In conversation with

Sarah Raphael & Naomi Shimada

Co-Authors of Mixed Feelings

Naomi Shimada Sarah Raphael Mixed Feelings

Introduction

Introduction

From MSN Messenger to MySpace, Bebo to Facebook, Twitter to Instagram, our generation’s digital presence is wrapped in mixed feelings. Do we call the urge to share our lives with the world shameless self-promotion or invaluable publicity? How do we account for censored communities alongside our praise of the internet as an accessible shared space? And what of the movement to glimpse into the lives of others, coupled with feelings of self-doubt?

Model and activist Naomi Shimada and writer Sarah Raphael unpack the love/hate relationship we all have with social media in their book Mixed Feelings: Exploring The Emotional Impact Of Our Digital Habits. Alongside their own musings, they’ve invited contributors like Tahmina Begum, Phoebe Lovatt and Mona Chalabi to share their stories of navigating the world through a screen.

We sat down with Sarah – former Refinery 29 editor-at-large and co-author of the book – to talk about this new age of storytelling.

Question and Answer

When we were growing up, there was much less emphasis on digital communication – what ways were you consuming information and stories?

Teletext was Twitter, teen mags like Just 17 were Instagram, and the school lunch hall was Facebook. I used to be obsessed with adverts on TV. I distinctly remember the Nike ads with Just Do It slogans and KitKat ads featuring Jason Statham. I spent all my time watching music video channels. I remember loading up Encyclopedia Britannica to find out a fact about science. It meant you didn’t know nearly as much, but you listened more carefully to the things you did know about. Everything we saw was censored – there was a watershed, films were rated 15 or 18 and you genuinely couldn’t watch them unless you had the ID to prove it. Now, young people can pretty much consume anything any time of day, from porn to horror films to video footage of bombs in Syria. I remember hearing about 9/11 from a teacher at school, I remember seeing the news about Princess Diana while I was doing the ironing to earn pocket money. I didn’t read newspapers as a child or teen, but I heard about the big serious stories somehow. Word got out, but it was a very small part of life. Now it’s a very big part; for the better in that young people are much more socially aware and accepting of diversity, difference and climate change, and for the worse, because it just feels like too much too young, and you end up feeling overwhelmed and helpless. We are constantly consuming information and stories, from the news to other people’s lives and I don’t think that’s a very healthy default mode to be in. I think we need to consume at a slower, more intentional pace.

Mixed Feelings is a collection of stories and essays about how we spend our lives online. What do you think about channels like Instagram or Twitter as storytelling platforms in general?

Instagram and Twitter tell real people’s stories in a way that’s never happened before. The combination of images, instant video footage and captions means people can show and tell you what their experiences are live, from the ground, which has transformed the news cycle. Individuals from marginalised communities such as the LGBT community and the body positive community have used social media particularly effectively, and used in this way, social media is the most powerful storytelling tool in history. But there’s also the bias of self promotion, ego, and propaganda on Twitter and Instagram; they facilitate the truth but equally can pull the wool over people’s eyes. More generally, digital and social media encourages us to turn our own lives into stories for others to consume. Is this aspect of my life interesting enough to post on Instagram? It makes people analyse their lives and their experiences in a very strange way.

Mixed Feelings
Naomi Shimada Sarah Raphael Mixed Feelings

What triggered you to come together and write this book?

There’s a huge generational gap between young people using social media and their parents. The BBC headlines are all so reserved – it’s ‘new study shows social media may have negative effects on young women’s self esteem’. Any young woman using the internet is like, ‘uh huh, what else you got?’. The human stories are often what’s missing from this narrative, and that’s what we wanted to explore in the book – how it actually feels to be a woman on social media, comparing yourself consciously and subconsciously to hundreds or thousands of other women every day; to scrutinise yourself and your life and search for the parts that others might ‘like’. We wanted to get beneath the staid statistics to understand why self esteem is being lost, what’s happening to our sense of self when we only project the very best versions of ourselves to our peers. Everyone using social media has experienced its highs and lows; from the moment you realise the person you like or love is sliding into someone else’s DMs or liking every photo their ex posts online, to the dopamine high of a selfie getting lots of likes. We experience these extreme highs and lows alone, staring at our phones before bed or on the way to work. It’s all those silent feelings we wanted to talk about and share, in order to feel less alone in them.

What is the process like when creating a book in collaboration? How were ideas shared and passed, and did you have a cohesive outline that you followed from the beginning?

