Digital selves and real lives

Once upon a time in a world not that long ago, the acquisition and exchange of information was a multi-step process. When I was a wee lass, it often involved a physical trip to the library and meant asking the librarian for guidance, looking things up in the card catalog, trips to the stacks and then physically skimming books. Now we possess handheld devices that can deliver the world to us and we don’t even have to leave the bed. This brave new world has also allowed voices that often didn’t have access to an actual audience to be heard. It’s allowed me, a child of the working class, to create a voice and a following and to integrate my thoughts into my actual work in a way that I never could have imagined as a younger person. Yet increasingly I am aware that there are pitfalls to this brave new digital world that in many ways has become our actual world.

I am not big on podcasts, but there is one podcaster whose work I often listen to and this morning Audacious Kay had a podcast that felt like it was tailor-made to me. I think it’s a worthwhile listen for anyone who uses digital means as a platform to build a brand or to promote their actual work.

Back in 2008, I never could have imagined that one day this blog would have such a huge impact on my actual work. Until late 2013, I tried to keep this space separate from my day work because frankly as a Black woman heading up a faith-based organization in a very white space, talking about race was deeply frowned upon and when the white man signs your paycheck, you do what you have to do in order to stay gainfully employed. It’s what millions before me have had to do to survive and it’s what millions will continue to do to ensure their daily bread.

However in moving to an anti-racism organization, I was free to talk about racism without jeopardizing my livelihood and while that has been incredibly freeing, it has started to take a toll on me because increasingly, I am not Shay Stewart-Bouley, a woman who is Black and who writes and speaks on race. For many, Black Girl in Maine is the whole of my being, and frankly I am so much more than the head of an anti-racism organization and a writer on race. I am a mother, daughter sister, friend and a woman looking to find myself in the second act of my life. As people who work closely with me know, I rarely shy away from allowing myself to be human even in the moments when I need to be in charge. As a manager, sometimes my greatest strength is admitting that I sometimes don’t have the answers and that I even need help.

I recently had to take a medical leave of absence from my day job to address some health issues and there is nothing like being in a state of unwellness to give you clarity about your life and where you are heading. Things that seem important are inconsequential when you are working towards full health. During my convalescence period, social media was my near constant companion, and given that for two weeks, I was physically restricted in my movements, I had a lot of time to really think about how we live our lives in a digital world.

Presidential candidates are now elevated on the strength of their digital selves, a la Donald Trump. Everything that we deem true is only true if we can grab our device and “prove” it. Words are read and shared and rarely do we look behind the words to the people who speak them. People become the sum of these words that have become memes or hashtags. for both good or bad. Overall, though, I cannot help but think that this not a healthy way of being.

Given the emotional weight of this election season, I am sure that most of us are only one degree at best removed from relationships and connections that have been altered based off something someone said or shared online. It used to be that someone actually had to do something egregious to alter a relationship but now declaring our candidate can lead to the end of a connection.

As I struggle with the reality of needing to ensure that me the person is not consumed by the personality that writes this blog, I cannot help thinking that what once promised us growth and freedom has become a tool to control us and limit our human potential. We are  people who are ideally living whole lives and we need to remember that behind the words we read and share online are whole people who at best are only sharing a fraction of themselves via these digital channels that have become our masters.
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2 Comments
  1. April 11, 2016
  2. April 12, 2016