In January of 2015, I started the Write to Me project to critique my relationship with social media. Many articles and reports had been done on the effect of social media on our lives, and I wanted to personalize the research to see if the criticism was warranted and how social media was affecting my life. What I found out was a lesson in sharing and a deeper understanding of myself.
I was a late adopter of social media. In general, I don’t like to take on more tasks than absolutely necessary, and participating in social media is a task, even if it is an enjoyable one, most of the time. I am also very outspoken. I never come to a battle of wits unarmed, and I like to think that I always know my audience. Social media can be a great place to speak your mind, but you never really fully know who your audience is because of sharing. Your comments can be shared with others that you don’t know and could even go viral. Well, maybe not viral, but a good head cold can ensue for sure.
I generally don’t like to share as a rule. Don’t get me wrong, I am a very generous person, but I would rather buy two of anything than give away half of anything. Ask my sister, my friends, and anyone who has ever eaten with me. I like to think that it was my strict upbringing that focused heavily on the communicability of germs that caused my limited ability to share. I can still hear my mother say, “Don’t drink from anybody’s soda can or you will get herpes.” Or, “Don’t share hats or you will catch lice.” However, it might have been sharing a room with my little sister that had more to do with it. Regardless of the origin of this trait, let’s just say I am not a good sharer.
I remember how scary, yet exciting it was to write my first post on Facebook. I felt like a millions of unknown eyes were reading what I was writing. It wasn’t until later that I realized that many of my “friends” didn’t always see my posts, as they were busy making their own, so I was pretty safe to be an idiot every once in a while. I also felt kind of important; Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes” had come true for me, and it was such a rush to get feedback on my photo, my comment, and even my life. This changed to some degree, however, once corporations entered the space, social media ceased to be just having fun between the people that I knew, once knew, or were beginning to know, and became more about questioning who was listening, and compulsively deleting ads. I sincerely hope that someone is designing a TiVo for the Internet, a device that will either delete or speed over ads that look like posts. Today, it seems like social media has become less social and more restrictive, with less free speech, and more free stuff. By the end of 2014, the thrill was gone, and I was beginning to feel constantly marketed to by everyone.
So, at the time of year when people usually reflect on what has past and look forward to the year to come, I assessed my life and found that social media was now something that I felt required to do and that it was causing me stress. Though I had made social media part of my art practice to some extent, it had really become something that I had fallen out of love with and thought might actually be unnecessary in my daily life. I was seeking true connection again. But in 2014, what did that mean? And, in 2015, what would that mean? So, I decided to quit social media, and the Write To Me project was born.
Letter writing seemed to me to be a form of communication where real connection is made. So, on January 17, 2015, I changed the banners of my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest to a picture of a handwritten card that said:
Then I posted on my blog, terrynorton-wrightblog.com, which then posted to all my sites, the following, to begin the project:
About Write to Me…
Today is day one of my Write to Me project. This project will continue for the next six months. The parameters to this project are as follows:
- I will not directly post, comment, like or otherwise use my Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram, Tumblr, or Pinterest during these six months. The only post that will appear anywhere is the one that is generated by every entry I make on my project blog: terrynorton-wrightblog.com.
- I will not answer any “How are you?” emails, or tweets.
- I will answer every letter that is sent to me at this address: 578 Washington Blvd. #1026, Marina del Rey, CA 90292. This is the address of a mailbox that I have rented especially for this project.
- If you happen to have my phone number, I will answer your call.
Anybody can participate in this project. I will not share any of your letters with anyone and they will not be published in any way. In return anyone who receives a letter from me cannot publish or share my letters with anyone.
I look forward to receiving your letters!
Since social media, in the form of blogging, was a medium I used in my art practice, I found it necessary to keep actively blogging for the project. What, you say? Isn’t that cheating? This is an art project; there is no measurement for cheating. I made it up, so I make the rules.
For this project, I told my social media friends only once that I was leaving. This was not something I did a countdown for, caused a big stir over, etc. I simply posted on all of my sites what the project was and that it would continue for the next six months. In retrospect, this may not have been a good way to go.
I made it for 3 months before I cheated, kind of. I went on a couple of dating sites. I was strongly encouraged by my girlfriends to find someone to date. I guess with no social media taking up my time they were getting a little sick of me. However, I still hadn’t used any of my social media sites. That was true until April rolled around, month four of the Write to Me project, when I posted on Facebook that I was in a relationship. I rationalized that I was merely updating my profile information and had not actually used Facebook in a really meaningful way. Again I say my project, my rules.
Once May came around, however, with the Write to Me project now going on its fifth month, I decided to end it with a post on Facebook on Mother’s Day. At this point, I really missed using social media and after nearly five months I had only received six letters, most of which had arrived at the start of the project. It appeared that nobody missed hearing from me, or cared. What went wrong?
Firstly, six months is not a very long time. Secondly, I did run into some my friends organically and it was great. I was really glad to see them; we certainly had a lot to talk to about. Though, I did sometimes feel a bit foolish that I was not able to comment on their accomplishments, or their kids’ accomplishments, as it seems now that you are expected to have read all of your friends’ posts before you actually see them in person. I find this the most annoying aspect of social media really; I mean I don’t always have the time to make sure I keep up with my newsfeed. And then it occurred to me that probably most of my friends didn’t have time to keep up with their newsfeeds either, and I then realized that maybe the reason I got so few letters was perhaps because my “announcement” had only posted once which meant only those active at that moment really saw it or those who purposely visited my page. However, I did tell those I ran into about the project, but I didn’t get any letters from them either.
