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Searching for community on a broken internet

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The Good Old Days (via One Terrabyte of Kilobyte Age)

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, less than 48 hours into my “no social media for a month” resolution, I find myself on Twitter. And not just passively scrolling either. No, I find myself obsessively reading the replies to a Nigel Farage Tweet deriding the Irish government for its response to the latest Brexit proposal. I don’t know how I found myself here (I don’t follow Farage or any of his ilk — I would rather stick a rusty fork in my eye), but I can’t look away.

“Its nothing but pathetic Anti British sentiment. It all goes back to the old adjective, “England’s struggle is Ireland’s gain”. The Irish psyche is too bitter to make an honest decision” says one anonymous Tweeter (typos ALL that Tweeter’s own).

“If Republicans want another war, I say let’s give them one. Let’s see how they like hellfire missiles through their windows and dealing with an SAS fresh from slaughtering ISIS and Al Qaeda” screams another.

And on and on and on they go. Dozens of tweets and most of them singing some variation of the same tune — “The Irish are bad, it’s Ireland’s fault”.

I read through them until a pain erupts deep in my belly and I can feel the old familiar feelings of panic rising in my chest. I’m reading horrible tweets about my home country, about people like me, and yet I can’t stop. It’s like a scab that you can’t help picking at until it bleeds. Finally, I catch myself and think, why am I doing this?

This is not a post about Brexit or even about politics, it’s about social media and how broken it’s become. Before I go on, I want to acknowledge the incredible privilege I have as a well-educated cishet white person. I can’t even imagine the difficulties of navigating social media as a POC, member of the LGBTQ+ community, or any other marginalized group and I absolutely do not mean to minimize the issues they face. I can only speak from my personal experience and my personal experience is that the internet in general, and social media in particular, has become a cesspit and I don’t know what we can do to fix it.

I’ve been online in one form or another since I was about fourteen years old, connecting to the family computer for a stolen hour or two every couple of days until my mother yelled at me to get off so she could make a phone call (hard as it is to believe, there was a time when you could have the internet or the phone but not both at the same time). Back then the internet felt exciting and fun. I spent hours building GeoCities sites dedicated to obscure interests, entered chatrooms and asked strangers “A/S/L?”, and giggled with friends when someone tried to “cyber” with us. I joined forums and gave myself usernames like “Rainbow Moonchild” and gained an American penpal who I would spend hours chatting to on AOL instant messenger, him telling me to listen to Eisley, me telling him to listen to Muse. Back then the internet was something I could turn off at will. Something I could walk away from. I could go days at a time without logging onto my email and I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid.

It was 2011 when things began to change. That was the year I moved to Canada and got my first smartphone and I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that it changed my life. I was far from home in a strange city and having 24/7 access to Facebook made me feel connected to all the people I was desperately missing. It tethered me and made me feel less alone. From that point on, the internet was no longer a useful tool or a happy distraction. It was essential.

It’s not a unique story. The insidious march of forward-progress means that all of us, all of us, are more online than ever before. In fact, I’d bet good money that some of the people reading this don’t remember a time without the internet being literally everywhere, all the time. Looking back, it’s easy to see how it happened — with every new step, every new app, every improvement to software and hardware our lives got easier and easier. I’m far from immune to this. All of my banking is done on my phone, I use it to check when the next bus is coming, what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow, and the best route to get from A to B. Even social media can be a force for good. I’ve discovered so many artists, writers, and musicians I never would have if not for Twitter, Instagram and yes, even Facebook. But these days, I can’t help but wonder what price we’re paying for this convenience. We’ve all seen news articles citing studies that show that social media is making us lonelier. What are any of us really gaining from being online all the time?

Last year I deactivated my Facebook for 30 days. Facebook had been making me feel uneasy for some time and I wanted to see what life would be like with the temptation to “just log-on and check” (“check what?” you ask. Exactly). One month turned into six and, a few months back, I finally logged back on and deleted my account permanently. I knew I never wanted to go back there again. After months with no access to my account, I was able to definitively say that Facebook added nothing to my life. It only took (hours and energy and tears of frustration). It’s not just me that’s feeling this way. A few weeks ago I had dinner with a friend who deleted all her social media a few months back. “I was starting to think in terms of Instagram captions” she confided in me. It frightened me that I knew exactly what she meant.

Does that mean I think all social media is bad? Well… no. But I think that our relationship with it is broken. Social media at its best helps us to connect. It helps us to build community and share the things we love. But lately, all I can see when I log on is the other side of the coin. For every person highlighting an injustice, there are others spewing vile hatred. For every person trying to promote their new album or book or film, there are others who want to tear them down. I don’t want to think that people are inherently bad but after the past few weeks of mudslinging and grown men screaming at 16-year-olds who want to change the world and right-wing hate speech the dam has broken. My tolerance is shattered. I’m exhausted and I’m opting out.

The internet and social media aren’t going to go anywhere. For better or worse, they are a part of our lives and our jobs now. We can’t go back to the internet of before — the internet that was a fun distraction. We can only move forward and try to find new ways of building community in a broken internet.

For my own part, I’m doing what I need to in order to preserve my own mental wellbeing. For the rest of the month of October, I’m not going to open Twitter or Instagram. I’ve deleted both apps from my phone. I’m trying to be more present, to use my phone less in general. I’m trying to re-learn that the internet might be an integral part of modern life, but it isn’t everything. Who knows, with all this extra time on my hands now that I’m not passively scrolling down a page, I may even have time to write another novel or maybe I can start another website, in the fashion of the GeoCities of old, dedicated to obscure interests with a sparkly banner atop that says “respite from the storm”.

***

This post was something that’s been rattling around in my head for a while now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t direct you to Sarah Maria Griffin’s Girl Offline column on The Gloss. She’s a gorgeous writer who explores this idea in a lot more depth (and far more beautifully). 

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