Sunday, 3 February 2019

Bloggities, Dead Rats and Tweets - Umberto Tosi

Eva Noemi Cienfuegos
Sometimes we don't see the trees in a forest. We've been preoccupied - justifiably - about the flagrant abuses of privacy and exploitation of social media by deadpanned corporate owners in puerile tee-shirts, along with their platforms being weaponized in the interests of oligarchs and fascists in Moscow, London and Washington. A lot of us - including some of my good friends - have quit Facebook and other forums in disgust. I myself have stopped buying social media promo-services in protest - a gesture, I know, but I did let them know. 

But I don't want to quit hanging out with my friends on Facebook, Twitter, et al, however, given their too-often discounted, fine company. Why cut off my nose that way? We've all been using the Internet to commingle long before there was a Facebook anyway (beginning with forums and bulletin boards back in the day). Before that we had (and still have) coffee houses, taverns, graffiti, and letters, poetry and oratory, the proliferation of printing and books (above and underground), telegraph nodules and cave walls. Social media mega-corporations have quietly assumed dangerously pervasive powers a privacy-merchants and Big Brother electronic gatekeepers over our social interactions to be sure - for example, Facebook's notorious "social graph." In a better world, such abuse can and should lead to the likes of FB being broken up too. Equating over-privileged twerps like Mark Zuckerberg with all that is social media is like confusing real estate developers who commodify strips of beach front with Poseidon, reigning over all the mighty seas. 

It's the social part of social media that give it power. Humans are social beings and communicate on as many levels as available at any given time. Long before there was an Internet, ideas and impressions, good and bad, have spread round the world with lightning rapidity, one way or another. Like social media, the older forms were rife with vulgarity, mendacity and chicanery. They also resonated with eloquent expressions and evolving ideas. In my estimation, we generate too much valuable content - along with organising resistance - to let the bastards drive us out of the public squares - virtual or real - now.

Stories long preceded our books, but books changed how they are told, as have films. Newspapers serialized Victorian novels and presented the column. The Web birthed blogging. Social media now is giving birth to still newers forms of expression. Case in point: A post by one of my Facebook friends that caught my eye just after New Years Day. The friend, Eva Noemi Cienfuegos, holds forth from her small farm in upstate New York, where she raises chickens, ducks and hell, and keeps her enthusiastic, social media following engaged with a steady stream of lively commentary, humour, cooking adventures and vivid, autobiographical narratives. 

She called her post-New-Years post "a bloggity about that funny smell" - intriguing in form as well as in content:. It read:  Typically personal and up close, it begins: 
DEATH IN MY WALLS - "About 12 days ago, I walked into my closet and smelled death. I know the smell of dead rodents. Growing up in Manhattan, that was a common smell by the river or by the huge project dumpsters, in the subways. You literally breathed in dead rodents as a New Yorker. 

"But this was in my closet. I dreaded the thought of emptying an entire walk-in to locate the carcass." She explained that a maintenance panel in that walk-in closet connected with a partially finished bathroom and the back of a medicine cabinet "with a crocheted Victorian ecru pillowcase covered by an etched, bevelled antique mirror." She went into that bathroom to track the odour. She "lifted the mirror and material and there it was: a wall of death-stench!"

"In order for me to get to that death," she continued, "I would have to remove a shelf of my walk-in, then remove the access door and crawl into what would be this dark, rat crypt - and then borax the shit outta it."

She retreated to her bed momentarily. "I found myself lying there trying to find the motivation to hunt for dead bodies. Why does life have a way of always throwing curve balls...? ...Maybe the rats of NIHM led Nicodemus to decompose in this dark lair," she added. lighting up her "bloggity in eerie glowing mythic memes.

