on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

social media & my existential loneliness

Last month I wrote about quitting facebook for a month as an experiment to examine my relationship with it. More than a month has gone by in a wink, and the fact that I didn’t actually notice it was the outcome of that experiment.

I had been reluctant to stop using facebook. Facebook has a different social graph than twitter for me. I move a lot – countries, jobs, circumstances – without facebook I wouldn’t be able to feel like I have a stable community around me. I am very introverted and was afraid to express myself in person, so I needed facebook to air my thoughts and feelings. During times of personal crises I had relied on facebook to garner support. I relied on its lists feature to write private, dark, painful thoughts to my closer circle of friends.

I don’t really consider myself lonely in a conventional sense. I am not afraid to be alone, travel alone, dine alone, go to the movies alone. I don’t feel like I need people to be physically around me, in fact I don’t actually enjoy hanging out with people that often. I like being alone, and now that I have a partner who lives with me, I don’t have much extroverted energy left for other people.

But I like being connected to people virtually. The asynchronous format gives me the space to interact with people’s thoughts at my own time, space and pace. I don’t seek out people to hang out with but I like knowing that like-minded people exists. I appreciate being able to witness how other people navigate their lives.

What I really wanted and needed, was resonance. Most of the time I feel like an alien, so there is a painful sense of chronic loneliness. It is not a loneliness that is soothed by people’s company but the discovery that I am not alone in feeling a certain way or experiencing something. It is an existential loneliness.

Facebook (and twitter) made me feel less existentially lonely because I know I am not alone in various feelings and experiences, but I have come to realise they also exacerbated my sense of alienation when I put something out there (especially if it is vulnerable) and nothing comes back.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Part of it is due to the algorithms. They are skewed to display content that is popular (but of course), so if we post something at the wrong time of the day or something and no one interacts with it, the likelihood is that it remains buried. So our connections don’t really see what we post half the time, unless you’re the type of person who likes looking at a live feed for a long time.

Another part of it is the phenomenon of the silent stalkers. Since every interaction can be seen by other parties, some people do not interact with any post as they do not want to leave their digital footprints, which is understandable in this shitty climate. So they view whatever we post, they may appreciate it or even think it is very meaningful to them, but we’ll never know. And I remain feeling that loneliness without knowing someone out there feels the same way.

The final part of it applies to me personally. I have consciously begun to deviate from the mainstream (maybe I was never really in it anyway), so I don’t usually post content that is popular: career/work updates, optimistic, motivating stuff, how I did X so you can do it too type of articles, milestones, celebratory moments, etc.

These days I think about what it means to be alive, and depending on your philosophy it is either at the top or bottom of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I am more interested in how do we bear suffering as part of the human condition than to increase my productivity. Else, I write about what it means to be human for me: instead of writing how I succeed I write about the struggles of having chronic disorders and how sometimes I feel like being buried six feet under feels better than being alive. Once in a while there’s real talk on how hard I try not to be an asshole because it is in my programming to be one.

I feel like a party-pooper, and I feel like nobody likes being near party poopers. Maybe I wouldn’t want to be near myself either.

I want to be authentic online, if that word means anything now these days. But throughout my entire life my desire to be my self has always come with a high cost to pay. Sometimes when people don’t understand our unconventional decisions or actions so they try to diminish us. So I have this pervasive feeling of being small, diminished, ignored and disempowered. Even if today that is no longer objectively true, my psyche is still behaving as though it is.

I guess that is a long-winded of saying that the dynamics of social media triggers me. The way it is designed amplifies my sense of alienation. We don’t notice things and feelings and how much they affect us when it is just part of our everyday reality.

Being away from social media gave me the space to reevaluate my feelings and the way I perceive my interactions with it. I actually discovered this by accident, because there was a period last year when I was so addicted to playing Stardew Valley that I didn’t even bother to check social media. It feels weird to say this, but a game addiction was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It made me realise how much less unhappy I was if I stopped exposing myself to certain stimuli.

That month without facebook, I didn’t miss it much. It was a little difficult in the first couple of days because I am so used to scrolling it whenever I had nothing better to do. These days I try to read instead. I try to work with my chronic sense of existential loneliness instead of depending on artificial means to alleviate it temporarily.

I discover I am okay being that tree falling down in a forest without anyone hearing it. I think the biggest gift to come out of this is the freedom to hold on to what truly matters, and to be capable of letting go everything that do not. Sometimes letting go seems unthinkable at first, but perhaps we just need the courage to walk down a different path.

Being an unheard falling tree sounded terrible but if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t know what it truly entails and mean. It is not so bad after all, and I like where I am now. Perhaps the truth underlying all of this is: even when there were people around, I still felt like an unheard falling tree.

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