The Internet, identity, and community

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I have decided to process my changing relationship with and thoughts about the Internet (social networking/blogging in particular) over the years…  from being outright phobic of it in high school (2000-2004), to minimal email and LJ and later Facebook use in early college (at the time, for the sole purpose of coordinating local in-person social gatherings), to using blogging and Facebook for everything from activism, to learning new things, to keeping in touch with my communities that since I was 24 or so, have spread out across the globe.  Since I was not one who grew up with the Internet (like…the vast majority of other generation Y and Z-ers in developed countries), I have been able to observe how regular exposure to the Internet starting in young adulthood ultimately changed my thought processes, and consequently my entire identity and the way I interact with others now even offline.  Some of this is for the better, some is for the worst, but ultimately, it is what it is either way.

This blog post will go into all of that, and also how I’ve observed advancements in technology impacting and shaping society at-large (again, for better or worse), since the mid-80s when I was born.  I still have my fears and concerns, to be sure, but ultimately, particularly having grown up in the digital decade of the 90s, I’ve come to realize and accept and even be fascinating by all the ways technology and my identity have been inseparable forces.  Warning though:  this blog post will surely be one of the longest I’ve ever written, and possibly will ever write…

I got on the Internet bandwagon late, having my only significant exposure be a college email address (because it was mandatory to have and regularly check one) until…2005 I think? At such point I was first exposed to LJ, and shortly thereafter to Facebook…and it all went downhill from there.  😉  I started socializing in-person and doing my hobbies and taking care of myself less, and so my grades started going down, and all of this meant disconnecting just a little bit at a time with the world around me and sinking deeper and deeper into my own head. This was a hit to my sanity, and lacking sanity ultimately grew to lacking the capacity to do anything but surf the web and watch TV. Which of course became a vicious cycle.

…but it’s a little more complicated than that. Obviously, there must have been reasons why I was drawn so much to it in the first place (aside from that it is literally impossible to just avoid the Internet completely today, in our culture. I’ve been told time and time again how this would put me at a distinct disadvantage, not only socially but intellectually and professionally as well, not to mention keeping me out of the loop of the activist causes I try to stay involved in). And there are also simultaneously reasons why I find it so challenging and frustrating, other than just resenting technology for my lack of willpower over it (and consequently often resenting the hell out of having to grow up in the information age).

Pros of the Internet

~Community: The Internet allows me (and other freaks of various stripes) to more easily find others I can relate to about certain, fairly niche interests and traits that may be geographically spread out because of this. It can be pretty hard depending on where you live, for instance, to find a large group of Pagans all in one physical location (nevermind Pagans who are also bisexual and polyamorous…this is the topic of a LiveJournal community I’m a member of). It can also be hard to find other people with the same disabilities as you, nevermind people who take pride in these disabilities (The Icarus Project, though it now has in-person meetings in various cities across the world, was originally born of a forum. And through The Icarus Project, I also discovered the disability rights and autism pride movements). Seeing these traits reflected back at me makes me feel just a little less lonely, and a little less strange, gives me models to guide the development of my identity, and a language with which to process and discuss all this. Also obviously, social networking is a great way to keep in touch with friends you already knew in-person after one or both of you move far away. (Which seems to happen a lot in my circles…maybe it has to do with my age? Dunno.)

~Personal growth:  By its very nature, blogging encourages being verbally reflective. I’ve always been reflective (well, I guess a better word for it in my adolescence and childhood would be aware, in a more intuitive and less direct way). But my natural way of processing things internally is nonverbal: images, sounds, instincts, memories, emotions, textures…anything but words. Pushing myself to put my thoughts to words on LJ (on my own time, with no pressure to make it high-quality or on a particular topic), not only helped me to become a much better writer (helpful in its own right in a myriad of ways), but it changed my thought patterns. I would start thinking in words in preparation of an entry, rather than “translate” while writing as I did in the beginning. Then I started having an internal monologue even when I wasn’t planning on posting anything.

