Confession Isn’t What It Used to Be

30 August 2018

Elon Musk sounds miserable on Twitter. Journalists parrot the Twitter lies and meltdowns of the President. These people are strange. But its everyday users — you and me — are stranger.

We confess without any provocation or mental deficiency required. We reveal the private parts of our lives without knowing who will consume them or who will build them into new stories.

Confession isn’t what it used to be. When I think of confessional writers like Philip Roth, Joan Didion, Rachel Cusk, and Saul Bellow, writers who mined their lives to build stories, a singular choice unifies them. They shaped their life material, artfully made it look as artless as they wished, and released it. They owned those stories even after their release. Their stories were part of a long-form narrative like one big thought. As Roth said, You really only write one novel.”

Now our confessions go out of control as soon as we release them as hot takes on Twitter. Worse, the fragmented clips of our lives drifting on social media are shaped into a different narrative, a cohesive shadow narrative used by social media platforms for corporate surveillance. If you reacted to a post positively or negatively and others reacted the same way, we all get pitched a certain political ad or product offer. Researchers are calculating the chances you could get diabetes or cancer because your online habits may match people who already have diabetes or cancer.

By the way, it’s all bullshit. Nobody knows if you are in a cancer cohort because you share the same online browsing habits as somebody who has cancer. But that doesn’t stop the information from being sold to marketers and researchers.

Like Roth, Didion, and Cusk, we voluntarily publish personal information. Unlike those authors when we post to social media we have no control over what happens next. The pieces of our lives we offer become part of a dossier detailing our behaviors, desires, and inner mind. To paraphrase Thoreau, we have become the tools of our tools. So our confessions are for sale. We aren’t getting the royalties. If you write for a living that’s not good.

When you cut writing to the bone, you have authors spinning stories for cash. They must give away some stories for free. Social media is a valuable tool for the promotional stuff, the freebie clips and PDF chapter giveaways. But when I want to give away a chunk of my life, I’d rather do it in a book, not turn it over to Facebook for research and monetization. My story is a long-form narrative. In a book, I have retained control.

Maybe. My method is not leak proof. Google indexes my books. Amazon gives away parts for free. People cut and paste the text. But at least my story started out whole. As Roth said, you only write one novel. I’d like to keep the royalties to my long-form narrative and not let Facebook use it to profit from my life. How about you?

Thanks for reading,


Photo by Shalone Cason on Unsplash

(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.