Poets are sensitive people. Our work is devoted to cataloging observation and experience. We specialize in deliberating about what matters and promoting these findings. I believe that poets are also experts in the study of time. We know how to make time for an art that the world, as it is, largely ignores. We experience creative urgency.
Poets must engage with the world. We need to spend time away from our notebooks so that we can weave together the personal-political. Simply put, we need to find things to write about.
This spring, I decided to give myself a break from social media. I thought that this break would help me become a better poet, but the real reason I stopped logging onto Facebook was Cambridge Analytica.
I felt sick to my stomach when the story broke about Cambridge Analytica. Funded by the ultra-conservative Mercer family, the firm used Facebook data to manipulate at least 44 American political races in 2014, and, later on, the disastrous election of Donald Trump. We also learned this spring (“we” meaning everyone, apparently, but 45 himself) that Russian internet trolls used social media insidiously to help bring him into power.
Smartphones can serve as a tool for creativity and organizing, but often, we simply use them for distraction and consuming ads. In some ways, giving up Facebook prioritized my need for artistic solitude above connection with my political communities. I spent a decade using Facebook, and at its best, the tool gave me information about social justice, radical organizing, and poetry. I also wasted thousands of hours clicking around, every move tracked. Aside from concerns about data mining, social media can reek of performative activism, competitive careerism, and egotistical self-promotion.
Many artists have written about what happens after quelling heavy social media use: a kind of refreshing sobriety, deeper engagement with the tactile world, the space to think. A free moment is a necessary brush with the boredom that motivates imagination. Poets may work better when we look at our phones less, but at what point does such disconnection become an indulgent privilege? What news do we miss? Is there a way to get this news without falling victim to the Cambridge Analyticas of the world? These questions are salient in our political and social crisis. We also ponder what we can individually contribute to greater conversations.
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School is forty miles from my home. Two months after the massacre, an alt-right group tabling on my campus put up a poster supporting such violence. The poster read, “I’m Pro Choice: Pick Your Gun” and featured a drawing of an AR-15.
How does one turn away from such a thing?
I don’t usually verbally engage with this group, but this time, I talked to the students at the table. I took a photo of the poster. In the past, I would have posted the photo to my social media, but I had been thinking more intentionally about my online “activism.” I no longer knew how a Facebook post would help the situation. Posting wouldn’t do much, I thought, to protest the alt-right, but it would give social media data miners more information about Freesia McKee’s views and politics.
I ended up writing an op-ed for the school newspaper. I don’t know how many people read it; not many, I think. I did eventually post the link on my social media, which led to fruitful in-person discussions. Writing the piece and spending a few weeks with the issue allowed me to identify precisely what was so sinister to me about Turning Point’s poster. If there were a shooter on our campus, I realized, he would be part of this group. It was a chilling idea, and a deeper and more meaningful observation than my initial reaction.
Thinking about the deeper meaning is a process I have repeated many times since then. Instead of posting, I do more thinking. I do not know if I am a better activist for it. I do know that making time for deeper thinking has made me a better writer and poet. Writing an op-ed feels like a more substantial act than a Facebook post, but does an op-ed contribute to social change? Does a poem? I do not know; perhaps not.
Real-time social media posts have changed our society. From Standing Rock to police brutality to ICE raids, smartphone recordings of crucial moments help people document and respond to injustice. First-hand accounts available on social media are unlike traditional news. From the hand of an ordinary person, a video on social media can teach a society about what is actually happening.
Part of the poet’s process allows thought to carve deep. As poets and activists, we need to use our tools to gather and distribute information, but we also need to be vigilant about how multi-billion dollar companies and corporate governments seek to undermine our work with intricate, sinister plans. We use corporate platforms to do our work, but at the same time, these corporations use us.
The survival of ourselves, our neighbors, and our planet may depend on what we do with our tools. We do not have time to waste.
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Freesia McKee is author of the chapbook How Distant the City and the winner of the 2018 Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry. She blogs at www.freesiamckee.com. You can knock on her door on Twitter, @freesiamckee, though she can’t promise she’ll be home.
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