A like, a retweet, a share, a comment.
A wave, a smile, a hug, small talk.
Is there really much difference?
And before you jump straight into the “YES, of course!” pool, let me ask you this: when you receive a like on Instagram, do you feel a giddy rush? What about an excitable urgency to check who it is and what picture they’ve liked? When you’re in a conversation thread on Twitter, do you have a tingling pressure to keep the momentum flowing? An awkward silence is an awkward silence, after all. How about when you are borderline stalking; or #life4like conversing; or chatting to someone via private message or email; or even reading/looking/hearing the work of another person, do you sense a connection? Have you ever felt close to someone without ever being physically close to them?
(If you answered every question with a no, them I permit you to jump.)
The truth is, I have felt a closer connection to some people with whom I have never waved at, shared a smile or a hug or engaged in small talk with, than with those I have. This doesn’t eradicate the connections and relationships I have with people — flesh-to-flesh, face-to-face, eye-contact style. I need them. Like most human beings do, I need the warmth of another person’s skin and the rhythm of their voice and song of their laughter. However, I have learned that I can attain a different and equally invaluable connection and relationship with people online — profile-to-profile, like-to-like, screen-contact style. And these connections are just as real.
The dichotomy of online versus offline or ‘IRL’ (in real life), and its correlation to the Self, is still rocky territory. As, to assume online as the antithesis to ‘real life’ is to render it as not ‘real’ or as ‘reality’. Assuming this, the Self is then, also, suggested to be only truly ‘real’ when offline. And I, for one, consider this problematic. Am I then a false identity online? No, of course not. The person I am online is a part of me, the emotions I express and feel from others online are part of me. ‘Me’ online is still ‘me’ in real time. It is my head, heart and thoughts translated into the digital world, a part of it, not separate.
This argument is something I often have to explain to my parents. “You live on your phone!”. “What could you be doing on there?”. “You don’t have that many friends to be texting all the time”. These are just a few lines my dad has said to me when he considers my phone usage too high, or when he is suspicious. I usually just throw him an eye roll and say something like “you don’t understand”. Of course, I am kidding — mostly. Just like he is kidding — mostly.
When I think about it though, he doesn’t understand — not fully. Truthfully, unless you partake in this personal and emotional giving and receiving transaction, this digital exchange of feels and therapy between strangers, then the obsessive need to remain connected is difficult to fully comprehend. I used to be in this position; I would observe the relationships people had over social media with admiration but also confusion. I could not fully grasp whether they were really friends or really knew one another, and by ‘really’ I mean face-to-face. (There’s that rocky territory again.) Had these people met? Had they talked on the phone? If they hadn’t, did it even matter?
I learned incredibly quickly, that matter, it did not.
In July 2015, I interviewed American writer and artist, Fiona Duncan, about her saga of essays titled “Generation Anxiety”. I remember reading them and being completely sucked in. I remember my pupils dilating, absorbing each word. I remember my chest swelling as a gap formed deep inside, shifting everything forward, and upward into my throat. During our interview, the same thing happened. How could a person I have never met be able expose the darkest parts of me? How did, how could, they know?
Now, this question seems inane. Of course, these feelings were not mine she was detailing, but her own. And yet they were mine, and hers, alike; and they belonged to so many others. How could I have been so arrogant to think I was the only one? Until this moment I had become complacent with not talking about myself and my vulnerabilities and my mental health to other people. I knew other people suffered from the same feelings I did, but I had gone so long in my own head and only listening to my own thoughts, or the ones of fictional characters in books and films, that I became isolated. It wasn’t arrogance but unrealised confinement.
I read Fiona’s writing — her thoughts, feelings, self-reflections — and the words hit me. Hard. They brought me up and sent me crashing down. An intense connection was formed. A unified understanding, so to speak. I experienced an epiphany and self-affirmation, all at once and through another person. A person who lived many thousands of miles away, and existed to me through a screen. It sent shockwaves through my heart.
Fiona’s writing was the mirror I had been avoiding. And now, I could see everything, the beautiful and the ugly. I could ignore it no longer. Although, I wasn’t sure where to go next. I wasn’t ready to approach my friends or family. I was afraid to expose these parts of myself to them. Rejection and misunderstanding is and was the last thing I needed. It wasn’t worth the risk. My family could have thought I had re-lapsed and I was back at square one. Square one being a highly hormonal, angry, misunderstood, hurt, depressed, and confused teenager. Learning to disguise these parts of myself had destroyed me as much as it had saved me; but without realising, these parts had been eating away at me. Like a bacteria, from the inside out.
I couldn’t risk that again. So, I turned to the internet, and then to my journal. I explored and opened doors I didn’t know existed.
Instead of having many conversations with people I know personally, over the past year I have had one long, layered and revealing conversation with myself. My ‘irl’ friends have helped without knowing, but I was in control the whole time. I knew how much and how little they could help, and in what way. My digital friends, though, have completely guided me through it. Like in an old television show or a weather report, where they hold up prompt cards. My digital friends have reminded me to laugh, to cry, to be silent and to applaud myself.
I have found every part of myself. In the form of strangers, human beings who live across oceans or a bus ride away. Through the words, art, photographs, poetry, self-therapy, conversation, support, love, care, and the humanity and humility that exists online, I discovered parts of myself, large and small. I was shattered and then scattered; but I slowly pieced myself back together.
I still am.
words by MOLLIE PYNE