E-INTIMACY & THE SOCIAL NETWORK: A Naked Gchat with Stephen Elliott, Blake Butler & Christina Kingston
My typical morning looks like this: I wake up early, get the coffee going and power up the laptop to check the first of multiple email accounts. After poring through book-related messages, I respond to personal ones, then those related to my freelance work. By now, I’m on to my second cup of coffee. I open the Facebook folder and communicate as necessary: replying to direct messages, picking up wall conversations where they left off, making sure new friend requests are real and not pornbots. If I add friends, I always send a welcome note. I don’t see the “social connection” of impersonal adds. After this, I try to post something provocative or curious or useful or funny. If there’s time, I scroll through my News Feed to see what everyone else is up to and get into the mix. I bookmark all the inspirational creative links I find and want to share or dig into more deeply—later, when there’s more time—from the endless queue of “Books to Read” (where I also file short stories, author interviews and lit-related videos) to “Tips” (blogs, litmags, arts venues or other places or people of interest). If there’s time, I do the same on Twitter. If there’s time, I respond to messages on Goodreads. Then I try to check in on the comment threads of my favorite blog communities and follow-up accordingly. If there’s time, I scan the latest posts. If there’s time, I read The Daily Rumpus, refresh my email accounts, rinse, repeat. By now I’ve drained the coffee pot and I’m racing off to the dayjob, where I’ll attempt to replicate an abridged version of this process on any breaks throughout the day. I may or may not do the same in the evening. I may or may not do the same at night.
Rereading the above paragraph now, I’m exhausted. It’s only 8am and the coffee’s long gone.
The social media evangelists tell us all this e-activity is the ticket to connection in a fractured media landscape. Social networking is essential for developing relationships, they say, both personal and professional. It’s fun and exciting, bringing worlds to our laptop and cellphone screens that we’d otherwise never know existed. True enough, perhaps. But how connected are we? Does our always-on passing of the hours really bring us closer to each other? Are we e-communicating in fundamentally meaningful ways?
The concept of e-intimacy—i.e., closeness, mutual understanding and affection, authentic connection and communication via electronic networks—has fascinated me ever since I started online dating years ago as research for my badbadbad novel. So I set up a Gchat roundtable to explore this idea with fellow writers who, I believe, are e-communications experts. Stephen Elliott—author of numerous books, fiction and non-fiction—puts most of his energy these days into The Rumpus, a self-described “online magazine focused on culture, as opposed to ‘pop culture.’” Scorch Atlas and Ever author Blake Butler edits the group blog HTMLGIANT, which originally billed itself as “‘the Internet literature magazine blog of the future.’” Christina Kingston runs ctkingston.com, a personal blog with a capital A Attitude that boasts legions of loyal fans.
INTIMACY & OPENNESS
JesusAngelGarcia: What does intimacy look like in e-culture?
Stephen: That’s difficult. I’m not even sure if I believe in it. I don’t think I have true intimacy with anyone I don’t have an in-person relationship with, though the Internet is amazing for finding, and building, community.
CtKscribe: I think a woman may feel there is actual intimacy and a man feels as Stephen just stated.
Blake: I think I’m the exact opposite. I tell people shit online I don’t tell anyone I’ve ever met. But I’m kind of a hider in real life and online I act like a bitch or a freak a lot.
Stephen: So openness is intimacy?
Blake: I don’t know if it is just the openness.
CtKscribe: I do think “openness” is a form of intimacy.
Blake: But I have friends online who I feel know more about me in a certain way than people I’ve known for 15 years. A different side anyway, which feels more real.
Stephen: I’ve had long-distance relationships with people where we would talk and be very open and then I would meet them and realize I didn’t know them at all. I think people present something different online. They might be more open but they’re hiding something else.
CtKscribe: Easier to communicate anything online for a zillion reasons. But as Stephen states, it can all evaporate once face to face.
Blake: It’s like different masks, I suppose. Maybe the online mask is more what you really are in certain ways.
CtKscribe: EVERYONE is hiding something. Except dead people.
Stephen: But, for me personally, I try to live an open life. I know I don’t succeed, but it’s very much a goal, in my life and art.
JesusAngelGarcia: You seem that way in the Daily Rumpus emails, Stephen.
Blake: And your books are really confessional.
CtKscribe: I save the true “open life” for a small circle of people.
