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What Whales Can Teach a Writer about Healthy Social Media Consumption
No, don't overthink it. I'm only talking about baleen.
I will never have a deathbed moment where I say, I wish I’d spent more time on social media. Yet in the past, I’ve enjoyed scrolling the same way I enjoy eating too many Andes mints—it’s a great way to procrastinate odious tasks. So much artificial zing, so little satisfaction. And oh, Twitter was good for zing. One-liners, aggrieved threads, bite-sized courses in epidemiology and ecology, the revolution(s), books I should read, literary think-pieces. Even without the trolls and troglodytes, the microblogs of a billion users have served up, over the years, more than my brain can eat in a lifetime; and always with a suspicion that all those tweets and posts and so-called stories are eating a little of my brain in return.
New Year’s resolutions are loose around here. But for 2023, mine go something like this: Protect my serenity. Compress my social media time to planned “office hours.” Cultivate Substack, Mastodon, a tame Twitter feed, curated Instagram lists, and a modicum of self-control. Find a way to filter an unnatural amount of information into something human-scale, useful, and maybe even beautiful.
Which, oddly enough, is why I started thinking about whales.
There are only two kinds of whales in the sea: Odontoceti and Mysticeti. In other words: teefs or no teefs. (Take that, Mr. Melville.) The ones with no teeth have baleen, a giant brush that’s made out of the same stuff as your fingernails. When I visited the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA, I saw a chunk of baleen on display: it was not the tidy furnace-filter material I’d expected. It was stiff-looking, bristly, and a little messy, like a basket that had been run over by a lawnmower. In living whales, a whole thicket of it grows along the top of their mouths instead of teeth, densely enough to trap more than one ton of little sea creatures a day.
Baleen is the only reason a creature the size of three school buses can eat enough microscopic food to stay alive—gulping in a seventy-ton mouthful of water, giving a push with the tongue, and then letting their baleen keep all those nutritious little krill-nuggets on the inside. Baleen is nature’s biggest filter, an excellent strategy for separating huge volumes of material from the bits we actually need. It is a great model for what I am metaphorically installing on my social media accounts, and in this Substack message, I humbly offer my method as a gift to your sanity, too.
On one hand there’s advice to curate a wholesome, feel-good online persona who is celebrating a milestone in her lifelong dream of publishing a book. This is a true piece of me, but what often goes unsaid is that it’s tricky to be online in a way that also protects mental health and time to write.
I focus on four platforms—Instagram, Twitter, Mastodon, and this Substack. I also have a personal Facebook account but check it rarely. I don’t use TikTok. Here is how you can cultivate some baleen around fast-scrolling, flashy, colorful, shiny, distracting, addicting feeds, remain as present as is responsible when doing something public like launching a book, and make your social media feed less of a vortex and more like an orderly place that feeds you.
Ninety-five percent of my time on Instagram is sharing and consuming nature photos; the other 4.99% is watching golden-retriever-related reels. I need to writer-ize my presence in 2023, however, since it’s the platform I visit most. And Ballantine Books did me the enormous favor of compiling a list of handles for some other writers who are on Instagram, for all my local bookstores (even some I hadn’t heard of yet!), and a cohort of debuting authors in my genre. (Just go ahead and clear a nice big section of your TBR shelf now because they are going to be good and you will want them.)
This is all very orderly, but I discovered a small downside. There is no free way to organize a personal Instagram feed. All I want are two streams: my wildlife/nature/peaceful one, and my writerly one. Somehow this is impossible.
The best you can do is “favorite” an account and/or mark it as “close friends.” It allows you to click over to a chronological feed of up to 50 of those accounts, filtering out any other posts you aren’t online to see. But (and I hate this), the favorited accounts also show up higher in the main feed. It means crowding out the accounts I follow just for fun. I like the writerly/professional ones as much as any others, but that’s just the thing—the Metaverse overlords want me either spend more time scrolling to see wildlife photos (and all the interspersed ads and random reels), or else use my time on the platform in a purely professional way.
I’ll take Option B. I don’t want to spend more time on social media. I’ll just focus on readers, bookstores, and my fellow authors in 2023, and use my extra time to go walk in nature and encounter actual wildlife.
A part of my 2023 resolution is to delete all social media from my phone except Instagram. So for these next three platforms, I’m talking about the browser versions.
To tame Twitter, I use the functional-but-ugly, browser-based Tweetdeck. Twitter owns it, making the integration seamless. The idea is to set up columns (a.k.a. separate streams) for things you want to track.
