Social networks weren’t in existence when I met my ex-partner in 1998 and so I’ve never yet been able to map the many ups and downs of a relationship electronically. I am frankly glad of this. I am, however, a writer and an honest one who has no desire to actively shape my reflection on Facebook, going forward in my life, into a misleading and false brand. My professional voice is my personal voice, sometimes but not always minus swear words. Not everyone is so lucky as to have little (but there is some) division between their labour and who they are.
It’s interesting how, if someone writes an autobiographical book, people will read but for some reason the occasional expression of something other than what you had for dinner, what you think of a news article or how your cat is behaving on social networks can discomfit. “Some folk put everything in Facebook,” someone might say, then, in almost the same breath, “Did you read that woman writing in the newspaper about how she was raped?” or, “I’ve just read a book written by a man who took drugs and I had no idea what harm they could do but his accounts were so vivid, he’s such an honest writer and so brave”.
Book, TV, magazine self-exposure: often brave and moving.
Social network self-exposure: egotistic, shameful, embarrassing, dangerous.
I think part of it is related to class in Britain: I’m working class in origin and have always said it ‘like it is’ but I know from my brushes with middle class people socially that there are those who keep almost everything personal hidden away and, to give an example, pretend their farts didn’t happen, are odourless and take no blame.
Of course there are limits for all of us in the context of conversation, on- or offline, regardless of our backgrounds. Parading your personal sex life details for example, is something I find crass. But I’d never squirm at or disparage any of my friends for expressing melancholy and complex feeling, especially not when their words are couched in compassion for someone who wounded them or they are, without intention, expressing truths I can grasp as familiar.
Any expression of genuine feeling, face to face or written down or typed, for me certainly is part of life’s journey and I wouldn’t ever share unguardedly. I won’t ever become careless in what I post online to share with friends, nor will I ever make public comments I wouldn’t actually say publicly or be willing to stand by. I guess key to navigating the 21st Century successfully is to know what public and private mean, to understand cause and effect, to grasp consequences and predict them to a degree.
There is a big difference between being unguarded and being able to be honest within a circle of friends. If a post is made public to be indexed by Google, that’s unwise if very personal because not everyone has empathy, many can be cruel and words can be turned against you far into the future. But if friends baulk at relationship talk, even on those occasions when we might say things that are temporary in harshness, I’d question not your own candour but the reasons for their reactions. Choose friends even more wisely than you choose what you post.
Of course, you could choose to keep a private journal. I do. But when we post stuff online we are calling to others to express something in reply. What that might be varies, from shared anger to expressions of simple understanding of our sadness or happiness at our joy. A journal and Facebook are very different things. I write in my journal knowing it will never be made public. It is cheaper than therapy and helps a person understand their own actions and thoughts better over time.
There are different approaches to the social network beast: some parade false identities on Facebook in the hope of making them real, or just talk single subjects away from anything personal, connecting to nobody on deeper levels, keeping it mechanistic and impersonal. That’s not me but I don’t damn others for doing it. What I ever share is always, however, only a tiny glimpse into my entirety. I’m also a poet rooted in the confessional, admiring Plath, Lowell and Sexton for their candour because it allows for us to say yes I feel that or no I don’t, I feel something else—but either way dialogues are prompted in minds and conversations. Useful dialogues, often seeded by the ostensibly banal.
I sometimes find, when I share some personal reflections at the end of a day with my circle of friends on Facebook, I’m grateful for the responses. Many times, the feedback of others, whether they make me smile or not, loops me back to considering and expressing further, less personal and wider thoughts and ideas. It’s only by exploring our thoughts and feelings, in whatever ways we choose, that we understand how we connect and who we are. I do use Facebook, in part, to discover myself and understand other human beings better. But doing what I do for a living, I find the same in variation is achieved through writing letters, cultivating the art of listening as well as talking, keeping a journal, blogging and more. Even when writing fiction and non-fiction alike, I find myself able to learn as I type and craft my words. You don’t have to be a writer to embrace these forms of expression, either, to grow and explore the worlds within and without.
Self-expression and self-exposure are the same thing. If your self-expression isn’t honest, it isn’t self-expression at all. By expressing ourselves honestly, we expose ourselves. As with everything in life, there are risks involved and everyone will have their own perspective on what you share.