My Facebook angst

The social network site kicks up so much anxiety and embarrassment for me. But that doesn't mean I want to quit it

Topics: Life stories, Facebook, Social Media,

My Facebook angst (Credit: Salon/iStockphoto)

A few days ago, my friend Elizabeth posted an item to Facebook. I wanted to comment but held back, though not exactly because I had plenty of work to do. Instead I sent her a text: “Sometimes do you want to say something or post something or like something on FB, but then you think of all those unanswered emails and texts and silence yourself, so people won’t see you ‘wasting’ time when you could be responding to them?”

“Sometimes?” she replied.

“It’s called Twilt, that feeling,” I answered, laughing, having coined the term on the spot.

Twilt (n): the particular brand of guilt or self-reproach that results from posting, liking or commenting on items on Facebook or Twitter while simultaneously not responding to emails, text messages, phone calls or other types of personal communication with the knowledge or anxiety that the specific message senders will notice your public offerings and question your lack of private ones. Twilt, while related, is not the same as the guilt that results from general Internet-specific procrastination such as browsing blogs or online shopping, which, though it may result in its own brand of self-disgust, generally has no public shame component.

Adam Zagajewski, in his essay “The Shabby and Sublime,” says that the poetry of recent years is “marked by a disproportion … between powerful expressions of the inner life and the ceaseless chatter of self-satisfied craftsmen.” The same could be said for Facebook updates, our contemporary confessional. I have eaten the plums in the refrigerator, and they were yummy. Facebook is bad for me because I not only embarrass myself but I keenly feel the embarrassment of others whose lack of discretion, as I perceive it, I quietly judge and am embarrassed by all the same.

When someone starts a conversation with me on Facebook, in public, I’m mortified. There’s a message function for that! I have email and a cellphone. Let me respond when I can, away from the watch of hundreds. Sometimes I disable my Wall so people can’t write things there, until someone points it out and I feel guilty that I’ve done this so I change it back. I don’t like to talk on the phone in public and when a friend speaks too loudly in a cafe I am nervous that someone will overhear our conversation. At home I don’t like the sensation of my husband overhearing me order pizza, let alone having more sensitive conversations with friends. I have never been one to kiss and tell, and I like to keep my private life private. Why I have a Facebook account at all still perplexes me. I like the idea of seeing what’s going on, but I don’t want to always be a part of it. I don’t want to not be a part of it either. I want to swoop in and swoop out. But Facebook doesn’t allow for inconsistency without amplifying it, a constant record of our obsessions and our contradictions to the point of caricature.



The conversations between couples embarrass me the most, whether they’re sentimental or self-referential. It’s not that you live with that person and somehow don’t need electronic communication — I often text my husband across the table at a bar to make a snarky comment, or sometimes I send ridiculous things to the online printer in his office just to be impish. But it’s done in private, between us. That’s the point. It’s something about the relationship having a public facade so contrived and self-aware that makes my eyes water with shame. We all have facades and personas, of course, that are not Internet confined. Game faces. Once, at a reading, a poet thanked his wife so gushingly that I whispered to my friend, “That guy is totally having an affair.” I didn’t know a thing about him. But it turns out, I was right. Maybe the wife requested the shout-out, but if I were his wife I would have smiled at the crowd and taken flight. Up, up and away.

Do you remember “This American Life’s” 2001 episode about Superpowers, which poses the question: If you could have a superpower, would you choose Flight or Invisibility? My first reaction was and remains, flight. To fly! I’m petite and have spent a lifetime trying to fight invisibility, being intellectually overlooked, or feeling insignificant (this is not simply a result of my size but an entire slew of issues that would benefit from Lacanian psychoanalysis, which if I had I’d have to talk about in my status updates). I still have dreams where I’m flying, frequent dreams, and when I wake up I feel inexplicably happy. When I fly in my dreams, I don’t sputter or start or anxiously hover. I soar, I glide, and it’s fluid, like a manta ray moving through water. When I fly in my dreams I am all grace. My desire for flight would get me places faster, and in style.