We were living on opposite sides of the world for most of the writing time, but we WhatsApped every day, we spent a lot of time chatting on the phone, thinking out loud and sharing ideas. We had 1000 shared google docs. We tagged each other in dozens of memes on Instagram and sent each other articles and passages from books we’d read relating to social media or just to bigger cultural conversations around body image or oversharing – anything that might inform our thinking. For each chapter, we tried to identify common themes and then think about how we could offer different perspectives on them, so that it didn’t feel like we were repeating the same material just in two different voices. Social media isn’t cohesive, it’s a vast landscape of different perspectives, and we wanted the book to have the same feel – to be delivered in bitesize chunks, to be visually stimulating and easy to consume, so we played around with form and used Q+A boxes, quote pages with coloured backgrounds, a mix of long-form essays and short essays. The book evolved as we did, it felt like it kept on growing and it’s still growing; the conversation around how social media impacts women’s sense of self is very much ongoing. Our own relationship to social media changes all the time, day by day, as does everyone else’s, so cohesion wasn’t necessarily the point. Of course, we tried to be salient and not ramble! But we saw Mixed Feelings as part of a rolling conversation.

“ Everyone using social media has experienced its highs and lows; from the moment you realise the person you like or love is sliding into someone else’s DMs or liking every photo their ex posts online, to the dopamine high of a selfie getting lots of likes. ”

You called upon some brilliant writers to share their own stories in Mixed Feelings – how did you decide who to approach, and how important was it to build a community around this subject matter?

We had one piece of criteria for who to approach: honesty. We chose people who were actually going to be real and vulnerable and honest about their relationship with social media. So many people, particularly those who have big profiles on social media, are very careful about what they say, and make sure they are always presenting themselves in the best light, not being too revealing or saying anything that could be potentially embarrassing. That wasn’t the point of Mixed Feelings. We wanted people who were willing to say it how it is, to be honest with themselves, because that’s the story that will help other people. The community of people speaking honestly about their struggles with social media is growing, with more and more long-reads coming out by influencers about the realities behind their ‘perfect’ lives.

"We wanted people who were willing to say it how it is, to be honest with themselves, because that’s the story that will help other people."

Are there any stories that particularly resonated with you personally?

I loved VM Selvy’s essay which started by talking about her parents’ arranged marriage, and moved into online dating through her unique experiences on Tamil dating websites and apps. She’s an NHS doctor in her mid-30s and has nothing to with the media, so her perspective was a real breath of fresh air. 17-year-old Erin Novakowski’s essay on the opportunity that social media presents for young disabled people to get involved in activism and be part of societal change, really opened my mind to the individual value of social media activism, which often gets called useless or labelled ‘clicktivism’. Erin showed me how wrong that view is.

Could you give us three tips for engaging with social media in a positive way?

Mute or unfollow. We all know you should curate your feed in order to improve your social media experience, but no one actually bothers to do it. Gain back some control by spending an hour or two looking at who you follow and deciding to continue following them if they have a positive impact on your life, or either muting or unfollowing if they don’t.

Spend time on accounts you actually like. There are so many brilliant, positive, hilarious accounts, so consciously go and spend time on them. When I’m feeling down, I go look at dog accounts for 10 minutes which actually stimulates the production of oxytocin in my brain and I feel better! Or I go on a funny meme account or Twitter thread and make myself laugh. Social media can actually improve your mood if you choose to utilise it.

It’s so simple, but just reminding yourself every time you see an image that triggers you that it’s only half the story, there’s another half that isn’t being posted.

What accounts give you most joy?

All dog accounts. Travel accounts like @earthpix, @somewhereiwouldliketolive and @accidentallywesanderson. Mental health related accounts like @mytherapistsays and @the.holistic.psychologist.

Are there any brands you like for their activity on social media?

Editorially, I’m biased because it’s my former workplace, but I like Refinery29’s activity on social media. I think they tell stories really well both in terms of the content and the format. I think Dazed Beauty has a really clear, strong aesthetic.

The Storylist

Sarah's Storylist

Books

  1. How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
  2. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
  3. Freshwater by Awaeke Emezi

Magazines

  1. Riposte
  2. The Gentlewoman
  3. The New Yorker
  4. Apartamento

Podcasts

  1. Call Your Girlfriend
  2. Dolly Parton's America
  3. The Moth
  4. On The Media
  5. Desert Island Discs
  6. Still Processing

Newsletters

  1. Women Cook For Me by Sophie Davidson
  2. Writing Tips by Nikesh Shukla
  3. The Concept Of Waffles by Ruby Tandoh
  4. The WW Club by Phoebe Lovatt

Digital Platforms

  1. Refinery 29
  2. Natal
  3. Gal-Dem
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