The Internet as a Mirror: How Our Online Lives Reflect and Refine Us
Our largest, most comprehensive time capsule--the internet--enshrines every dog gif and over-sharing incident as a unique relic of human existence. Eventually, we peek back into this abyss and often find that it unmasks more pink cheeks than poignancy. When we encounter these remnants of our past and cringe, does the discomfort come from a painful truth in this reflection, or a perceived distortion of what we believe ourselves to be?
I imagine the way we whiz in and out of different online worlds like walking through a Hall of Mirrors, dizzy from a rush of cotton candy and corkscrew coasters. Some reflections are so absurd you may laugh out loud, but others are much more subtle. In your carnival-confounded state, at times you might as well not be looking into a crazy mirror at all, but standing in front of your bathroom sink, plain and crusty-eyed.
The nature of our zeitgeist lies within contradictions: between realities and perceptions, between depth and superficiality, between distance and proximity, and even somewhere between a wholesome dog meme and an errant morsel of depravity squirming out from a 4chan thread (that’s still a thing, right?).
Unsurprisingly, this is a complex social world to navigate, and has become so quickly fixed within society that disengaging is not a simple option. After all, who doesn’t have a Facebook? (You, if you don’t want one. Even if other people make you feel like you do. Really. You’re not missing much. Auntie Coral shared another racist political statement, and someone posted a photo at the beach. That’s about it. I promise.)
Youth is a particularly tenuous time to cultivate an online presence, to explore representations, and to exist among the first generation discovering a new set of social cues specific to online interaction. There is pressure to interact in a public setting, yet with an indirect manner. There is an insistence that online presence is a personal, self-serving documentation of your own life, but even the most secure people rely on the response of others to shape what they choose to express.
It takes growth to eventually—hopefully—find a genuineness amongst virtuality, and a balance where internet interaction complements but does not commandeer real life. Our use of the internet often reflects where we are in this process. It has shared our awkward adolescence, and helped to teach us the uncomfortable truths that we so enjoyed during those years. Here are some of the key phases I experienced, straight through the looking glass that is my dusty old webcam:
Chat Messenger Services: politics in the virtual playground
AIM? AOL? MSN? Pick your playground of the past!
The private conversations that occurred on a platform like MSN seemed to take a backseat to how you publicly represented yourself to your chat list. The perfect username and away/busy message was a socially constructed pressure point, not merely a place to write your name and move on with your day. A cheerful screen name often included a roll call of loyal best friends – with “can I put you in my username?” suddenly becoming a common topic of chat. Angst was another edgy expression of self, but only the right kind of angst in the right kind of way. The inclusion of backhanded insults in screen names, or moody song lyrics, was a way in which you could elicit a degree of turmoil and emotional depth without the need to elaborate or directly face an issue, a person, or a stimulus. This was a way teens and pre-teens could imply their edge with little commitment or consequence.
Chat Messenger was, for many of us, one of the first introductions to the Dos and Don’ts of presenting yourself online, and was quite a different landscape to how you were expected to do this in real life. In some ways, it welcomed more opportunities to explore emotional variety, but still with strict socially-cultivated constraints on which emotions should be publicly expressed, and how.
Chain Mail: well, if the internet says so…
Most twelve year olds, now or a decade ago, would logically understand that spamming someone with an arbitrary email could not wield such a cosmic impact that the stars would align and their crush would kiss them on Friday. They also wouldn’t necessarily believe that a killer clown would appear at the end of their bed at midnight, even if the story written before this claim was particularly spooky.
But the internet is a powerful tool, and doubt is a powerful emotion.
Online communication faces children with their own vulnerability as they experience distortions between fact and fiction, or safety and danger, through the supermassive lens of cyberspace. Despite prevailing “real world” logic, the virtual world follows different laws of nature and can easily play on the tendency for superstition and paranoia. The internet comes with a steep learning curve for every novice user, who must reconcile their expectation of integrity and truth with a reality in which the virtual community is as varied in personalities as the real one.
Be thankful for chain letters. It is far better to gain wisdom from a mistake that simply involved sending a silly email along to some other kids, rather than finding your dad’s credit card details so you can help a down-on-her-luck Nigerian princess. It is a lesson that needs to be learnt, and not being kissed by a crush is a relatively innocuous way to learn it. And be thankful that clown never appeared either.
Premium upgrades: real cash for internet cachet
How is your Farmville property looking these days? Are phone-grown tomatoes tastier than those hydroponic ones from the supermarket? (If you can answer these questions, message me, please.) To monetize a virtual experience ascribes value to an online achievement or product, despite whether this actual serves consumers’ interests or merely preys upon their ego. As the internet has become a crux of addiction in many people’s lives, the distinction between an online life and a real world life is blurred.
Though I personally never spent money on upgrades or privileges within an otherwise free game, I was won over in envy of people with flourishing, fake, fake farms. During youth, I did not look at this for what it was: expenditure of real money on a virtual trophy. While people can spend their money how they wish, services like Farmville offered little gameplay, and were inherently based on comparison to others’ farms as a source of enjoyment and allure.
Re-blog, Re-tweet: re-re-repeat!
People have great reach, and can obtain enormous popularity through the internet. But it’s also okay if they don’t. There are huge positives to the sharing culture of the internet – the spread of enjoyment, knowledge and activism. However, the celebration of viral posts or popular opinions can encourage users to share well-established content, but not offer their own. Mistakes and embarrassments can go viral too, and this can manifest as pressure to not make mistakes. And a sure-fire way to not make mistake is to not create anything at all.
Rather than using your blog to find your own voice, you might have found yourself using it only to amplify the words of others’. Someone on Twitter yells into the void, and you like what they say, so you yell it again louder (see: “re-tweet”). But are you okay to yell out on your own, even if no one echoes you back?
Ultimately, internet use and experiences serve us in a way that is heavily context based, given our age, our social needs, and our prevailing insecurities. We reveal something—but not everything—of ourselves in how we engage with our virtual worlds of choice. The internet offers a new set of social learning, additional to that which is encompassed by real life contact.
Our online lives are a choice, and we are free to disengage with communities that may no longer be serving our emotional well-being or demonstrating a desired level of social etiquette. While my youthful attempt at Twitter left me sharing all voices but my own, for some people it is merely a fun, effective means of connection. Healthy use of social media is that which is controlled by the individual, and not where the individual feels threatened or stifled by the pressures of their online world. One person’s most hated site may be another’s favourite source of communication.
The awkward phases of the past are important in leading us to an understanding of why we socialize this way, and how we can choose which parts of the internet reasonably enrich our lives. We have all been embarrassing online, and someone out there would still consider us to be so. But in the end, it's totally fine that there's a picture of you with badly dyed hair at aged fifteen posted somewhere on a My Chemical Romance message board. You learned something while you were there. It helped you become.