Wherever humans go, there we are. We talk a lot about how online has changed us, fractured our attention spans, made us more vicious, more judgmental, (more connected? hmmmm), more more more everything, but it’s that “more more more” that’s the key. I do think we are changing but there’s nothing fundamentally new about how we behave as internet dwellers. It’s just more intense, because we have the tools to make it so.
Specifically, what I have been thinking about lately is the extent to which people can insist that you have a conversation with them, often right now, and that this is largely considered an acceptable way to behave. Until very recently, if you wanted to communicate with someone, you basically had three choices: you could call them, you could go them in person, or you could write them a letter. This created its own sort of healthy distance, in which it took some time and effort to contact another person. People still got harassed–“hate mail” was a thing before email existed and some people used to have to get their phone numbers unlisted–but the scope and scale was different.
Now it seems there’s no end to the many ways you can badger somebody: text email and a million zillion social media platforms. We have all had the experience of the unwanted interlocutor trying to insist we converse with them, either publicly or privately, through some strange sense that everyone who wants a conversation about a thing with someone else is in fact owed that conversation. It can happen between two people who know one another well over personal issues–family dysfunction, relationships shattering–same as it ever was. But today a conversation is seen as especially owed it if it is considered to be a topic with which many people are at any given moment consumed, and it is one in which there are exactly two sides: a good one or a bad one, and it is important to sort you into one bin or the other.
Before we had texting emailing and all the platforms, anyone who used the telephone, or in-person contact, or letters in the same way would have been considered, frankly, crazy. A stalker. Imagine someone ringing your doorbell over and over at all hours of the day and night insisting you engage with them on some random point of politics or morality or philosophy, or turning up at your workplace and demanding an audience. Imagine the repeated phone calls or the deluge of letters, four or seven or ten a day all making the same demands or containing similar insults. It would be madness. It would be very clear that the person or people doing this thing were unhinged, had lost all sense of proportion and of the social contract. (This is without even touching on the weirdness of online communication: the 0-to-60 rush to rage; the sneering and dunking instead of actually exchanging ideas; the deliberate misconstruing and worst-possible-faith interpretations; the posturing for likes and retweets.)
Of course, if that was all there was to it, it would usually end fairly quickly, unpleasant though it might be while it was happening: there is always a new target. The thing is, the online environment creates an absolutely bonkers sense of immediacy and urgency, and those on the receiving end, understandably, often panic. If everyone thinks they must have this conversation and have it right now, then surely they must! Why, what will everyone think if they don’t? Everyone will think the worst. And if everyone thinks the worst, well, we know what happens next.
But you don’t have to. You don’t owe anyone anything: a conversation, an opinion, a reply to a question, information about your private life and thoughts and beliefs and experiences and actions. You are not in an episode of The Good Place or the 1990s Albert Brooks/Meryl Streep comedy Defending Your Life; you are not on trial today or any day to determine where you fall on the scale of Good Personhood and whether you will be chucked into heaven or hell as a result. (And anyway, the whole thing is really more akin to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a question of chance: who’s going to be unlucky enough to draw the slip of paper with the black spot on it today?)
The other problem with this dynamic is that it keeps you mired in other people’s worldviews and preoccupations. Should I keep an eye on Twitter, I asked a wise friend. You know, just to keep up . . . Keep up with what? I have no idea. And my wise friend pointed out that doing that means you risk falling into a trap of thinking only in opposition to things, when maybe you want to think about other things entirely: maybe instead you could spend that time thinking about the most efficient approach to planting an organic garden, or what happened to Rome’s Ninth Legion or how you might refinish an old piece of furniture or the films of Maya Deren or what it might have been like to stroll through the ancient Nigerian city of Kano in the 11th century or how to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine without dying of the heat or getting snowed in or even what the real flesh and blood people in your life–the ones who actually love you, not the ones you’re trying to impress–might need from you, or if you don’t like people very much, the animals or the trees or your beloved river or creek or bay.
I should shutter this blog; I should hide my email address; I should never look at another social media platform again. The greater my craving to engage with the tactile world, the greater my longing to build more and more barriers between this online digital world and me.
That Mary Oliver line from her poem “The Summer Day” is practically a cliche because it’s true: Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life? For myself, though, I think it’s the previous line that has more resonance: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?