The Long Goodbye

A hilarious parody at The Morning News by editor Michael Erard about a growing new online genre, the “why I quit Facebook (or Twitter or email)” post (example here). You can see right away where the problem lies — writing on a blog about leaving Facebook seems to turn the electronic dog only in circles. Needing to tell people that you’re leaving is part of the problem of social media like Facebook, not its conclusion. Writing about it in a book — the equally popular why social media are bad for you books — doesn’t really seem like much of a solution either.

There is of course a long precedent for this. At the end of the eighteenth-century, as my colleague Mark Algee-Hewitt has shown, it was incredibly popular to talk about the problems of print media — in print. Once again, you can see the problem. Talking about why something is bad in the very medium you are critiquing only adds to the problem you are talking about — which of course is good for you if you are trying to make money from what you are talking about. The commercialization of writing in the eighteenth century was one of the primary reasons why it became so logical to speak in such illogical ways.

For me, all of this raises the question of how we say goodbye to media. How can you speak about leaving something or giving something up in the medium that you are giving up? How do we let go of certain kinds of mediation in our lives? Erard provides a brilliant answer: the point is not the fake departures, but the estrangement of return. Reactivating your Facebook account, no less than giving up books for a while, “is like coming back to your country after a month in a foreign land, and it makes one feel that the whole reason for leaving is to make the place seem strange again.”

Instead of the on-and-on of social media or the permanently-off of the technological exile, we need more ways of facilitating temporary closure, something like the pleasure of putting a book down and picking it up again at a later date.

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