Thursday, May 1, 2008

dear internet

I've been on a self-imposed sort of blog hiatus recently. I've been meeting some new people and spending a little time with old friends and family. And I've been thinking a lot about the people behind the blogs.

In The Phantom Tollbooth there is a character named the Dodecahedron. A dodecahedron is a three-dimensional shape with twelve pentagonal faces. And the Dodecahedron has twelve faces, each with a different emotion. I sometimes think of people as various polyhedra, with many different faces.

The weird thing about this culture on the internet is it makes it possible for us to conveniently show only the faces we choose to show. Usually we like to show the happy face, or the pleased face, or the proud face. And after a while we end up with these constructions of people that aren't really people. Just a few faces.

Blogs and social networking have been presenting me with the same few themes, with some exceptions. Themes somewhat like these:
-Here Is My Expertly Photographed Family and All of My Good Parenting Decisions at Work!
-I Heard About This New Thing/Method/Tip/Or Maybe Totally Meaningless Information First.
-Let's All Talk About What Good People We Are!
-I Will Admit I'm Flawed, But In A Funny Way!

I don't mean to sound disparaging. I enjoy participating when it comes to subjects like these, no doubt. But sometimes I wonder about the real people, the real stories. What's your first memory? What was the worst fight you had with your spouse/partner? What would you consider the low point in your relationship with your parents? When was the last time you cried? What have you done that really made you wonder if you were a bad parent?

If you answer these types of questions in list form, it's called a meme and it's considered an act of self-pity. But hardly anyone likes to discuss these things at length or with any degree of sincerity. If we show our less impressive faces, we have to use some sort of defense mechanism (sarcasm, irony, "snarkiness"). Maybe because we're afraid of marring our spotless self-constructed internet images.

I understand that there's a line between public and private life, and it's up to each of us to determine what that means to us. But it's strange that "public" usually automatically means what we consider the best sides.

My friend has two beautiful and creative children, and up until somewhat recently, was half of one of the coolest couples I knew. Her world turned upside-down when she and her husband split up. But she kept blogging. She kept being sincere and sharing what she felt comfortable sharing. I think that's admirable.

The author of one of the funniest "parenting blogs" around, Finslippy, recently chose to share with her hundreds (thousands?) of readers that she had suffered a miscarriage.

Breakups happen. I know; if nothing else, we stepparents wouldn't be around if it weren't for breakups. Miscarriages happen. Grief happens. People are vulnerable. We get sad. We make mistakes. We aren't perfect.

I'm not saying the blogosphere should be one big therapy session. But personally, I find a little sincerity refreshing. It's nice to hear someone is going through what you might be going through, or what you've already been through.

I haven't noticed a unity of opposites in our culture. We want the best, the greatest, the happiest and the most perfect. Maybe we should try to accept more of a balance, an equilibrium.

I'm thinking about how I might approach this in the future. For now, a struggle and a pleasure...

I have suffered from mental illnesses for the past decade, or maybe longer--Major Depressive Disorder, which I at least know runs in my family, and ADHD, the origins of which I'm less sure. I have done badly in school despite being quite intelligent, and sometimes I have struggled to be a productive adult. My mental health has been the single greatest burden I have carried in my life.

Today I turned twenty-six. I watched ants crawl around the sticky buds of a peony, I planted lettuce, and shared a wonderful dinner with someone who loves me. Tomorrow we are getting on the train to go to Vermont. I'm really looking forward to it.

That's the truth.


Howling Hill said...

Wonderful post, Maria.

Originally I started blogging to release the rage which has sat in my chest for, well, ever. And while it's been cathartic, it's also bitten me in the butt with other bloggers feeling they can insult my belief system.

I hope you have a happy birthday and a great time in VT.

Allie said...

Happy Birthday!

What a great post!

I've been struggling with my ADD lately, and it actually really helped to hear that I'm not the only one who deals with this as an adult. Thank you.

Erikka said...

Hey there small red house.

