I’ve been trying to figure out when my life became so intertwined with the online world. I spend too much time googling, scrolling, watching, reading, sharing, giving away my attention freely to distractions as if it is not precious.
I check inboxes, open Instagram, scroll a bit, check the inboxes again, read an article, share a meme, watch a video and somehow an hour is gone, dissipated into nothing.
Deep and useful relationships can be born online. Digital spaces can provide community, especially when you’re having trouble connecting with the people in your in-person life.
I have friends who I only keep up with through the personalized newsletter/targeted advertising dystopia that is social media. That is pleasant, this ability to stay up to date with the lives of people who don’t fit in my day-to-day world. Long before the internet existed, people stayed up to date with letters, newsletters and newspapers. Social media makes it so much easier. The number of people I can stay up to date on and the depth of details I can learn about their lives is astonishing. But is that useful?
Do I need to know what everyone in my high school class is up to? Is it relevant to my life to know who has gotten married and who had a baby and who is headed to law school? It satisfies my curiosity. I’m not convinced it’s a good use of my attention to scroll through memes and misinformation for these tidbits of gossip. Wouldn’t I be better off doing actual old-fashioned gossiping with family and friends?
Sitting down to write a letter also requires a different kind of attention than liking a Facebook post. Letter writing requires a quality of attention that I would argue is better for my brain than the sort of unplugged buzz of endless scrolling. Plus gossip in a letter from a person I know or updates from an actual newsletter are likely more accurate than whatever’s floating in my online bubble.
Online spaces and digital communication are deeply woven into how I exist in the world. I grew up with them. I will probably grow old with them.
My problem is that there’s something dystopic about corporations gamifying performative and shallow digital social interactions for the sake of ad dollars. Social medias in particular incentivize outrage. They also seem designed to encourage performing some filtered-fictionalized version of a perfect life.
Even as it feels performative, social media posting feels intimate. It feels like you’re chatting with friends, and surely that’s on purpose. But it’s not true. Posting is always public, even if you’ve got a burner account and all your settings locked down to private. It is not hard to take a screenshot.
There’s a joke on Twitter that there is a main character on Twitter every day and the goal of Twitter is to not be the main character. Internet infamy happens in an instant. Even positive internet attention looks overwhelming. Often the attention is such an outsized response to whatever the poster put out in the world. If you think you’re posting for 20 people then suddenly 1,000 are engaging, well the idea makes my head spin a little.
That attention can also cause useful change in the non-virtual world: helping someone facing eviction crowdsource rent, or launching careers for talented comedians or makeup artists or vintage fashion experts. People have used the unwieldily power of the internet’s ability to amplify to carve themselves delightfully niche careers. Going viral can connect someone doing a cool thing with exactly the people who are interested in the cool thing.
Before the internet, there was the television. Before the television, there was the radio. Before the radio, there was the novel. Joyful distraction is part of being a person. Your brain can’t be on on on all the time. It’s helpful to slip outside yourself sometimes.
The problem with the internet is that it is everything all at once at full volume. It is where my music library lives, where I get gossip, where I get news, where I watch TV, a place to socialize and sometimes where I go for work. Even when it feels intimate and solitary, it is an inherently public space. To sum up, I don’t know how I got here and I don’t know what to do about it, but it’d be nice to exist less on the internet and more in the woods.