A little ego, a little internet and a season of change

“We all need a break from people who ‘follow’ us online to ensure the appreciation of our full humanity.” – Dr. Crystal Fleming

“It was a metamorphosis. We all change. But we also have some control over the path. We choose our surroundings; we choose where we put our energy.” – Tony Sanchez


There is nothing like a good old-fashioned personal crisis to make one take stock of one’s life and ask, “How the hell did I get here?  Where were my people to tell me I was fucking up? Where were the people who love and care about me to help me navigate this maze of human misery and pain? How come in books and movies, 40-something-year-old women always have a gaggle of close friends who come together to support one another in good and bad times?”

So many questions, so few answers and the ones that did become clear made me ashamed of myself.

I am going through some major life shifts and I have been for quite some time. I have occasionally alluded to such shifts in this space but because this is a public space, it isn’t the place for sharing the details of one’s personal life. Especially after I learned recently that older blog posts have found their way into an upcoming book: New Media in Black Women’s Autobiography: Intrepid Embodiment and Narrative by Tracy Curtis. The older posts that landed in this book are about my family and initially upon discovering that my personal posts served as analysis for another, I admit to feeling a bit pissed off and even violated. Yet the reality of putting oneself out for public consumption is that people will do just that…consume you.

For those who follow me on Twitter, last week I tweeted a bit about what I was facing and while I appreciate all who took the time to reach out to offer support, it was also my “come to Jesus” moment about the state of my life and my people. The sad reality is that increasingly over the years, there are few people in my offline life who are not the result of my online life. Blog readers who I end up meeting with and fellow Twitter users whom I meet. While almost all of these meetings have been fruitful, it rarely allows for an authentic connection. How can we connect authentically when I exist in one dimension for most people? How can we ever become “friends” when it seems that for most I am their go-to person on racism; an expert on otherness? How can I let myself be vulnerable and real when most people whom I meet are eager to show me how un-racist they are?

The reality is that I can’t be real with most people when I have, in essence, become something other than the deeply flawed and raggedy human that I really am. The ego is a strange bedfellow, living inside jockeying for position…and the very nature of today’s world via social media, which increasingly is our world, allows for fertile soil for the ego to play and replicate itself.

After eight years of blogging and years in social media spaces, I have seen far too many people become caricatures of themselves because the need to stay relevant and feed the machine starts to take hold, and I fear that I am on that cusp myself. A place where the near-constant validation of people who really don’t know me allows me to bask in the goodness of a false self. Those are the moments in which you need your people—the people who don’t hesitate to check you with love and gentleness and offer correction and support to keep you from falling into that abyss of the ego machine. People who without hesitation will tell you to mind the gap. I need those people; I need to find them because I don’t want to lose the essence of myself in a quest to become some false version of myself.

To paraphrase Dr. Fleming, better known on Twitter as Alwaystheself, sometimes you really do need a break from the folks who follow you and “like” you to find your humanity alongside the folks who actually know you. We live in strange times, a place where the actions of people we may never break bread with can make us, aid us, break us and even destroy us. Strange times indeed. As for me, I give thanks to my teachers and spiritual guides and the memory of lessons learned that are helping me heal and also allowing me to acknowledge my own limitations. That in this season of my life, it is time to sit in my physical space and lessen my time in digital spaces. My road ahead is rocky as I embark upon a journey with no clear destination and in order to navigate these choppy seas, I need to be fully present in my own life. I have to be intentional about where I put my energy in this season of change.

Real life or not and why I am tired of hearing that we need to unplug!

Several weeks ago, I was on a local panel discussing selfies and the self portrait when one of the panelists stated that they thought social media and online time in general seemed one dimensional. After all, how could connecting with people online possibly compare to the “real” life experience of spending time with people? It isn’t the first time that I have heard such sentiments but it seems that as social media use has become a staple in modern day life, not a month goes by without an article or think piece lamenting the demise of our society and the concerns that people should spend less time online and more time connecting with their “real” life.  In fact, it was this piece a few days ago, that pushed me over the edge!

As someone who fully admits to being a heavy user of social media, I admit that over the years, I have had the occasional moments when I wonder am I online too much? Of course there were the years before social media became ubiquitous where I often had the darndest time explaining my online activities to my non social media using pals in my real life. I even made a joke of it, explaining my online world as my imaginary life complete with my imaginary pals!

Yet the reality is that whether I am online or offline, it’s all part of my very real life. In recent years, my online life and the connections made in online spaces helped fuel not one but two books that I contributed to; had it not been for this very space, it’s highly doubtful I would have ended up as a guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry show some years ago. My online presence and my ability to amplify messages played a factor albeit a small factor in landing my current job.  It is doubtful that considering how small the state of Maine is that I could have shifted my career without social media.

Outside of the professional, there is the personal side of social media as well. I live in a small, insular town where making connections beyond the surface has proven damn near impossible for me. At this point I have accepted the fact that I will always be an outsider here but it is the rich and deep conversations that I have online that keep me going when the very “real” people near me treat me with disdain or keep me at arms length.