But maybe my desire for flight is a sort of conditional invisibility; the idea of flight not only as the act of flying but the act of fleeing. I want to be part of the scene but to float somehow above it, to engage in the action but then be able to gracefully exit. I want to swoop on in and then glide away. But I want to be seen, for sure, and present. I just don’t want to have to stay, and I certainly don’t want anyone to comment on it.

It is also, of course, part of being a writer, to be part of a scene but also removed. Writing is about observation, but if I observe and immediately state then I’ve lost it, released it. The essay allows an expression of doubt but the Facebook update or conversation has a sort of self-satisfied glibness to it. It doesn’t invite dialogue but somehow challenges it. There is also the lack of control. It could go anywhere. Someone could say something too revealing or racist or just plain idiotic, and there it is, linked to your name. It is not a place for the anxious, Facebook.

And there is the difference of stance. An essay is an attempt at dialogue but a status update is a solicitation; the first is a meaningful hesitation or an assertive pronouncement, a languorous dip in a warm sea or a fast-paced race in a pool. But the essay swims all the same. A Facebook update is a haphazard nose dive into a near-empty watering hole. What if I break my neck? Will someone find me if my head is bleeding? If I post and no one comments, do I exist?

The comparison between the two forms needn’t be made; we know the difference, yet it might explain my relative comfort, even ease, with the personal essay and my fear of any public sort of dialogue. Do I want to be invisible or do I want to fly? Although the personal is intimate there is also the artifice of distance. When I fly in my dreams I can see myself flying while being aware of my place on the ground. Philip Lopate argues that a good essayist must see oneself from the ceiling, must turn oneself into a character. He is not advocating a “self-absorbed navel-gazing” but instead “a release from narcissism,” an ability to be able to “see yourself in the round.”

I admit I am often self-amused by my status updates (what else are they for?), but I am rarely satisfied with them. In the rare case I am amused with myself when writing anything, that to me is a sure sign that it’s going to need a very careful edit, or that it’s garbage.

What I love best about that episode of “This American Life” is the moving analysis at the end, immediately after several of the show’s guests comment on what it means to want invisibility or flight. John Hodgman reflects:

Flight and invisibility touch a nerve. Actually, they touch two different nerves, speak to very different primal desires and unconscious fears … In the end, it’s not a question of what kind of person flies and what kind of person fades. We all do both. … At the heart of this decision, the question I really don’t want to face, is this. Who do you want to be, the person you hope to be, or the person you fear you actually are?

Am I becoming someone on Facebook or am I trying to escape her? I’m happy my partner is not on Facebook because I am spared that public embarrassment, of people wishing us happy anniversary or the pressure to comment, or not comment, on his witticisms or offerings: J. just made fabulous butternut squash ravioli! From scratch! Natalie likes this. And then he would like my liking, and another friend would find it cute, and like it too, and no one would know that we spent the last hour fighting because I overloaded the dryer and almost burned down the house.

I wouldn’t mind if he joined Facebook, though, because he is the face man of our relationship and it would take some of the completely imagined but hugely felt pressure off me. (“Could you please like so-and-so’s photos of her daughter’s dance recital?”) If we had a band, he’d be the lead singer and I’d be the bassist, hiding behind my hair. (No, not the drummer! No one sees the drummer!) The bassist can look up and make eye contact with the crowd for a moment and the crowd will go wild. They don’t expect it but they hope for it all the same. The face man: He has to be on all the time. It’s his job to be on.

Do you remember the scene in “Sex in the City” where Carrie, upon receiving an email, ducks underneath her desk and shrieks, Oh my god, can he see me? A decade later it seems charming, like a text message from our grandmother. Yet the anxiety remains. Now, I suffer from what is surely a new psychological disorder: a DSM-IV classifiable paranoia that all my personal conversations are somehow being broadcast on Twitter. Is there a word for that?

Natalie Bakopoulos's first novel, "The Green Shore," will be published by Simon & Schuster in June 2012. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Ninth Letter, Granta Online, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, and she is a contributing editor for the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>