I have to say that I still very strongly believe that words are not the only valid method of communication, either internally or externally, no matter your age (despite that it’s considered “normal” to begin development of a verbal inner monologue around age six, I say fuck the concept of “normal”). I very much value my intuition and visual awareness and empathy, all of which initially developed in lieu of inner monologuing in the traditional sense. Still, having ease with words is obviously helpful, seeing as words are the primary method of communication and interpretation for many adolescents and adults in this society. It’s also useful to have ease with more than one method of communication and processing (or as I like to think of it, being “bilingual” in a sense), to have flexibility and adeptness in more types of situations. I’m still intuitive and observant and empathic, and I still have a strong aesthetic sense. Words didn’t make these traits disappear. But now I can also articulately explain myself to others, without my thoughts being lost in translation. I can also more directly explain myself to myself at times: while nonverbal thought can provide me with a general awareness of things, it doesn’t always provide me with a clear explanation of that awareness and where it’s coming from. Having the combination of the two types of processing allows me to go deeper with my thoughts, to be more acutely aware of myself and the world around me, and to talk myself through applying that awareness to external situations.

Then there’s Facebook, which serves very different purposes than LiveJournal or WordPress. By the time Facebook came out with features beyond just looking up and contacting who’s in your college classes and clubs (my first college was one of the first colleges it came to when back when it was college-only), I had already developed my verbal skills through LiveJournal. What Facebook helped me develop was my wit, assertiveness, and confidence. I think it’s to some extent true for many people that our social network selves are a reflection of our ideal selves; how we see ourselves internally, and how we wish the world would see us too. This is because we can edit online, but can’t as much offline: we actively choose what we want to present to the world, and what we want to hide, and can always edit or delete later if we impulsively post something we regret.

I felt safe to share thoughts and opinions on Facebook that I would be too afraid to share IRL, because I was sure I would mess it up somehow and embarrass myself without having all the time in the world to think it through first. And like what happened with LiveJournal, my status update style eventually started blending with my thinking style, which consequently affected my behavior. My Facebook persona is gradually becoming closer and closer to my offline persona (or in other words: Facebook is helping me to actualize my ideal self). If my Facebook persona can be a bit opinionated and cocky sometimes (this much I admit), my softer and more introspective blogging persona balances it out.

~Knowledge:  As I said, while I’ve developed the capacity to think in words over time, it is not my natural or primary form of processing. My thoughts are also nonlinear: instead, I’m stream-of-consciousness and free-associative (as anyone who’s interacted much with me would know). Between these two qualities, I had trouble with reading comprehension from around age 14-21, and I attribute this in no small part to the style and format of most YA and adult books. There are rarely many pictures (if there are any at all). The font is generally uninteresting and only one size, and there is also only one font throughout. Rarely is there interesting formatting, such as bolding key points, colorful text, or an interesting layout of the text. Chapters are presented in a very linear way, with the book intended to be read from cover to cover at some point (while you can take as long as you want to finish, you’d still generally be confused if you read half of chapter 12 before turning to the end of chapter 3 before finishing with chapter 7). This arrangement does not work with my learning style at all, and because I wasn’t yet really aware of other formats for information, I assumed I was simply an idiot. (And I also admittedly was pretty clueless about a lot of things, as compared to most in my age group.)

Since then, I’ve discovered zines and nonfiction graphic novels and documentaries, which have all been empowering and enlightening in their own right, but right now I’m here to talk about the Internet. Obviously, the Internet is much more visual and interactive than books. It’s a multi-media smorgasbord: a single article may include pictures, hyperlinks to other articles, bolding and colors and a fascinating design, background music or sound, AND an embedded video. As much as I hate how little willpower I have over my web-surfing, I can’t deny that I learn a ton (more than I ever learned from classes or trips to the library) by clicking from one article to the next on Wikipedia or WordPress. I can finally be in charge of my own learning, and don’t have to wait around for an expert to explain things to me. I feel like I can hold my own now in conversations with my very intelligent friends, on topics that I previously feared: like philosophy and politics and current events.

