I’m sure you’ve heard something like this before. The Baby Boomer generation and the Gen X’ers don’t seem to agree on much, but by and large, they dislike one thing together: cell phones, social media, the internet, and the way us no good kids have forgotten how to communicate and make friends in the real world. There’ve been hundreds if not thousands of posts going over why they think we’re lazy good-for-nothings who need a kick in the pants, and why we think they’re frightened old cavemen who are afraid of the new world. I’m not going to bore you with that. Instead, what I’m going to do is spell out my own experiences with this new world, good and bad, to show how, for at least one person, this new world has been a life saver.
My parents will tell you that I was a happy kid. That a smile was never far from my face, that I laughed and ran around a lot, without a care in the world. Hell, they’ll tell you that my nick-name was “Smiley” for years. In a way they’re right, because when I was a kid, I didn’t know what else to do BUT smile. The truth is that I never felt particularly happy. I just knew that they liked it when I smiled, so I did. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I have an extreme difficulty with my emotions. I only ever really feel the most extreme ones, and then I have difficulty controlling them, unless I find a way to connect to them through fiction. This was never more true than my years in middle school and high school. I was off the wall, I had difficulty connecting, so I just did extreme things, not really understanding that I was different from other people, or how. I’ll talk about that more in-depth in another post, I think, so for now, just understand that I was beyond socially awkward and into the “who is that weird kid, shit, he’s probably a serial killer” area.
Enter the internet. I remember the exact date we got it, because it affected my life so deeply, right from the start. I remember the first time I heard those horrible dial-up modem sounds. I remember my first username and e-mail (k86dragon. Come on, guys, I was twelve). I remember the first website I went to (the official Star Wars website. I finally learned to spell Kashyyyk!). It was an incredible day for me.
It was only a matter of time before I discovered the infant forms of social media. I had a LiveJournal, I messed around a little in Yahoo! chatrooms, I got my very own AIM account. The big change for me came in the form of a little website called Gaia Online. I joined a long time ago, just before the transition from its original forum state to Gaia. It’s difficult to explain exactly what this site was/is to people who aren’t involved with it, but I’m going to try.
Basically, it’s a forum site that was originally designed to talk about anime, but became something very different. They implemented a system where you had an avatar that you could customize by spending gold, which you earned simply by surfing around on the site. It became a sort of a role-playing site in time, where not only did people discuss things, but they played a sort of a game. Not unlike, say, Dungeons and Dragons, people would create characters, using the customization of the avatar to represent them as they saw fit. Many people stayed in character the entire time they were on the site, which rapidly became one massive, deeply complex, living, interactive fantasy story, with millions of writers. People played vampires, knights, witches, warriors, detectives, aliens, cyborgs, literally whatever they wanted, and all interacted on this massive stage. It combined the best elements of acting, improv, and writing, and was deeply satisfying to me. It was here, you see, that I met my first friends.
In real life, I was a train-wreck of a person, able to fake that smile all I wanted, but utterly unable to deal with any other emotions. The depressive and manic cycles that ripped through me were generally the only emotions I felt, causing me to be wildly unpredictable at the best of times, and flat out cold, cruel, and distant at the worst. Online, though…
Online, I watched how other people acted. I saw how they phrased things, saw the intricate description of their feelings, and found that, like with fiction, I was able to feel them through the writing. Better than that, because I was able to interact with the people directly, I found myself learning to feel, or at least mimic them in the real world. I learned the rules of social interaction and comfortable communication through the internet, and the people it connected me to. I have no doubt in my mind that without this support system, I wouldn’t be half as functional as I am today.
Through this website, I met several people from all over the country who I’m very good friends with to this day. I still talk and text with these people, both online and off, nearly every day of my life. There’s a deep sense of connection there that I’ve always had trouble forming in the real world. The ones I HAVE formed, I’ve done so with these friendships as guides.
As time passed on, I outgrew Gaia Online, as did most of my friends. I still RP sometimes, but now it’s private and between friends, and feels like a writing exercise and a way to promote creativity as well as an escape. I’ll always be thankful to the site for showing me the way to people I never would have met without it, and for paving the way for the next big change in my life: cell phones.
I had a cell for the latter part of high school, but I didn’t use it for much. The occasional call to an online friend, a call home to my parents here and there, long chats with the girlfriend at the time (Side note: She’s my blog partner here now!). With college came a new group of friends, and the first time I really genuinely felt like I had found a place in the world. They taught me a lot, and helped me adjust even more to the world, and inspired me to try to be a better person. The important part for this entry, however, is that they showed me the joys of text messaging. I discovered that simply by having a phone, I was now in constant contact with literally every friend I had.
This was the time in my life when my issues stopped being a background feature, and something I just ignored, to being the driving force behind every action I made. I stopped being able to eat, touch, or even look at the things that I didn’t like. I began compulsively washing my hands and hair, something which has only gotten worse over the years. I began having minor hallucinations regularly instead of just occasionally. I became more paranoid than ever, and soon discovered that when I was alone was when these things struck hardest. Being with people always helps, and always has, but you can only spend so much time with friends. The phone became my lifeline.
You see, because I spent most of my formative years constantly online, being in text contact with someone feels as real to me as having them in the room. When I’m alone, and things start to twist around in my head, clogging the gears and filling my whole brain with lead and blood, all I have to do is reach out for my phone, send a text, and suddenly I’m not alone anymore. These texts can be a simple thing, hiding my fear and despair with a happy conversation, or they can be an outpouring of agony that waxes weirdly poetic, a stream of consciousness rant that feels like it pours my demons onto the screen, where my friends and I can fight them together.