I found you through howling hill.

this is a very provocative piece. one which touches upon ideas and feelings I've been thinking of lately too.

public vs. private

online community vs. community

people vs. virtual people

there is something a bit old fashioned in me that hangs on to the idea that community means a group of people living and working together, helping each other survive. for some, community has evolved to include this online function of "social networking" because our world is so technological and we can all be connected so easily. but to me...this online community has become stronger than...REAL community. it encourages people not to TALK to other real people. not to pick up a phone and CALL someone. i remember a time when a phone call was deemed impersonal, do you? now look at our world, communicating online, via text messaging, and so clearly disconnected from real people.

to me, most interesting, was how you started this post - i have been on a blog hiatus, visiting with friends and family. that to me is what life is about. to me, those are the people and times I would feel so happy and comfortable sharing my stories, answering those questions you listed.

blogging and online communities actually detract from face to face personal connections. i hate to dismiss the importance of these virtual connections people make, i too have felt their support and strength at times, but i feel people are substituting the easy, impersonal online connection for something truly more real, deep and meaningful.

because of this, because we can shut the computer off at any time, answer an email when we feel like it, or blog about whatever we choose, a polyhedrid creature is birthed.

not only do people need to strive to balance pretending everything is fine and dandy with the lows and struggles, i think we need to learn how to balance our addictions to technology and an online world as a safety net.

i say this as one who is only now realizing how much I have substituted online interactions with people i know in my every day life to the real thing - to seeing them, spending time with them, or even just calling to hear their voice. recently i signed off of some online networks because of this...i do not want to be tied to a computer...or have a computer be the only thing uniting me and a friend who lives an hour away that I could see. I'm done with that.

phew. off the soap box now.

thanks though, for inspiring some thought and passion in my morning. i'm going to need to post about this myself soon.

Mama Monster said...

Happy Happy (belated) Birthday.I've been thinking about the blogging thing a lot recently too. I think it will come together in a post soon. I appreciate your thoughts on it.
Hope we can get together soon.

Kan said...

Happy Birthday!
Thank you for this post. The line between public and private life seems to be ever-shifting. More on all this on my blog at some point.

maria said...

allie: adult ADD women unite! and then get distracted *stares out the window for 5 minutes*

erikka: i don't necessarily think that online community and real community are mutually exclusive, but i do agree that it's possible to get carried away.
i think we need to learn how to balance our addictions to technology and an online world as a safety net.
i agree. i think what mostly bothers me is that the internet is this place where you can be whoever you want, and to a certain extent it makes you stop being human. it can work in the opposite direction, too--sometimes people feel comfortable saying things online that they might not be able to articulate in real life.

some folks draw the line between so-called "personal" blogs and "informative" blogs. ours is kind of a mix of both--for me it would be difficult to do just one or the other. even in the informative blogs i enjoy a glimpse of humanity now and then.

what i didn't discuss too much is the idea of blogging becoming a kind of "journalism"--indeed, almost all the major newspapers have blogs. but any schmuck with a computer can set up a blog, post about some other stuff he's read, and think himself a journalist/editor, especially if he's got a decent-looking layout and a decent-enough writing style.

jacob and i were talking about this recently and he preferred to compare this type of "people's blogging" to pamphleteering, not journalism. in our culture that's sort of obsessed with the "expert" opinion, and here, if you play your cards right you can hold yourself out as an expert. i think that has the potential to be really empowering (in terms of self-education) or really disingenuous.

anyway (i kind of have a lot to say about this; whoops), i also think a lot about the concept of "people vs. virtual people". i read a journal article for a paper i wrote last year that discussed the concept of "hyperfriends"--friends in the context of internet hyperreality. the authors made the interesting point that in online contexts, the word "friend" no longer has a fixed signified; i.e., it has essentially lost its rather simple previously-accepted meaning and now means whatever people take it to mean.

anyway, blah blah blah. personal interaction is suffering in our culture in general, and i wonder if it's just the internet's fault or something greater. i think that will be a whole other post at some point.

Erikka said...

can you point me in the direction of that paper about online friends? sounds great.

i see your point more clearly about the self proclaimed expert and journalist and the disingenuous blogging roles. one more thing to think about in why the internet is a complicated place.

this has been a great discussion and i look forward to the future posts you alluded to...

maria said...

erikka: it's called "Hyperfriendship and Beyond: Friendship and Social Norms on LiveJournal." (that's a PDF file). the article deals specifically with livejournal (which is a combination blogging/social networking site) but the concepts can be applied more generally.