On Social Media Use and Living a Normal Life
February 5, 2019
“Oh, The Places We Post!”
A place: a physical environment or space, an indefinite region or expanse, a building or part of a building, a particular spot, a distinct position, or a state of mind. Places all around, a most generic term for any of the spaces we move through, from a specific sitting spot in a man-made structure to an unspoiled vista as far as the eye can see, to a named land mass in between oceans. Places are physical, they are one thing but not another. It distinguishes where I am from where you are. There is a place on the couch where I curl up and rest my head; there’s also a place on my left temple that’s a smooth patch of skin where stitches held a gash closed while it healed.
A post: a beam that reinforces the structures where we make spaces for ourselves, a support in a doorway, which we close up to separate or leave open for joining one space to another. We post things on posts all around: they’re convenient places for place markers, signs, notices, declarations, and information. We are marketed to on posted signs (billboards and sandwich boards) and we market to others (garage sale today). There are names of businesses, roads, towns, neighborhoods, schools. There are warnings that implore us to be safe, others that say they are already safe spaces by noting everyone welcomed here, and there are covert communications on how to find safety for those who live in fear (domestic violence resources in women’s bathrooms). I reflect on the places I know around where I live, and I think of other places I’ve been, how I experience gathering places, and how I receive or exchange information with other people. I bring these to mind as I imagine myself going through my day where I live, in these places I know well. I think about the rooms of my home here, and I think about my little road and how it leads to other roads, I think about where those roads go. I see in my mind all around my city, the buildings and the roads people put on this land around a hundred years ago. I think about the culture and the laws, the practices and the norms of the people, the decision makers and the recipients of those decisions, the values they thought they had and the values made evident by their actions. I think about all that went into making this actual community where I live.
I consider what the words place and post mean in these forms, taking care just then to not reference anything having to do with online life so that by putting the internet’s place and post next to their normal physical precursors, I might somehow grasp just what it is about social media that makes me feel that it’s not what it first claimed to be. Ten years ago, I experienced it as an obvious next step in connectivity so that once we were able to access information so freely, accessing each other was a natural evolution for modern life. There’s a lot I liked about it, but it’s not so natural after all. For a while, I’ve been feeling like there’s a flaw in me that made it so I can’t do it (social media) very well anymore. Why haven’t I been able to tolerate it like I use to? But the flaw isn’t me; the flaw is social media itself, wanting me to change to conform to it. My uncomfortableness in it is my human feature, not a flaw after all. The more I’ve seen these platforms for what they are, the less I want to “be” there. Social media wants me to think that a post can fit into the paradigm of how posts and signage and publications have worked for humans for centuries. It wants me to think it’s a neutral place, an innocuous framework that functions as a community in the same way communities have always gathered. It wants me to go against my nature, to outsource trust and openness to its business models, to accept that when I put up a post, that I don’t have to know how the people will flow past to see what I put there, that such knowledge is proprietary and doesn’t belong to me, and that me wanting to know how it works is an insincere use of the platform. It wants me to think it’s acceptable for human interaction to be mediated by algorithms, that they can create interfaces that have a monetary purpose and it can still simultaneously function as a community. It wants me to accept that a place isn’t where my body sits at this moment, it’s not what I can see from this desk, that a place is something in my mind when it’s connected to the internet, where the minds of so many others are plugged in. I don’t know what that place looks like. If it’s a place, then where am I when I am there? Who is it that has arranged how this place is mapped out, and what purpose does it serve?
I Wander By Choice
I like wandering, in body and mind. If I had more time, I’d like to physically wander around more places I’m not familiar with, even just places around where I live. I like new places, new things, new experiences. I also like old places, things, and experiences. I think about the temporary moveable human-made parts of cityscapes and the permanent landforms they lay atop of. It’s what I love about traveling, seeing all the visible and invisible things that bond a street/community/city/country together. Maybe that’s what made social media so exciting at first, the newness of the format plus the people. As I run through a mental list of actual places I’ve been, the particulars of each run along with it- the things I saw, the feel of the weather, the people I was with or the people I watched. Places in the US, Canada, Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea… in my mind, I turn a globe to jog my memory to see if I’ve been in any other countries, in case I’ve forgotten… but no, it’s a short list. I’m content. Because there are still so many places I have visited. Oh, the places I’ve been!