I hear phrases like “internet addiction” and “Cell phone addiction” tossed around a lot, and I find them insulting. While there are no doubt people who are obsessed with these things to unhealthy levels, it’s not the net or the phone I crave. It’s my friends.
Think about this. Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, when you graduated high school or college, and you and your friends went your separate ways, what happened? You began to drift apart. You found friendship in other places, yes. Perhaps work. Perhaps your family. In either case, or any other, however, your communication and interaction were limited by proximity. Sure, you could make a phone call, or send a letter, but who had the time, when you were living your new lives? You could have a real, genuine conversation with your best friend at most, what, once, twice a week? In many cases, far less. Once or twice a month wasn’t unheard of. I was raised my entire life expecting this. I watched my parents and their friends drift apart, and it seemed only natural, but still, deeply sad. Now, look at me. I don’t see my best friend from high school very much any more. I see my best friends from college once a week, if I’m lucky. Do you know what, though? I talk to them every single day. For hours at a time. During downtime at work, when they’re at home with their own families, when they’re shopping, or reading, or playing video games, my friends and I are always connected. I’ve had enough conversations with them to last a lifetime, and I’m not even thirty yet. We have this constant connection, and that allows us to form a bond deeper than any I ever thought possible.
Every person I have ever known is at my fingertips. If I want to know how my friend from the creative arts program in high school is doing? I ask him on Facebook. If an acquaintance from years ago sees something that makes them think of me? They tag me into the topic. My world is constantly and powerfully connected, and this has proven the single greatest tool in my arsenal against my mental illness and anxiety, because I can ALWAYS reach out with faith that someone will take my hand.
There is a dark side, however, and one that I’ve been bitten and wounded by many times, and used to bite and wound in turn. Social media is a powerful, powerful tool. We can use it to share ideas and beliefs and find friends, and stay in contact with loved ones that we otherwise may have lost… but that instantaneous sharing of knowledge is dangerous. We all have bad thoughts. We all want to hurt people sometimes, and to insult, or attack, or otherwise express momentary feelings of spite and rage and jealousy. The way that a single click can whip our innermost thoughts into the world, where they can never be deleted or taken back, should never be forgotten.
Being able to know people more completely than we ever have before is overwhelming as well as beautiful. People who, in times past, you may have had a long-term friendship with, never suspecting that their innermost thoughts were harmful, now wear those thoughts on their sleeves, simply because the speed with which they can say them doesn’t allow time to think it through. People appear more callous and cruel than ever, only because the sheathe is now off the blade of our thoughts and minds.
People I love dearly have hurt me deeply in this way, and I know I’ve hurt people just as deeply, both in defense and attack. I’ve previously written about how deeply fiction affects me. It’s a soft spot for me. Negatively speaking about something I love sets off a reaction in me that I can’t always control, causing an explosion of the rage and despair that seem to be the only emotions I can ever feel completely without effort, because in that moment it feels like I, myself, am being judged. I’ve had countless public arguments on social media, and I’ve been the swear-word slinging, cold-hearted monster more than once during these times. Not only can I use the internet to share my pain, but to spread it around all too easily. I’m by far not the only one.
Everyone I know has said something they wished they could take back. Everyone I know has become wrapped up in a fight they shouldn’t have online. Everyone I know has showed their most awful sides to the world. Smarter men than me have said that telepathy would cause society to crumble. Social media is a form of selective telepathy. We broadcast our thoughts to the world, striving to be seen as the best versions of ourselves, but every mask slips, every veneer cracks, and the truth shines through vibrantly.
The constant deluge of news and opinions shows the darkest side of the world. I find myself routinely driven into depression by the news, by science and the approach of a turning point in humanity that I may live to see, by people championing causes that I support but can’t handle emotionally, and I don’t know how to turn it off without receding from the tool that helped me learn how to be (or at least appear) human when I never felt like I was. I try to pull away from just those aspects of it that do the damage, but it can be cruel and crass to do so. It’s a really sticky situation.
So where does that leave us? What do I think of this whole big mess of a world within a world, and the constant, deep connectivity that comes with it? With all its pleasures and pains, and the rippling, shifting, rapid culture it has given to the world? Make no mistake, the internet and social media are a culture in and of themselves, with customs and art forms and leaders and subcultures, and that’s where the key to this question lies.
It’s wonderful, and beautiful, and awful, and messy, and filled with horrors and wonders, even putting aside the technical, magical marvel that it is (and I can and likely will write and entire blog on the nature of just the tech). Just like every culture that has ever existed, it’s evolving, and changing. The thing about cultures is that if allowed to thrive and grow naturally, they often get better. People get kinder. The world they connect to can become more pleasant. Stop for a moment and consider, really think about the way the internet is now compared to the way it has been. Sure, there’s always been a blend of good and bad in it, but just this week, actor Levar Burton used the power of this to fund the return of Reading Rainbow, a show that’s unquestionably good for mankind. Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Penn Gilette, Wil Wheaton, and countless more celebrities use it every day to call out to good people everywhere, to participate in charities and causes, to speak out against injustice and cruelty the world over… and it’s working. The voices of the good are beginning to drown out the outcries of the bad. People are learning. it’s not a huge difference, it’s not a huge step, but it’s something.
This alien thing called social media has irrevocably altered the world. This is terrifying, there’s no doubt about that. At the end of it all, though, when I look back on my life, and myself as a person, I know that the influence it’s had in my life has been overwhelmingly good, in spite of all the pain that comes with it. Even last week, when I went out to the zoo, in a deeply public, crowded, dirty place for the first time in years, looking at the experience through the lens of the live blog I was doing drastically reduced my anxiety and paranoia. My connection to the world is greater with a smartphone in my pocket than without. This new world does something of indescribable value: it gives me hope.