I like noir, particularly with a social twist. Ms. Cienfuegos' vividly written example reinforced my notion that - in addition to the more visible contributions of notable writers and artists -  pearls of enlightenment and good writing can be found throughout the detritus of social media. I had a wonderfully bright and odd nerdy friend back in the 1960s who would flip out a notebook and write down bon mots uttered within his ear shot. He would raise a hand and say, "I've got to get this."  The back seat of his faded second-hand sedan was cluttered with boxes of these notebooks. I never knew what he did with them, or what happened to them after he passed away twenty years ago. I could understand the process, however, and have thought of collecting online gems myself - and publishing anthologies of such - something I can do easily in the age of digital publishing that my late friend could scarcely muster. 

All of this seemed moot for a few weeks while I fought off a nasty bug that I caught after Christmas.. Feeling better as the deadline for this post approached, I revisited Ms. Cienfuego's Facebook page to check her bloggity and let her know that, indeed, I planned to excerpt it. I discovered that her Facebook time line had gone dormant. Strange. She had always been a prolific contributor and outspoken commenter. 

She had dated dead-rat requiem January 4. This turned out to be, in fact, the last item seemed to have posted online as far as I could tell. My author's mind conjured up an Edgar Allan Poe scenario in which I envisioned her trapped in the pitch black "rat crypt" - lured there by an evil ghost. My Italian mother mind pictured a catastrophe with her pinned in the crawl space by a broken beam. Mama told me to call upstate NY 911, or at least contact a local friend who could help. But I didn't really know any. 

I resisted both visions and sent her a quick message instead. Are you okay, I asked, politely. Just checking, And are you still cool with my quoting your bloggity? 

After a day's silence, she answered by email. She was fine, to my relief. Her online accounts had been hacked, she said, probably by some politically motivated agent, she surmised. She had gone off FB. although she remained on other media under different names. That's a loss if permanent. I wondered if driving her off of FB had been the hacker-bot's mission in the first place.  As for the dead rat, she told me that she did crawl up into the darkness, but found no carcass. "Maybe it was a mouse," she said. (Or maybe Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH carried off their fallen comrade and gave him or her a proper mental health burial.) 
SciFi author Neil Gaiman

Who can know? The takers, profiteers, propagandists and power-grabbers will drive everyone worth knowing off Facebook, Twitter and the rest if they continue their unfettered wholesale exploitation of all transactional angles, users - their golden geese - be damned. Watch their stock - and fortunes plummet in that case. Live by Wall Street; die by Wall Street. These social media platforms are nifty, but my no means unique or irreplaceable, no matter a company's tech knowhow. There are excellect alternatives  - just not currently popular, not because they are inferior, but less travelled. Just about every software program and app available in the world has a freely offered open source alternative out there that works on all - or nearly all - devices. And the devices keep updating too. Today's Facebook is tomorrow's AOL. Be advised Zucky and friends, when you sell out America and your users for 30 silver rubles you don't need. 

Those armies of us who write and display all that makes any social media site hum can pick up and move elsewhere at the click of a mouse just like Ms. Cienfuegos if we like. The billionaire tech execs that the business media worships as geniuses and gods don't own us or our creative output, only scheme to monetize it. No matter how sophisticated, their algorithmns can't work on what's not there.

Author, photographer and  social media wizard Teju Cole
I had been thinking about social media content, in a personal way as a writer - beyond it much touted boons and the banes headlined in the news. I realized that few of us have the resources to work their transactional levers, no matter what the Facebook and Twitter ad sales hustlers tell us.  

As 21st-century authors we're exhorted to build ever greater social media platforms from which to market our books. In order to move our merchandise, we must create online content, they say. Round up those eyeballs, say the marketing experts, and drive them onto your platforms like yippie ki-yay cowboys herding our longhorns to an 1860s Kansas City rail head. 

Been there; done that. I've tried my best anyway. But I'm not the marketing sort. Nor am I any kind of social maven on, or off line. I have accumulated modest, but healthy numbers of social media friends and followers online (8.5K on Facebook), though nowhere near celebrity status. Some of my followers have said nice things about my writing. My online friends and followers are of mixed lots - not defined by target markets. We share decidedly progressive politics, a broad, ironic sense of humour, love of nature and the environment and fierce appreciation of all things aesthetic. Like most overlapping circles of friends and relations, we also talk about our every day lifes - passages, crises, peeves, moods. We brag and moan and carp and sing about the ups and downs of the day - personal, political and meteorological. It's corny, but I relish my various friends' perspectives, pictures, insights, complaints, chatting and even their cats (and dogs) in moderation, along with their family photos, emojis and gifs.

