges of both become hazy.
Social media offers an intimacy which is unearned and demands no reciprocation. Yet it is easy to forget that it is not true intimacy. We are privy only to what the person wants us to know. What is fascinating to me is that for every person documenting on Facebook the state of their bed after their wedding night (no joke), there are people who are more guarded across their media platforms, divulging far less. I know what articles they enjoy, which of their friends they are proud of, what books they’re reading and the events they’ll be attending. I have no idea about their health, their families, their homes. There seems to be no pattern to it, no logic: The most intimate posters on social media consist of both the most outgoing and the most introverted people I know in real life. What governs one to divulge so much and another to divulge so little? How do they draw that line in the sand, marking the difference between what is comfortable to share and what is not? And is the person who divulges more really painting a fuller picture of themselves?
How is my identity as a professional writer distinct from my identity as a person?
Being on social media as a writer can sometimes feel quite blurry. We are told it is our brand; our way of interacting directly with readers, other industry professionals and that magical, ethereal group, potential readers. We are told to divulge details of our lives and be across multiple platforms. Yet, writing is a job, it’s something we are paid to do. With most jobs, there is an expectation to keep the professional and the personal separate. How is my identity as a professional writer distinct from my identity as a person? And how does this influence what I post and how I post it?
We writers are, by definition, avid storytellers, and social media provides innumerable platforms for storytelling. There is a temptation to divulge the moments in our lives – either warm, or funny or frightening. And social media allows us to do this with alarming and addictive immediacy, providing a ready audience of hundreds, if not thousands. I’m often immobilised by what I should or should not be posting. Is it inappropriate to be political? Is it unwise to share too much about the troubles of my family? Sometimes, I think of my social media accounts as a sort of workplace bulletin to which I’m tentative to add anything too intimate. Other times, social media feels as safe as a group of close friends, chatting away in front of a fire.
There is undoubtedly element of catharsis in the sharing of highly personal stories. Research suggests that life writing (such as a diary) is deeply therapeutic – as touched upon in Susan Henke’s Shattered Subjects (2000), envisaging an audience as you engage in life writing may be as therapeutic as attending sessions with a therapist. Diarists talk about the idea of the implied audience, the imagined person reading our entries over our shoulders, encouraging us to work through our thoughts and feelings. But on social media the audience is very real, and can talk back – is this not amplified when sharing our stories, watching the likes, retweets and comments roll in? Does this public validation add to the power of the transferral process of what is, in essence, a sort of life writing? Or does it simply make it more fraught, more dangerous?
Social media is not always a positive thing for a writer.
Social media is not always a positive thing for a writer. For every writer who has achieved wider publishing success on the back of their social media following, there are writers who have alienated vast tracts of their readership with thoughtless posts. Joyce Carol Oates’ books have received both commercial success and critical acclaim, but many of her tweets have proven divisive on topics such as religion, Nazism and race. In the age of the screenshot, something inappropriate posted for only a few minutes has the capacity to not only be the opposite of therapeutic, but to both haunt the user and potentially change the trajectory of their career.
Regardless of how much or little a writer divulges, or whether they attract adoration or ire, social media becomes a projection of the person it represents; a characterisation similar to that found in an autobiography, where the person chooses – for better or worse – how to portray themselves. It remains a fascinating mystery how one writer can decide to divulge so much and another writer so little. Their meanings, both intended and received, are subjective. And we are all, in the end, in charge of our own stories.