WRITING FOR CONNECTION
JesusAngelGarcia: But you’ve developed this devoted following, Tina, and those people clearly feel a deep connection to you. Isn’t that connect/communication intimacy?
CtKscribe: They do feel a “deep” connection, but that’s because they “desire” to feel that.
Stephen: I’ve always written to connect. And I’ve carried that over into my Daily Rumpus emails. It’s intimate in that I’m very open. But I couldn’t love a person, for example, without meeting them and spending a lot of in-person time with them.
CtKscribe: Stephen, I think we all write and hope for a connection to the reader. But a mass email doesn’t seem very intimate to me. I have not gotten one of yours, so I can’t really say.
Stephen: I’ve often said that writing is the urge to communicate and be alone at the same time. The Internet feeds into that.
Blake: Yes. That is exactly it.
Stephen: The emails, the way I approach them, are the same way I approach any of my literary works. The Daily Rumpus emails are meant to be literary. I’m trying to create a new form. That’s the goal.
Blake: I feel really weird around human people mostly. But I’m also social and have things to say. I just feel dumber talking out of my mouth than when I’m typing. So it’s nice to feel I can see things correctly, and not be bombarded in a way I can’t control.
CtKscribe: Writing does give us a sense of control. Until we put it out there. Ha, then all hell breaks loose.
LONELINESS & BLURT IN A FRACTURED MEDIA LANDSCAPE
JesusAngelGarcia: Do you feel like our interactions in online networks are more about longing to reach out, or to listen and be heard, or is it something else? Have you found that your e-activity creates more longing or contentment?
Stephen: Here’s one thing: Web 1.0 fractured communities. Web 2.0 has been all about rebuilding from those ashes. In other words, we used to agree on mediums of information that we could connect around. A couple of TV stations, some movies, a few bands depending on what you were into. With the fractured media landscape we had too many choices. We didn’t have common things to talk about. Web 2.0 is all Facebook, social media, etc. And I think a lot of the longing for that came from the damage created by the first wave.
Blake: I feel like I don’t know who I am talking to online, when it is in the non-1:1 forums. I feel like I’m talking to get the pressure out of my head so I can be more clear. I feel like I would have quit writing if I hadn’t had the Internet.
JesusAngelGarcia: Because of the community you found(ed) with HTMLGIANT and elsewhere?
Blake: No, before that even. Just the fact that I could blurt shit out and interact with people…
CtKscribe: That’s what I love.
JesusAngelGarcia: And you do that so well, Tina. That’s why people are into you, I think. That’s probably the common ground with everyone here, I’m guessing.
Blake: … and find those connections Stephen is talking about.
Stephen: Loneliness for me is defining. It’s always been a big part of my makeup and a primary motivator for writing. But now all I think about is the “fractured media landscape.” It’s the only term that makes sense. That’s why I write emails now instead of books.
JesusAngelGarcia: Is the loneliness mitigated or fueled by online social media?
Stephen: If it’s fueled by it, it’s not caused by it. If it’s fueled by it, it’s just a symptom. You have to bring your own sickness.
Blake: I think it makes me both more lonely and less lonely. Which has resulted in me a void. I feel like I have no feelings.
JesusAngelGarcia: Do you feel “connected” to the thousands of people you blurt to? Or is it just a kind of self-serving thing to deal with the tornado in your head?
Blake: It starts with the self and then maybe people respond to it, so there is a connection, but it moves so fast. I find myself unable to get my head off most of the time. I’m getting better though.
Stephen: I’m going to start spending one day a week off the Internet.
Blake: I wish I could spend that day away a week too.
JesusAngelGarcia: I need to do this, but I don’t feel like I can, or should, or it’s not the right time yet.
CtKscribe: One day a week offline may lead to two then three… happened to me. Outdoors can be addictive.
JesusAngelGarcia: Addictive is the word.
JesusAngelGarcia: So, because we see that we have similar tastes in books or music, do we now have a common ground to start an authentic relationship?
CtKscribe: I’ve discovered that a similar taste in the arts can mean diddly squat.
CtKscribe: I think the Internet at one point was based on people connecting via similar interests and then became people 99% all about themselves. The “community” aspect is not as strong due to rampant self-absorption and short attention spans. Trying to connect based on “similar interests” is a mixed bag because many claim to like something but actually don’t OR only vaguely like it on a surface level.
