Poets say different things about the month of April. Chaucer says that April has sweet showers. Eliot writes that April is the cruelest month. This year, I think they’re both right.
For many in America, April marks the light at the end of the long, pandemic tunnel. With wide-spread vaccine distribution, America is poised to rise from its katabasis (the Epic hero’s journey to the underworld), returning to the land of the living. For many, April’s showers certainly will be sweet. For others, myself included, America rises having left one (or more) of their loved ones among the dead. April, then, marks our first turn toward the “new normal” of life without them. A cruel month indeed.
In our national ascent, I have tried to be retrospective, considering how I lived during the pandemic. I am not exactly proud of how I used the various opportunities nor how I faced the challenges that the pandemic presented. I have decided to make some changes. For example, I deleted my social media.
I know that some of you noticed that I disappeared from Twitter, because you reached out to me. It was not just Twitter—the only channel that fully survived the purge was my LinkedIn, and that only because one of my classes requires that I keep it. I am conflicted on whether to keep it past the end of this semester. I kept my Facebook messenger account, as well, for my family group chat and some other friends with whom I do not chat elsewhere. Even that may go, if I can find an alternative.
I chose to eliminate social media for two main reasons. First, social media was bad for me. Social media is designed to addict you to it, and I was losing that battle. In my current high-stress environment at law school, distraction sings like a siren. Social media allowed me to turn off my brain and just scroll, but that can be dangerous. It can sap valuable time from my family, from my neighbors, from productive work, or from true rest. I decided to unplug before it got any worse. Social media was bad for me.
Second, social media is bad for my neighbor. This is a complex subject, which I will not treat in full right now (many people have written entire books on this), but I will touch briefly on two topics: surveillance capitalism and algorithmic poisoning.
“Surveillance Capitalism” is the title of a book that Professor Shoshana Zuboff published in 2019. You can read a discussion of the book’s main ideas here. But you are likely familiar with the theme of the book: Big Tech collects increasingly invasive data about you and sells that information to advertisers. But worse than just invasive advertising, Big Tech is conditioning you (think back to Psych 101 and B. F. Skinner). Big Tech is conditioning you to buy what they tell you to buy, to go where they tell you to go, to behave in ways that benefit them. Big Tech is also invading your privacy. The more we as a society agree to give up our privacy to corporations or governments, the less privacy we will be able to protect in court. So letting Big Tech have data about me funds Big Tech, which destroys my neighbor’s privacy. Social media is bad for my neighbor.
Algorithmic poisoning is a phrase of my own, as far as I know. Social media algorithms reward engagement such as likes, retweets, link clicks, and shares. The algorithms don’t sort by good or bad; they only sort by “engaging.” They do this to get you to spend more time on their website (so that you see more of the hyper-targeted ads, and they make more money). But of course “what is [engaging] is not always right, and what is right is not always [engaging].” In fact, what is engaging is often wrong.
Setting cliches aside, algorithms that reward engagement are also algorithms that reward confirmation bias. Never has winged Rumor spread so far so easily; never has Truth been so slow in getting on its shoes. Social media engagement algorithms have polarized us, poisoned us, left us at best struggling with and at worst incapable of true socialization, or empathy, charity, and other virtues. Social media is bad for my neighbor.
I do not write this jeremiad with the slightest holier-than-thou attitude. In fact, the opposite: I write this in repentance. I have used Facebook advertising (including the awful and invasive Facebook pixel); I have fed Leviathan both my money/data and others’ money/data. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Deleting my social media is the first step of my penance.
I grant that social media has upsides. I kept my Facebook messenger precisely because it connects me with loved ones. Twitter offered a forum to connect with incredible people, especially poets whose work I admire. For example, without Twitter, I would not have had the opportunity to meet Lesley Clinton, whose chapbook “Calling the Garden from the Grave” I reviewed at the end of January. The book is lovely, full of poems that peek behind the visible world into the beauty always brimming just beyond. I’m honored to have it in my collection; reading it certainly marked a bright spot in the bleak midwinter of the pandemic. Please take the time to go read the review, and more importantly, to go purchase a copy of Lesley’s book.
For me, the downsides of social media are too many. I would rather spend that time with my family, or studying, or honing my writing. And that is exactly what I plan to do. My family planted a little container garden a few days ago—the boys loved playing in the dirt and tucking the seeds in and giving them something to drink. It has been lovely, and I will not miss social media. I hope to keep up a digital correspondence with you, but I will do that here on the blog and in my newsletter.
Speaking of the newsletter, it’s undergoing a reboot (in fact, my newsletter readers already got a more in-depth version of this post). About once a month, I’ll send out a long-form piece on law, literature, or localism (or maybe all three: For instance, right now a group of people are suing Amazon and several other publishers for price-setting and anti-competitive behavior, which is a lawsuit about literature with a localist angle). The first edition of this new venture, out in May, is focused on the first book of the Aeneid. If that’s your kind of thing, subscribe here:
My main goal for the blog right now is to publish more reviews. I enjoy writing them; they introduce me to new authors, techniques, and ideas; and writing them allows me both to learn and to participate in the modern literary conversation. If you or your friends have poetry that you would like me to review, please email me! I would love to read your work and introduce it to others, as well.
I am also starting a blog series on how to write well, with a focus on avoiding common mistakes I see in my students and others. I plan to explore parts of speech, writing techniques, rhetorical devices and more. My professional writing is mostly persuasive writing (it’s the law, after all), but this series will discuss skills that transfer to other genres as well.
That’s all for now, but the first post in that series is coming soon. Keep an eye out, and thank you for reading along.
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