The year was 1998 and I had returned to school to work on my undergraduate degree. It was my second year in when I took a research class that required being online. Let me refresh your memory: In 1998, less than half of U.S. households had personal computers, barely a third of Americans had cell phones, and smartphones didn’t exist. Social media as we know it didn’t exist. Livejournal wasn’t even created until 1999. It was still a fairly analog world.
However, I fell in love with the Internet despite the fact that most of the people in my life were utterly confused by my fascination with it. In a few short years I would become immersed in discussion boards that ranged the gamut from learning how to manage my hair in its natural state to learning about my mother’s cancer and, later, from living with the death of a parent to learning how to parent the second time around.
In my early years in Maine, the Internet allowed me to stay connected with friends and my Blackness. The connections made online in the early 2000s would literally become my life preserver at times; those connections have sustained me through some of the darkest moments of my life. Many of the people I met online in the early days have become lifelong friends and associates.
Given my overall familiarity and comfort with being online, my decision to start blogging in 2008 wasn’t completely out of line. The decision to blog coinciding with my son’s teen years and the rise of social media with the advent of Facebook being made available to the general public and later the rise of Twitter propelled me into the modern-day world of social media.
Initially, Twitter made no sense to me, after all. Why would I talk to myself? However, after a few readers of my local work discovered me online, Twitter changed the trajectory of my life in many ways. My initial connections were primarily with Maine-based people but it later grew. And, as I realized a few days ago, I have been on Twitter eight years now. I have been on Facebook nine years. I also have a few other social media accounts as well but unlike the old days, my feelings about social media have shifted.
It was bound to happen. After all, we have a president who freely tweets on matters that frankly he knows nothing about and often raves about other things he ought not to be wasting valuable presidential time on. Once upon a time, the idea that the leader of the free world might tweet us into World War Three would seem preposterous but that’s no longer a far-fetched concept. The Internet has always had dark corners but lately it seems like the dark corners have become neighborhoods and entire states.
There is no mistaking the power of the Internet and the potential it holds for good; after all, the world has shrunk to a common space. No longer are we beholden to our local media or the cable channels to tell us what’s going on. When tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, the odds are high that someone near to the situation can share with us right away with a few tweets. With smartphones and cameras being a societal norm, many people who thought overt racism was dead have realized that racism is still very much a problem as we have seen with the many of the well-publicized cases in recent years.
However, even these tools can be used for evil as seen a few days ago in the tragic death of Robert Godwin Sr., an elderly man in Cleveland, Ohio, walking home from Easter dinner who was senselessly killed by Stephen Steve, who recorded the killing and uploaded the video to Facebook. In recent months, other violent and horrific acts have been recorded live on Facebook. In almost all of these cases, the videos are viewed and shared countless times before they are finally taken down. We have become psychological rubberneckers feasting on the sorrows of others as a way to mindlessly kill time.
The dark side of the Internet has become personal to me as I have watched an article written online and circulating in racial justice spaces nationally create a great deal of angst for my organization, colleagues, and friends. It most certainly has added to my workload as I have been asked my views on the piece. This isn’t the time or place for my thoughts but as I joked recently, in all my years of running non-profits, I never thought that I would see an article become a point of crisis.
In recent weeks, I have watched people I know ripped apart online by what at times feels like packs of wolves circling the wagon. Just a few nights ago, I found myself being confronted online by someone demanding to know why I would allow space for the Average White Guy to share his thoughts and was referred to as trash for doing so.
The same type of polarization that has crippled this country has infected the Internet too. No longer can we agree to disagree; instead, if we hold opposing views or don’t agree with others, we risk being labeled and disposed of. Increasingly anyone and anything that does not work for us is simply disposed of because with the click of a button, we sic our pack on the offender or we can end our connections sometimes even our familial ties. The ease at which we dispose of people is staggering to me.
Perhaps it is my advancing age, but I am very aware that life and people are far more complex than what we are privy to online. The older I get, the more I realize that there are few absolute truths and that it is possible to hold two opposing truths simultaneously at the same time. Rarely is life truly black and white. Instead much of it is shades of gray. Yet in a world where emails are too much trouble, phone calls are tedious and even a text can feel tiresome to many people, when we rely on these electronic mediums to shape our world and connect, we are risking losing a piece of our own humanity in the process.
I suppose there is a certain rich irony in the fact that a writer whose work grew in prominence due to the Internet is admitting that they have grown to fear the Internet. After all, one misstep can end a career or a relationship and occasionally even a life. I know there is a lot of good work still happening in these digital spaces, especially in activism spaces but for this old-head, increasingly I wonder if I am getting closer to the end of the line. I am just a simple woman, writing simple truths and sharing my musings with the world while grappling with the realities and complexities of life.
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