So, who am I in the social media space? There’s no way to show up and just “be”, the way I might relax at a familiar party, present but not having to say anything, just enjoying the company, the food, the music, open to natural ebbs and flows in conversation. Presenting myself online has so many unique considerations, images to capture, contexts to create. I have to consciously regenerate the “me” that’s there for any platform I use, and it has to be specific to that space. It’s so much more complicated than a morning routine that gets me out the door, something I do and then mostly forget about. Instead, I’m forced to constantly see myself interact with others, my reflection on the screen in front of me following me around everywhere I go. And exchanges aren’t expressly just between two people unless we go out of our way to make it so. The just-between-you-and-I interactions aren’t just fleeting conversations in the corner while at that party. The social media party has all my interactions on loudspeaker, recording them permanently, and I’m supposed to be able to manage this? There are things that took me a long time to learn in real life (reading expressions and gestures, hearing correctly and knowing how to reply), but online these have to be re-learned. And then there’s figuring which photos to choose to share in a feed, profile pictures, header photos, bio descriptions… so much publishing of one’s self, so much constructing of identity when I’m supposed to just be myself. I like who I am, I like the way I am, I have no interest in portraying something I’m not, but who am I when I have to construct myself from scratch, being myself in front of everyone I know and more, in a place that is not a place… what does that mean?
I’m not simple and carefree in social spaces when I’m starting as the odd one out. Who is? But social media made it so different at first, and all the sensory aspects of being in a social space while trying to meet people (mingle, network, ugh) were gone, and all I could see was a name and their words, and all I needed was my name and my words. I finally made artist connections precisely because the in-real-life social norms that freaked me out didn’t exist there. It was truly freeing at first. Some new artist connections became artist colleagues; in a few cases, they became actual friends. I used social media authentically and often. I met artists that connected me with exhibition opportunities. I worked alongside other artists on projects that were born online. There were lots of positives, but a reality that I didn’t see at first started to creep into my sight. I haven’t been able to unsee it. Other people seem to maintain their use of social media without seeming to have the kind of private exasperations I do. Maybe it is because so many of my connections (friends and family) use social media for semi-personal reasons rather than mixed professional ones. As for me, multiple social circles from real life populate my friend and follow lists. I can’t talk to these multiple circles at the same time. It’s not that I’m changing my story for different people, it’s just that I can’t post things on social media as if I don’t think about who I’m addressing. It takes too long for me to parse the social minutiae of it all. And the clamor of discordant voices is really grating. Righteous anger doesn’t bother me. I’m upset by a lot of things, too. But meanness, or making excuses for behavior in ourselves that we vilify in others? That drives me crazy. Then finally, there are occasionally times—necessary times—when we’ve had collective distress. I can’t help but have a deep empathetic response within myself, a sense that I’m carrying a mountain of others’ sorrow on top of my own sorrow, most vividly during the #metoo posts that mirrored my experiences.
When I started to see Facebook as being made up of too many complex social structures that I couldn’t enter and exit easily anymore, I tried to make Instagram work for me while still pushing images from there onto Facebook. For me, it became a way to more simply share my artwork and life in a way that didn’t bring weighted social webs into the experience. As for seeing others’ posts, I could simply log in, scroll back to where I last left off, then I’d go through and catch up on everything I missed. Then, like Facebook, Instagram switched to algorithm-based newsfeeds.
And so the invisible algorithm showed itself as another character in my social experience. Who was this Algorithm? I wanted to see the posts of all the people I followed so that I could scroll through and choose for myself what I wanted to take time to see, read, take in, and respond. I wanted everything to stay in the timestamp order in which they were posted, so I could know there’d been a chance to see everything. Sometimes I’d get so irritated by the algorithm thing on Facebook that I’d deactivate my account for a bit; when they’d ask me why I was quitting, I’d tell them it was because I wanted to have agency to control my own viewing experience. And I also wanted a kind of guarantee that people might see my posts if they wanted to. I didn’t want this chosen for me or for them. I searched Google to figure out optimal ways to post on Facebook, but these would keep changing over time, always in the background, always an industry trade secret. I wanted to have a sense that people would have an equal chance to see my one image or one blog post or whatever, to know that they’d be free to pause to see what I posted or they could scroll on past if it wasn’t their thing. It would be a natural response. I just wanted to think it would be a social exchange between the poster/artist (me) and the passerby of said post/artwork, one that could give me information about the effect of what I shared. This could only be possible if I knew the posting was actually posted without being mediated. But to not even know if anyone saw what I posted? Sharing something and not knowing if three people saw it and loved it but no one else saw it, or if 100 people passed by and only three loved it, and the rest were more like “meh”? Before Instagram made its algorithm change, I’d get 100-150 “likes” on a posted artwork (that’s a lot for me). Afterward, I’d get more like 20. It’s not that I make my artwork for more likes. But am I supposed to pretend I didn’t care that fewer people were seeing my posts or that maybe suddenly people didn’t like my art as much as they used to? My main objective is to make artwork that I love to make, that challenges me, that challenges others, that is readable and mysterious, that is frightening and hopeful and… anyway, I just want to know—did it move people or not? Can I ever know the role that the invisible algorithm plays in this? Can I ever communicate with it, ask it why, ask it how? I can’t. It controls me. And I don’t know what it wants from me.