~Activism: I always wanted to be an activist (I played “protest Barbie” as a little girl…if I remember correctly, she mostly protested the injustice of bedtimes and having to eat vegetables.) But for awhile, I had no idea how or where to start. This is related to the previous topic: I had a general feeling of dissatisfaction with many aspects of society, but with little awareness of where exactly that dissatisfaction was coming from, or how the larger world works, or how activism works (and has in the past), it was a fruitless goal. Activism has changed a lot over time: today, most movements utilize the Internet in some way. For awhile, I followed discussions on these topics without actively participating at all, but that allowed me to learn what I needed to learn about the causes. It also gave me awareness of different methods that can be effective, both online and off. Finally, I started participating more actively, in my own small way. I consider educating people via social networking to be a form of activism (and I am always open to questions about my posts), and I also started this blog about 7 months ago. While I’ve done some offline activism in the areas of environmentalism and gay rights, unfortunately the stigma of mental illness is such that I don’t feel safe outing myself to the general public, so in that area social networking/blogging is all I have (and all I may ever have).

~Marketing and promotion: I don’t particularly want to sell my art yet, but I do someday (when I have more time and skill), and regardless I certainly enjoy sharing it. Shoving my actual art in people’s faces at random, in person, would be…awkward, not to mention rude. The aforementioned currently-low technical skill prevents me from having anything on display. So I have a DeviantArt account, as well as a Facebook album devoted to my art and crafts.

Also, I’ve yet to figure out a good way to organize and promote large social events other than Facebook. How did people even do this before Facebook? (Probably with difficulty.) I haven’t actually done this sort of thing much in years (my stamina for it has gone downhill as I’ve aged and health has worsened), but at the time (like, age 19-24), it was one of my favorite hobbies. There were few things I found so exciting and fulfilling as seeing the smiles on people’s faces as they enjoyed an event I had planned and prepared for.

Cons of the Internet

To some extent, I see a lot of the benefits I talked about as compensation for problems (both personal and societal) caused by the Internet, which of course would never need to compensated for if the problems didn’t exist in the first place. I know this is going to sound like a grumpy old lady waving her cane and yelling “In my day, people talked to each other on landlines!”, but I think it all still needs to be said. (Well rather, I still need to hear myself say it. Otherwise, I’ll never be motivated enough, never try hard enough to find the balance that I wantneed).

Yes!, the Internet brings people together who might not otherwise come together. But that wouldn’t be quite as necessary if people weren’t isolated to begin with, and the Internet can exacerbate isolation (again, both personal and societal). I know, actually, that I’m not alone in this. I’ve talked about it with friends and family, and it’s been the topic of movies and TV episodes: when there is the instant gratification of talking to someone online, there is less inclination to put in the annoying logistics of arranging to see (or meet) people in person. Which means that fewer and fewer people are leaving time and energy for it, and those who do still might leave less time and energy for it than they otherwise would have.

For me, it does not matter how much time I spend instant messaging or Skyping or commenting or whatever else: I absolutely need to have in-person socializing be the core of my relationships, or I completely crash emotionally to the point of not being able to do much of anything. It also doesn’t feed me nearly as much or as well (and consequently, any satisfaction I do get doesn’t last as long), if in-person social time is spent looking at devices. It’s really hard, as an individual with what seem to me to be freakish social preferences (in the context of the era and my age), to get very far in my quest to reduce screentime, without succumbing to pressure. For instance, I can’t count how many times a conversation like this has happened…

Kit: Hey, I haven’t seen you in awhile! I miss you! We should hang out! Yay!

Friend: Yes! I miss you too! Hanging out is awesome! But I keep inviting you to things, and you keep not coming to them!

Kit: Wait, what? I haven’t heard from you in months. When did you invite me to something?? What did you invite me to??

Friend: I blogged about [X event] and [Y event]!

Kit: …oh.

