Social Media and its Discontents

Following up with more writing on some self-reflection I’ve been doing – mostly from being somewhat depressed – this is going to be about how social media has impacted my life…

I’m a child of the internet. I grew up with a PC that my parents used for accounting. It was built by one of their friends, it had a “turbo” button, it ran DOS, and it came with hundreds of games that I assume had been downloaded from BBS instances. At some point, we added Windows and later subscribed to AOL. The AOL subscription wasn’t something my parents used much at all. Besides the accounting software, the only thing I really remember my parents using the computer for was some astrology software my mom was into. So the internet was really something that was for me.

By the time I was in jr. high, I had friends both offline and online. We didn’t understand how LANs worked, so we didn’t have LAN parties. What we did online at the time was some gaming, finding music, research of the extracurricular variety, message boards, chatrooms, and blogging that sometimes became printed zines. My first online zine (we called them e-zines back then) was in jr. high and my first printed zine was freshman year of high school. The content is less important for what I’m thinking about right now.

When it came to what we now call social media, my peers and I mostly used AOL Instant Messenger. Alternative ISPs were available and people were leaving AOL’s ecosystem behind but still wanted to maintain connections with other users through instant messaging. There was also ICQ, which we rarely used. And then there was IRC, which me and far fewer people I knew were using, but which facilitated numerous hobbies for me.

Due to all of these things that the internet facilitated for me, there was a real tension between goals I had off and online. There was a dialectic between the two worlds: I did things offline to reach online goals, I did things online to reach offline goals. This is more of a commonplace now, but at the time it was still a world where even finding a job was mostly an offline activity.

Anyway, the point is that my life off and online were pretty much inseparable from an early age. Friends I still have today were people I met in AIM chatrooms, on IRC, through message boards, etc. Romantic relationships were often uncomfortably tied up with MySpace before there were ever any smartphones or dating apps that ran on them. Having website design and online promotion skills were a real asset to things I was doing with music or with politics. Finding a way to make a living and support myself with IT skills was thus a primary goal for me that lasted until I was successful at it in my 30s.

When I think about all of this now, I understand some things about myself and my life that are somewhat difficult consequences. In the realm of how I experience daily life, my thinking is the most immediate experience at almost all times. The quality of my thinking, its composition, tempo, content and such are a huge priority for me. A huge amount of this thinking is somehow fated to make its way online somehow. And when it does, it reinforces the giant part of my identity that lives on the internet.

What this puts into the background is my body and the world that my body interacts with, which includes the people that I almost exclusively interact with in that world. This creates a sort of competition in my experience between my thinking and everything else. Often, something from that category of “everything else” is experienced as an interruption to my thinking, a hurdle to goals I am trying to accomplish, goals that tend to be online. That is a rather unhelpful situation for anyone I am around and anything I try to get done in the material world.

My awareness of this isn’t new. I’ve tried quite a few different things to correct the situation. Whether those have been healthy things, like exercising to get in touch with my own physicality more… or unhealthy things, like drinking to turn down the intensity of my thinking… they’re ultimately temporary because the basic mode of my life establishes this inner competition and conflict on a daily basis.

So what is there to do about that? One can abandon the online life, in theory. The reverse obviously isn’t possible. At minimum, knowing that this is becoming a more common phenomenon can improve the accuracy of one’s worldview. Beyond just knowing that many people live with this commitment to online shit, I don’t know what more can be done.