Sam George-Allen’s Witches: What Women Do Together (Vintage) is KYD’s First Book Club pick for February. Read Ellen Cregan’s review of the book and join us for an in-conversation event at Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library on 27 March.
My boyfriend once said to me, You know I’ve never dreamed about my phone? I’ve never dreamed about my phone either, even though I panic when it’s not within arm’s reach.
Writing a book was dreamlike in a lot of ways, mostly because I am an undisciplined, easily distracted writer who slipped quickly into a habit of writing deep into the night. Sometimes I’d fall asleep at eight in the evening and wake up at 2am, shuffling to the desk to write for a few hours before falling back to sleep before dawn – like a medieval woman waking between little sleeps to pray. More often, though, the dream was a bad one: I would sit down to write and my procrastination would take hold. I would find myself compulsively flicking between apps and refreshing streams; it felt like my brain was forgetting how to think. I realised that in order to actually write the damn book, I would have to learn how to trick myself into doing the work – tuning out the eternal hum of others’ content and turning thoughts into words. One of these tricks was to ban myself from social media.
I’ve been using social media for more than ten years. I had a MySpace and a LiveJournal from at least 14, made my first Facebook account at age 17, followed it swiftly with a Tumblr, joined Twitter at age 19, and along the way acquired Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit, and, for a hot minute, Vine and Snapchat. Although I don’t have an addictive personality, I do have the kind of fragile, overcompensating, desperate-for-affection ego that is efficiently trained by small, inconsistent doses of dopamine in the form of social approval. I loved the time I spent online.
I realised that in order to actually write the damn book, I would have to trick myself into doing the work – one of these tricks was to ban myself from social media.
I even wrote about it in my book: a chapter on online beauty communities, and their norm-subverting collaborative power to take the expertise out of the hands of a few pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies and place it within reach of the many. For lots of women, online spaces are more welcoming than meatspace. Your physical appearance can, if you want, remain irrelevant; you can dip in and out of a conversation at will, with no fear of social burnout; and while there are trolls in their hundreds of thousands, there is also a muscular community of other women, most of whom you will never meet in real life, ready to support and defend you.
So this was what I thought might work as a carrot to dangle in front of myself as I worked through that dream state of finishing a manuscript. I told myself: finish this book and you’ll be allowed back on Twitter. Finish this book and you can start participating in Facebook groups again. Finish this book and you’ll have that dopamine, that rush of connection, back in your life.
But something peculiar happened when I finally finished the manuscript and I realised I could, finally, redownload the apps: I felt a tinge of dread. Ignoring this, I trialled re-engaging, using the National Young Writers’ Festival as an opportunity to ease back in with some old-fashioned online networking. It gave me a panic attack. Every time I glanced at my phone, I saw another cursed red dot. The hashtagged tweets mounted up in numbers I could never hope to keep abreast of. I tweeted, then deleted, then re-tweeted limp 240-character combinations, trying in vain to condense the feeling of being at the festival – surrounded by people I knew and loved and half-knew and admired, impressed by ideas that I knew would take weeks to have their full impact – into one pithy take. I hated it. I deleted the app. I put my phone in my pocket for the rest of the festival.
I am no longer compatible with a platform that encourages me to condense myself into a simple tweet, post, or picture.
I am suspect of anyone who outright dismisses the new ways of being we’ve created in this post-internet world – and they are new ways of being, ones that are unavoidable for many of us. I can’t feasibly completely detach from online media platforms, no matter how much I’d like to, because I am an author who’s just written a book and I really would like people to know about it (and ideally buy it), and most people get their news from places like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. There’s nothing inherently wrong about these platforms. It’s just that, in the months I spent in the dream without my phone, my priorities shifted unexpectedly and entirely.
I am no longer compatible with a platform that encourages me to condense myself into a simple tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram picture.
These days I have dedicated author accounts – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – because I’ve always been good at compartmentalisation, and tweeting as a character (‘Author Sam’, that chirpy nerd) doesn’t make me feel as queasy as tweeting as myself. I have begun to transition back into a bodily existence. After I quit Twitter, I started keeping notes of all the silly observations and jokes and hot takes that I would otherwise thoughtlessly tweeted. Some of them I sent to my friends or my partner. Some became the germ of longer pieces of writing. But eventually, the urge to record every little moment of possible profundity left me. My internal monologue came back, in all its private indulgence, no longer primed for an audience but dishevelled and luxurious: a dream, just for me.