Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an obsessive reader – not just of books but also on her phone. A conversation about the meaningful use of technology and the “expectation of perfection and purity” on social media
In #TheScreen, we talk to people about their screen time and their approach to a mindful use of technology. This time, we asked Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the difference between actual reading and reading online and how she deals with negativity on social media.
Ms. Adichie, how often per day do you check your phone?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I guess it depends on what I'm checking. I use my phone for quite a few things. I use it to make notes on ideas, things that occurred to me, things I hear. It’s part of my writing process. So I do that and then text messages. But I do not do social media.
Do you care about your screen time? Do you use any sort of tracking?
I have that feature on my iPhone that tells me: "Your screen time has decreased". But I think for me it's not about the screen time. It's what I've used it for. If it tells me my screen time is going up because I was reading on my phone, it doesn't bother me. Because sometimes when I don't have my iPad I read on my phone. On my flight here [to Germany], I was mostly on my phone reading a biography of Angela Merkel.
In your conversation with Angela Merkel, you said you made a differentiation between actual reading and reading online. Would you also differentiate your usage of technology in that way?
I think I feel bad when I read rubbish online and I do that quite a bit. Usually when I'm in a bad mood, I read gossip or just stupid articles. Sometimes you just can't stop. You click on one thing then you click on another and you end up like you just wasted your time eating very bad food.
So do you set time limits for certain gossip apps?
No, I don't. I'm not very technologically addicted. I don't have many apps. So when I'm wasting my time reading rubbish, at some point I stop and try to read something useful. I also read a lot in news apps, I have several newspapers on my phone – like Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal.
You said you don't use social media at all. In recent months there has been some criticism about you on Twitter. Do you never read that, so you're not aware of that happening?
Of course I'm aware of it. But being aware of it doesn't mean I read it. When I say I don't use social media, I don't mean that I'm cutting myself out. I recognize my personality enough to know that it's just not a good fit for me. I do not like the false intimacy of it. I do not like the way that people don't observe a certain kind of courtesy. I have an Instagram account, which I'm very happy with. My assistant usually handles it, I'm not actively involved. I don't have the app on my phone. But I usually know when there is criticism or noise because my people let me know. And sometimes, if it's something that I think I should respond to, I ask them to send me whatever is being said.
And how do you deal with it?
I think one of the worst things about being a public figure is how easily you can be misunderstood. Especially in this age where people do not pay attention. Someone says: “Oh, she said this, it's terrible”. And then you ask them: “Well, what was said?” And they don't actually know. That can be frustrating. But, it's not always negative and that's the thing. I think it's very easy to focus on who said something terrible. There is also a lot of loveliness. Sometimes someone tells me about a woman who said "I read you and it made me stronger and I felt emboldened to act for something."
So you take the positive effects from it, but you try to not get stuck in the negative downsides?
I'm not afraid of negativity. I can handle it and it comes with the territory. But it's not going to be my focus. I'm not going to go looking for things to upset me, because if you go looking, you will find them. I know that obviously being a public figure, taking strong positions, you will invariably get backlash. I wrote about social media, because I really think it's a problem. This idea that we can no longer assume that people mean well, we don't give people room to make mistakes. There's a kind of expectation of perfection and purity from everyone. I think it's terrible. With my writing about it, I was hoping that other people would speak up. I think that lots of people feel the same way but are terrified of saying anything. Because, again, that's part of this new culture that we live in where everyone is just so terrified. I mean, it's almost fascist.
Would your advice be to quit social media?
Not necessarily. I don't think the answer is to turn and run away. I think that we have to go in there and fix it. How it can be fixed is choosing to use it very deliberately and being very intentional about what one will not participate in. So when there is this kind of piling on someone: “Oh, she said the wrong word!” and then suddenly everyone is writing all kinds of rubbish – just choosing not to do that. And not even just that. Telling the people around you not to do that. I think that's the way to move forward, because it's here to stay. It's part of our existence. I just feel like we can do better. I really think if we decide to make this world a better place, we can.
The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Cover Image of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Getty Images