The virtualization of my world began in an unlikely place: summer camp. I had just graduated high school and I was ready to make a positive impact on the campers. During our limited down-time as counselors, we would retreat to a lounge, to talk away from the campers. We loved the kids, but sometimes you want to speak with an adult. I find this amusing now as a new 30-year-old man. Comparatively, we knew nothing of adult life. I found a free moment to create a Facebook account and started adding friends. I began slowly. A few people that I liked from high school and my fellow camp staff. Then I started adding various campers that I had met during my time as a counselor. I have to admit, the learning curve on this last addition was rather steep. As a leader in my Faith, I had to be very careful about my behavior online (and in real life, obviously). Even the slightest suspicion of being anything but “above reproach” was quickly corrected by my Camp Director. The grown-up adults were always watching. I learned quickly that this virtual world was harder to navigate that I had anticipated.
Before I joined the digital social community (rather late, I might add), I had only experienced phone calls and texting. My world was limited to in-person, phone, or hand-written letters. I remember years of calling my camp friends as a young teenager. I had to get permission to use the landline phone, call the friend, remind their parents that I had no ill intentions, and then, maybe, I would speak to my friend. It was a whole experience. I would point out that a lot of these friends were female, and thus guarded behind an extra layer of parental protection. Do you blame them? I certainly didn’t.
I continued to use my phone into my first couple years of college. I did notice the rise of social media, not as a way to communicate, but as a mindset. Behavior Modification for the modern world. What will my next status be? Are they “Facebook Official” yet? We did not trust the words coming from our peers’ mouths. We had to see it publicly posted for all to see. The parts of my college experience that I would rather not review also involve this platform. A person I barely knew wrote a very detailed and very colorful message to me once. Any rational person would describe it as an overreaction to a minor action taken by me. This was my second clue that this communication format may not be cultivating our best selves. It had created a way to yell and scream without the societal pressures of manners. I had made a mistake and deserved a reaction. However, I had trained for in-person interactions. I would have been able to see the expression on this person’s face and understood the hurt that I had caused. It would have created a new layer of empathy. Instead, I held onto this message for far too long, to remind myself, but to also make fun of such a person. Disturbing behavior.
After two years in dorms and summer-camp cabins, I returned to my parents’ house to live. Living on campus was prohibitively expensive and I needed a complete reset. I was physically exhausted from the odd sleeping patterns. I was mentally drained from all the mind games that are involved in being a Resident Assistant. I was spiritually depleted after discovering the selfish goals of an on-campus ministry leader. I was emotionally spent from dealing with toxic friendships and my first girlfriend experience. I needed a rest. Yet, my Facebook profile remained safely intact. It still was my connection with the world. In this stage of life, by pure numbers, I had the most friends and social interactions. Not weak online connections, but active friendships at school and later on, at a local church.
The next few years involved me starting to volunteer with the local Youth Group at the church I was attending. I took what I learned in my early days of social media and was extra careful to avoid any type of contact that would be misinterpreted. These are people’s children, after all. Even with my stoic mindset, I still somehow had someone complain on my behavior. It wasn’t well known, but it still bugs me. Even as volunteers, we were trained how to act around the children/teenagers. We took courses that instructed us how to spot any behavior that seemed less than honorable. Based on my knowledge of the individual, earning the attention of their parents was a challenge. We are all broken. The difference here is that this was all in-person interactions. No mistype of the keyboard. Highly observed in-person experiences, and still, it was not good enough.
In an effort to counter the fears and nightmare scenarios, I became almost distant. All actions had to be initiated by the other person. Regardless of the situation. Regardless of the gender of the person. This altered self was so apparent, people were not sure if I liked human contact (handshakes, hugs, etc.). After years of handshakes and hugs at church, summer camp, school events, and even work, I was cursed by the perception. Even as recently as a few months ago, a new acquaintance made a similar assumption and I had to correct them. If anything, my lack of socially acceptable physical contact has created an imbalance of need in my social life. If a hug is offered, I’m jumping into that! Human physical contact is extremely important and should be cherished. I find it also helps me remember that I need not look into the dark side of the virtual world to find comfort.
When I moved into my own place, I decided to start anew and deleted my Facebook profile forever. Goodbye to all the people that I had not seen or spoken to in years. Goodbye to the strangers sending me odd or mean messages. Goodbye to the baby photos or wedding photos of people I don’t even know. After about a week of withdraw, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I could actually breathe again. This is not to say that all online interactions were cut off, but the site that I been with the longest was gone. In fact, after a year, I actually joined Twitch. I had taken some time to rediscover my hobby of playing computer games. The next step was to add some interaction of people with similar interests. The overall experience I have with Twitch, and now Discord, has been positive. Any negativity was created by others on the platform that were misusing it for their own gain. I have also found that the streamer or the moderators of the channel set the tone of the interactions. When I found that the conversation was consistently leading me off my desired path, I had to let go and leave the channel. This has been very evident in recent days where I have been evaluating which channels to follow.
My next adventure with online exposure was when I jumped into the world of Twitter and Instagram. I created a profile to promote this site and my poetry book, however it became a way to explore the world. I “met” artists, writers, gamers, and scientists. I learned that many people on the internet are negative influences and should not be trusted. I learned that even after blocking over 50 specific words and at least 100 users, I still wasn’t happy with my feed. I had created a space where, even with the best intentions, I could easily fall prey to negative and even sinful thoughts. Was this an over-correction of my previous aloof behavior?
I will make a point here to say that everyone interacts with social media in a different way. I think after much experimentation over the past 12 years, I have found a safe space to have conversations with others around the world without the negative impacts of my previous attempts. I have removed myself from the data mining world of advertising. I can freely think without worrying about how strangers will judge me. I have reaffirmed my personal boundaries to keep myself out of trouble.
Thus, I return to my younger self. I will have long conversations over the phone. I will text my friends that are far away. I will send hand-written cards and letters to those who appreciate them. I will use my extra time to read exciting novels and make new friends by meeting them in real life. Reclaiming the old media types to regain something that I had lost. I also look forward to writing more on this site.
One of the many factors that contributed to this post was the book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff. I am about half-way though now and am excited to finish it. The book goes broader into how the overall culture has shifted in recent years. Mr. Rushkoff also has a TED Talk that explains his concerns well.
What do you think? (Yes, I do care, please comment). How has social media impacted your life? Have you experimented with taking a break and then returning? Did you achieve your goal?