JesusAngelGarcia: Yeah, Tina, your recent post about FB buttons pointed that out good ‘n’ plenty. Do you get responses to your emails, Stephen, that make you feel connected?
Stephen: I get a ton of responses to my emails. I love that. There’s some people that respond all the time, and others that only ever respond once. I love it, but I think you have to be careful, as a writer. You can’t think the writing makes you loveable. You have to actually be loveable. You have to try to be a good person, you know? The Internet makes one-way streets easy.
CtKscribe: I have found my biggest supporters are the ones who rarely say a word. And truth is, that creeps me out, but, well, that’s been the deal for a while.
Blake: You can tell the difference in certain tones, right? Like, there are people who blurt who become annoying for it. Who are either selling something, or are just so at the center of themselves. There has to be a give and take of some sort. Something outside the self.
JesusAngelGarcia: I was talking to a guy in the lit scene about this the other day, and he was giving me a hard time about you, arguing that everything you do online is self-serving, and I countered with my perception that much of what we all do online is both self-serving and not, that is, if we’re somehow contributing to personal or cultural dialogue or connection.
Blake: I think I get a lot of shit for supposedly being self-serving. Because it’s out there, I think people who see things from a distance automatically assume the worst. I don’t assume someone who is typing about things and happens to have a link to something they made is begging me to buy it. If I never sold a book of my own through HTMLGIANT, that would not affect my work for the web site.
CtKscribe: Do you interact/engage, or just blurt shit out? If it’s the latter, then you are technically self-serving.
Blake: The intent is not to sell my shit. Well… there are two different forums. On a Twitter or Facebook, which is me personally, I am blurting. It is a personal outlet. On HTMLGIANT, I am not blurting personally. I am either trying to bring attention to something I like or trying to start a conversation.
CtKscribe: Blake, Twitter and Facebook are “social” networks.
Blake: Or yeah, sometimes to piss people off. Right. But HTMLGIANT, for instance, is a group forum. It is not mine. I am not a group of people, nor are the people I associate with in group forums me. There are different poises.
Stephen: Every memoirist is a narcissist, but if you don’t recognize the outside world it’s just bad writing.
CtKscribe: Yes, navel gazing is not “good” writing.
Stephen: But navel gazing can be part of writing.
Blake: Gass is a great navel gazer.
Stephen: If it’s only navel gazing it’s worthless.
JesusAngelGarcia: He’s got a huge library in that navel, no?
Stephen: It’s the connections that matter.
CtKscribe: Various forms of navel gazing may contribute to some of the best prose.
Stephen: Right. “Contribute.”
Blake: I think it has to do with ego. I think people think I have a huge ego when they read me talking online, though I think anyone who has met me IRL realized that I don’t, really.
Stephen: The ego of the author, though, is not relevant to the quality of the work.
Blake: I am confident, but I don’t feel obsessed with my work or self. A person first.
CtKscribe: Then Blake, you have an online facade that is not as approachable?
Blake: I don’t know. You can’t control how people interpret you in a toneless space.
Stephen: You can’t really control it in real life either. People will always bring their own experiences into interactions with other people.
Blake: But you can apply more tone and obvious care and humanity in real life, I think. They can see your face. Hear your voice.
CtKscribe: I don’t have any facade. What I am online is exactly what you meet offline.
JesusAngelGarcia: Yeah, but Tina, you’ve lamented the way you’ve been misunderstood by people in the e-space, no?
CtKscribe: We can’t even control how people interpret our work or selves in face-to-face either.
Blake: Words can carry tone, but often they don’t.
Stephen: That’s true. But when you’re writing, or performing, there will always be people that don’t like you, if you’re making any kind of impact at all.
CtKscribe: It really depends on who is doing the reading or listening.
Stephen: That’s just part of making an impact.
Blake: Yes, the audience interprets. That’s why it never really gets to me.
JesusAngelGarcia: I find it amusing that commenters on threads often come at things aggressively, then they whine about not being understood or being misunderstood, and how it’s impossible to convey tone through writing, even though we’re all writers… writing.
CtKscribe: Yes, lovers and haters. I’m fighting to get the inbetweeners.
Stephen: If you want to do any work that matters you have to let go of being loved by everyone.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes