Creating Our Own Narratives

I downloaded my Twitter archive and started sifting through tweets of the past, beginning in April 2009.

Revisiting this archive is a bit like sorting through handwritten letters in a shoebox, mixed with flipping through the pages of my old hardbound journals — grounding myself in certain moments of time and opening that magical window to ideas first thought, to emotions once felt. As I scan my timeline, my reactions range from ah, I remember this . . . to . . . I’m such a fucking idiot for saying that.

I see how I’ve changed: my shift in interests, an evolving network of friends and followers — I remember when I followed that person! — and a natural pruning of, well, me. The shaping of a more sterile, two-dimensional Cheri, admittedly, as I’ve struggled with deciding just who I was, out there in the internet wild. Freelance journalist? Travel blogger? Memoirist?

Eventually, I figured out to just share and talk about what I like. If the followers I’d collected didn’t care for occasional drunken baseball tweets or links to mid-90s jungle tracks or tangents about squirrels and mogwai, they could unfollow me. And they have. I realize the folks that have stuck around for some time follow me for me.

Twitter remains my favorite thing on the internet, though it’s taken a while for it to become something organic, and of real value — a nerve center I can dip into whenever I want a dose. Because everyone there makes sense — for whatever reason I’ve decided — the stream, while incessant and sometimes overwhelming, is never jarring, as Facebook generally is.

I suppose Twitter has become an enabler, perhaps an extension, of a hyper-sensitive version of me: on and curious and aware. I open it on my browser, latch on to no more than a few things that speak to me, then close it. Picking and choosing what I want — what I need — for that day. And ignoring everything else.

* * *

This Twitter archive, as thorough and interesting as it is, reminds me of the accumulation of stuff — that there’s more information out there that I need. I found the first tweets exchanged between me and my husband-to-be — we were fellow freelancers for a travel website then, and we liked each other’s writing from afar. I’m happy these types of exchanges have been recorded, to be able to map out how we began. Yet I see the danger of falling into these pockets of nostalgia, like when we search our GMail archive for emails and chat histories to retrace our steps: those fallen relationships, those incidents we wish we handled better, those moments of origin through which regret finds its strength.

We’re continually asked to tell and share our stories, to curate our own lives from the information gathered about us. I think of a piece I read on elephant by Rebecca Lammersen about envy and Facebook status updates, and how other people’s lives are not what they seem. There’s nothing really new in the piece, but it’s well-written, and it reminded me of my older post on alternate Facebook status updates (and what I could have said).

One line from Lammersen stood out:

. . . we dismiss the in between, the other 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds of daily life.

What we post in these moments of proclamation on a site like Facebook is a byproduct, a projection. Instead, life happens between status updates.

In a short piece on Medium on why social sharing is not publishing, Vijayendra Mohanty writes about mindless posting on social networks, and how sharing everything you do and see and like creates an “ambiguous narrative,” making it hard for your readers to picture who you are. “Life is rich,” Mohanty writes, “but it makes no sense in its entirety.” He goes on:

Great writers are remembered, not only for the things that they put out for the world to read, but also for the things they decided to keep to themselves.

 I love this.

So after reading these thoughts, and diving into my Twitter archive, I’m thinking a lot about my own narrative, and how it’s been recorded — from public @reply exchanges on Twitter, to the now-infrequent entries scribbled in my handwritten journals, to the private conversations in GMail. How does my story read, and do I want my life to unfold across all of these mediums?

The ability to control.

The fear of curating too much.

We are given all these tools to tell our stories and present ourselves just so. While it’s empowering, it also makes me a bit nervous to have all that power.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

36 thoughts on “Creating Our Own Narratives

  1. Life happens between status updates…great line.

    Twitter allows a person to create an alter-ego. 140 characters of witty remarks and lucid insights. Many people create several accounts and have different narratives for each. One is a techy, the other a porn sycophant, another a cooking conniseur…and so on. It’s like they’re enjoying different desires that need to be fulfilled.

  2. With the access we now have to the wealth of digital archives about so many aspects of what we do, we have to wonder whether or not it will give more of us an opportunity to ask: was there too much stuff? Was there more than I needed? Was there an amount of excess that could be trimmed, effort that could have been devoted elsewhere.

