I’m always surprised, and admittedly also a little bit relieved, when a writer who has all the fixings of public success expresses vulnerability with regard to Facebook. Facebook is many things, but it’s a generally accepted fact that it’s a place where people project a fantasy version of themselves and brag—humbly, of course, and sometimes obliquely—about their accomplishments. Its second most prominent use may be as a platform for outrage, but outrage expressed on Facebook can be similarly self-serving, as it carries with it a second message: look at me in my righteous outrage. In any case, you’d think that a writer with an enviable career would be less susceptible to the Facebook effect, the “everyone is happier, more successful, and better looking than I am” effect. And yet just the other day I heard from a successful poet that not only does he have to stay away from it, but he’s had to put up a firewall between himself and that big blue portal. “Poets ruined Facebook,” he said.
Something can’t be ruined if it wasn’t first some kind of paradise, but Facebook seems to present a special kind of hell for writers. I don’t think it’s just because writers are more sensitive than other people, though they might be; it’s because Facebook offers something much more tantalizing than just a glimpse into other people’s brag books. It offers the possibility of an audience beyond one’s circle of friends (the real kind)—and even better, an audience that responds immediately, positively, and in great numbers.
Pablo Neruda, as recalled by Lewis Hyde in The Gift, says this: “To feel the love of people whom we love is the fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us . . . that is something still greater and more beautiful, because it widens the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.” And while it’s a stretch to extend the idea of “uniting all living things” to Facebook, it actually is a place where we can give our most profound work to people we don’t know, and, fleetingly, to feel their love—or at least their “likes”—in return. It offers to widen the boundaries of our being, and in a very convenient way.
This is Facebook’s most irresistible appeal for literary people. An appreciative response to your vacation photos is one thing, but for the written word the attention and acknowledgment of an audience is often the only indication of its value. It’s painful to continue pouring your heart and soul into something, like poetry or art, like anything in the “gift economy,” and have no real indication that it means anything to anybody besides you. Even once you get that much-sought-after publication, what you hear from your readers, if anything at all, rarely feels equal to the effort. So of course it’s tempting to risk life and limb and head over to Facebook, where hundreds of friendly faces are always there waiting for your next post.
Prior to social media, validation for literary work came slowly when it did come, and in the meantime we’d just have to have faith in its unacknowledged value. Cultivating a kind of fortitude in the face of silence was just part of the deal. But then along came Facebook, and for a moment everything changed. I remember how intoxicating it was when we first began posting New England Review poems and stories there. Suddenly I could see that real people were seeing the content and liking it, and within minutes! Facebook offered a new kind of currency, and I wanted to rack up as much of it as possible. And if you’re a poet, you can put an entire poem into a post and get the same kind of immediate response—or not. But this is, of course, a precarious measure of success. It’s hardly fair to judge the value of something whose effect is not always immediate by the number of likes, shares, and comments it receives in its short social media lifespan. Work that takes time to read, or at least takes time to absorb, doesn’t often play well among colorful photos of children and pets. Just enough poems go viral, though, to make it a continuing enticement, and likewise a continuing disappointment. With mysterious algorithms and a large corporation in charge of it all, you never know what factors contribute to a post’s popularity or its disappearance into the void. And Facebook is always changing those algorithms. In any case, for me—and for my poet friend—the thrill is gone.
Writers have always known that theirs is a lonely art, but after spending time on Facebook it’s as if we have to learn this all over again. We have to remember that the audience for literature is largely silent; it takes its time. Even when a poem or story does get noticed on Facebook, that response will more often than not disappoint its maker. Unless, of course, its maker is that other writer over there, the one who seems to have it all. While seeming to offer us a way out of that silence and loneliness, Facebook may only have replaced it with a different kind of loneliness. “It is now official,” a recent New York Times piece announced. “Scholars have analyzed the data and confirmed what we already knew in our hearts. Social media is making us miserable.”
Poets alone didn’t ruin Facebook. And Facebook won’t ruin poets. My sense, though, is that we all need to get used to the silence and not take it as a statement of worth. The gratitude I have for so many writers’ and artists’ work is something they’ll never know about, that I’ll never be able to express, even if that writer is still living, even if that writer has a Facebook account. I’ll certainly never be able to click “like” in time or often enough to acknowledge the full measure of its value.