Last week, the world celebrated St. Patrick's Day. Across the globe, people wore ridiculous green costumes, drank green beer, and posted photos on Facebook of their babies in super-cute "Kiss Me I'm Irish" onesies. One day per annum, we celebrate an island that has graced the English-speaking world with hoards of immigrants.
(Before I get into what this has to do with writing and communication, let me be clear on the following point. The day commemorating the patron saint of Ireland is never under any circumstances called St. Patty's Day or Patty's Day. St. Paddy drove the snakes away from Ireland. Patty is someone you had a crush on in middle school.)
When I mention to someone that my father grew up in Ireland, that I was born in the United States but lived in Dublin from ages one to four, and that my little brother was born in Dublin, the majority of people feel the need to communicate to me their Irish heritage. I am not alone in this situation; my Irish friends and relatives have also experienced this strange American desire to share genealogical information with strangers. Without a doubt, the person has a relative from either Cork or Galway, but it's usually Cork. Most of the time, that relative is a great-grandmother. I hear this Irish-great-grandmother-from-Cork thing so often I am shocked that there are any people currently living in Cork. One would suspect County Cork to be nothing but abandoned thatched-roof cottages, what with all the women who left its emerald shores for America one-hundred years ago.
Each time I listen to someone's incredibly interesting story about the effort they have put into investigating their family tree, how they vacationed to Ellis Island to see their forbear's signature, how they plan on visiting Ireland and staying in the ancestral cottage, I think about identity formation. Many Americans, especially white Americans, have a strange need to attach their identity to something not-American, but not too un-American. And basically nothing is patriotically safer than an Irish immigrant great-grandmother. The person with an Irish great-grandmother from Cork has several distinct privileges, but most importantly the person gets to 1) affiliate himself with world-renowned writers, fun drinkers, and fist-fighting talent while 2) distance himself from the more socially awkward parts of Irish culture, such as terrorism and alcoholism. It is telling that movies like The Boondock Saints and The Quiet Man celebrate vigilante justice and not car bombs.
So here's how this relates to writing. In a world rife with social media, the written text has increasingly become about identity formation. What we write on our Facebook profiles, what we tweet, the people we know on LinkedIn, all work to create a virtual persona. It ties our lives to something other than the here and now.
Perhaps the "here and now" connects the Irish great-grandmother from Cork motif and writing as identity-formation. If we remember the people that came before us, surely our own descendents will remember us. Social media accounts can survive death. Maybe social media is less about communication and more about legacy. We want people to remember us by our perfect, funny virtual selves, just like we want all the green beer without any of the IRA executions.
As a graduate student colleague opined in class the other day, social
media allows us the opportunity to "perform our identity" like never
before. Similarly, the internet allows us to "connect" to our ancestors in a new way. What's interesting is that the American love-affair with genealogical investigations is also performative. Prior to the internet, we heard about our ancestors through stories told by someone else--parents, cousins, newspaper clippings, etc. In today's world, we do not listen quietly to the stories of our ancestors, we go and discover the stories of our ancestors. Ancestry is something we do in the contemporary world, not something we receive.
My generation is often referred to as both the most "connected" and the most "narcissistic." The oxymoron at play between these two adjectives informs how we should understand the writing that takes place in our virtual, social media saturated world. We create perfect virtual selves out of self-indulgence, but also out of a deep desire to connect to others and to something greater than ourselves. I do not believe that my generation posts constantly about their great food, great partners, great jobs, great haircuts, and great pets solely out of narcissism. Maybe it's also because we're afraid that no one will want to connect to us if our lives are anything other than great.