Thirdly, I really hadn’t left social media; I had just not been participating. After all, I did leave my pages up and active, I just didn’t use them. It was not like I was ever the most active person on social media, but I like to think that I held my own and was a participant. So, I was fully expecting that when I left, my friends would be curious as to why and would want to participate in my project. This was kind of like not showing up to the sandbox to play. At first, a couple of people wonder why you haven’t shown up to the sandbox, and some may miss playing with you there, but most will figure you have something else more important to do that is keeping you from showing up at the sandbox, and will assume that you will show up at the sandbox when you can. No one will take the time to come to your house to inquire about what you haven’t come to the sandbox to play. Which apparently is what happened.
Finally, I was asking people to write me letters without knowing why. Though I was guaranteeing that I would not publish them, nobody really knew what I was going to do with them and that just wasn’t enough incentive to take the time to find something to write on, figure out what to say without a prompt of any kind, and then travel to buy a stamp and mail the letter. In the 21st century, it was like I was asking someone to find a tablet to chisel on. Even one of my very best friends, who knew I was doing the project and is an artist herself, didn’t write me a letter! I needed to reexamine the project.
I started with the blog. Most of the entries were about letters and the act of writing. Perhaps I should have made this a letter-writing project to begin with, but to what end? I then looked at the other component of the project; the social media sites themselves. I began with looking up the mission statements to each of the sites I participated in.
The mission statement for Facebook is, “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Twitter states, “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.” Instagram’s mission is “to capture and share the world’s moments.” Tumblr wants “to empower creators to make their best work and get it in front of the audience they deserve.” And finally, Pinterest positions itself as “the visual bookmarking tool that helps you discover and save creative ideas.” In other words, they all have sharing as their goal. All of these sites were created for sharing. Duh. It then dawned on me that it was my attitude towards social media that needed to change and it would involve learning how to share.
Social media is not for everyone. However, I am a very social person and I enjoy being connected to a group so why was I not enjoying it anymore? It was not making my life easier and it was causing me undue stress. At times, I had felt pressure to participate, so I thought that if I disempowered social media in my life, my life might be better, or at least feel better. Maybe I am more private than I thought? Maybe sometimes I am afraid of being judged? I know that sometimes I feel too emotional to be on social media at all. I tend to react too quickly to things in life, which meant that I sometimes would post too quickly my reactions to others’ posts. Also, even though I do crave information, ignorance is sometimes my bliss. Too much information can make me feel overwhelmed. So, after interrogating my relationship further, I knew that it was me who had to change the way I had been using my sites.
The immediate benefit from going on hiatus from social media was that it did give me extra time. I had more time to read, write, play games with my kids, watch TV, exercise, etc. I also liked not feeling compelled to document any of these activities. And, though I cannot possibly list all the things I missed knowing about by not being on social media, I like to think I did find out the most important ones organically. Well, maybe not, but I would have had to go back to all of the posts of all my friends to see what they posted to be sure, and truthfully, most people have such a habit of posting too much content that is not really compelling, photos of dinner come to mind, that I quickly decided that I was not going to do that. I would just have to move forward knowing what I knew. Social media, I guess like all media, is a get-what-you-give form of entertainment. My taking my toys out of the sandbox and going home was not the best way to test my friends appreciation of me, but it was a way to test my appreciation of them.
I decided to return to my social sites, but only after I evaluated their value from my new enlightened point-of-view. If I was going to have social media be a part of my life, and clearly no one was forcing me to, what would be the easiest and the best way to do that?
I looked at each site based on their mission statement and how I had used them before. I then evaluated them based on how I would like to use them in the future. My blog, of course, and my artist website were going to remain active. Facebook was going to stay. It really was the only site I missed and the one I repeatedly “cheated” with. Twitter? I could only keep Twitter if I promised myself not to instantly share. Regardless of Twitter’s mission, Think before you Twitter, Terry was going to have to be my motto. I then deleted my accounts with Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest. I rarely used any of these sites, and as an artist who uses photography in my practice, I didn’t really like using them. I don’t want to address copyrights in this blog post, and perhaps that is where I should have focused my project, but sharing original art on social sites can certainly be a slippery slope. I had given my letter writers more rights than any of these sites would give me.
My next job was to determine what to do with the six letters I had received. Yes, I had responded to them, but I wanted to actually do something with them. Now, it was time to turn to my art practice for guidance.
Writing has always been a part of my art. For me, writing is key to blurring the delineation between literary and visual art. How would this apply to the Write To Me project?
When I launched the Write to Me project I made a promise to every letter writer that I would not reproduce their letters and that no one else would ever read them. So, for this project, I decided to make a book of short stories and drawings. I took all of the letters I received during my social media blackout and created stories loosely based on them, using a concept or general idea that was conveyed in the letter, or something that the letter made me think of, as a prompt for a story. I also created drawings with photos inspired by the fictional writing.
I hope to have Write to Me, the book, ready by this summer 2016, and I plan to continue to evolve my relationship with social media.