When dissecting a person’s work, we tend to focus only on the content and form of the product. That is the meat and potatoes of the thing, right? Still, I believe there’s something to be said for the dinner plate. At least as far as my own work is concerned, just as much labor (if not more) is spent on the packaging. A painting’s frame, a poem’s font–these often overlooked parts invite us into the whole, prepare our eyes and minds for what we are about to experience, and, without our realizing, can influence how we ultimately process the information.
I spent days perfecting the layout of my blog until I felt it would suit the character of its content. I carefully chose a title, and I painstakingly tested thousands of different header images. Now, you may have noticed over the past two years that the header of this blog features a lady’s boobs elegantly covered in cream-colored satin. I have explained my username and the title of this blog as an homage to Alcuin (1798) by Charles Brockden Brown, but you may be wondering–just whose boobs are those, anyway? Well, they belong to Judith Sargent Murray, one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s rights in early America, and I chose them for a reason.
It had to be her boobs because the development of Judith Sargent Murray’s writing career offers a beautiful and informative parallel to how and why I engage with social media. It couldn’t have been any historic lady’s boobs up there, because not every historic lady found the same empowerment in careful curation of a semipublic self, and not every historic lady openly admitted that she was doing for personal validation.
I was prompted to write this entry and explain the boobs because, every so often, an article or a video about the dangers of social media and “screens” (ironically) appears on my newsfeed. We’re missing the beauty of everyday life! We’re losing the ability to be genuine and empathetic towards others! We’re stunting our emotional development and our children’s imaginations! Everyone, hear me now! Put down your phone, hold out your hand, and in ten seconds or less a little goldfinch will perch on your outstretched fingers and whisper the world’s wisdoms in your ear…!
Before I go any further, I will concede that I often rail against social media’s unique, glib style of communication, and I adore any musical parody mocking the disingenuousness of peoples’ profiles. I’m painfully introspective and easily recognize everything that is bad about my relationship to the Internet. It’s such a farce. I compare myself to others. I take selfies at work. I aggressively cry over ex-lovers’ wedding pictures. Sometimes I would rather consent to Netflix playing yet another episode than get up for a glass of water. Truly, I am disgusting. I’m single, underemployed, and gaining weight faster than a newborn babe. Surely I can blame this all on social media!
That’s what I used to think, and, to some extent, it is true. But it’s not that simple. As the author Emma Healy recently wrote: “Fetishizing ‘presence’ by telling everyone to stop staring at their phones perpetuates the myth that simply being around other people automatically means you’re attuned or empathetic to them…Confusing the easy work of ‘unplugging’ with the hard work of meeting your feelings of solipsism and alienation and distraction on their own turf doesn’t benefit anyone. Ultimately, the doctrine of disconnection-as-self-improvement can only offer us the same kind of shallow distraction that social media does…The real work of ‘connecting’ is still just in learning to live with ourselves, and others, and our faults, and not stop caring.”
So, what about social media and what about me and what about Judith Sargent Murray?
Despite society’s consistent pining for “the good old days,” the epistolary culture of the 18th-century was remarkably similar to our modern social media culture. Letters were never truly private. Excerpts were often read aloud to others in the room. As soon as a brief left your hands, it was completely out of your control and could be read by anyone who happened upon it. People knew that and they created public personae in their letters that didn’t always reflect their lived realities. Still, this was intentional and empowering. As Shelia Skemp writes: “[Letters] provided writer and reader alike with a fictive place where people could meet, breaking down their sense of isolation, establishing connections, and sharing beliefs, interests, and experiences.” For women, letter-writing was their way to connect and enter the solidarity of sisterhood. It gave a voice to the voiceless, a community to the isolated.
When I first read about Judith Sargent Murray’s forays into writing, I instantly felt a kinship. I had studied early American female authors before, but I had revered them. I didn’t relate to them. Never had I read a biography that seemed so closely to echo my own soul. Not for the benefit of posterity or the development of the republic–Judith Sargent Murray started writing because she yearned for validation and praise from her ever-expanding circle of friends. She wrote, she claimed, out of desire “to snatch from oblivion the sentiment of worth.” Each positive response encouraged her to write more and better.
The experience, for her, was transformative. Even as she performed her wifely duties in the home, she could send the written word out as an avatar far beyond the reach of her personal experience. She suddenly had control of her identity. Her collection of correspondence was her story, and she found she could tell it any way she wished. She obsessively edited her letters until they were nearly flawless. She omitted many of them that were personal and too revealing.Where her life was messy, on the printed page, she was able to control the view of herself and her world that future generations would receive. As biographer Shelia Skemp writes: “While a woman could not transcend her sex in the real world, on paper, if she could write correctly and with some evidence of erudition, she might be able to create her own literary universe where mind ruled and body–sex–was momentarily forgotten.” At a time when women’s worlds were small, writing allowed Judith Sargent Murray to dream bigger–of fame and recognition. Eventually, she would make her mark by taking on important subjects like female education.
We often make the mistake of thinking that social media provides a quick, casual snapshot of our lives, but it’s more than that for me. If it was as instant as we claim, we wouldn’t spend hours combing through our own profiles and removing or altering the bits we don’t quite like. I was a shy, nerdy teenager when I first started blogging. I think only one person responded to my entries, and I responded to hers, even though we sat next to each other in class and called each other after school. We safely experimented with slang and emoji, and made up different (often unintelligible) ways of typing. Later, I started a different blog, with more followers. I continued to grow as a “scribbler,” and soon I was talking about more than just food and attractive celebrities. Soon I was talking about politics, religion, and mental illness. Those blogs are nearly unreadable now, but they were intrinsic to the development of my voice.
There’s still a lot in this world that terrifies me, but social media allows me to be more confident. A photograph of a city with big buildings and loud traffic that makes me nervous, when posted on social media is a beautiful image my friends can like, and I can even start liking it, too. The more I take pictures and the more people praise them, the better I become at documenting my own little world. It’s empowering. Situations that have made me cry can be funny on Facebook. At times I feel small and lost; I am whole and home when I blog. I can find solidarity and comfort in shared experience, and I can learn to laugh in the face of personal tragedies. Every comment on my blog encourages me to keep writing and my voice gets stronger with each post.
I may present a curated image to the world through social media, but it is not fake, and it is not disconnected. I have grown up writing online for myself, for my friends, and for any stranger that happens to pass by. The things I have learned, the people I have reached and that have reached me, the sadness I have overcome–a lot has happened online. The Internet is not a plague on my generation. It’s the extension of collective growth and development of identity that began with the written word. So, like it or not, history seems to say social media (selfies and all) is here to stay.