In my last post, I wrote about new things coming from old things. This post is also, in a way, about that – about a New Year’s resolution that I might actually achieve. It doesn’t matter that it’s the middle of February.
I have resolved to “like” more of the posts I see on Facebook. This is not the most salutary resolution in the History of Time; but I’ve already seen most of my New Year’s resolutions pass me by (what were they, again?) – and this one seems achievable. And it does not require me resolving to use social media less – which is part of its charm. Because I do, continually, resolve to use it less; I do, always, have mixed feelings about its utility and its complex effects on modern politics. But I don’t quit it, and so I’d like to use it better than I do (which is, lately, to post pictures of my kitten, which trend apparently everyone has noticed. Yes, I like him; yes, it will stop eventually).
Let me explain. People talk about “likes”; I’ve heard them do so, anyway. Certainly my students do. (See what I did there? Distanced this phenomenon – wanting likes – from me by a certain number of decades, as though I, too, were not a party to it.) People talk about which posts garner the most likes; people craft their online personas in order to collect and display, as if in a glass case, virtual affection.
People seem to focus, sometimes anyway, on this phenomenon more than on life – the live blogging of an event, posting pictures to Facebook of the person when you’re with the person. Messaging back and forth on social media, also when you are literally with the person. I know of what I speak – I have done this, occasionally. It is a truism that we think too carefully and too much about our selves, the crafting of our selves, our brands. It is a truism that the contrast between the shiny picture on social media and the patina of real life can breed discontent and even depression, to say nothing of envy.
And yet – there is something oddly heartwarming about the accumulation of likes on social media. And it would be dishonest to say that I don’t wait in anticipation of “likes,” that I want others to respond to my call into the wilderness. As it were. It’s too easy, I think, to dismiss this response as shallow. Certainly I do, sometimes (when I hear other people speak of it, of course).
Because in a way, a post on Facebook can also be a call – to see and be seen. If we’re using it well, that’s what social media can achieve; to “like” something is, in a way, to say “I see you; I hear you; I recognize that you posted this hoping someone would respond.” This is what we want, after all – the reciprocal gaze, the response.
Or, at least, it’s what I want. I remember a paper I wrote when I was working on my MA at Toronto. It was for a modern poetry class; the paper focused on Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop. It was about the reciprocal gaze – attentiveness, acknowledgement, a state of being attuned to theory of mind. It was about, in Frost’s turn-of-phrase, “counter-love, original response.”
I was transported by writing this paper, by what I felt to be the rightness of what I was saying. My professor commented, sardonically – “I see you!” (I’ve tried, and failed, to imagine leaving such a comment for one of my own students, though I’m sure they could come up with equally thoughtless observations I’ve made, over the years.)
I felt belittled and silly, of course.
But amazingly – for me, at any time – I felt no less right, felt the firmness of conviction, as though even my atoms knew that my professor was missing the point, that what I was writing about did not apply only to me, that it was constitutive of the human condition. That I was not asking him or her to see me; that I was writing about the human need to be seen and heard.
It’s not that complicated, after all, though the poetry is very beautiful. Perhaps my professor did not know what seeing meant. Perhaps it was only intended as a joke, ill-advised.
Regardless, I remember reading that comment, and unless my brain is playing a trick on me, I remember where I was (a house in the country, in Essex county, Ontario), and even where I was standing (that weird no-man’s-land between the kitchen and the dining room). I remember calling a friend, and that we expostulated, for a while, on the stupidity of this comment.
Because we both knew. And we both knew that “counter-love, original response” doesn’t have to mean something profound, doesn’t have to be a soliloquy. It can be silent understanding. It can just be recognition. Of someone’s humanness, of the desire not to be alone in the world.
It can sometimes be, in other words, as simple as a Facebook “like.”