Thoughts on social media

(Originally posted in October 2011 and May 2013 but updated today.)

I still enjoy Twitter and Facebook.

But.

I’m using them way too much. There are days when I keep clicking the “New Tweets” link over and over and over again, which can be time-consuming, considering new tweets show up every four seconds. I keep clicking on the “Connect” button, because I MUST KNOW WHO HAS MENTIONED ME OR RETWEETED ME OR LINKED TO ME, AND I HAVE TO KNOW IT NOW. I check Facebook 30 times a day to see who has Liked something I’ve posted or who has sent me a friend request or who has written a post I just HAVE to comment on. I hate to think about all of the hours I’ve wasted just playing a hashtag game, trying to come up with a clever entry, actually doing a search on Twitter to make sure no one already tweeted it. How did it come to this?

This is probably a failing on my part. A person can always “just say no” to social media when they have to get work done, but these things are so seductive and needed and they’re only a click away that they grab hold of you. You go to check Facebook for just five minutes and before you know it an hour has gone by. You realize that you’ve tweeted more words that day than you’ve written. I have to plug my stuff! I have to retweet this! I have to comment on this post so people know my opinions! I have to congratulate this person on their promotion/birth/great post! I have to make sure I don’t miss anything! I have to plug my stuff again! Ooo, maybe this celebrity will interact with me! I need to take this quiz to find out what kind of doughnut I am! Here’s video of a cat dancing! Hey, look, 9 ways you’re eating salad wrong! What’s happening now? How about now? And right now?

I love posting and reading things on social media, but there has to be a common sense limit. If I’m to be honest – and if a lot of people were to be honest – a lot of our posts have an agenda behind them. If we’re not plugging and promoting our stuff (which is fine, I do it too), we’re commenting on something that someone else has posted, which is really just another way of promoting ourselves. I see so many people on social media who will congratulate someone on a new job they got or a new baby – even if they don’t know them personally – and at first I thought it was nice but then I got to thinking: why not just contact that person directly for something like that, via a DM or an e-mail?

For a writer, social media (and the web in general) can be an amazing distraction. I envy the writers who can tweet or post on Facebook 10 times a day and still get work done. I’m not one of them. The great thing about social media – that there’s always something new and interesting to see – also happens to be what’s bad about it. Some people say that we’ve always had to deal with distractions. No way. Not at this level, everywhere, all the time.

I know a lot of great writers on social media and they seem to get a lot of writing done while still tweeting. Some writers use it perfectly. That’s great for them. But I’ve also noticed a disturbing trend: writers who have actually given up on their web sites and their blogs because they now use social media exclusively. This strikes me as odd. Sure, reading clever tweets is a gas, but stopping the longer writing on your site so you can post on Twitter and Facebook more? I can’t imagine doing that. I still go directly to web sites and blogs to read what people have to say (if you still have a site or blog, that is).

Also as a writer I feel like I’m using a lot of ideas and lines that I should use in a story or an article. Sometimes I’ll think of something and think, “I should post that on Twitter.” But shouldn’t my thought be “I should write about that?” There’s nothing wrong with writing something on Twitter or Facebook, but sometimes I feel like I’m wasting something that should go some place more permanent. Let’s face it, our tweets and Facebook posts are here today and pretty much vanish into the ether a few days later.

And doesn’t it seem like everything gets diluted on social media? The same news and pictures and links and quizzes repeated again and again and again by your friends to the point where they’re not special anymore and become exhausting and predictable.

Social media is especially bad when there’s a huge news event, like the death of a celebrity. Your feeds become overwhelming. Hundreds of people posting the same thing. Remember the days when we didn’t know everything, when we had some separation between the news and our own lives, and we didn’t have a machine in our hands where we could know everything instantly? I actually miss that. There’s no mental breathing room anymore.

I remember being at the mall with my mother and sister 40 years ago, Christmas shopping. When we got home there was a note from my brother on the kitchen table that said “Bobby Darin died.” We didn’t know about it because we were at the mall and it was 1973 and no one could get that information until they got home. And we didn’t know what killed him or what people thought of him until we watched the evening news that night, or read about it the next day in the paper. I’m not saying I necessarily want to go back to those days, but there’s something to be said about not having this constant bombardment of news, information, and entertainment coming at you.

We don’t have to be connected all day, every day, just because we can be. It begins to affect our minds and our lives. When I logged out of Facebook recently the screen had a notice about their mobile app that said, “Heading Out? Stay Connected.” No Facebook, I don’t want to stay connected, BECAUSE I’M HEADING OUT. I’m sure a lot of younger people can’t understand that. They don’t remember the days when we didn’t carry around our phones, our mail, our encyclopedias, our photo albums, our televisions 24/7/365. I do, and it was glorious. There’s something to be said about having that separation. I don’t have to know about a celebrity’s death this very second, 99% of e-mails can wait, and I don’t have to reply to a tweet instantly (if ever). I’m going to enjoy a movie/dinner at a restaurant without having to take a pic or post a tweet about it. The web will still be there when I get home, and if you need to get in touch with me, leave a message at the beep (on my landline – I rarely use my cell).

