C C MacDonald: the toxic influence of social media
Author C C MacDonald tells us how a fascination with online influencers inspired his latest suspense novel, The Family Friend.
When I started writing The Family Friend, I was thinking about my relationship with my smartphone a lot. Weeks before my second child was due, I said to my wife ‘As long as we don’t get a screamer, I think it’ll be fine.’ Reader, we got a screamer. He came out screaming and he didn’t let up all that much for the first nine months. We were tired, we blamed ourselves, we blamed each other, we blamed him.
But we had support in these difficult times. A little dopamine pump we had with us at all times for which we didn’t even need to carry around a drip, our smartphones. I used mine for distraction. The news, Arsenal blogs, gambling sites, re-watching 90s comedies on Netflix. For my wife, constantly breastfeeding or having to carry the little one who didn’t like to be put down, she was searching for something deeper, more human in the virtual world. And on Instagram, seeing her friends with kids, engaging with mummy-bloggers and childcare experts she found a portable community providing empathy, advice and most crucially camaraderie.
I became fascinated by Instagram influencers and what it might be that would motivate people to want to become one. The free stuff is great obviously, but beyond that, what is it that drives them to enter into a Faustian pact that requires them to share their lives, their thoughts, their whole curated personality with the world? As someone who trained as an actor, like the book’s protagonist Erin, I realised that they are probably driven by the same things I was. A desire for validation, a search to be seen. What better way to know that you exist, to know your life has purpose, than to have a hundred thousand real people becoming your followers?
Unfortunately, though our son’s screams tailed off, our time on our smartphones did not. I took myself off all social media only to find myself spending as much time on it as I did before, looking at houses with no plans to move, vintage synthesisers I would never be able to play let alone afford, seeing which month was cheapest to fly to the Canaries with no intention of booking. When I got my screen-time stats I was appalled. I never felt like I had enough time to work, keep up with life-admin and be a committed parent and yet here I was spending hours a day looking at my phone. I didn’t like it, it made me sad and yet I’d go back to it again and again, fifty-plus times a day. I was in a co-dependent relationship with an inanimate coercive controller.
So I wrote a book about it. I love the simple, taut 90s thrillers – my first book Happy Ever After had shades of Fatal Attraction to it – so inspired by The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, I decided to write a book about a woman struggling with a difficult baby she wasn’t sure she had the resources to deal with while trying to pretend to the world that she was ‘smashing it’. And what would happen if a spiritual woman, an earth-mother type who’d never dream of binding herself to technology, came into her life and home to help with the baby like a new-age Mary Poppins. Well, as you can imagine, it doesn’t turn out to be sunshine and lollipops.
I wish I could tell you that my wife and I have replaced our phones with carrier pigeon and that we now spend our evenings meditating by candlelight but I’m afraid we’re both still in thrall to them, albeit far less than we were. We can’t do without them. None of us can. And there’s something about the enervating little burst of the outside world that’s like manna from heaven to a new parent stuck in a fug of sleeplessness and isolation. So maybe they’re not so bad, but it should be noted that before social media, the most common place to find yourself being a ‘follower’ was in a cult.