    Twitter may be an example with limited physical repercussions, but as a culture we have a penchant for accumulating stuff. How different is the twitter feed from the bank and credit card statements? Are there more opportunities for us to use all of these fingerprints from the digital ether to help us reflect on how much we have evolved, or perhaps have to evolve? Maybe all of this access to information affords us the opportunity to craft our story that much better… using that wisdom to push our own evolution in a better direction.

  3. hi Cheri, I’ve downloaded my WORDPRESS archive and – as you wrote: “I saw how I’ve changed: my shift in interests, an evolving network of friends and followers …” – and, following bravely to your topics at the Weekly Photo Challenge, I see clearer now, step by step, which are the most interesting topics / terms / tags – many of your ideas have been inspiring – thank you for that!

  4. Thank you for this great piece. I kind of had a similar thought when I went through my twitter archive a few months ago and saw how I developed on Twitter. For me Twitter took a while as well to really matter and now I cannot be without it, because I think it’s a really good way to share your thoughts with a crowd of people in a uncomplicated and fast way.

  5. Great post, a lot to think about, what did we all do before social media, when our lives were lived behind closed doors, I love the idea that so many can share their ideas with so many, the world may become a smaller, happier place?…

    And thank you for stopping by to take a look at belgradestreets – much appreciated. Andy

  6. I love that Mohanty quote… As you know, I study mass atrocities, gender, armed conflict, and transitional justice (and their intersection), so much of what I read and learn centers on theories of memory and narrative. I am almost uncontrollably drawn to anything with ‘narrative’ in the title, in part because I love seeing not only what makes the cut, but also what we leave out. Is what is left out of a public narrative less worthy of being remembered? Less likely? Or would it simply like to be remembered privately and differently? Thank you for wrestling with fascinating questions, and for your beautiful writing.

  7. Great post, thanks! Like several of the people who commented, I’m still learning Twitter. I haven’t yet figured out how it fits into my weaving of my own story. In part, my discomfort lies in exactly that creation of a public persona. I really liked your comment about finally deciding to just share and talk about what you like.

  8. I regularly teach a Cognitive Psychology class that centers on memory and we spend a lot of time talking about the difference between *memory* and *narrative.* Though each differs (neurologically, developmentally), once each skill is established they become integrally intertwined to the extent that we can’t easily consider nor share our memories without the framework narrative provides. Research examining preschool aged children’s narratives of shared past experiences with a parent (mothers & their children walking through a museum exhibit where their conversations are recorded and later transcribed) shows that such young children do not voluntarily discuss (with a researcher) elements of past experience that they didn’t first discuss with their mother. Through conversation, we teach children how to piece together their memories into stories.

    To your conclusion then, I just want to add that all our life-story memories are curated, no matter the medium in which they are shared. Looking at an archive of Facebook posts can be jarring precisely because, as you say, they lack the richness of a full narrative, one that comes with back-story, scene setting, and supporting characters. The curation process of transforming memories into personal stories keeps us “feeling like ourselves.” Whereas it can be alarming sometimes to realize just how much shaping we do with our memories, there’s a certain comfort in the process as well. Life doesn’t unfold like a neat-and-tidy story, but when we retell our lives as stories, we gain a sense of ownership over our experiences, and this ownership not only keeps us grounded in the here and now but more importantly it helps us envision possibilities for our future selves; “what will the next chapter of my life bring?” we muse? Then we push on ahead and live it.

  9. I appreciate how deeply you’ve considered the mining of personal internet archives. I love the comparison to re-reading notes in a shoebox. It’s nice to see we’re reaching a point in our society’s relationship with technology in which we can examine what we put out into the internet thoughtfully. Thanks!

  10. interesting thoughts on twitter. i’ve never used it myself, for i wasn’t sure what to do with it as someone who leads a pretty quiet life. i chose to blog instead. however, reading this post reminded me how i went through my emails of 10-12 years ago and felt something similar. i was both surprised and baffled at how i sounded so mature in one and then so naive in another. the language that i used was different, as was the persona i wanted to project at the time.