My plight is not that unusual, many people are unable to connect in their so-called real lives and yet they can find community online that sustains them. For today’s LGBTQ teens and young adults the internet is shaping their generation and letting them know early on that they are not alone. For many marginalized and disenfranchised folks the internet is a tool of empowerment, especially when mainstream gatekeepers keep certain voices from ever being heard. For all the complaints that so called hashtag activism is empty, there are many activists and organizers who use the internet as yet another tool in their arsenal to work towards change. Hell, sites like Twitter can now break news faster than most mainstream news channels. By the time a story shows up on CNN and MSNBC, chances are that it broke on Twitter first!

It’s only speculation but my unofficial guess is that the vast majority of folks extolling the need to unplug and plug back into our real lives are not marginalized or disenfranchised individuals, in other words they are coming from a place of privilege. It’s a bit easier to unplug when you have a robust network that you didn’t have to build from scratch relying on people who never met you yet trust you and your work. When one lives near family and friends and the relationships are warm and supportive, taking the summer off is a lot easier to do than if a big chunk of your support system can be found on a discussion board, Twitter, Tumblr or some other online community. There are numerous reasons why people look for support online and they are all valid!

Change has always been a part of our world and social media is not the big bad wolf destroying our society that some would have us to believe. Instead we would do better to look at growing economic inequality and a world of work that keeps so many of us plugged into jobs that don’t meet our needs or give us enough time off to renew our spirits. Too many are dependent on jobs where schedules are not set in stone and change weekly never allowing us enough time to get off and connect in our so called real lives.

As for me, whether I am online or offline, I am the same person no matter where you find me. My only rule around my use of social media is to allow myself some time every day to be fully present and alone with myself, that generally takes the form of taking 10-12 hours a day where I am unplugged. Otherwise catch me online!!

 

Change is good and social media isn’t the devil

Despite the fact that social media has become a part of the fabric of our daily lives, I am always amazed at how many people continue to believe that online communications are not quite “real”. Instead they chide people to plug into their “real” lives or assume that online connections diminish “real” life. There was a point in time when even I questioned whether or not my online activities were healthy and would occasionally attempt to unplug so that I could plug into my “real” life. However I have had a change of heart, I am now convinced that online spaces while different than offline spaces are just as valid as online spaces. In fact I wonder why so many of us feel the need to choose between online or offline spaces, both can add value to our lives and both can be problematic and neither one is inherently better than the other, rather they are just continuum’s on the journey called life.

For the past dozen years, social media has been the lifeline that has allowed me to navigate living in a white space as a non white person. In my daily real life where there are few people who I can relate to on a deeper level, connections made over the years via discussion groups in the early 2000’s have given me a safe space where I can be myself.  My online village literally has seen me through my 30’s and now through my 40’s; many of the connections formed online have become trusted friends. I won’t even go into the number of professional connections made through my online village which would be impossible to replicate in a small rural state.

No, after fighting it for years, I recently had to admit that my online world was as important to me as my offline world, equally real and equally valid.

Yet just like in the “real” world, the online world can be problematic if not managed well. If we put in too much time at our jobs and don’t take care of ourselves, things start to feel unbalanced and we get out of sorts. Frankly if we give too much of ourselves to any one area, project, or person without balancing things out, it starts to not be a good look. Thinking back on when the almost 9 year old was a baby, I was out of balance…she was my day and my night, for almost four years, I never slept longer than three hours at a stretch…this is parenthood. I wouldn’t have dared to call her not real but as someone who has also seen another child to adulthood, I know that eventually it all balances out with kids and one day you start to reclaim the balance by making time for yourself. Hell, one day you are eagerly asking them to hang out with you.

Sure,it is possible to spend too much time plugged in but I like to believe that we humans are smarter than the machines, we eventually find our balance. But in a world where think pieces abound on how we are ignoring our kids based off some looky-loo’s 5 minute snapshot into our lives, it’s hard not to constantly question whether we are too dependent on our gadgets. As someone whose schedule allows for a great level of flexibility there are times when I am with my kid, looking into my screen juggling emails but the alternative is that she could be in after school care while I am trapped in my office until quitting time. Instead  I can run an organization and be there for my kid.

This past weekend, I had several exchanges with a few different people in my real life who are not regular users of social media, they admitted that they were amazed at the frequency at which I use social media. It’s always an awkward moment when someone comments on how often I use social media, one that I used to feel embarrassed about but that I now embrace. Yep, I do use XYZ network regularly, as someone who straddles the introverted/extroverted line, social media is the greatest thing since bacon or red velvet cake! I can talk to people when I  feel the need to yap and when I am tired, I can power down without the awkwardness of hoping you get the hint that I am tired without feeling like I am hurting your feelings. My only rule these days around social media use is to allow myself 10-12 hours every day where I am unplugged which is how I balance both sides of my life, similar to how I rarely drink caffeinated coffee after noon time.

Speaking of social media, why all the hate for the selfie? I admit, I was late to the party and since I will be participating on a local panel next month where we will be discussing selfies I won’t say much but let me just say that I love selfies. I never saw a picture of myself that I liked until I started taking pictures of myself. I was reminded of this after looking at a few pictures that were taken of me over the weekend and cringing. Despite what many think, selfies can be very much a tool in the empowerment tool case and not just the visual evidence of a world gone narcissistic.

Change is hard and in a Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter world it can seem that the world has lost its center but without change we don’t grow. So I am embracing the change and even learning to see the beauty within myself at the same time.