Some writer friends of mine go on internet fasts, where they have a loved one change their passwords for a month or two or three. Some use programs like Freedom, which will block your computer from the internet for a set number of hours. The mere thought of doing either of those things makes me start to nervously sweat. It’s not that I’m scared to miss something amazing or awful or hilarious. It’s more that, like a real addict, I think I’m in control. I imagine that I don’t need such drastic measures. But the truth is that I’m not at all in control. Checking my @ replies on Twitter and Instagram has become a nervous tic, replacing the cigarettes of my teens and 20s with an electronic buzz. Like many of you, if I’m waiting for a late friend, or for my husband to come back from the bathroom at a restaurant, or in a movie theater before the lights go down, or basically anywhere with cell service, my phone is in my hand and my face is glued to the screen. Unfortunately, the same is also true when I’m, let’s say hypothetically, sitting in my office and under contract to turn in my next novel in a month.
While writing the paragraph above, I hopped on Twitter to read my feed and click on links and check my @s, and checked my email twice. My best friend just sent out an Evite to my baby shower, and now I’m refreshing that every three seconds to see who has RSVPed. As I keep writing there will be more checking, not to mention visits to the New York Times and Jezebel and Vulture and the website for my midwives and Amy Rose’s latest makeup tutorial on Rookie. I have the attention span of a gnat, and I can feel it getting shorter with every click. I’m surprised that when I dream, it’s not of tiny hearts and little boxes appearing in the corner of my computer screen alerting me to new notifications on social media. When I picture my brain synapses, I think of watching tennis on television, a small green ball pinging back and forth across a great expanse. That expanse used to be filled with actual information, I swear. I used to know poems by heart. Not many of them, but a few. Where have those poems gone?
When I set up a Google Alert for myself in 2009, it was mostly a hopeful activity. I had a book of short stories coming out from a very small press, and I wanted to know if anyone on earth ever mentioned it, or me. The alert would show up in my inbox every once in a while, with a link to a mention of an event I was doing or a review on someone’s literary blog. Much to my surprise, the reviews were mostly positive, and so I kept reading. When the blog Largehearted Boy asked me to contribute a playlist based on a short story I’d written, they said such nice things about me (“unique narrative voice…keen and nuanced…writer to watch…”) that I floated around on a cloud for weeks. Even when bloggers quibbled with some aspect of the book, I was thrilled. Out of all the new books in the world, these people had somehow found mine, read it, and then taken the time to think about it. That’s pretty incredible. I felt grateful and excited.
Because the press that published my book was so small that they couldn’t afford a publicist, I felt a responsibility to publicize it myself—and so I justified the Google Alert and all the time spent on Twitter and Facebook as part of my job. It was important for me to get the word out about my book, because no one else was doing it. I posted every review, the details about every reading. Most of the readings I did came through people I had met on social media, as did many writing opportunities, and so I felt like it was working. I was doing it! Making connections! I also made friends with booksellers and editors, many of whom have helped me enormously over the past few years. I still recommend that emerging writers get on Twitter as quickly as possible—I do believe that it helps, if you put in the time and energy. The problem is what happens next.
With my first book, the internet was there to amplify whatever small noise my work was making. But after a larger house bought my first novel and I (gratefully) handed the PR duties over to a professional, things went a little bit bonkers. Suddenly my Google Alert was popping up with new links once or twice a day, and I felt compelled to read them all. I know that sounds like a #humblebrag, but it’s not. I’m neither humble about how exciting it was to get all this attention, nor bragging about how quickly it overwhelmed me and turned me into a compulsively self-Googling monster. The sane thing to do would have been to turn off the alert. Courting and tracking publicity wasn’t my job anymore, and according to some of my writer friends, you don’t actually have to read your own reviews. But I couldn’t stop! For some ungodly reason I felt like I needed to read every word of every review, even if it was on a tiny website read by just two people (who gave birth to and raised the blogger in question). I think some switch got flipped during the DIY period of my career, when I really did feel like every single person who wrote about me or my book was doing me a personal favor, and I was having trouble switching it back to normal mode.
Every time I published an essay online, I would read the comments. Why did I do this? I knew what comments sections were like. Reading comments (this is not true on Rookie, I would like to point out) is sort of like taking off all your clothes and asking people to throw rocks at your naked body. It hurts, and you can’t believe that people who be so cruel as to aim for your head but they do, and you can’t believe that you asked for this but you did. I guess I was just…curious. I was very proud of my novel (and still am), but I knew it wasn’t perfect, and I really wanted to know what criticisms people had of it. Sometimes I agreed with the criticisms, and sometimes they raised issues that I hadn’t thought about. You write a book alone in a vacuum, with no boss or teacher or audience giving you feedback on your work. You have no idea what anyone will think of when you’re done. So when it’s finally out there in the world, you just want to hear someone else’s—almost anyone else’s—opinion. And you can find it very easily on the very tool you used to write the book in the first place. The thing you have to sit in front of all day for work anyway. I didn’t, thankfully, take any of the worst insults to heart, but sometimes a comment would be so off base that it would take everything in me to resist responding (and I did resist—even I knew that responding to your critics online is a bad idea).
Any cute notions I had of self-discipline soon went out the window, and I was lurking around the internet like Carmen Sandiego, searching for my own name. I’m not proud of this. It’s embarrassing to admit. It makes me seem petty. I fear that it means I have an ego the size of a house, or that I need all those tiny little fractured compliments in order to feel upbeat about what I’m doing. I don’t actually think either of those things is true, but the internet is great for making you second-guess yourself.
After months of this unbecoming behavior, the internet started to lose a bit of its luster. The feeling of consuming too much social media, and too many blogs, is sort of like eating a double cheeseburger and a large order of French fries and a giant chocolate milkshake. At first, you can’t believe how perfect and generous the world is, that it could provide sustenance so delicious. But somewhere around halfway down the shake, you start to feel gross, and know that you won’t eat again for the rest of the day, and that you’ll probably go to bed with a stomach ache, burping like crazy.
Despite the alarming stats I gave you at the beginning of this article, I’m actually getting better. I’m starting to break myself of the habit. Nowadays when someone tweets a review at me, I don’t click on it. When someone tags me on Tumblr, I might not automatically “like” the post. I log in to Twitter less and less, and I never waste hours scrolling through it the way I used to. When I publish an essay, I try to post it only on my official author page on Facebook, not on my personal one. I know that to a normal person this doesn’t sound like progress, but these are baby steps. I remember what it felt like when I quit smoking a decade ago, to suddenly have these empty hands that were so used to constantly being occupied. It wasn’t hard to quit, but it took a long time—which I think is why it stuck. Hopefully by the time my next book comes out I’ll be all easy and breezy about it, not caring what the New York Times or Ye Olde Blog Written in Someone’s Spare Time After Work has to say. I know that I feel better about myself when I don’t pay such close attention to what other people are saying about me or my work, good or bad.
I am an enthusiast by nature, and what I love about the internet is its ability to amplify my enthusiasms. I love sharing things online that I’m excited about, whether it’s books or movies or doughnuts or whatever. Next time I do that, though, I hope that the person who wrote that book or made that movie or fried that doughnut never sees it. I hope she knows that she is proud of her work, and that that is the only opinion she needs. ♦