When I first joined anything that might today be called a social media site I did so as a private person living in a particular experience: working 9-to-5, navigating messy relationships, and writing about them and through them as a semi-anonymous avatar. Years later I became something akin to public, my work consumed the entire way I choose to live my life and I intentionally courted an audience for my publications.
There was a moment during this transition where my mentor, a senior academic whom I respect and like a great deal, sent me a message on twitter about a possible writing project. His message was sandwiched between a tweet extolling the virtues of “saggy titties” and another message exhorting that “niggas ain’t shit”. In that moment the contrast between the messages was visual and visceral. My first thought was “how in the hell did I get here and where is the exit ramp?”
Is a timeline elastic enough to hold simultaneously the sublime and the profane? And is the distinction a real one?
This matters. Just as leaving home, physically and emotionally, to embark upon the hazing rituals of academic life causes tensions for those of us from working class or minority communities, managing a public-private self on social media sites as you are growing and, yes, perhaps changing presents a unique set of challenges. As you change does your reflection of yourself in the now omnipresent public square of social media change? And is that allowed?
I am not so sure.
Nathan Jurgenson has written extensively that the duality of “real” life versus “online” life is a false one. We are real to any extent or to no extent in both contexts. I have found that to be true. Those who know me across both contexts generally attest to the fact that my online self is very much an accurate reflection of my “real” self, for better or for worse. I never achieved the virtue of divided selves for social media presentation. Professional social media gurus tell you to do this all the time: carefully cultivate an online persona and manage it through tools you pay $19.95 a month to access. Your avatar or user picture should be welcoming but professional. Your “messaging” should be informative but in the most general and benign sense. Stay away from politics and religion and probably quoting Wu Tang lyrics. I have broken all those rules almost as a matter of faith. I have not done so without consequence.
When I decided that I rather enjoyed talking about wealth transfers and ethnographic methods and regression analysis and social inequality more than I did .gifs of strippers twerking on greased poles, I thought it simple enough to adjust to that self-discovery. I unfollowed people and curated my social media to reflect my interests. I shifted my twitter feed to reflect more of my scholarship and public writing and restricted facebook to primarily family and friends with whom I engaged in non-virtual spaces as well as virtual.
For sure, I still dabbled in what has become known as “black twitter”. It is hard to break up with black twitter. That is probably a reflection of how hard is to be black in the material world. “Black twitter” references a decentralized group of black social media users from diverse walks of life. Sociologists might call it an interpretive community. Black folks might certainly call it a digital extension of play cousins and black social life. The upside of the space is that when I make a decontextualized reference to a line from The Color Purple or a lyric from an NWA song I don’t hear crickets. That cultural resonance has, in many ways, de-classed black twitter, making it a space where black cultural touchstones transcend barriers like space, place, and status. You are as likely to see Melissa Harris Perry in a black twitter conversation (pre-MSNBC ascendance, granted) as you are your cousin who works at the post office.
I did not want to give up the comfort of black twitter, but neither did I want to be confined to black twitter. I naively thought that the beauty of social media was that you could do with it what you cannot often do in your material, i.e. “real” life: you can pawn it. That is you can control it in ways that you cannot in your real life. If I don’t like my adviser’s snark I have entirely different set of tools at my disposal to deal with that: I suck it up or I run every time I see him. Or, I leave graduate school and likely academia. Online, if I grow tired of someone’s combative nature or I find their interests of little interest, all I need do is click a little button and they have effectively moved to China.
But, I underestimated the limits of the power of curating my social media world. Perhaps here Nathan Jurgenson’s theorizing of the web would have been useful for me to consider. What I thought of as a playground for ideas, other people conceived of as a visit in their living room. When I moved people to China sometimes they did not want to move. Unfollowing became a landmine. It was breaking up on a post-it note.
Whose needs win out here? As tools pop up that allow social media users to know immediately anytime you unfollow them, people are becoming digitally passive aggressive. You don’t unfollow; you “mute” someone using a special twitter client. You don’t de-friend on Facebook; you “hide” someone from appearing on your wall. You maintain the illusion of a digital relationship precisely because the divide between real life and online life is porous, if real itself.
So what do you do when the people you follow on social media are not the people you want to talk to anymore? How do you grow when your digital space is designed to capture you forever in a moment in time; fixed by meta-data, pictures, and networks of social groups from every part of your history that co-exist to exert normative pressure to ensure you remain who people knew you to be the last time they knew you, if they ever knew you at all?
I haven’t a clue. Sorry.
But, I still unfollow rather than mute or hide. The very connotation of muting and hiding makes those acts far uglier, meaner, and asocial to me than clicking the little x in a box. Let’s parse this out. To mute someone is to de-voice them. To make a person seen and not heard when the entire point of social media is communication strikes me as cruel. To hide them is to not even pretend to see them or hear them. In both cases it maintains the illusion of a relationship that you have no intention of committing yourself to.
One day I looked at my social media and it was static while I had changed.
You used to be able to move or move on when that happened. Relations died natural deaths as the routines of your daily life made it less and less likely that you would intersect and interact. Social media has hardened the daily rhythms of life into algorithms and histories. Implied is a social responsibility to manage those rhythms forever, to the satisfaction of others and often at the expense of yourself.
That may be where we are but I am not sure that is where we have to be.
As I grow and change and my interests keep pace I choose to shape my social world to the best of my ability using all tools, material and digital, to do so. I surely still drop way more hip-hop lyrics than my diverse twitter feed knows to make sense of. And, I still watch A Different World like it’s new and it’s sad when no one online gets my references to Whitley and Duane. And I still drop into Crunktastical sometimes to see who or what Rihanna is doing. But, those are deliberate acts of engagement. My time is limited but my interests are not. The tension between those two means engaging social media in particular ways that help me maximize the former and explore the latter.
Life is challenging enough as it is to be picking through “niggas ain’t shit” tweets to get to the good story from National Geographic with the lion joke that makes you laugh so hard you pee your pants.