Sunday, 22 May 2011

Keeping Away the Elephants - Compulsive Communication Syndrome

A guy sits in a field in Kansas, repeatedly clicking his fingers. Click, click, click.
A woman walks up to him and asks why he’s compulsively clicking his fingers.
‘To keep the elephants away,’ he says.
‘But there are no elephants in Kansas,’ the woman says.
‘See!’ the guy says, ‘It works.’

When I first read that joke in Abnormal Psychology by David S Holmes I thought myself immune to such behaviour. I had no aversion to elephants and couldn’t even click my fingers. I had tried to learn. God, how I’d tried. Again and again and again. But something was in the ether that would put me into my own elephant zone. Internet and email had yet to become commonplace in 1991.

Compulsive Commmunication Syndrome - the symptoms
Fast forward to 2011, and here I sit with two computers switched on and fully loaded. Windows phone. A cup of tea. A glass of water. Two dirty coffee cups and a sandwich plate full of crumbs. A b&w LaserJet printer. A colour LaserJet printer. Wait, where’s my scanner? At the office where I left my other computer with the docking station and widescreen LCD. What am I wearing? Let’s just say last century down & out and mountain man hair.

There’s a ringing noise. Sounds like, no, it can’t be. Do we still have a landline? How quaint. Too late. I can see from the display it was my wife. She’ll be on her way home for a lunch that I haven’t prepared. In my defence, I’m off sick with viral influenza so she can’t expect too much.
Just check my TweetDeck again, programme a few more chuckles and plugs. Fly over to facebook, nice to see that some people have ‘liked’ my comments about Stephen Leather's post of the man from Washington State who claims to have had sex with over 1000 cars. Offer virtual friendship (to the ‘likers’ not the 1000 autolover man). Two new friend requests, trawl through their photos. Accept.
Windows phone is flashing, email via work and hotmail. Touch mousepads to activate the laptops, enter passwords. Oh. Real world calling. Car is due a service and teeth are due a dental check-up. Both very overdue. Where do these people expect me to find the time? Pick up landline, because I want to see the mobile flash if I get any ReTweets or Direct Messages. Book the car in with the hygienist and the teeth for a 15,000 mile lube.
Madame’s still not home so I have a chance to read two pages of Virtual Strangers on Kindle for PC, then over to the other laptop. Edit the section of The Baptist to make the intimate tattoo more believable, having sought semi-professional advice at 2:30 this morning from a lovely fb lady who chats about these things.
Tweet I just completed the intimate tattoo scene #iamwriting.

And...cut. That’s a wrap. A coleslaw, beetroot and mushroom wrap with mayonnaise. Cup of tea. Quick snooze. Lovely wife’s gone back to work, I can stop acting sick and get back into the swim.
I prepare myself for the weekly kindle book tagging exercise and copy paste the list of 200+ books and tags into a Word doc so I can do it while we’re watching CSI tonight. Then I remember that I’ve withdrawn from the tagging group. I feel hollow, the tagging was fun. In the way that in my temp job. way back when, converting London numbers from 01 to 071 and 081 was fun. Supermarket checkout, repetitive, result producing fun. The copy, open link, paste, save times 200+ and the excitement of seeing Peril as number 5 tagged crime novel on 
Unfortunately it doesn’t translate into sales so that’s why I’ve stopped the tagging.
And there it is. A piece of evidence. I have made a positive decision to not engage in a social networking activity because I don’t see the specific benefit I was looking for.

Just before any social networking authors jump down my throat and say stuff like ‘it all has to be part of a cohesive marketing palette’ or something similarly artistic, the point I want to make is not about tagging. It’s that I managed to stop doing something. I can’t stop the other stuff. What can stop the other stuff is a flat battery, breakdown of the broadband, breakdown of fb / Twitter / Blogger, one of my children needing medical care, power cuts, an offer of sex. All of which are increasingly rare events.

The rationale
So why, oh why, am I compulsively ‘building a social network platform’ every spare second of the day and night? Because I am an independent author with my crime novel PERIL on Kindle and Smashwords. And with a very tasty further work in the pieline. (It’s the pies and the typos that are slowing it down). Or is this just my latest justification for compulsive behaviour? Now that I’ve built the platform to Kristen Lamb's WANA prescription for critical mass, can I tame my behaviour? The fb friends, Twitter followers and blog readers are mushrooming nicely. So I should be able to just tickle occasionally, right?
Wrong, with a big wobbly W. Wronger than a toilet roll hung the wrong way.

When Dad brought home a Binatone TV tennis game (in the 1970’s, humour me), I had to be dragged off it after a week. The first time on a Space Invaders machine in the pub I drank no beer and chatted no girls the whole evening. I recognised the problem at that stage. A compulsive personality trait that could put me on a treadmill without end. Like collecting pictures of Page 3 girls, er, I mean stamps. So I studiously avoided anything that looked like a compulsive lure. Stayed away from Space Invaders and all similar things ever since, never played fruit machines, X-Box, PC games or anything that seemed to drag others in. I’ve rarely bet on the horses or gambled in casinos. Just once, okay twice, at Dublin’s Sporting Emporium where a Brazilian transsexual’s roulette method netted me €450 (thanks Joel, big kiss X, and if you want to know the simple, foolproof method then read Peril).