In the case of bringing together geographically spread out niche groups, this is an absolutely legitimate need and use. I feel, though, that it is only part of the picture. Diversity in friend groups is wonderful! The problem is, there are many types of people who just aren’t accepted by mainstream society, and are often treated very badly. This is what’s concerning and alarming, not-so-much that these people can live far apart from each other. If they could be accepted, genuinely and with open arms, into diverse local communities (and if such local communities were actually communities in every sense of the word), I feel like there wouldn’t be as much of a need for forums. (Not that they would ever become obsolete, but that they wouldn’t be the be-all-end-all.) For me, anyway, forums are band-aids. While daydreaming about lofty ideals doesn’t necessarily do anything by itself, daydreams are the root of goals, which are the root of plans, which are the root of action.

There are, of course, other ways to gain knowledge, too. While the Internet has allowed me to “compensate” for my reading comprehension difficulties in a similar manner, and even improve upon my reading ability, Wikipedia and WordPress and links on Facebook and the like are somewhat of a crutch for me. After awhile, I stopped bothering to even try to like books. I didn’t realize that I could. I didn’t realize that there are books for adults, for instance, with fanciful typeface, with pictures, with colors, with accompanying audio or video (or both!), with nonlinear presentation, with almost anything I love about reading on the Internet. I don’t actually hate to read; I was just looking in the wrong places all my life (though with no help whatsoever from certain authority figures, who only encouraged me to read a certain type of book, and told me (explicitly or implicitly) that I wasn’t good enough if I couldn’t understand it).

I also want to add that factual information is not the only thing to be learned: abstract concepts are also important, and skills, and traits, and values, and I’m sure I could think of more if I tried. In my mind, all of these things are equally important (to society as a whole, though individuals may value some more than others in their own life). Skills, traits, and values especially are usually best learned through experience. Some things can only be learned through experience, like what it’s actually like to visit or live in a foreign country.

I guess this thought process comes from my teaching strategy: I think about whole children and all their sides and needs (social, emotional, physical, cognitive, creative, etc) as completely intertwined, and although this is common in most preschool programs, I wish it was like this for adults too! I have a hard time compartmentalizing, for instance, my mind from my body, and I have an equally hard time figuring out why I even should. (A study session will only fully settle into my brain when I go for a walk, or dance around the room (often while actively studying)). I know that not everyone is like this (in fact, maybe I’m an oddity here), and that’s ok!, but I feel like with the strong influence of the Internet (and to some extent TV as well) on culture, there is this underlying pressure for everyone to become disembodied floating heads. Also, although surfing can be nonlinear as I said, and contain multi-media elements, communication online remains mostly verbal. Because of the interplay I’ve discussed between virtual communication, thought processes, and in-person communication, this ostracizes people with minds like mine (that will probably never be primarily verbal) even further than we already were. It also further depreciates alternative communication and processing styles in general. There are benefits and shortcomings to all of the myriad methods of communicating, so societally, we need to make sure we aren’t inadvertently eradicating any through a shortage of practice.

Yet another reason why I keep coming back to my screens despite our love-hate relationship: it is an escape. I don’t feel too bad about that (and even forgot to talk about it!) because it’s so universal. Everyone needs an escape of some kind, from time to time at least. Hey, I’m only human, and sometimes all it takes to get me through a frustrating day is looking at pictures of baby animals on Zooborns. But playing with my pet rat is infinitely more satisfying than scrolling Zooborns, so when I have access to him (when I’m home), I try to do that instead. I think this concept can be extended to…a lot of things. The more I am online, of course, the less I am offline. And as much as the physical world sometimes angers or scares or frustrates me, there are so many great things about it, too. So many things I want to experience more, with all of my senses, and time is finite. It seems to pass more quickly when I’m looking at a screen.

This is also where activism can come in, and like with everything else, it of course has its offline counterparts. If something is really wrong, why not try to change it? Activism has been around long before Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, blogs. I’m still very much learning how it works, how it has worked, but at the very least I know that social networking alone cannot solve all problems. I also know that problems have been solved in many other ways before, and continue to be. For my part, I’m most interested in the arts and local community (and community arts) as agents for change. I’m also interested in answering questions (no matter how ridiculous), here and there and everywhere, and pointing people to helpful resources.