I have a web site, e-mail, a comments section, a phone, snail mail, a web magazine, several magazines and sites that I write for, and a monthly Letter. Isn’t that enough contact/interaction? Do we  – even if we’re writers or editors or media people or tech people – have to do everything that comes along online?

I love the web and gadgets and it’s amazing we can do what we do. I’ve used computers since the mid-80s and I’ve been online for almost 19 years. But there is such a thing as too much. I think we all have ADD now. Everything is faster, faster, now, now, now. We all have to be connected all the time, everywhere. There’s no downtime anymore, and it’s weird. Hey, I’m eating dinner! Here’s a picture of that dinner! I feel happy! I feel sad! I went to the movies! Like me, share me, comment on my post! Selfie! Hashtag!

It’s so easy to friend or follow someone. To hit “Like” instead of talking to someone in person or over the phone. Social media has made is soooo easy to “keep in touch” with people, but it’s a bit of an illusion. Real friendship takes a little more work.

It’s weird we know what all of our friends are doing without even ever talking to them. I know what they had for breakfast (and if they take a pic, what it looked like). I know how the traffic is on the way to work, I know what happened at Starbucks, I know where they’re going for lunch, I know where they vacation, I know what movies they’re watching, and I know what time they go to bed because they’ll say “goodnight, tweeps” or something similar. What the hell do people talk about now when they actually get together? There’s no mystery or spontaneity anymore.

I don’t particularly like Facebook’s attitude toward the web – from design to privacy/settings issues to the fact that there are some sites where you can’t even leave a comment because they use Facebook’s commenting system – and I’ve decided to fight against it in my own small way.

So I’m going to deactivate my Facebook account. I’m going to step away from Twitter too but keep my account open (I don’t even think of Twitter as social networking exactly, I use it as more of a news feed). I want to keep my username and have my account just in case. But really, the web was a better place before social media, and I’m going to use the web the way we used to use it: going directly to sites that I’ve bookmarked, using RSS to keep track of what’s new, and just generally doing things smarter.

It’s going to be good to get back to not doing things on social media time.

(Update: when I deactivated my Facebook account a page filled with pictures of my Facebook friends popped up with the line “your 119 friends won’t be able to keep in touch with you.” Wow.)

We now return you to your regularly scheduled letters

There’s a nasty rumor going around, started by me, saying that I had stopped The Letter. Nothing could be further than the truth.

Well, OK, I did stop it. But I think it was a decision brought on by summer heat and humidity, a temporary craziness that made me stop something I really enjoy doing (summer just zaps all energy and ambition out of me). But I’ve started it up again. What I’ll do is mail out a summer Letter later this month and then get back to regular monthly Letters in September.

And if you have no idea what I’m talking about…

The Saturday Evening Post

satevepostcoverWhen a writer starts out he or she has a picture in their head of the type of publications they’d love to write for and the type of writer they want to be. When I was 11 I desperately wanted to write for Mad and Cracked. When I got older I wanted to write for The New York Times and The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. And as I mentioned earlier this week I wanted to write for a hit TV show and be married to Mary Tyler Moore.

Today I start a new weekly column for The Saturday Evening Post site. Each Friday I’ll round-up what’s happened in the past week in the news, media, and pop culture, along with talking about what happened this week in history, anniversaries, major events, that sort of thing. Please bookmark the site and check it out (you should also subscribe to the print Saturday Evening Post – it’s still a great magazine!).

(You can follow the Post on Twitter and Facebook).

At the tone leave your name and message, I’ll get back to you (BEEP)

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Jim Rockford.

I also wanted to be Rob Petrie (a writer with a beautiful wife) and Carl Kolchak (a writer who battled monsters), but I never actively did anything to become those fictional people (beyond becoming a writer, of course – but no wife or monsters yet). But I actually tried being Jim Rockford (minus the times he got beat up). When I was around 9 I opened up a private investigator’s office in my bedroom. It didn’t last long, though I did find my sister’s gloves one time when she lost them (they had fallen behind a table near the front door). When I was a teen and looking for a used car, I looked all over the place for a Pontiac Firebird. I didn’t find one, but I did get a Camaro that kinda-sorta passed for one if you didn’t think about it too much. And when I got my first answering machine I tried to make a message that sounded a lot like Rockford’s: a little weary but quick and to the point.

James Garner died over the weekend at age 86, another reminder that all of the people we grew up with are going away. He was one of those actors that was always good no matter what he was in, with an easy-going, unpretentious charm that not many actors can pull off. He seemed like a normal, good guy who just happened to star in several iconic roles (and from what I hear from people I know who worked with him that’s what he was, normal and good). You got the sense that Garner was in on the joke. He took the work seriously but not himself.

NBC tried to remake The Rockford Files a couple of years ago (with Dermot Mulroney – that’s just weird) but no one liked the pilot so it was scrapped. There might even be a big screen version with Vince Vaughn as the star. But we all know it won’t be the same. It just won’t be the same.

Update: TCM is going to have an all-day tribute to Garner next Monday, July 28, starting at 6am. Here’s the schedule.