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Being a human on the Internet (and discovering my non-throttleable self)

5 min read

I just spent a couple of weeks back in the UK, partially to talk to universities and organizations about using Known, but mostly to reconnect with old, dearly-missed friends who I haven't seen in a few years. The two and a half years since I'd last been there is the longest single period in my life when I haven't visited another country, and I felt it. America is isolating: because it's so far away from anywhere else, getting out is hard, and expensive.

I'd worried that after so much time (I've lived in the US for three and a half years now), my friends would have moved on and it would be a lonely, stark trip. I needn't have: on day one, on two hours of sleep and groggy with jet lag, I sat in a crowded pub with people I'd grown up with, as if almost no time at all had passed. Yes, my friends have moved on - I attended a wedding while I was there; others have had children - but I could still be a part of their lives.

Someone who's opinion matters a lot to me, and who knows me better than almost everyone, said that they kind of wanted to throttle my social media persona. It felt like a marketing campaign, and it so clearly wasn't me.

It was a kind of offhand comment, but social media is the way I stay in contact with a lot of my friends, so it stuck. I've been trying to drum up interest in Known, for sure, but beyond that I hadn't realized that I was fronting a persona. I don't have a social media strategy: I just share what I find interesting, and sometimes (like when I've posted links about police racism) lose lots of followers in the process. How is that not me? Have I changed since I've been here?

I've been thinking a lot about the contrasts. One contrast between American and European culture I've been thinking about a lot since my trip is how people define and contextualize themselves. The US celebrates individualism: the ability for a single person to realize their potential and achieve what they set their mind to. It's a lie, of course, because everyone sits in the context of society, and all of us depend on the social commons in order to survive. There is no such thing as strictly individual achievement: we are all connected. The lie helps individuals capture value from society without having to give back.

But this is a gross generalization: the US is one of the most compassionate places I've ever lived. My family is spread across the north-east, as well as here in California, and they are some of the most generous, community-minded people I've ever met. I'm proud to be descended from union leaders and artists: good people. Most people here are not libertarians or religious zealots, despite what you read and see on TV. Media is a funhouse mirror that amplifies the already-amplified. It distorts reality.

What is more true is that this is a more consumerist culture. People seem to be much more willing to define themselves by what they buy, the car they drive, and so on. I'd argue that this is more of a function of wealth and fashion than self: there's no reason in the world why driving a Mini Cooper should make you feel good about yourself. What really fundamentally matters in a person is their kindness, their intelligence, their empathy and what they do that positively affects other people. Whether they have a Ford or a Toyota, or an iPhone or an Android phone, is arbitrary. Using our consumer choices as value judgments only makes sense if we are trying to promote ourselves.

So maybe that's the seed of the problem. A social media account, by its nature, is one person sending out a signal - and the easiest way to do that is to share links that you find interesting. While that's fine, and sometimes really useful, it's not you: it's a reflection of a persona that you are publishing. You have no sense from my posts about open source and data ownership that I like to draw comics, or that I admire emotional vulnerability, or that I think traditional social norms are stifling. In a way, it absolutely is a marketing campaign: social media, as typically used, is a game where you compete for attention.

But yet. Just as it would be unfair to suggest that most people in America believe in the individual at the expense of community, I don't think it's right to say that everyone on social media is motivated to promote themselves. We want to make friends; we want to find love; we want to learn from each others' experiences. We crave real, deep, human connections that have nothing to do with our professional development or selling our wares. (Maybe it's just me, but I doubt it.) We want to share our feelings, our desires, the things that make us people, and not to get a "like" or to build followers or to make a buck, but to be alive.

I don't know what it means to be more "me" on the Internet, but I do know that all relationships take work. Cheap sharing is never going to lead to deep connections. While the software and devices we use to share can be designed to help us, the real effort has to come from us. We need to stop self-censoring; we need to stop asking what kinds of content our networks want to read. Magazines and news networks don't suffer heartbreak, or hold hands in the sunset, or laugh around the kitchen table. We are not those things.

I use the Internet to reach out to far-away people who mean so much to me. I hope they see some of me in the reflection.