Back in 1997-98, I decided to go back to school and in one of my first classes we were informed that we would need access to the internet as part of the class. I had only the vaguest notion of the internet at that time. In my mind it was a mysterious thing, a thing that my ex-husband would stay up all night dabbling with, a thing that made strange noises and had codes that were undecipherable to my non-tech mind. Needless to say, the idea that my grade hinged on getting access to this strange thing…place, was a bit unnerving. However I bought my first desktop computer, signed up for AOL and the rest is as they say is history.
In my early days online, social media as a concept was not part of the larger culture. Early on, I had tapped into a community of Black women who like me were interested in wearing our hair in its natural state. The early conversations were about hair but over time, conversations grew and broadened, and a real community formed. Back then to casually mention that you spent time online “talking” to people who you didn’t always know in the “real” world was to subject oneself to raised eyebrows in some circles. I rarely shared my online happenings with offline friends, though over time many of the women who I had met online became actual friends. In the winter of 2003 as my mother’s life was winding down, unbeknownst to any of us at that time, I ended up documenting my mother’s last months with my online friends in a way that I rarely did with my so called “real” friends. As the first in my peer group to lose a parent in my early 30’s, people rarely knew how to relate to me but the format of the old discussion boards allowed me to grieve in a way where being vulnerable was okay. Six months after my mother’s death, I found myself pregnant at the same time that several of my online friends were pregnant. We all gave birth within an 8 week period to what we now call the 2005 babies. It was a strange time, to receive so much love and support from people some whom I had never laid eyes on but things change.
To live is to accept that change is inevitable; online chats with people we may not “know” is no longer viewed as strange. Millionaires have been created based off of people connecting with people who they may or may not know face-to-face. Gone are the days of exchanging numbers with people we hardly know in hopes of getting to know them better. Instead we look each other up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Ello and whatever forms of social media are out there. We “like” each other, we “follow” each other but more and more I find myself wondering do we know each other?
In a world where busy is boss, it’s increasingly harder to actually spend time with people that doesn’t involve a complicated dance of schedules. Despite the fact that the majority of us are walking around with mobile devices in our bags and pockets, we dare not call each other up because as we all know, phone calls are annoying. Instead we commit to texting because we can control how and when we connect with others. Send me a text today, I will text you back at a time that works for me. For most of us, our lives are filtered through the lens of social media where we play the roles that Mark Zuckerberg has created for us and we show our best selves. After all, it’s tacky to put our private business out for all to see, or at least that’s the line we tell ourselves.
The problem is that sometimes no one knows who we really are. I found myself confronting this issue recently when I admitted honestly to a friend that my marriage is still floundering and she questioned me on the photos that I show online, the casual upbeat banter that people see between my husband and I online…was it all a lie? No, it’s not a lie but…
I paused and thought about my other married pals, almost all my pals who have been married as long as the man and I are in that same strange place of what happens when you have been with the same person for almost 20 years. A place where the flame still burns but it sputters and comes close to dying out, a place where the dreams and hopes of years earlier have given away to the realities of midlife and living. It’s not a hopeless place but it is a place that is rarely depicted anywhere in popular culture. It most certainly isn’t depicted in social media, where couples show off their tasteful homes, fun getaways and adorable kids.
Lately I have found myself thinking a lot about the ways in which authenticity and honesty in digital spaces can be tricky. What we share and say online no longer exists in a void; jobs have been lost, relationships destroyed. This past year, I have personally felt a lot more vulnerable knowing that my employees, board members and donors occasionally browse in this space. As the boundaries break down in our society and we connect both online and offline and our ways of connecting shift the pressure to always be on and presenting our best self grows. The problem though is that people are complex and in having our best self, we also have a less than best self yet is there support for those less than best moments? In a culture where we are being branded and commodified to show our best selves, the truth is that too many of us have little in the way of authentic support and as I have personally learned, it’s not healthy. I can’t speak for anyone else but I need people to do more than like my happy moments and send emoticons. I need hugs, I need words, I need a smile, sometimes I need support. So in 2015, I am striving to be more authentic in every moment of my life even if it looks and feels a little messy and uncomfortable.