In this month’s literary arts section, Michael Heald, owner of Perfect Day Publishing and author of “Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension,” discusses what it takes to run an independent press, how to curate a novel, and his writing as an essayist and a journalist.
What would life be without social media? Does anyone remember? For many people these days, checking Instagram or Facebook is the first thing done after waking up in the morning. Those little hearts or thumbs-ups deliver dopamine directly to the brain much like a loaded syringe. In her essay “User Not Found” (Future Tense Books), Felicity Fenton very candidly describes her own experience with getting off “the walls” and re-engaging the terrestrial world. For a 30 page chapbook, User Not Found contains so many snippets of wisdom on taking on the compulsion to keep up appearances online. This smartphone size book is the perfect alternative to aimlessly scrolling through your social media apps, and may just help you get back to what’s important in life, real human interaction.
ELEVEN: How did this book come about? Why the chapbook form?
Felicity Fenton: My publisher and friend, Kevin Sampsell and I have been reading each other’s writing for a while now. I sent him the essay in its beginning stages. He was enthusiastic about it and thought it would be a fitting piece for his terrific phone-sized Scout Book series.
The motivation to write the essay was prompted by a few things:
Over a year ago, I was in Mexico for a few weeks around the holidays. I had a nagging itch to document, share, respond, and scroll rather than experience my days there as the open eyed wanderer I used to be. Not only was I noticing this desperation in myself, but in others around me. Scrolling humans seemed to be everywhere, on buses, on motorbikes, in hot air balloons, in cafes, while walking in front of oncoming traffic.
Then one of my internet friends disappeared. They erased me from their digital walls. We had been relatively close, so I was a bit crushed and wondered what I had done to upset them. I reached out, but never heard back. This sort of ghosting happens every day. Happens to teenagers, business executives, zookeepers, and people in retirement homes. I question where this is taking us as humans. Not being able to confront one another through healthy conversations, resolving things in person, hugging afterwards. It’s a bit depressing.
Then my child said something to me one morning about it being strange always seeing her parent’s faces painted in light. What was it like for her growing up in a place where the most important people in her life were cemented to screens? I wanted to crawl out of the algorithmic hole I’d buried myself in, for her and for me. It was time to take a break.
Severing myself from a world I had being so enmeshed in was challenging. My hands constantly reached for my phone and my desire to check in was on fire. I’d never had addiction issues before and suddenly I knew I had a problem. So I wrote about it.
11: You use a lot of terms related to social media addiction that really sum up how a lot of people behave online. Can you explain what a wall score is?
FF: Wall scores are points you get in the virtual world for posting, curating, responding, and sharing. You can post too much or too little. You get major points for posting images of yourself or your child. Even bigger points if you claim to have battled some sort of health scare or other life threatening situation. If you win a Pulitzer, people will applaud you, and you may gain a lot of followers, but if you post about other accomplishments that aren’t as fancy, you may lose followers. Mediocrity isn’t great for wall scores. It’s all very finicky and mood based, the response you may or may not get from others. Right now, I’m not very popular on social media. I pop things up on walls occasionally, but I never scroll and interact with others. Sort of defeats the purpose of being there at all. Still wrestling with that.
11: Another term that many of us might relate to is “going cold”. Can you tell me how people reacted to you when you decided to do so?
FF: It seems like a good slice of our real life encounters are based on how we’ve interacted with others online. I often hear people say things like, I unfollowed this person because they posted too many pictures of their dog, or their art, or their mother’s banana bread. It’s a passive aggressive pissing party.
After the book came out, a few social media friends sent emails confessing they thought I had unfollowed them, blocked them, stepped out of their room. I imagine this is still the case for a few who don’t know I’m not on the walls as much anymore. Some people either assume you are going through some sort of personal catastrophe or that you denounced them as humans.
11: You write that, ”Digital applause makes art less lonely. Despite its vapidness, I had grown attached to being followed and following others online.” Can you expound on that sentiment specifically on how it relates to artists?
FF: The fear of being forgotten is very real. But it goes beyond fear. People do forget. Out of site, out of mind. Since I’ve curbed my wall use, my website traffic has gone down by 50%.
In many ways, platforms like Instagram have opened up a plethora of opportunities for makers of all types. It doesn’t require the same sort of work that goes into finding representation, writing grants, or cover letters. You can simply set up a scene in your bathroom with a couple of chickens, food coloring, and wigs, and presto, you’re there. If you know what you are doing and shimmy your way into the lives of other internet followers, you can generate a substantial audience. Responses can be dull, but they spike dopamine levels, so you keep coming back for more.
11: One subject that you address in the book is “the imbalance of human and non-human relationships.” Why is this so important, and how much more are you aware of this after writing this essay?
FF: This is something I often consider. Having grown up between the city and a mountain valley. These relationships are vital to me. The screens we claim, grasp, and ogle, are taking us further and further away from the non-human side of things, tossing us into an oozing anthropocentric vat because the river is far too cold and doesn’t always have Wi-Fi.
11: Have you ever considered not even owning a smartphone or having social media accounts?
FF: For sure. I think about it frequently. A bulk of what I use my phone for anymore is texting, checking emails, and voice recordings. I don’t take as many photos as I used to, probably because I don’t feel the need to capture my every waking moment. I’d like to dumb it down, get some sort of landline, start writing more letters instead of sending text messages, but it may be hard to convince others to go there with me. Most people I know don’t like talking on the phone anymore and very few of them write letters. Until I’m ready to experience heavy wallops of silence and isolation, I’m going to hang onto my device.
Deleting myself from social media may happen eventually, but because it is one of the only ways to share information and check in on friends and family, I’ve accepted it as a tool I can choose to use if I like.