Online interaction used to ease my social anxieties. What happens when it starts to make them worse?
When I checked Facebook this morning, I was greeted with a bunch of balloons and confetti surrounding a giant banner bearing the thumbs-up symbol. “Sarah, your friends have liked your posts 36,000 times!” the text underneath it read. “We’re glad that you’re sharing your life with the people you care about on Facebook. Here’s a look at some photos that your friends have liked.” Then there was a photo of me standing beneath a large, fairly anatomically correct dinosaur statue at a mini-golf course, proudly thrusting my putter skyward in order to draw attention to the plaster dino genitals hovering above my head.
This completely meaningless and arbitrary milestone in my social media career comes at a weird time for me. Not because I think there’s anything particularly hollow or condemning about my eight-figure “like” tally. Most of those likes came out of pretty genuine and earnest interactions on my part and I don’t think they’re indicative of any great ill in my personality or in society. But I’ve found myself increasingly tired by any human interaction online or in person lately, and when I saw that banner my first reaction was “Well, it’s no wonder I’m so tired.”
As someone who spent her formative years as an undiagnosed autistic misfit in a city of 48,000 people who had little to no interest in me or any of the things I enjoyed, I’ve always considered the internet a godsend. Thanks to chat rooms, message boards, and fan sites, I went from being a loner isolated by her atypical interests to being able to form intense, mutually beneficial relationships. While the online universe is often portrayed as a place of artifice where people can manufacture or at least idealize their personas, I found that it was the first place that I could actually be myself — and get something other than disinterest or disdain in return.
I don’t think my experience is unusual, either. For every article and condescending cartoon I’ve seen about the supposed fakeness of online life, I can think of multiple examples of people who have made genuine connections — and genuine change — through the internet. Sure, there are people who only present their best moments, and people who use the relative anonymity as an excuse to be abusive. But it’s not like the offline world doesn’t have its share of posers and jerks. As someone who’s spent a lot of time observing human interaction from the outskirts (like many autistics, I study people and then try to reproduce their behavior in an effort to gain acceptance in social situations), I can’t say that I’ve come across any significant differences in the way that we socialize in the real world versus the virtual one. And I suspect that for anyone who does notice a marked difference, that says more about how sheltered and homogeneous their pre-internet lives were than about the nature of the net.
I like Facebook — and occasionally tolerate Twitter — because I use them as an extension of my “real” life. Social media is enjoyable when I’m feeling well, and useful when I’m not. It’s helped me find people who share my somewhat obscure interests (after two decades of obsessing in solitude over the ’60s spy show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., for example, it only took a couple of tweets to find some fellow weirdos to share it with). The internet has been a way to keep in touch with friends and family and stay up to date on their lives during periods when I’ve had neither the resources nor the energy to properly maintain my relationships with them in the flesh. Some people might think that a “like” is a hollow gesture, or an empty rush that can’t compare with in-person communion, but those simple gestures have been a way for me to let other people know I care or am paying attention when I’m not up to the task of an e-mail or a dreaded phone call. As someone who works from home, it’s sometimes the only source of socialization I get in a day.
Where social media does differ from the meatspace, though, is in terms of volume and speed, and that’s what’s been throwing me off lately. With everything that’s happening in the world, my almost instant access to it — and to the reactions of so many other people — means that I’m constantly taking in more than my head and my heart can process at any given time, and I’m struggling to express myself in any meaningful way in return. My social media presence is relatively sheltered; I ruthlessly maintain a small number of friends on Facebook and have a small number of Twitter followers, and I’m also a white woman, which means that I’m generally subject to less harassment than women of color. But it’s still beyond my current capacity as a person and a writer.
I don’t think social media is the cause of my current troubles. It’s just cranked them to 11. If the virtual world is, as I believe, just the real world coming at you faster and more thoroughly, then my issues with it are simply my day-to-day issues amplified. I like to observe people to get a better idea of how to belong with them, so I obsessively read every tweet and post and comment and link that comes across my feeds in a misguided attempt to understand everyone. I want to be a good person, but I’m so hard on myself that I often end up overwhelming myself with information and external and internal criticism and freezing. I struggle with hyper-empathy, and end up taking in everyone’s emotions in a way that makes me feel like a permeable membrane — or like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s regularly embattled Deanna Troi during a particularly harrowing episode. I’m often too overwhelmed to post anything thoughtful or meaningful in the wake of a tragedy, but I also don’t want to give people the impression that I don’t care about these things. And the “why isn’t everyone posting about ____” posts always seem to hit before I’ve had the chance to process. Social media was, in theory, supposed to be a respite from all of that. But being myself on there also means there’s no escaping myself on there.
I’m pretty sure the solution isn’t just to delete my profiles. The world doesn’t need another writer exploring that old chestnut for material. Besides, I don’t want to cut myself off from all of the brilliant people and valuable opinions that social media has helped expose me to. And it’s not like my problems would vanish if I did that. I’d still be a vicious perfectionist whose all-encompassing desire to do better too often leaves me doing nothing instead; I’d just be a vicious perfectionist who is also bored, lonely, and has no one to share my collection of suggestive Man From U.N.C.L.E. gifs with.
So if my problem is that my online life is just my real life on performance-enhancing drugs, perhaps the steps I need to take to make it more manageable are the same ones I’m already doing (or at least attempting) in the rest of my existence. I don’t stop and talk to every single person I encounter on the street, so why do I force myself to catch up on every single tweet, thread, and comment that I encounter? I’ve reached the point where I feel no shame in telling my friends that I’m not up to going out, so why am I so reluctant to give myself time and space away from the internet? I would never encourage my friends to call me in the middle of the night unless it was an emergency, so why the hell do I think to check my phone when I’m awake at 4 a.m., suddenly concerned that I’ll let someone down if I don’t respond right away?
So I’ll be trying to put my social media use on some semblance of a schedule and limiting the ways in which I can access it. I have an iPad filled with books and videos that I keep free of any apps that involve active participation on my part, because I think it’s helpful for my particular brain to have a device that encourages the consumption of ideas without demanding any output on my part. I’ll try to find other outlets for my procrastination. (I won’t say that I’ll try to curtail my procrastination, because I’m thinking of realistic solutions and that’s not going to happen in this lifetime.) I’ll put even more effort into resisting the incredibly perverse urge to read Facebook comments, because that’s just common sense.
None of these are particularly exciting or groundbreaking suggestions. Setting boundaries and giving yourself time to relax and recover are pretty obvious ideas, even if most of us tend to ignore them far more than we should. I’m starting to realize, though, that I’m going to have to be more serious about them if I want a more rewarding — or, at the very least — more survivable life in all of its forms. Having a platform where I can share a photo of myself posing with a fake dinosaur cloaca and having friends all over the world who will appreciate this ridiculous moment in my life is something worth fighting for. It’s just not something worth breaking myself for.
Sarah Kurchak: Autism, pop culture, MMA, fitness/mental health, and Man From U.N.C.L.E.
This originally appeared on The Establishment. Republished here with permission.