We used to speak in essays.
Heads up, this content is 11 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

I’ve been troubled this week by the events in Boston — two bombs exploded at the Marathon, one of the suspects was killed in a shootout (as was a cop), and the city shut down for a day while they hunted and captured the other suspect, his brother, a 19-year-old from Chechnya.

I’m from New Hampshire and I live in San Francisco. An attack on New England is scary and heartbreaking for me. There are people I love who were personally and closely affected by it. A college friend whose family owns a running shoe store at the site of the blast. A friend from childhood who was standing in the blast area with his wife and, mercifully, left 30 minutes before it happened. My sister’s boyfriend’s kids who were standing 200 feet away from the blast, and are in middle school. A colleague whose house was searched during the manhunt. There’s probably more.

Attacks on big events in American cities also shake me and strip me of my sense of safety more than any other kind of tragedy we see on the news. Because on any sunny day, when I’m full of pride and celebrating my community, it could happen to me. And let’s not forget that I live in one of the LGBTQ capitals of the country during a gay civil rights movement. We’re actually a completely realistic target.

So I’m scared. And sad. And angry. At no one in particular.

It’s interesting that earthquakes don’t scare me as much, even though they’re probably more likely to kill me. They don’t come paired with me losing my faith in humanity at the same time.

Humanity. Okay, this post isn’t actually about humanity. This is post is about Facebook. (I get those two confused sometimes.)

As I watched the anger pour out all week on my Facebook News Feed — at the bombers, at people who cheer for the torture of the bombers, at Muslims, at people who blame Muslims, at foreigners and immigrants, at people who blame foreigners and immigrants, at the government, at law enforcement, at terrorism, at the media, and at individuals who make statements in the heat of emotion that don’t hold up under scrutiny — my heart kept breaking further. People I love are in pain and blaming each other.

So now I’m doing the only reasonable thing I can think of to do. I’m directing my own personal anger this week at Facebook, and at recent shifts in Internet communication. I recognize that this is no more righteous or responsible than the other expressions of anger I’ve been frustrated with, but maybe I can make it just a little bit constructive.

Stay with me here.

We used to speak in essays.

We used to write each other two-page letters in mediocre penmanship, and hold long conversations over coffee. We focused on sharing a depth of view, we listened, and we connected. We had differences, but we found our similarities through them, and friendship was a collaborative effort of building bridges. The internet started closer to this, with small forums and chat rooms (like coffee dates), longer emails (because we weren’t overloaded in our inboxes), and long-form blogs and diaries that sparked discussion and empathy.

We also had more carefully selected audiences when we shared those essays. Instead of the very real possibility of something we write being circulated to our mothers, bosses, and members of the Tea Party, we had some trust that our voice would stay in the context of our community.

The audience has shifted. What we have on Facebook now is a giant Rolodex of everyone we’ve ever worked with, slept with, shared a blood line with, went to high school with, or thought was cool once. Custom audience filters exist, but they’re complicated to use and we don’t really trust them anyway. Our default mode is to share anything we post with everyone we know.

The medium has shifted, too. We no longer speak in essays, because essays don’t really belong on Facebook. We speak in photos, links, one-liners, and battle cries. (We’re also hanging out on Tumblr and Twitter, which are no different.) We distill our points down to the jab, to the wit, to the pointy tip, and then we fling it out into the Internet and see who catches it and what they make of it. We derive self-worth from getting “liked” and being told what we said is “SO TRUE.”

One of these alone would be rough. The two of them combined is a death sentence.

Here’s what this pile of changes means for us:

It means that if you have a network of people you mostly agree with, you are now living in a self-sustaining propaganda machine, able to share inflammatory emotional statements and feel like everyone around you agrees with you. (Even if they don’t, or have other friends who feel strongly in other directions. You’re never really sure how your words land with the people who feel too alienated to engage.)

It also means that if you have a mixed network of people with dramatically different viewpoints, you now see multiple propaganda machines. You see someone saying something offensive and someone being offended in the same scroll. You see anger and name-calling, and you can imagine the face of their target because that person is your friend, too. You…

Okay, sorry. I. Let’s be clear, this is about me. This is what I see. And it’s painful. And the only solutions I have at my fingertips are to

A) Unfriend and hide people until I have a network devoid of diversity and old friends who’ve found different paths, or

B) Stop looking at Facebook.

I don’t accept these options. This is my Internet, too, dammit, and I want something better for us.

I’m not upset that we are passionate people with opinions, criticism, pride, and voices. I’m upset that we’re communicating these values in a medium that reduces our points to lolcat-style images with IMPACT white text, and leaves off why we feel this way and how we got here.

I’m also upset that we’re using our “inside” voices with an unfiltered audience.  And that through the magic of a self-editing News Feed algorithm, we’re led to forget that half our contacts exist, and believe that our audience actually is just our friends.  Or worse, when we’re led to feel like this is Our Page for Expressing Ourselves, and that anyone who has an issue with that is way out of line. Because then we’re making people choose between listening to our heated rants and not being able to know us at all.

