On social media, every post is an impulse towards connection. Whether you’re seeking likes, sharing new information, or looking for a discussion, everything we do on social media is in conversation with the people logging in around us. Every part of our digital footprint is a micronarrative that could be explored more. The beginning of an idea. The tip of the iceberg.
Author Jonathan Franzen, in his introduction to the 2016 Best American Essays, questions the essay’s current existence in relation to social media: “Is the essay becoming an endangered species? Or is it a species that has so fully invaded the larger culture that it no longer needs its original niche?”
The long-form essay is endangered, competing with the 140-character flash narratives of our lives, brief blips that could be investigated, but are usually left to collect digital dust, to pile beneath the other posts that will push them further down into a void we’ll likely never see again.
But we need to explore these impulses, blips we send out from our radars, now more than ever. Anna Quindlen, New York Times columnist, says that “first person is the connective tissue, and we live in a world where there is too little genuine connective tissue.”
If the essay is a writer's mind grappling on the page with a question they cannot answer, we need the essay now more than ever to understand the world around us, and the people we interact with. If the essay encapsulates live moments, then we need to essay in-depth, at length, not write one-offs that sink to the bottom of the news feed.
It’s no surprise that we live partially online, most of us carrying around Smartphones in our pockets or purses, checking them over a hundred times a day. We are craving a connection we’re still missing out on.
And it’s no surprise to find that, like theorist Peter Brooks suggests, we live in “anticipation of retrospection,” where we are always looking forward to look back. Charles Comey, in his essay "Against Honeymoons" writes of this very sensation--the looking forward to look back: "The strange thing about a honeymoon is that even while it's happening, it's already lived as a story. We sit inside it saying, ‘We will have been here.’" It’s almost as if we are posting blurbs or curated snapshots of our lives with the sole purpose or intention of remembering all of this later, rather than to examine the present life we are living in more closely, and at greater length.
We look forward to retrospection, reflection, or reminiscing, and sometimes this anticipation preoccupies our mind in the very moment we should be experiencing the hike up the mountain, the view of the sun melting everything around it. Instead, we grab our smartphones and start taking photos--of the sky, of our faces with the sky, of our bodies in front of said sky--so we will remember it later, and so others will know we were here. And during all of this picking and choosing of how to make ourselves look like we aren't trying super hard to be cool, easy, and free, we are missing the quiet shifting of clouds, the insects trilling, and everything else we should be looking at.
Comey continues: "Each moment slips through his fingers; everything is already over." The essay exists for many reasons, but one is to catch what’s happening in the present, what has happened in the past, and what could happen in the future, and to share this with readers who could make meaning, could relate, and could connect over this shared matter, the idea that’s been turned over and over in the writer’s mind.