I see social media more as an addictive distraction than as promotional vehicles. I can always find those - online chess, watching vintage films and browsing libraries - which now becomes browsing Wikipedia and watching odd instructional videos on You Tube. Cooking. Running - now walking. Just sitting on a bench by the beach. 
Ursala K. Le Guin (1929-2018)
I'm apt at conversing and sometimes debating with friends and drop-bys by the hour on Twitter or Facebook. And there are alternatives to the giant, monopoly social media platforms that emphasize local colloquy and could become just as much parts of our lives, for example, Nextdoor and Citizen, to which I belong. But I don't evem need the Internet to lavish time on such endless pursuits. Hanging out on social media doesn't feel much different from my gab-fests in pubs, cafes and in the student union as a college student long before the Internet was created. Now, as then, our conversations remain spirited - and inclusive, and something algorithmns can't create. Our colloquy need not be trolled either. Trolls are disinvited to our table with speed. I block-and-toss-and-report obvious troublemakers and spammers faster than you can say "to the guillotine with you!"  

Just write is just right: As for quality content, there is a lot more of it on social media than all the pundits and politicians and financial pronosticators would have us believe. Ms. Cienfuegos is in good company.

Margaret Atwood is a creative and avid Tweetster. Social media's avenues are two-way streets to her - lanes for inspiring and being inspired by followers. She has even incorporated followers Twitter avatars into superhero logos, along with running fan fiction events on Wattpad and Byliner publishing platforms. 

Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman is known for brainstroming with his thousands of Twitter followers on works in progress. He involves fans in his books before he even publishes them. Not long ago, he Tweeted a theme for each month and wrote a novel based upon his online fans' responses. His Twitter page banner declares: "Be rebellious. Choose Art. It Matters." Proving he's no snob, Gaiman's gambit was a typical type of hashtag game,  (aka, Twitter games,) popular with writers - amatuer and otherwise - as conversation and story starters and socializing. So much for the lonely artiste. (Where do these people get their energy?)

Teju Cole, author of Open City, creates collage compositions from online news stories, pop culture posts and history, all of which he re-frames in ironic fashion on his own pages. He once wrote a Hemmingway-esque short story about a homeless man rendered in successive Tweets. "I aimed for it to feel emergent, like the character himself, on the move," he said of it

More than ever now in the age of Trumpism, authors take up their pens and lances online, lending their powerful words to the resistance. Stephen King taunts and rants on "realDonaldTrump" almost daily on Twiter. Salman Rushdie has never been shy about denouncing authoritarianism - religious and  governmental - particularly online. He isn't shy about mixing it up with fellow authors either, for example when he told Jonathan Franzen to "enjoy your ivory tower," after Franzen chidded him for using Twitter.

Haruki Murakami by Yoko Ono
Haruki Murakami transforms his Twitter page into a personal, wry surreal-scape in the spirit of his well known novels. He crafts his unpredictable Twitter feed to express the essence of his eclecticism, strange world view - coming at its followers from many directions. His Tweets are unpredictable and tongue-in-cheek satire - for example, when he writes: "You can tell a lot about a person's character from his choice of sofa. Sofas constitute a realm inviolate unto themselves. This, however, is something that only those who have grown up sitting on good sofas will appreciate." 

Ms. Cienfuegos' rat-wall "bloggity" and other writings testify, social media eloquence isn't monopolised by literary giants like Rushdie and Murakami, nor even  professional writers in general.  Environmental activist Erin Brockovich posted this dark metaphoric gem that stuck in my head a few years ago. She compared Big Oil billionaires pushing for dirty North American tar sands oil extraction and polluting pipelines to being like "someone who wants to strangle your children because he just can't ever have enough money."

The rats in the wall turn out to be on Wall Street. Their stench permeates the Internet, but is not to be confused with it.

