Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A Quick Word... On Being Yourself Online

Picture Credit: Simone Lovati
I think it's about time to accept that Facebook and Twitter are part of my life now.  While I'm still constantly arguing with myself over how much is too much, and whether they are actually a force for connectedness or instead a delusion that actually leads to deeper isolation, it's pretty hard to ignore that either way I'm probably going to keep using them, and as it seems, so are you.

In my house we're always experimenting with our use of stuff like this - my housemate Jess actually deleted her Facebook for an extended period a couple of weeks ago, and I'm currently trying to limit myself to only an hour a day, so that I don't do the thing that we're all constantly watching ourselves for, and start spending more time discussing my life than actually living it.  I have heard it suggested that our infancy with the internet is comparable to when societies first meet alcohol - at the moment we don't quite know what's good for us, and we're slamming it down in copious amounts without thinking of the effect it might have on our overall wellbeing.  

Jess and I talk about these issues a lot.  In fact, recently she asked me a question that continues to bother me.  She said: "Do you think that the way you are on Facebook is actually the same as you in real life?"

To which the answer can only be no.  There is plenty I hide from the online community, and in general my online persona expresses a far more articulate and intelligent being than I could ever be in an impromptu conversation.  When Twitter asks 'What are you doing?' and when Facebook asks 'What's on your mind?' I'm absolutely conscious that I'm not telling these websites either of these things truthfully. I'm telling them the way I think you'd like to see them, and I'm cherry-picking the funniest bits, the kindest moments, and the deepest insights.  I'm guessing when you post updates on these websites you probably do too.

But aren't these websites to connect us?  What is the point of them if we don't be ourselves?

This week I read an article by Chuck Wendig called 25 Things Writers Should Know About Social Media.  Number 2:

Be The Best Version of Yourself: 
Writers and other creative-types often seem to believe that they need to become someone different online, that they cannot be themselves lest they not find a publisher, not get work, not sell their book, not collect sexy groupies, etc. To that I say, bullshit! And cock-waffle! And piddling piss-wafers! Be yourself. That’s who we want. We just want the best version of you. Scrape the barnacles off. Sit up straight. Smile once in a while. But you can still be you. Uhh, unless “you” just so happen to be some kind of Nazi-sympathizing donkey-molester. In which case, please back slowly away from the social media.
I think this gets at the crux of it, and I think we are better people if we try to use social media to make our lives better instead of bemoaning our sad existence.  A few weeks ago I started putting daily quotes and favourite pictures up on Facebook, inspired by the writer Jonathan Carroll who has inspired me for months with the same practice.  Undoubtedly this will seem a bit affected to some people, but I noticed that as I started to try and reflect a better version of me on Facebook, I also tried to live my day according to the quotes and images I'd put up.  Perfectly? Hell no, but it's a start.

So to answer Jess's question, I don't think there is anything necessarily shameful about trying to be more compassionate, inspiring, and pleasant than we are in reality when we use websites like Facebook and Twitter.  I think some people feel it's false, but in all honesty I admire people who try to behave better online, just as I admire people who try to behave better in life. By spending a little time putting aside all your problems, your vices, and your gnawing insecurities, I think we actually come closer to letting them go in real life.

Facebook and Twitter are communities, and like all communities they are first and foremost places of interaction and involvement with other people.  How we choose to use our influence on the world around us, and interact with the real people who inhabit our lives, is - online or in the real world - perhaps the most important decision any of us will ever make.  So think carefully, and choose wisely.

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