How much time do you spend feeding your inner-monologue into the internet? I, it would seem, spend a lot. I recently noticed it had been exactly five years since I dropped the standard ‘who gives a shit what you had for lunch’ line and signed up to Twitter to publish my thoughts in digital soundbites. At the time of writing this, I’ve tweeted 31,0320 times. A quick google tells me that the average word length in the English language is 4.5 characters, so knocking off a bit for spaces and punctuation, that number of tweets equates to around 900,000 words. To put that into context, my tweeted word count comes in just short of Proust’s gargantuan collection of consciousness, In Search of Lost Time, estimated to be about 1,200,000 words, and considerably ahead of Tolstoy’s notoriously lengthy War and Peace, which Wikipedia claims comes in at 587,287 words. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations pales in comparison at only 185,258 words. Should I be searching for any time I might’ve lost, I certainly I know where to find it.
A part of me wonders just what I could have created, had I thrown the same number of words about more purposefully, but there’s no doubt my, and other people’s feeds, actually do a pretty good job of telling a story. There’s plenty of things I make a point of not talking about on Twitter – I personally keep relationships, for example, to myself (or a group iMessages at least), but it’ll all be there in sub-tweets, incongruous @s, notable silences, or strings of strategic Instagram likes, if you know what you’re looking for. I would never have announced a break-up I went through on any of my feeds, but having previously crowded my chat with cooking experiments and television commentary, I did publicly register my interest for a room-for-one, and tediously tapped out tweets that wondered how I came to have woken up wearing my coat in bed when last I knew, I was at a party. That, I would say, tells you all you need to know.
In a brilliant piece on The Cut recently, Maureen O’Connor mused on the idea that while you might avoid your exes IRL, you can never fully be shot of them online, such is the inevitability of them lingering in your feeds. I personally have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to following anyone I’ve been involved with on any social networks (Instagram’s the most dangerous) but that doesn’t stop people popping up in conversation threads or pictures posted by mutual friends, and every now and then you’ll wince as much when you see them re-tweeted into your timeline as you would if you actually bumped into them.
Like it or not, the internet means your baggage is laid bare, but has it ever really not been? In an exhibition of work by Jacques Henri Lartigue, currently showing at The Photographer’s gallery in London, the following 1931 diary except precedes images of the blossoming, and subsequent demise of his relationship with Madeleine Messager, known as Bibi: ‘And now it is up to you, modest photographs, to do what you can – very little, I know – to tell everything, explain everything, make everything be imagined. Everything, even and above all, what cannot be photographed’. Indeed, Bibi’s distancing gaze from the lens as the series moves throughout the 1920s expresses as much of a distance from her husband as a verbal explanation could.
I recently found my 3G shielded by mountains in a beautiful enclave of Snowdonia, and in the absence of internet, expected to be offered respite from my, or anyone else’s, subtext. It didn’t take long though, to work out that while social media is an enabler of personal projection on a large scale, like in Lartigue’s photographs, people wear their stories as clearly headlines on their faces, and camped in close quarters among fellow wilderness-seekers, it wasn’t hard to read theirs. Opposite my friend and I, a father and son – who, on a side note, totally reminded me of the central duo in Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Monro – sat in bored silence until a mother and her son pitched up next to them. The two children made instant friends, but the two parents’ reluctance to interact with each other spoke loudly of their differing worlds. In a tableau that illustrated the tale I assumed for them almost too perfectly, both adults sat metres apart, each in their own camps, backs turned to each other, with their children playing in between – a bleak picture of loneliness. Maybe I spent to much time with little more than the moon to stare at, and read more than was there, but you have to admit either way, it’s the smallest things that reveal the most.
Rooting through the boot of my mother’s car, which I had borrowed for the trip, I discovered a bag containing a stale baguette and a pot of hummus. She’ll often carry snacks like this, apparently unable to find anything she’ll actually want to eat away from home, and being very much a creature of habit, she’s been stockpiling hummus since she, and the rest of England’s aspirational middle class, took a shine to whipped chick peas in the early 90s. Looking at these two seemingly innocuous items of food, festering away in the heat, was as good as having her jump out of the car-boot herself, such is the clear snapshot of her character they offer.
It starkly reminded me, that you can opt out of the internet for a few days, or forever, but people, and everything they mean to you, will remain around you all the same. You can can control what makes the cut into your feeds all you like, but happening upon what my mother had absent-mindedly left in her car, I knew that for the rest of my life, and long after she’s gone, a pot of hummus will tie a knot in my throat far tighter than a rogue RT I didn’t mean to see ever could.