Broadcasting distilled, emotional battle cries without background context to our entire Rolodexes is further polarizing us as a community. And aren’t we polarized enough as it is?

I want us to speak in essays again, to connect compassionately over our differences, to listen, to be respectful, and to learn from each other. The fact that our audience has broadened to everyone we’ve ever met makes it that much more important to be real, human, and long-form about where we’re coming from and why we feel the way we do.

I’m writing this on a blog that I haven’t contributed to in a year, because Facebook was easier. Speaking in essays is hard work.

But what if we tried?

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7 Responses to “We used to speak in essays.”

  1. Rose/yarnivore Says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time and energy to write this, Sarah. Lately I’ve been wanting something different and better, too, which has led to me spending a lot less time on FB. I don’t miss the FB-ness of it at all, but there are friends on there that I don’t see elsewhere, and I do miss *them*.

    A few times lately I’ve started to say something, on Twitter or FB, and then thought, “Oh…hmm…to really explain what I’m thinking there, I’d have to *write an essay*” and so I delete what I started to say in a few words, and don’t say *anything*. This isn’t a good outcome for anyone!

    So, again, thank you. For going first, and for being awesome. Let’s talk in essays, and say hard, think-y, mind-and-heart-expanding things.

  2. Karen Henninger Says:

    I’m with you. In fact, I’ve been tremendously guilty of writing so much in essay form, people don’t take the time to read. No matter how I tried I can’t write one liners unless I’m just using a ‘quote’. But I am a writer. My whole background is based on understanding how literacy and technology has impacted our human relationships, our language use, etc. If interested, search ‘vast state of humiliation’ at my website or online. I believe we need a social step back from arrogance. I’m not promoting ‘humiliation’ as a harmful experience. I am promoting respect, pause, slow instead of fast, gentle instead of harsh, humility instead of arrogance and time instead of only breeze blowbys. Nice to have met you, online.

  3. nikkiana Says:

    Yes! You’ve just managed to put words to some thoughts that have been rolling around in my brain but I’ve been struggling to find the appropriate way to express.

    I’ve been feeling so much frustration lately around the way things have changed.

    I still blog, but I feel like more and more like all the bloggers I run across have the priority of trying to sell me something rather than to tell me their story.

    All of the message board communities I used to belong to are gone… or have died out so much that it’s not worth bothering.. and it seems like the format has died.

    I feel so old in Internet years.

    I sat down the other night and tried to write a blog post about the things I feel nostalgic about and suddenly realized that to write about such things would require a lot of explaining because most of the people who read me weren’t a part of the “sharing your life on the Internet” culture in the time period that I’m nostalgic about.

    At any rate, I’m glad to see you post, Sarah. I’ve missed you.

  4. Erica Says:

    “We used to write each other two-page letters in mediocre penmanship, and hold long conversations over coffee. We focused on sharing a depth of view, we listened, and we connected. We had differences, but we found our similarities through them, and friendship was a collaborative effort of building bridges. The internet started closer to this, with small forums and chat rooms (like coffee dates), longer emails (because we weren’t overloaded in our inboxes), and long-form blogs and diaries that sparked discussion and empathy.”

    I understand your frustration with current political clashes, but racism, rumor-mongering, and people surrounding themselves only with those who agree with them happened LONG before FB and Twitter.

    Rodney King riots: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1992_Los_Angeles_riots

    Stormfront has been referred to as “the internet’s first hate site”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stormfront_%28website%29

    And the “gay panic” idea might pre-date the Internet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gay_panic_defense

    Calls to think more before we speak and get into the “why” of opinions is always good. But we shouldn’t forget that these things were with us before we started writing in 140 characters. The internet just made the hate more publicly visible… and I think that’s a good thing. We can’t pretend that the injustices of the past don’t exist anymore.

  5. z Says:

    I think I’ve been seeing the effects of this lately with regard to same-sex marriage. Some of the one-liners from people who want to make sure that everyone realizes that same-sex marriage is not the be-all and end-all queer issue have come across to me as “it’s not OK to want things for yourself if there are other people with unresolved problems.” I don’t think that’s the message people were trying to send, but it’s how it ended up coming across to me.

  6. Suebob Says:

    Thanks for this, Sarah. I keep coming back to it again and again.

    This is why I have pretty much stopped posting links to political stuff on Fb. I was using links as a way to avoid stating my personal opinions directly, and if I am afraid to say what I believe, then why let others say it for me?

  7. Where I'm At Today - Authentic Experience Says:

    […] sure when (I feel like my perception of time is skewed), but I remember reading Sarah’s We Used to Speak in Essays and then watching Aubrey’s most recent vlog about her thoughts about blogging, social […]