Mall vs. Museum
This week in Books & Crannies, I shared that I’ve been mulling philosophically about social media lately (who am I kidding; I always do, but I tend to even more in late summer, as I end my sabbatical from intense screen use).
I told them that I was talking to a friend, a fellow writer who feels the tension of “needing” to be on social media for the sake of book publishing — we’re told we need to market just as well as we write (and in more and more cases of books released out in the wild these days, market better than we write). Therefore, it’s part of our job to build a following, establish an online presence, be seen as a Thought Leader™️.
The longer I do this, the more deeply this feels incongruent with how I’m made, with the storytelling blood that pumps through my veins and moves my bones and muscles. To tell stories well, I have to swim in the waters of my work, and coming up to the surface to stay relevant online feels like rocks puncturing the river’s flow. I spend more time navigating the current to make sure I don’t scrape my body on the sharp rocks, and less on following the river to the delta where it flows into the sea.
This writer friend told me he mutes quite a few people he follows on Instagram, anyone who feels like a sharp rock. He wants to keep the focus on photography on that particular social media app (remember, that’s how it started?), and to do that, he culls his feed so that he mostly sees art while still avoiding potential hurt feelings that come from a blatant ‘unfollow.’ I had forgotten about that mute button.
I said, “It’s the difference between walking through a museum versus walking through a mall.”
“Yes, that’s it,” he said.
I’ve been thinking about this idea for several days now, and have started to use that mute button. Because I agree with him. I have ALL SORTS OF PROBLEMS with Instagram that go deeper than just How does it make me feel?, and those are real and relevant. But the anxiety I often feel when scrolling the app matters, too, and it is indeed similar to how I’d feel back in the day when malls were a thing.
Navigating a gauntlet of beautiful wares displayed in windows, tempting me to believe I didn’t have enough in my life already, didn’t measure up; that what they offered would truly scratch that itch once and for all. Tell yourself you’re coming just a bit to relax, to enjoy the A/C, to just browse, but leave feeling emptier, wanting more, reminded of what you lack in life.
It’s quieter at a museum. There’s usually space between displayed art, to give visitors room to pause, notice, linger. There might be crowds, but they’re not there to buy, they’re there, like you, to look. To appreciate. Some people sit at a bench and take out their sketchbook and good pencil, to attempt to emulate an artist’s magnificence — not to copy verbatim, but to learn, to capture a bit of the wonder in the talent.
I like the idea of treating Instagram like a museum instead of the mall it’s become. I mentioned this in Books & Crannies, and I loved how community member Viky responded: she prefers Instagram for inspiration, not connection. That’s it, I thought. If I need/want to connect with the general public, I use Twitter. If I need/want inspiration, I use Instagram.
Or that’s the theory, anyway. Social media ills notwithstanding, if we lived in a vacuum and everyone had pure motives and there were no Silicon Valley men behind the curtain pulling the levers and profiting the most out of all of us, this is how I’d like social media to work. I’d like Twitter to be an ancient Greek agora where people shared ideas, and Instagram to be the museum where we can admire each other’s art.
It doesn’t really work that way. Hence the need for guardrails in our lives to protect us from addiction and depression.
I will always have visceral feelings about the place social media has in the life of a writer, and apoplectic feelings about what social media is doing to our brains, collective rhetoric, and politics big and small. But perhaps one small thing I can do for myself is mute otherwise well-meaning folks so that I don’t quite feel that shopping mall anxiety when all I wanted to do was browse a museum.
We’ll see if it’s possible. There are a few bright spots on the ‘gram, and I’m grateful for the worlds they share: nature, farms, art, photography, books, dogs, gardens, nature, and more nature.
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