A lot of people ruin their lives with compulsive behaviour. If it’s substance consumption, then that’s clinically an addiction. Dr Larch, in The Cider House Rules by John Irving, was addicted to ether but most people think of addiction as drink or drugs. Clinicians wouldn’t agree that gambling, game playing or internet social networking is an addiction, but that’s just nomenclature. If not physically addictive, it is psychologically addictive for individuals with compulsive tendencies. That includes me and, as you’re reading this, possibly you and all those hundreds, thousands and gazillions of fb, Twitter, Blogger, Wordpress and other users.
Robert palmer used to sing ‘Might as well face it, I’m addicted to love’. Actually Rob, if your claims were true, you technically had a borderline compulsive personality disorder that led to excessive passion (RIP coolest dude ever). But let’s call it addiction because, like Rob, we can’t stop doing it. We feel bad if we don’t do it. It’s part of what we are. It’s what we do.

Secrecy and paranoia
The urge to communicate is very strong. I was waiting in a doctor’s surgery the other day and a chap in a suit pulled out an iPhone. He spent his twenty minutes, before the nurse did whatever she was going to do to him, surfing on fb. From the few pictures I saw, I doubt very much that his wife (he wore a ring) would have approved. I must get one of those phones. And that leads into another destructive aspect of compulsive communication syndrome. Secrecy. Guarding of passwords, logins, enabling and disabling cookies, deleting history. Alt Tab to switch screens at a touch if an unauthorised person (man, woman or child) comes too close to your screen.

Compulsive communication on social media is often outside of the direct family and friends circle. It has an element of fantasy or ‘other life’ to it. There’s a danger of driving a wedge between you and the actual real humans that surround you. And if you are unable to fully conceal your activities, and you won't, then there's a risk of engendering paranoia in those you love, including yourself.
One writer friend said to me the other day ‘My husband is always on his Blackberry. Drives me crazy with it, he does.’
A couple of days later, I was in a local hotel having lunch with my extended family. Out of nowhere my wife shouted at me across the crowded room. ‘Who the hell are you texting or emailing or whatever it is that you do with that thing?’
I had both hands under the table and shamefully produced an oblong coffee biscuit in a black plastic wrapper that I was struggling to open. The look on her face said you’ve got away with it this time, but I know what you’re up to. Okay, I don’t know what you’re up to but I’m sure you’re up to no good.
If you have ever written or read the words have to go, my partner just walked in then you run the risk of valuing virtual relationships over real ones. Exciting though, isn’t it?

Communities, threads, peer pressure, trolls and flame wars
There’s more. All of these social networking platforms abound with virtual caf├ęs and nightclubs where readers, writers and, well, anybody really, can participate. There are valuable aspects of writers' craft, and marketeers wichcraft, discussed. People exchange witticisms and genuine, if virtual, friendships are made (and sometimes lost). Folks even fall into and out of virtual love. But, like drivers of cars, web users are insulated from each other by the ether and if someone is touchy, aggressive, having a bad day, drunk or a semi-professional bad-ass, then flame wars can erupt on threads and forums.
21st century trolls stalk cyberspace, sniffing out the weak and wounded. Like Shrek they delight in provoking the villagers into a troll hunt and enjoy consuming everyone in the posse, bones and all. When you find yourself having an ‘offline’ email exchange with a forum member about whether or not to feed a troll then you are likely very, very far away from producing actual creative writing as an author. And the likelihood that you can credibly explain to your partner or family the virtuous goal you are pursuing with all this time consuming activity is small, titchy, infinitesimal.
I'm currently reading Virtual Strangers by Susanne O'Leary and Ola Zaltin. It's a very interesting crime novel that gives an insight into the Authorspot (Authonomy) website for budding new writers. Autho is a huge site with thousands of active users engaging in a whirl of social networking. The objective is to get into the top five of several thousand new novels that are uploaded to the site at any time. The top five novels of the month receive a professional critique from Harper Collins Publishers, who run the site.
‘Virtual Strangers’ is fiction but it gives a glimpse of the compulsive behaviour involved in climbing to the pinnacle of a peer review site. Some sites are less of a beauty contest and more of a structured peer review arrangement, but the compulsion kicks in just the same. Learning by reviewing is a great tool for a budding author. It’s also a great rationale for compulsive participation.
And what are authors doing when they’re reading and reviewing or 'backing' other people’s work? They’re not writing. If you’re an author and you get to the point where you think ‘hey, I’m a really good reviewer, perhaps I could be an editor’, then quite possibly you are but you’re eating into your own valuable writing time.

Is there a cure?
If compulsive social networking is ruining your life, then what’s the answer? Is there a Mark Zuckerberg Clinic? Some people I know have left it behind. Usually by accepting that their perceived goal has been achieved, that it was just an excuse or by realising that the goal is ultimately unachievable within reasonable expectations (that sounds like nonsense but then...)
So, how did they leave it behind? Cold turkey is the answer.
Others have been forced by extreme personal circumstances to get a grip and adjust their priorities. Most people I've met in this otherworld are still here, buzzing.