  11. Thank you for prompting me to think again about Twitter. I was failing to see the point but I loved the image of a shoe-box of memories and a private narrative. Your honesty about the mistaken tweets was interesting too; could we all be so comfortable facing these? Perhaps it is the over concern of a cringe-moment that holds me back? Your approach is so positive I am going to give it a go. Beautiful and thoughtful blog – thank you.

  12. Cheri, thanks for this post. It’s interesting to hear you say Twitter is your favorite but the way you describe it makes sense. I just haven’t figured it out yet. It seems both overwhelming and addictive so I’ve just been using it send pics out. 🙂 As for creating our own narrative, the memoir I’ve written about me and my late husband is a combination of our emails, text messages, voicemails etc. in addition to narrative prose. So I relate to your post very much.

  13. A really thought-provoking post, Cheri. I’m a memory collector—I print all my photos, I have multiple photo albums, dozens of notebooks with stories, quotes, travel diaries…. But the difference between all of these immortalized memories is that I chose to preserve them, whereas Facebook and Twitter, etc., preserve *everything,* and I have no role in writing this digital narrative. It is done for me. Where’s the agency/self-determination there?

    Thanks for sharing!
    Smiles and all the best,

  14. I do appreciate the last line: “it makes me a bit nervous to have all that power.” Maybe it is the inspired language sent by the muse that has the true and final power…and we do its bidding. Good post.

  15. Curation via omission?

    I think there’s a major difference between “ambiguous” and “cluttered”. Our lives *are* ambiguous narratives, but I think people can share – even revel in – these rich tangents and contradictions without including the kitchen sink. You do, and you do it very well.

    (Plus to me, the idea of not presenting an ambiguous narrative because your readers won’t know who you are implies there is some sort of end goal to all this social media interaction, some ROI to increase the personal brand bandwidth as measured by engagement metrification…. That’s just not true of everyone who uses social media, ie everyone who’s online.)

    Thought-provoking post as always, thanks.

    1. Our lives *are* ambiguous narratives…

      Reminds me of this line from one of my past posts on Facebook: “It’s as if we must be artful and precise in our use—when life can be hard to document.”

      …the idea of not presenting an ambiguous narrative because your readers won’t know who you are implies there is some sort of end goal to all this social media interaction, some ROI to increase the personal brand bandwidth…

      Ultimately, why should it matter — why should I care? What does my personal story have to do with anything? I’m reminded of Drewpan’s comment below about his Twitter handle being looked at by a potential employer, or someone on Twitter saying that our Twitter archives should be included in our CVs. We are being “measured” whether we like it or not, whether we use social media this way or not.

  16. I was at a job interview a couple of months ago, and the interviewer had gone through my Twitter stream as part of the screening process. It kinda freaked me out a little, because I had no idea what Twitter said of my life story recently.

  17. Huh. I have been mulling over similar thoughts about this lately. As you know I come to social media late, and have been wondering about how it works in my life right now.

    Life, and perhaps, living up to our own expectations used to be easier. Easier to hide in, and under and from. Or simply keep to ourselves. After all, when it was just notebooks, we could easily show what we wanted to the world. We indeed had the power to curate what the world saw/heard of us.

    Now, well now, we are somehow made to feel deficient if we don’t share everything. We seem, as a whole to look at social media as a HAVE TO DO THIS rather that perhaps what it was designed for: communication. I feel they are tools, to be used for specific things.

    Maybe most of it should be for fun, like the movies. Or important things, or cat videos.

    We get to choose, and like real life we can change our minds.

    And real-life always happens between the status updates–whether it’s Facebook or a napkin.

  18. It’s good to read a beautiful piece about cherishing words. Most of the time I wonder what kids think when they tap out a message, press send, and feel delighted that they just announced that they’re bored. On the other hand, I enjoy your posts because they’re always thoughtful and take me places I haven’t seen for a long while.

  19. Love the thought you’re putting into this idea of writing our own story – indeed everything that we put out in the world is a reflection of who we are, and choosing what not to say is as important as choosing what to say.

  20. What a great piece. Although I haven’t been at this as long as you have–only about a year in my case–I’ve started to think some of the same thoughts. This piece has helped me to bring some of those thoughts into greater focus.

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