For lack of space, I won't even get into the incredible richness of images presented on Facebook, Instagram and other sites by the hundreds of the artist friends that my inamorata, Eleanor Spiess-Ferris and I share on Facebook and other social media platforms

The late scifi-fantasy giant  Ursula K Le Guin was a powerful  presence on Twitter and other social media platforms. She believed that whatever you write on the Internet should be with passion, powerful and, provocative whenever appropriate. "When what you write is genuine and interesting, someone will share it," she said, even if it is just your mother, she added. She was a perpetual, personal blogger, and user of digitial publishing tools. Promotion takes care of itself. " The web is full of readers who will either embrace your dragons or turn their noses up at them. Stirring the pot is guaranteed to generate discussion."

Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be reached at



Bill Kirton said...

Persuasive, eloquent, and a much-needed perspective on the platforms which take up far too much of our (or is it just my?) time, Umberto. True, they're being distorted (and even created) in the pursuit of profit by people who know and care little of the concerns of 'normal' folk, but they do also allow voices to be heard which might otherwise be suppressed and maybe never even realise that they actually have something to say.

Enid Richemont said...

Oh LOVED this post, Umberto, and now investigating links. As always, asking for clarification on that immense arachnid behind your head. Is she a familiar? Or maybe even the weaver goddess herself with whom you're having an illicit affair?

Marsha Coupé said...

Happy to know you and your inamorata are surviving Chicago’s brutal winter, Umberto. You make many excellent points in your essay. There is definitely a place for social media in a writer’s life. JK Rowling is the master of Twitter, not to sell more books or brainstorm with her millions of followers, but often as a political activist, like King as you mentioned. From my observation, Twitter is the place for politics and writers interested in politics, along with creatives of every stripe. There is an art to using it well, as you point out with Gaiman, a natural collaborator it would seem.

I’m never sure if social media isn’t more distracting than it’s worth though. How much more writing - and better writing - might be done without it? Many accomplished writers leave social media for long periods, dipping back in between books. Many more have an assistant handle their social media for them. It probably comes down to the kind of person one is. If social media makes one a better writer, then by all means it is a useful tool.

Ann Turnbull said...

I never usually read long blog posts, but was gripped by this one. I have no answers, but am generally wary and keep my communications almost entirely writing-related and not personal. I do agree with Marsha that we may have achieved more before we had all this social media. I feel I have become dependent on being at least potentially in touch with other people all the time.

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you Bill, Enid, Marsha (especially for the fine distinctioins) and Ann. one and all.

@Enid: My bio thumbnail this month is a selfie I took standing in front of Spider II by LOUISE BOURGEOIS (1995) seven years ago at Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York.

Dipika Mukherjee said...

I have no idea why my post didn't get published last night...but here goes: Really glad you posted this! The pressure, the pressure, on the modern novelist, to be on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and more is quite detrimental for those of us who prefer solitude to create. There is also the danger of getting to know a fave author so well that there is more information than one needed to know --plus novelists like Atwood have embarrassed themselves online frequently. There has also been some articles recently on the phenomenon of readers tagging writers on twitter when the reviews are negative (which boggles the mind, it is SO RUDE!). This is a new world, and some of us just navigate it better than others I suppose.

Barbara Blades said...

I have such a 👍/👎relationship with social media, but you've convinced me to stick with it for a while, Umberto. I communicate ideas with groups of friends on personal email and really feel it's to be more satisfyingfor me.

Griselda Heppel said...

I can add nothing to this excellent discussion except a word of comfort to your friend with the dead rat behind her closet. After six weeks the smell begins to fade, soon disappearing altogether. At least I hope that’s a word of comfort. How do I know this? Er... *coughs and looks away*

Rosalie Warren said...

Thank you for a very interesting and thoughtful post.

Alicia Sammons said...

Powerful, insightful piece on the power and pitfalls of social media. Umberto’s piece encourages us to take a long honest look at the positive and problematic relationship we have with this medium that has become such an intricate part of our daily life.