Sorry, I just don’t agree with any of this...
What’s supposed to be the problem here? Everybody texts using mobile phones, listens to their mp3 player when in a crowd, works the virtual room on fb and stuff like that. We nearly all use computers in the workplace and there’s as much or more communication by email than phone. Right?
Right. Except that employers have imposed strong restrictions on employee internet access because they know that their humans will spend all day on fb and Twitter and other stuff if the temptation is left open.

I managed to studiously avoid social network platforms, up until late 2009, because I heard the Space Invader warning sound in my head. If I entered the wonderful, magic forest I might never come out again. In November 2009 a Kilkenny writer friend lured me onto Authonomy to back her book and, within about six weeks, I very nearly ruined the family Christmas with my compulsive participation. The dangers of addiction were so strong and clear that I did manage to pull free.
Then I moved to YouWriteOn and became addicted-lite to that, which was almost bearable for the family i.e. me moving out wasn't actually a discussion topic that time. But I got too deep into YWO as well. At the point where I thought I was an editor and no longer an author, I had a very stiff talking-to from my mentor and she bounced me over the YWO wall, to run free of obligations to other writers.
Having made two incursions and escapes, I decided to participate in the ebook revolution and, like many, conducted some research. I chose to follow Kirsten’s WANA suggestions and built up my social platforms. That was a very intense and compulsive exercise and it has me hooked.
If I’m serious about marketing my indie crime novels Peril and The Baptist then I know there are some further things I have to do, such as blog-hopping and blog tours. A friend has given me some suggestions on how to approach that with the caveat ‘Gook luck, and get ready to have your life consumed’. That has Space Invaders written all over it.
Have to go, my partner just walked in.
Catch you online again sometime.

Note: Compulsive Communication Syndrome is not a clinically recognised disorder. However, individuals that exhibit the traits described may have elements of various recognised trait personality disorders as described in Holmes: Obsessive-Compulsive, Avoidant, Dependent, Passive-Aggressive, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Sadistic, Self-Defeating. These disorders involve the exaggeration of normal personality traits.


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  1. Scarily true, Ruby. I too did the Authonomy and YWO thing but managed to pull myself out. Then Kindle came along and it all went pear shaped again. I think I'm too scared to click the link to Kirsten's WANA stuff.

  2. Just have to tell you the toilet roll direction you have posted is the wrong way around. Think. When you pull on it to unreel, do you want to pull the roll away from the wall to unreel freely without wall contact, or do you want to pull it against the wall, with potential jamming & consequent premature tearing-off and possible contamination from the wall? Just thought I'd mention that. Have a nice day.

  3. @Danny - there's a world of compulsion out there just waiting for us.

  4. @Phil - it's different when you're at sea. Are you also a converter as well as a prescriber?

  5. I think a lot of people will recognise themselves here... I just left Authonomy by the way, never to return (I think).

  6. What a brilliant post. I was just thinking how I could get off the net to go and do something else, but I saw your post, and...

  7. @Susanne - yes, he who is without sin and all that.
    @Catherine - welcome to the Hotel California.

  8. Your blog made me smile- I can so identify with you. I have gotten sucked in a time or two, and pretty soon all I'm doing is sitting in my computer chair and reading those forum posts. A happy medium is good though. :)

  9. @Violet. Smiling together is good. If you have the recipe for that happy medium then please pass it on and I'll get cooking!

  10. Wonder if this affliction affects creative types more often than the more normal sane individuals? Maybe a daily dose of work avoidance/displacement is all part of the process. I can't pick up a paint brush until after the third coffee and a trawl through the internet blah. I can usually find a heap of other excuses ... just now it's the heat. Cyprus will cool down any day and I'll have to invent another dawdle. On the other hand, might go to the other extreme and starting painting fresh out of bed in my nightie.

  11. Bee, I'm sure you're right there. Some folk might have a 'warm-up' routine, like your triple coffee and surf, before they get the creativity flowing. I personally have great difficulty in controlling my social networking activity and achieving a balance between that and writing. Once I start, I can't stop, whatever it is! Late at night or first thing in the morning, I can't mix activities in one session.

  12. I have OCD, believe me, those compulsions are much worse ;) at least there is a possible positive outcome to the hours spent on social media, not so for the time I spend rechecking the ashtrays for lit cigarettes, the door locks, or rearranging everything I see into orderly patterns! In fact, building my platform has forced me to be the most social I've ever been. That can be a good thing when the alternative is your 5000th paranpid editing pass.

    1. I hear you, Sessha. My ex has OCD and shook the front door of the house loose in its frame from multi-checking the lock. I don't know if everyone has compulsive behavioural tendencies as far as social media is concerned, or whether it's just the compulsive ones who make themselves known through activity. Difficult to know which parts of it really work and which don't.

  13. Totally enjoyed this, Ruby, thank you!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Bev. My pleasure.

  14. Touche! Thank you for the article.