Procrastination: the curse of the writer. Sometimes the hardest thing in the world can be sitting with a blank screen in front of you and waiting for divine inspiration to strike. At these moments, absolutely anything seems preferable to actually getting on with the job in hand and starting to type your thoughts onto the page. You”ll happily do the washing up, change the baby’s nappy or sort your socks into alphabetical order rather than actually try writing something. Any distraction, any excuse is prone to draw your attention away from the creative process. And of all these distractions, social media is one of the biggest, and possibly strongest, diversions.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love social media. A world without Facebook and Twitter would be a very strange one, now that we’ve all got used to the instant communication and feedback of social networking. I love that you can connect directly with people’s imaginations and have a daft conversation with people you’ve never met about flavours of yoghurt/failed baked Alaskas on the Great British Bake-Off/the latest Neil Gaiman book (delete as applicable). I love that you can put a tweet out there asking ‘Anyone know of a good plumber in North London?’ and get recommendations from a bunch of helpful, socially minded, friendly Twitter users. I love how a hash tag like #ExplainAFilmBadly can take over your timeline as people compete to write the funniest one-line description of a famous movie.
But social media also has two very distinct downsides. And they’re aspects that we all have to keep an eye on if we want social to be a force for a better digital future.
The distraction: am I missing out on something?
I mentioned the allure of procrastination already. Well, social media is one of the biggest distractions going. It’s always there, with an ever-changing timeline flowing past containing a river of potential memes, hashtags, jokes, conversations and photos of amusingly dressed pug dogs. It’s on your phone, it’s on your laptop and it’s on your tablet. We’re connected to these social apps at every waking moment. Ask yourself this: what’s the first thing you do once you’ve woken up and the first coffee of the day is starting to infiltrate its caffeine kick into your somnambulant brain? Is it to pick up your phone and check your social apps? Yes? I thought so, me too. And that’s why social is so distracting. It hooks you in from the start of the day, makes itself available on all your devices and sits there like a devil on your shoulder whispering exciting tidbits like ‘Caitlin Moran is having a hilarious exchange with Grace Dent on Twitter right now. And you’ve missing it, you klutz!!’. And once you start scrolling the end is nigh for any constructive writing you might have been planning. In essence, the temptation is to consume; to hunt through this ever-evolving savannah of chat like a social-media lion looking for the tastiest-looking zebra.
And consumption can be where some users stop. They scroll, they read, they chuckle and they retweet. But just consuming is really missing the point of this two-way communication channel. The real bonus of social is that *shock horror* you can contribute to it too. Seen a hilarious photo of a amusingly-shaped carrot? Yes? Then join in and share your equally awesome photo of a bum-shaped mushroom. Disagree with someone’s withering assessment of the new Doctor Who? Then reply and outline why Capaldi is definitely the right man for the job. In short, get involved!
But getting involved is also precisely why social is such a draw for the procrastinating writer. You could argue that you’re actually writing already by tweeting, just in very teeny tiny, 140-character bursts. And that’s kinda true, even if you’re probably writing about something utterly different to what you’re supposed to be writing about. You could also, at a pinch, argue that you’re doing research. By most measures, a vast gallery of human life can be found lurking in your timeline.
So, it’s easy to see how social can gobble up your time without you really realising. And that’s before we even touch on the theory, as argued by Charlie Brooker, that Twitter et al are actually games – games where we compete to gain as many followers, favourites and retweets as possible. But I digress.
The nasty side of human nature
The second side of social that sets the alarm bells ringing is it’s ability to be highjacked by the idiots of this world. People who hide behind their digital anonymity and ‘troll’ unsuspecting people. There have been scores of example of people being threatened, intimidated and frightened by these cyber bullies. Bullies who get a malicious delight out of causing offense, scaring people and being the centre of attention. It’s horrible, it’s juvenile and it goes against all the unspoken, civilized, social principles of sites like Twitter and Facebook.
So are we spending too much time using social media? Are we offering up too much of ourselves to the world at large. Are we placing too much emphasis on approval from these social networks? Probably. Back in the dim, distant past, before social media and before most media went digital, there was one really good way to get a handle on a new friend/date/work colleague if you really wanted to know what made them tick. You looked at their bookshelves and their CD and DVD racks. Oh, they like Iain Banks! Cool. Oh, but they have a Take That album. Not so cool. It wasn’t very scientific and it wasn’t something you’d admit to, but you did it all the same.
Now, you can instantly see your new friends’ photos, videos, Vines, SoundCloud recordings, short stories and daily musings – just by following their social accounts. You get EVERYTHING about them, so much so that you almost don’t have to do that most social thing of all – actually talking to them – because you already know every thought, event, nice dinner, fun night out that they’ve had for the past five years. It rather takes away the mystery from getting to know someone.
Be good out there
So, social apps are an amazing addition to our digital worlds. They help us connect with and communicate with such a staggeringly huge number of people. And, in many ways, they bring us closer together, by helping to make the world a smaller and more understanding place.
But we do have to accept that there’s likely to be an arsehole at any party you host. Any social is no different. The anonymity, the instant communication and the huge reach of social networks provide the perfect conditions for the idiots of the world to bring their negativity to the party. The best thing to do is just ignore those that choose to troll others. Don’t give them the oxygen of publicity and don’t react to their baiting comments. The best place for trolls is in the dark, where they belong.
And for the serial procrastinators who get suckered in by the shiny allure of social, here’s the cure. Don’t cut yourself off completely from your timeline – there’s no need for drastic cold turkey. But do limit how much you dip into your social apps. Join in the fun, add your own thoughts on the issues of the day and share your pics of that awesome flat white you had in Shoreditch. But then – and I can’t stress the importance of this enough – PUT THE PHONE DOWN! You’ll get so much more done without the distraction of dogs dressed as pirates, or links to the latest viral advertising campaign.
Go on. Give it a try. That’s it, put the phone down… now walk away… up to the study… off you go!
See, you can live without social media.