For instance, as a step 1, I used Twitter to make some lists: people I know from my MFA program, writers who are debuting in 2023, local bookstores, literary magazines and sites, the hashtag for any upcoming events I’m planning to attend (e.g., #AWP23), Palestine, Nablus, and writers I don’t know but admire. These are, currently, the only topics I care about right now. I also included a column that will show me any tweets containing my book title. This last one will, I hope, become a list of readers who connect with the novel, and the idea of “my audience” will stop feeling so abstract. Part of me is still like, I made this novel and it took me such a long time and people volunteer to SPEND PART OF THEIR LIVES in this invented world? Wild! I want to know who these people are and resist the urge to send each of them a heartfelt thank-you card.
Anyway, in Tweetdeck, as a step 2, I’ve arranged all these columns—lists, searches, hashtags—so that those separate feeds are all I see when I load the page. So, for instance, if my favorite local bookstore is announcing a new book club, I can join it or retweet. If an MFA friend adopted a kitten, I can comment. If a favorite writer linked to a new piece in the Sewanee Review, I can read it and retweet it. But my 3,000-person main feed? Invisible. My notifications? So far off-screen that I have to scroll for it. If some new controversy roils the literary world, I suppose I’ll hear about it eventually, but considering that my limbic system has been a burned-out husk since 2020, I really don’t care for empty drama anymore. My Twitter profile is only professional-me now, complete with a beautiful banner that Ballantine Books designed for it, and I’ll engage with fellow book nerds that way.
My new favorite browser-based social media experience is Mastodon. It’s a secret pleasure that probably won’t sell any books, build my brand, or engage in any meaningful way with capitalism. It’s an anarchic network of servers run by people who have their own servers for fun, hosting an affinity platform for, say, writers. There are no algorithms; my feed is real-time-only. I chat with book nerds, look at nature photos, and offer and receive help with tech issues, editorial issues, and freelance stuff.
If this means almost nothing to you, that’s another reason Mastodon’s popularity is limited. Each server, or instance, is like a club. It’s like joining a local beer-brewing club, while one town over, there’s a bike-builders club, and in the next city, there’s a social club. All these clubs are part of a federation of clubs that don’t coordinate with one another but which all broadcast their conversations to the chaotic “federation” feed (which I ignore). You can easily meet and mingle with your own instance members on your “local feed,” but the only way to make friends with someone in another instance is if they post something with a hashtag you follow or search for; then you can find and follow that person. It’s possible to have a friends group made up of people in a bunch of different groups—your “home feed”—and also to follow hashtags. (Like #Mosstodon. Go ahead. Do it. Your future self will thank you for lining your internet bower with a green, spongy mat of nature’s smallest bonsai trees.) I’ve oversimplified this, but if you want to really understand it, this is a comprehensive resource.
Mastodon feels like the place where I can be my most genuine, dorky self. It’s like the internet of the mid-1990s, when it was just a bunch of nerds marveling at how cool it was to talk to someone across the country or even across the ocean, and find that you both love moss photos, and then you go on to forge a tiny digital friendship.
If you’re reading this, it’s self-explanatory. Every two weeks, I channel my desire to braid my writerly experiences with my love of the natural world into a little essay that lives on the internet but goes to your inbox for free if you subscribe. Like Mastodon, I don’t really get anything out of it except satisfaction.
It has other features I’ll try when the Bird’s Eye grows beyond its fledgling phase. One attractive idea is a letter exchange with another Substack writer—an open correspondence about a topic of interest across a few weeks. Another is Substack’s chat feature, which would allow me to interact with readers/visitors in real time. That might be an interesting sort of event once The Skin and Its Girl is out in the world. Watch this space.
This effort comes at a time when my first novel is getting published, and all the best advice tells me to curate a wholesome, feel-good online persona who is celebrating a milestone in her lifelong dream of publishing a book. This is a true piece of me, but what often goes unsaid is that it’s tricky to be online in a way that protects mental health and time to write.
For the other, more private pieces of myself to survive intact, my very human brain needs a way to hold on to agency in a heavily monetized, highly addictive virtual landscape. Taking three hours—once—to set up my platforms to serve me well is, in the long run, much less time than I’d waste pressing the lever for a metaphorical sugar pill in whatever weird corner of the internet rat maze I’ve wandered into when I would instead prefer to be writing. It means changing my relationship with social media and having more agency in how I use time online.
We’ll see how it goes. At the very least, I really enjoyed meditating on whales while I wrote this.
If sea life makes you jolly, consider throwing a few bucks at the Marine Mammal Center this holiday season. It’s the world’s largest rescue and research nonprofit focused on caring for the ocean and the mammals who call it home.