“Take away comments entirely, and you take away some of that shared reality, which is why we often want to share or comment in the first place. We want to believe that others will read and react to our ideas.”
I’ve found this to be true enough as far as online communication is concerned. I started blogging or writing in a public forum on MySpace, a venue not well suited for what I was trying to communicate (most people I interacted with on MySpace blogged surveys asking their friends which profile pic they should use or quizzes asking what their top ten favorite things are. It largely wasn’t used to write anything meaningful). I wanted people to read what I wrote, to think about what I was saying, and to maybe engage me in a dialogue about it. I would generally post the same kinds of things I have posted in this venue: benign snippets of my thoughts, random things I find interesting, half-articulated musings, pretty much Stephane’s recipe for dreams:
“People think it’s a very simple and easy process, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. As you can see, a very delicate combination of complex ingredients is the key. First, we put in some random thoughts. And then, we add a little bit of reminiscences of the day mixed with some memories from the past. Love, friendships, relationships, and all those “ships”, together with songs you heard during the day, things you saw, and also, uh… personal…”
You get the idea.
But lately I’ve been wary and have avoided what I call Being online. Perhaps it has to do with my increasingly time consuming profession; perhaps I’ve simply lost interest in engaging an audience or of keeping some sort of public record of what I sometimes think (it is a heavy burden, dear reader, to keep you entertained). More likely though, I think it’s the way in which we exist online and the penchant for selectively revealing who we are that’s got me down.
The article I quoted above focuses mainly on anonymity in online comments and how we feel the deliberate hiding of our identity allows us to flout the social niceties we would normally observe in face-to-face interactions. Indulge me for a moment. Imagine standing in line at the bank—which I find myself doing less of—with several polite people who hold doors open for one another and who perhaps even allow each other to cut in line to go to the next available teller because they’re not quite finished properly filling out their deposit or withdrawal slips. As cheery and respectful as these people seem to be, when they go home—or worse, as they stand in line next to you on their smartphones—these same polite individuals are tearing a YouTube video to shreds, posting a snide series of comments on a Facebook page, or writing an offensive tirade on some obscure blogging site. Or they may be saying things about people in a very public place that they would never say to them directly in person (oftentimes, and I’ve experienced the brunt of this personally, anonymity need not be a precondition to such mudslinging). In short, we are not who we appear to be when we’re online. And that’s my qualm, or at least that’s part of it.
I’m not alone in maintaining a false belief, a delusion, that what I post here or what I have posted in similar venues in the past—DeadJournal being one good example— is public enough to be ignored, that the internet is so vast that my little speck is, for all intents and purposes, invisible. At the same time I am unnerved by the fact that this is not true. This delusion is especially made obvious to me and my interlocutor when what I write here is brought up when we’re talking IRL. How does one respond? When that happens, I almost feel like my privacy has been invaded, that someone has been watching very private moments of my life, that all is known about me and who I am. That somehow they know my identity better than I do. But then, because I am aware of my delusion, I know that if there has been any violation of my privacy I have given the culprit the key to the safe. If I am made upset by this, I have no one to blame but myself. Agenbite of Inwit. Inwit’s agenbite.
Still my delusion remains, but it’s weakening. I haven’t been writing much of anything in any public place. I’ve stopped sharing. In fewer than five years I have gone from participation in blogging and other Web 2.0 type activities to a near complete closing of all accounts to a steady climb in social media participation. Each change in my participation and engagement in Being online has been different. Right now I’m at the point where I use thinly disguised usernames for accounts where I’m technically deemed a lurker since I rarely contribute beyond a reblog, retweet, or an innocuous favoriting of someone else’s post. I’ve been made uncomfortable by any full and unadulterated participation in social media, and I’m still trying to discover why as I navigate an increasingly complex online identity.
One reason I know I’ve curbed my online Being is the miscommunication allowed through social media. I have often participated in what I initially considered harmless dialogues with people for whom I have much adoration and respect. In many dialogues, my responses are mistaken, my meaning misunderstood—which is probably mostly my fault in underestimating or misinterpreting the effect of my words—and the topic is eventually abandoned for want of clarity. I’ve temporarily given up on and lost faith in my ability to realize for others what exactly is going on in my head.
I’m not sure that I have a point to this rambling; I’m not sure that a point is even necessary anymore. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan once said. I suppose most of what I’ve said is pointless, and the fact that I’ve written and you, reader, are reading in a forum wherein you can also articulate your thoughts in abstractions and respond to my abstractions is the whole point at this point. So let’s all go to the science fiction disco and misunderstand misrepresented parts of each other. That’s how the internet is changing the world, right? We’re all sharing selective realities more than ever before.