When I quit Facebook a year and a half ago, I told myself it was because I didn’t want so much personal information in the public domain. Not that I’d been a particularly avid Facebooker – I’d always made as few status updates as possible, and hardly ever uploaded photos (often quietly seething at all the fun other people appeared to be having). On the whole, I found Facebook a rather spiritually depleting experience: I’d log in most days, scan the same people I always scanned, and log out again, always feeling a little voyeurist afterwards (it was also hard to ignore the cold awareness that that if I saw ‘friends’ across the street, I wasn’t likely to cross the road to say hello).
But when I thought a bit more about it, I realised it had nothing to do with privacy. I could, after all, control all the information on my profile. It was the loneliness I experienced online that I found so unsettling, much like being the only person at the party not talking to someone. I just wasn’t very good at being social online. Surrounded by the activity I intuitively associate with friendships and more intimate connections, it all felt so utterly out of reach.
Of course, there’s a great deal of difference between solitude and loneliness, and lately we’ve started to ponder the social implications of all the technology in our lives. Stephen Marche’s excellent article in The Atlantic last year explores this, as does Sherry Turkle in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. How can it be, both writers ask, that in this age of hyper-connectedness, more people than ever feel lonely?
Recently I opened a Twitter account. It was an experiment, of sorts: I wanted to see if I could overcome these aversions and move seamlessly through the digital ether. After all, I need to use social media for my work; we’re told it’s increasingly important in the publishing and writing world to have a diverse online strategy. And, I had to concede, if it’s used effectively social media cultivates new connections with loads of interesting people.
Friends who knew of my resistance assured me that Twitter was different from Facebook. ‘It’s just like having an email conversation,’ they told me, ‘only with a few different people at a time.’
Rather than assure me, this description filled me with a new type of anxiety. Groups and I don’t go well together. My maximum number in a group conversation is four – any larger and I start to sweat and and my mouth turns dry and chalky. When I catch up with friends, it’s face-to-face. I’m happy to chat on the phone, but usually only with people I’ve known for a long time. I like to see their expressions, sense their mood. I like the presence of others, and I like who I am with them.
Persevering, I set up the account. I tweeted a few times, waited for people to reply or retweet. They didn’t. I checked every 10 minutes to see how many people had begun to follow me. I stopped doing this after a day. Instead I began to follow few threads of conversation. Mainly involving bookish types, magazines, and Stephen Fry. Now and then, I thought of chipping into acquaintances’ conversations, but I was too shy to do it. It was ridiculous, but I was paralysed by the same fear I feel when I come into a crowded room and find myself faced with the awkward insertion into the group. And, once I’d elbowed my way in, what if my well-crafted comment/question was met with a reverberating silence?
I think these kind of questions will always follow me online. They are, after all, no different from those I carry around in real life. Embarrassingly, since setting up my account, I’ve only tweeted eight times – so I’m not exactly helping my own cause. But I’ve now got LinkedIn in my sights, and I’m already up to 34 connections.
Rebecca Starford is the Editor of Kill Your Darlings. She was deputy editor at Australian Book Review and is now associate publisher at Affirm Press. She regularly publishes in The Age and The Australian.