Who hasn’t thought about ditching their social media accounts? Who hasn’t found themselves wasting way WAY too much time in some kind of nonsense online discussion? And then, in a brief moment of clarity after seemingly hours of fog, who hasn’t thought “this is starting to feel kinda toxic”?
I felt that tipping point a couple weeks ago when something happened on the WPA-L mailing list. I didn’t engage in the discussion there, but I did (rather foolishly) engage in too much of the back-channel conversation on Facebook, ultimately getting into that “why am I doing this toxic thing to myself?” kind of space.
A tangent/some unpopular thoughts about “that conversation” on WPA-L: first, I didn’t think it was so much an example of mansplaining as it was an example of what I described in my dissertation as an “immediate” rhetorical situation, the kind of miscommunication that happens in asynchronous electronic spaces (mailing lists, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) when the understanding of rhetor, audience, and message all become jumbled. I finished my dissertation on 1996, and one of the examples I have in chapter four is from a very similar (though not as gendered) discussion that went off the rails on ACW-L, a now defunct but similar listserv. But of course bringing this up as a possibility of what was going on was impossible. Besides, the conversation turned into one about mansplaining anyway. Second, I think the gender dynamics in composition/rhetoric are extremely complex. This is a field where there are more women than men, and it is a field where women occupy about the same number of positions of power as men in terms of being leaders, important scholars, high profile professors, and so forth. Third, I think the discussion environment on the WPA-L list had been turning kind of bad for a while, maybe because of the rise of other social media platforms, maybe because of something else. I generally don’t agree with the likes of Bill Maher who have complained that college campuses have become too “politically correct” and they can no longer tolerate any sort of divisive speakers or naughty comedians, but it does feel to me like there’s not a whole lot or room to stray too far from the party line on WPA-L anymore. And it also sure feels to me like the general toxicity of the Trump administration has poisoned everything, including what was a generally mild-mannered academic mailing list. We are all being constantly beaten down and made brittle from this disaster of a human who we elected (sort of) president and I am sure it will take us all years to get over this damage– if we ever can ever again feel “right” about trying to engage with people and ideas we don’t agree with. Let me put it this way: I was on WPA-L for a long time (20+ years?), and I do not think this would have happened during either the Obama administration or the Bush II administration.
Anyway, back to the toxicity: I decided I had had enough, and I needed to do something with how I’m engaging (and over-engaging) with social media.
So the first thing I did was sign off of WPA-L, after writing an email that I guess is easy to read as self-serving but I was trying to be sincere in thanking the group for all I learned over the years. Maybe I left too early, maybe I stayed too long (a lot of the backchannel discussion on Facebook consisted of people saying stuff like “oh, I got off of that shit show of a mailing list years ago”), maybe I was part of the problem and it will be better after I’m gone. Though it’s still a public list and easy enough to check in on once in a while.
Then Facebook. I thought briefly about just chucking the whole thing, but I still like it and I feel like I need to keep more than a toe in it because of friends and family, people I know at EMU and in academia, and because I teach a lot of stuff about Facebook and social media. So I went through my “friends” and I decided that my minimal standard for continued Facebook “friendship” was people who I sorta/kinda knew well enough that if I were to run into at a conference or something, I might recognize them and maybe even chat with them in a more or less friendly way. I went from about 650-700 down to about 460.
It was interesting culling that list. I don’t exactly know how the algorithms of who gets listed where on my friend list, but I think it’s people who post most frequently/recently first, and then everyone else in decreasing order of connectivity. I think a lot of my now former Facebook friends abandoned their accounts a while ago, and there were three or four folks on my list who had actually passed away in the last few years. Interestingly, I’m now noticing posts from folks who I hadn’t seen posting in a long time, again I suppose because of how the algorithms for what shows up where in my feed.
For Twitter, I’m kind of doing the opposite: I’m trying to read it a bit more, follow more people, and posting/retweeting more. Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that Twitter is also kind of a cesspool, but I don’t know, it doesn’t feel quite as contentious? Maybe the brevity of the form, maybe because of who I follow or don’t follow? Maybe it’s because there are so many tweets (I’m following just over 760 tweeters/people/media sources) it feels a lot more like channel surfing than engaging in a discussion? Plus I find more of the links to things more interesting, and a friend of mind told me about realtwitter.com, which (as far as I can tell) shows you real time updates of who I’m following– that is, it apparently skips by Twitter’s rankings and ads.
And Instagram is just fun. Instagram never pisses me off. Maybe I should just be doing Instagram and nothing else.
So we’ll see if this makes things less toxic-feeling. The next step (probably) will be to try to work harder at limiting my time spent in the social media soup.