Michael J. Seidlinger and I met a couple of years ago at a bookstore event in Greenpoint. As the publisher of DIY press Civil Coping Mechanisms, the reviews editor of Electric Literature, and a published writer in his own right, he spends a lot of time dropping by events at bookstores. The next time I saw him, he was on a Brooklyn Book Festival panel with Salman Rushdie.
This month, Seidlinger is conducting #FollowMeBook, perhaps best described as a social media experiment. He created a bunch of impossible rules for himself, but the gist is: one month to get from New York to California, staying only with social media connections who can host him for free—no hotels!—without ever staying anywhere for more than two nights. The idea spun out of conversation with writer/editor Janice Lee about a road trip to nowhere, and grew until it became an idea for a book whose social media obsession dovetails nicely with Seidlinger’s recent novels The Strangest and Falter Kingdom.
My wife and I hosted Seidlinger in New Orleans. He drove in from Florida, after hiking with Jeff VanderMeer, as well as seeing the house of Mr. Road Trip Himself, Jack Kerouac, in Orlando. He was a little road weary—he’d already been traveling for ten days—but still chipper, and in the next 36 hours we took him to Kingfish, Brennan’s, the Black Penny, the Mississippi River Levee, and the Faulkner House Bookstore. Luckily, our Krewe Captain, Carlene Fujimoto, was able to arrange a super-secret tour of the Krewe of Tucks den—where Mardi Gras Krewes keep their parade floats—which is something not even many locals get a peek at.
Seidlinger invited me to play Dean Moriarty to his Sal Paradise, and I took the bait and drove the full haul from New Orleans to Austin. The late Neal Cassidy might be disappointed that I did no bennies and failed to talk nonstop, but Seidlinger and I were able to chat more about the trip so far. While most people hosting him were other writers, he was also running into non-writers who had completely different reactions to the project. Writers: either “you’ll have so much to write about,” or, “you BETTER have a lot to write about.” Non-writers were more concerned with logistics—how was he paying for this trip? Wasn’t he tired?
Seidlinger noted that his “social media project” (you can track his progress here) was becoming more and more about his internal space, since he was spending so much time driving and not on social media. We talked about the difficulty of staying in the moment—and whether social media helps.
We were talking about how social media makes you more sensitive—more hyper-aware—and also more guarded.
It pulls the worst out of us but also the best out of us. If you post something, like a reaction to the news, you’re emotional about it … [people’s reactions] can be twisted by tonality.
The good thing about social media is it really does bring out that immediacy when you want it. But then you’re in the situation where you have to double- and triple-check yourself before you post anything, tweet anything– because all it takes is one fuck up. And I think that makes us as users of social media super aware of ourselves and everyone else. So everyone is on edge, all the time. And it wasn’t always like that [on social media]. But it’s the norm now. And that’s why you become numb to it. You’re on edge all the time, you’re always worried you might say something wrong.
Has it gotten really bad because of politics? Or because of the artists whose careers have been ruined by social media mistakes?
It’s been a gradual incline. It’s become more toxic over time, it wasn’t just because of the recent election. People have been shamed for a while. I think now as we start to incorporate social media more into our daily lives, and we live on it– off of it– as part of our daily routine, it is becoming that much more of a battleground. It’s not to be taken lightly, you should definitely use it correctly. Be mindful of why you’re using it and how to use it.
The worst, well, you can imagine how awkward the situation can be. Lots of short answers, a conversation that never really gets going, the sense that an entire conversation can happen without ever feeling like you said a word.
How have the IRL interactions correlated to your social media relationships?
It’s been surprising how much they’re the same. They feel the same. The nature of interactions, they’re temporary, they’re quick. Depending on the person I’m hanging out with, there’s only a surface level kind of connection, we’re talking about things that we’ve already talked about or they may have known about me online. And then online, on the three different networks [Facebook, Twitter, Instagram], it tends to be that way all the time anyway. They message you about literature, they message you about something specific.
Is it because you’re spending so much time with writers? Maybe writers are good at projecting themselves via writing onto the social media matrix? Or because you’re moving so fast—it keeps interactions shallow?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I only have so much time with people. But that’s also a good metaphor for how we are on social media. We will only ever interact with each other as writers. “Did you read that new book?” We never get into a deeper connection.
“The map is not the territory.” My hope for #FollowMe is that you use social media as a map, but that after it’s over you talk about the real trip, the real people.
I’ve already had some of those experiences. Pittsburgh was great. New Orleans was great. Tallahassee was great. Atlanta was a nice booze fest. All very positive, and very life-affirming. I’ve been lucky enough that each stop has had its own flavor. And the flavor was also something interesting and memorable.
Henry Miller said, “An artist is always alone—if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness.” Do you find the time alone enjoyable? Or just a chore to the next pin on the map?
One of the main reasons for this trip was to geographically map the social media presence. And it’s doing that. It’s also mapping the feel and the vibe of it too.
There are long hours when I’m by myself in the car and I’m actually starting to enjoy those moments, where I can process how I’m feeling about it and just think.
It has been liberating, that’s for sure. I feel as though I spend a lot of the driving in my head, processing both what has happened the day before as well as the moment, the various interjections and tangents my mind takes, which means I’m frequently hitting “record” and getting in some more notes via audio. The chore of driving has, so far, only been when exhaustion sets in and I still have like a hundred miles left to go. A pit stop, checking social media, commenting and tweeting a bit, along with some coffee, has been the best remedy. I also find that not eating much while driving keeps a hustle going. I’ve feasted almost entirely on KIND bars and store-bought smoothies.
You said a friend joked that you should have just found a place to hide and PRETENDED to do this trip. So far, what do you suspect will be the most important part of actually doing it?
Actually doing it puts pressure on myself to be in the moment and make better sense of my emotions, as well as my own connection with social media. Because we are all in some way bound to it, even if we just use it for business purposes. The project has also forced me to see things for what they really are– be it a friendship I always suspected was just for something they wanted from me, to people I hoped would be there for me in a time of need proving to be as far removed as someone I barely know. It’s given me a lot to think about.
This interview has been condensed from a longer conversation and augmented by email followups.
Bradley Spinelli is the author of the novels “The Painted Gun” and “Killing Williamsburg,” and the writer/director of “#AnnieHall.”