This is all a sort of chicken-or-the-egg thing that, frankly, fascinates me: does the world create the Internet, or does the Internet create the world? Personally, I think it’s both, and though I use phrases like “in real life” for lack of a better way of explaining things, I don’t think that the line between the physical and virtual worlds is as black-and-white as it may seem. Both worlds affect and reflect the other. The way I see it, the Internet is humanity in technicolor: every sentence, every interaction, every action fine-tuned and ballooned and on fast forward. This brings with it the very best of society, as well as the very worst.

I wonder, sometimes (oftentimes), why everything needs to be fast, shiny, new? Stagnation isn’t good, either: individual stories, as well as larger global ones, need to progress in order for societies and the individuals that they consist of to continue to grow and improve. But change solely for the sake of change doesn’t necessarily make any sense (and neither, for that matter, does growth for the sake of growth), and something very special may be lost in the process. Some things need to change, and others don’t, and which is which is not something I’ll ever be able to know with any certainty. I can’t predict the future, nobody can. People could argue about this question for decades. (They already have.)

But like it or not, the Internet is one change that is here to stay. The best (and only) thing I can do is adapt to its towering presence, and learn how and when to use it, and alternatives for when I don’t want to use it. This issue is, at its core, difficulty dealing with change: in this case, huge and permanent and global change, that I have only just begun to process. Because like with any other change (big or small), if I try to hide from it in its entirety, I am only setting myself up for failure.

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3 responses »

  1. Interesting post! And very different from my own experience (I started spending a significant amount of time online in the mid-90’s, and it’s very different now.)

    I do think that books are trending more in the direction you’d prefer (given the popularity and convenience of ebooks, printed books are going more in the direction of “if someone’s paying money to have a printed book, it can be an art object.” Books aren’t intrinsically uniform and boring because adults aren’t supposed to like pictures or variety — just look at the Book of Kells. It’s just a lot less expensive and more efficient (ink, paper, labor, etc) to mass produce books that way.

    To add to your own pros and cons list… one of the things I personally find the most valuable about socialization via the Internet is diversity. While I understand the good things about a small, tightly-knit in person community, the dark side of that is that they can get insular and xenophobic, and people who don’t fit in can either assimilate or be miserable. They also are unlikely to encounter anyone who challenges their perspective. (I grew up in a small, fairly conservative area in the South where I did not fit in and was really unhappy. Nobody else I knew in middle school or high school left the area. I don’t know what I would have been like if I’d grown up without the Internet.)

    The downside of that is that it’s so much a part of my life and early development that I doubt I’ll ever really be comfortable with in-person socialization. And that’s kind of a problem. I’m still trying to figure out how much I need in-person socialization to be happy.

    • That’s really interesting….my experience has been the total opposite. I socialize mostly in person because I like diversity, and that’s where I find it, particularly since I travel a lot and have lived in many different places and in this city alone, friend groups can be very diverse with people from all walks of life. On the Internet, since you have access literally to the entire world, there is option (which people often take) to only socialize with niche groups who you have interests in common with. You got your social justice circles, fandom circles, hipster circles, artist circles etc. Offline, out of necessity (since there’s no choice but to just socialize with whoever happens to be around), friend groups are often very diverse in terms of age range, interests, subcultures, and backgrounds. 🙂

      Also yes, I know what you mean about books, and that’s awesome! 🙂

      • I’ve also had a LOT of issues with cyber-bullying, so no, I do NOT feel comfortable doing much (if any) socializing in anonymous web spaces, this blog and Facebook aside. Although, the main reason I’m so comfortable with Facebook is because it ISN’T anonymous, so it basically acts as a virtual extension of my IRL communities and I’ve found, not being anonymous cuts down on some of the troll and cyber-bullying issues that lead me to avoid anonymous web spaces entirely. 😦

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