Dear John,

“I just posted it.”

It was a photo of my kids doing something cute; I can’t remember what. But for the next two days I rode a rising wave of approval from my two-hundred-sixty something friends. And I felt the endorphins surge as my mind rewarded me for my whopping eighty-three likes and loves. I shivered a little with pleasure as no less than four people shared my image, my ego concretizing in the wind of all that affirmation.

Well, ok, that very little bit of affirmation. My social media presence is small, and the people that bother to click, share, or comment is even smaller, really. But feeling myself respond to that has begun to gross me out. I cringe at myself for feeling the need to display my family or my projects to the world in return for what must surely be the least thoughtful, least thought-out kind of praise anyone could muster: a non-verbal icon that someone else, some invisible design-team, optimized.

I can see why I crave a bit of positive feedback, be it ever so empty, and I’m sure it’s obvious to anyone looking. But anyone who’s had to deal with the flesh-and-blood Blake construct will probably tell you my ego was always a pretty high crag, that the thoughts that matter most to me are the ones that originate inside my own skull. So I always have a comeback to my self-criticism:

  • I’m a meh scientist in no danger of getting even a wikipedia writeup, let alone a Nobel. But I have a lab, and get to work on answering whatever question I happen to dream up, so my existence is charmed in that respect.
  • I get to watch students work on other courses’ homework during my lectures or, worse yet, just lull them to sleep with my dulcet tones. But some of them do seem to get some meaning from the lessons-cum-Tarot readings I prepare for them, though they’ll just have to cope with not getting their grades back soon.
  • I drop my kids off in a ’04 Corolla with a cracked windshield at a school with a parking lot full of Teslas and Maseratis. But all the materialism and ostentation only serve to polish my own values. Plus, the Toy’s got 250K miles and is still going strong.
  • I’m old and fat. But I love life, and have had a shit-ton of fun, mostly of the highly active sort, believe it or not. Decode that why don’t you! Also, I love to eat: habeas corpus.

So, you see, in this particular case, it isn’t you (you, social media friend), it really is me. Or anyway it’s about keeping control of how I feed my need for external validation.

There are personal reasons for me to say no to social media. I’m saying that publicly, and so there’s a contradiction, or hypocrisy, or dissonance, or whatever. But I’m dialing down the Facebook volume in my life, as so many seem to be Facebooking about these days, to gain some kind of control over why I’m using it, not to stop using it.

Any time everyone else is doing something, the Blake impulse is (should be) to wonder why, not to rush to join. Ok, id feci, I did scramble to get in line for those Clash tickets that one time back in 1986. But the need for approval, the hope to see more likes, just to get that little jolt of internet oxytocin, contradicts my residual self-image as a man convinced of his self-worth.

I am compelled to add, though, that the elevation to the presidency of a manipulative demagogue precipitated the dampening of my interest in all ya’ll, at least insofar as the collective is truly expressed in Facebook. Again, my own self is the cosm. For years, I have aggressively blocked from my feed anything about Jesus, guns, or Obama-hate, fashioning Facebook into the echo-chamber I thought I wanted. And editing out wilfull ignorance, hate, as well as other – less repellant – types of cultural noise seems like a good thing. Or at least understandable, from someone like me, who grew up as a nerd and an outsider; the bullying people face in the real world, which has become omnipresent on the internet, can be partially mitigated through selective pruning of one’s “world”. However, it seems to me that the principal accomplishment of our “online communities” is to further isolate ourselves; humankind’s amazing ability to transmute lies into truth further wilts for me the flower of our so-called connectedness.

But hold on.

There’s no shortage today of journalism (can we use that term any more?) – as opposed to ranting – that is critical of the closure of our ears to different voices. So no one needs to hear it from me.

I am concerned with how we really make America great, however, and how the means by which we communicate with each other affects our greatness: the Entire Point of the Universities I’ve made my home in over lo these 30 years is to showcase, explore, glorify, Difference. To explore new perspectives. To seek out new ways of thinking. To shrewdly subject them to the critical evaluations they’ve never received before.

So, I’m criticizing Facebook as an inward-gazing medium – contrary to its claims of a community-broadener – and as thus counterproductive to the self-critical difference-mongering I’m dedicated to. I am pledging to forget about clicks and likes, and to be more outward-gazing. Or really, outward-acting.

I’m publishing this via my blog, arguably a social media form. Though it’s even less trafficked than my Facebook page, it is public, so perhaps my ‘community’ will be larger. And I’m still sharing the blog posts to Facebook. I’m just done sharing pictures of, e.g., the tarantula I saw in Joshua Tree the other day. It’s likely there will be even less interest in my Facebook feed. But who cares? It no longer feels real to me, anyway.

I interact with the outside world primarily through my teaching, so changing how I teach is the obvious way to challenge myself to find ways of fighting for critically-minded diversity validation-construction. It’s so easy for a science professor to opt-out of the deconstruction tactics normal to the University… “there’s so much content to deliver!” But I see the promise of science as one so universal, finding ways of making sure its realization is also universal must become a more intentional part of my job. Perhaps it will be the most relevant part.

Beyond my vocation, I’m challenged to be more actually social, to engage with my community in physical, not digital, ways. That’s hard for one focused on the molecular, the cellular, the organismal, the eco-systemical, the geological timescalical, having turned in the first place to those as easier, safer targets than the human.

Hope to see you in the real world!



One response to “Dear John,

  1. Ummm, so you’re not using facebook any more???? Me neither. Hope you had nice Thanksgiving. Cho & I had great dinner with Annie, Molly, & Peter. But we would have liked having it with you, Joy, Ines & Oscar.

    Sent from my iPhone


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