I recently rewatched the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Rear Window. I can’t help but feel as though it is a lens into the challenges that writers face in navigating social media. Today I want to talk about how the movie is a metaphor for these challenges.
If you are unfamiliar the movie, it takes place in a single room. The main character, Jeff (played by James Stewart), has a broken leg, and spends his days staring out the window to the courtyard in his New York City apartment, able to see into the lives of his many neighbors. Their windows are all open because of the hot summer days. Here we see our main character on the left (along with a friend), looking out onto the courtyard behind other buildings:
It all looks so ordinary. A guy in a tiny apartment looking at the backs of other buildings. Yet this is the entire movie. This is akin to how we can experience social media, peering into the lives of others from our screens.
Jeff observes strange behavior from one neighbor in particular and begins to suspect that he has murdered his wife. I won’t give away the ending, but throughout the film, he collects evidence to back up his thesis, as skeptical friends around him poke holes in his theory. One by one, these friends go from skeptics to believers that the neighbor committed murder.
Just like how we observe others in social media, we have partial information. It’s easy to draw conclusions about the lives of others with a few key facts (or Instagram photos), even if we are missing so much context. What’s more, by following someone on social media, we can feel involved in their lives.
It’s not uncommon for someone to compare their own life to the lives of others on social media. To become envious of someone else who got a book deal, or whose work is being celebrated, or is on vacation, or is simply having a great hair day. So many writers and artists I speak to talk about the difficulty of “doom scrolling” on social media, where they are drawn to social media, but end up feeling worse about themselves the more they scroll.
In the film, there are multiple times where Jeff comes to his senses reflecting on having become a person who uses binoculars and cameras to spy into the apartment across the way. Yet, he is constantly drawn back into a preexisting narrative of wanting to solve the mystery of the woman who disappeared from the window across the courtyard.
Social media can be a WINDOW. A one-way look into the lives of others. And we too can observe others with preexisting narratives of what their lives are like and why.
What is another way to look at social media? As a GATEWAY. I wrote about this in my book, Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience. What is the difference between a window and a gateway? In the gateway, you move through it. As do others when you welcome them in. It is about shared experience and connection, not distant observation.
The movie shares a wonderful example of this with two of the other neighbors that Jeff observes. One is a woman who seems lonely. Another is a frustrated pianist who can’t seem to finish a piece he is working on. Here we see the woman setting dinner for two, but then only pretending to be eating with another person, holding a conversation all by herself:
And here is the frustrated piano player, working alone:
At a pivotal moment in the movie, when all hope seems lost for the woman, she hears his piano and comes alive, moving toward the window. We later see them together, engaged in a lively conversation, having come together over their shared love of music. Here, music is the gateway, reaching out across that courtyard. And theses two people moved across it as well to meet each other, to find a real connection and a meaningful experience:
I will simply encourage you to focus on social media as a gateway, not just a window. A way to truly connect with others. Yes, this can happen in a variety of ways, but I want to encourage you to not just be a silent onlooker. We all have the opportunity to reach out and connect with others. To validate who they are and create a shared experience. What if you are the person that celebrated someone’s book, amplified their voice, or simply said ‘hello’?
This is the opportunity we each have every day. What will you make of it? A window or a gateway?