We’ve Been Served
If it was “just” my frustration with the posting algorithms, plus people’s lapses into meanness, plus times when grief gets multiplied and magnified… if it were just these incredibly uncomfortable aspects of social media, I might still manage to use it dispassionately. But it’s so much more than that.
I can’t ignore how our information was sold to political campaigns. I can’t ignore the way social media use increases political polarization, loneliness, and anxiety. I can’t ignore that it is all consuming and addictive in a neurological way that I don’t want for myself or the people around me. We opened ourselves up on social media because we thought we were just connecting with each other, we thought it built community. We looked at the good things we did together, but all along our connections and the information we shared was being turned into fuel for an industry. They are not really here to serve us. We’ve been offered up to be served to others, us and everything we post and our friends and our friends of friends. The information by us and about us is being used—at the very least—when marketers want to sell us products. Increasingly, it’s being used by political manipulators who want to access a whole population so they can sow discord, target the vulnerable, and weaken democracies. I consider big tech complicit in this, if not knowingly, then because they’ve been blinded by hubris and a false sense of people’s innate goodness.
And Then I Post
I’m still participating in this spectacle by posting things, but it’s because I will do it like this: I’ll post artwork on Instagram, which automatically posts to Facebook and Twitter. I posted two paintings on Instagram a couple nights ago, but I haven’t even logged back in since then to see the response. Hopefully, I haven’t left any commenters hanging if there were any. Hopefully, the algorithm doesn’t punish me for not logging in and replying. As for things that I publish on WordPress, those links will go straight to Twitter, Linked In, and my Facebook studio page. Facebook removed the option to auto-post straight to my personal page, which is where I have the most professional connections, so now the only people who see my auto-post to Facebook will be a handful of people who have “liked” my page. If I want to post this post’s link to my supposedly personal page, I’ll have to do it directly within the platform. Last I read, though, the algorithm doesn’t favor link shares anymore, so I have no idea how many people, if any, will even know that I wrote this.
I just want my social media spaces to show that I am working if anyone should happen to drop in there to see what I’ve been up to, even though all my recent work has been posted on the front page of my website for a while now. Supposedly it’s important to have a presence on social media. But I won’t use these platforms socially. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to pretend it’s a space that isn’t used by people I don’t know for who knows what reasons. Kudos to all the people who’ve kept a remove like this on social media all along. I wish I had.
Whatever happens, I’m an artist whether I post or not, whether I show my work or not, whether it’s purchased or not, whether anyone sees it or not. I don’t make it for any of those reasons, and I’m glad I don’t have to. I make the art I make because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do and I love it and I will keep working towards making the art that I picture in my mind. I’ll keep wishing I could get gallery representation in SF or LA or NY with a gallerist who’s involved and dedicated to her artists. I’ll keep imagining what it might be like to see my work hang in public institutions one day.
I have an ordinary artist life. I make artwork even when it has no destination other than my own website and my own walls. I try to figure out how to promote my work on my terms. (I’d rather have nothing but have it on my terms than the other way around.) In the meantime, I enjoy the abundant goodness that lives in my home: my strong-in-all-the-ways-I’m-not husband, my growing boys, my sweet mom, my two dogs that are currently snoring very loudly. I’ll check out more real-life art circles in the Bay Area as I am able (which is not very). In place of social media, I’ve started to email and regular-mail letters to people. Some of them are to writers, artists, scientists, or podcasters (I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what it means to write letters to people I don’t really know) while others are friends I keep up with. I will keep making art. And hope that this year I will figure how to get it out into the world where it can be seen
We’ll see how it goes.
~ Maritza Ruiz-Kim
- Video, NYT’s “Opinion Video Series”: Operation Infektion: Russian Disinformation from Cold War to Kanye
- Podcast, Vox’s “The Weeds”: Facebook is Bad, Please Join Our Facebook Group
- Podcast, Vox’s “The Ezra Klein Show”: Cal Newport on Taking Your Life Back from Technology
- Podcast, NYT’s “The Book Review”: Assessing the Facebook Problem
- Podcast, NPR’s “Morning Edition”: Facebook, Google Draw Scrutiny Over Apps that Collected Data From Teens