[Content Note: Bullying. This piece was originally published February 14, 2013.]
I've been thinking about the "real life vs. internet life" article about which I wrote here, which was chiefly about dating but included general commentary underwriting narratives about how online relationships are inherently inferior to those formed in meatspace. It's a trope with which I am obliged to frequently engage, as it's deployed with regularity by apologists for Bad Behavior, particularly the harassment of social justice advocates, who are keen to educate me that It's the Internet and demand to know what do I expect. (Spoiler Alert: More!)
It's a problematic construction for a few reasons, not least of which, as I have observed previously, is that the internet is not separate from culture, but a reflection of culture. It takes a special sort of cultivated ignorance to imagine that the anonymity of the internet creates the urges that underlie bullying, rather than merely empowering bullies to be uglier, meaner, bolder than some of them would be face-to-face.
It's not like no random dude ever called me a fat cunt before I started a blog.
The distinction between "real life" and "internet life" is a false one. Communities on the internet, and relationships formed on the internet, are as real as those in meatspace, even if they are different.
And sometimes those differences are neutral. Sometimes they expose deficiencies, or benefits, in either in-person relationships or (primarily or exclusively) online relationships. Often, they create matched sets: Written communication lacks the nuance that in-person communication does; in-person communication does not engage the additional filter that written communication can. Or: There are indeed ways to deceive people on the internet that in-person interactions do not support; online communications protect against certain kinds of harm that interpersonal interactions do not. Et cetera.
Each has its own limitations and values, which themselves are entirely subjective based on the individual person(s) involved. While body language and facial expressions may be meaningful to me, they may not be of particular use to someone neuro-atypical who struggles to correctly interpret them.
For me, one of the most precious advantages of the internet is that it keeps me connected. I don't mean the ability to keep up with the goings-on of old friends and distant relations—although that, too. I mean that it keeps me from disappearing.
I disappear easily, vanishing from social interaction like a retreating turtle into its shell—long stretches of desired lonesomeness during which I am perfectly content to be my only company. It's not because I love my friends any less, or because I'm depressed, or for any Important Reason at all, except that I am who I am, and that is someone who is very shy.
I am a "learned extrovert," as Molly Shannon's character described herself on the last (brilliant) episode of Enlightened, but the first 13 years of my life, I was so painfully shy that I never laughed out loud at school, ever, which is difficult for friends made after that time to believe, because I laugh loudly and easily and often now. I still remember the first time I tried an out-loud laugh, hesitatingly and consciously, in Mr. Martz's social studies class, and Garth Miller looked at me from the next desk over with an expression one usually reserves for events like alien invasions and said, "I've never heard you laugh before!" Bless him, I had such a crush on him, and if he'd said it with less wonder and more judgment, I might never have laughed out loud again.
That is who I am, in the deepest roots of myself, the girl who had to summon the gumption to laugh out loud in class. And that is why it's so easy and so comfortable for me to disappear.
And disappearing, as I have a wont to do, was different before the internet. It read, quite understandably, like avoidance, when I stopped inviting people to socialize and picking up the phone. Even during a disappearance, I might still accept invitations and answer the phone to chat, but I stop reaching out. All of my limbs and my head and my tiny little triangular turtle tail get tucked inside the shell. And it isn't kind to be a friend who disappears without explanation, so I explain, as best "I am a shy turtle girl right now; no it isn't personal; no I am not depressed; no nothing is wrong I swear" can be explained, which I've found depends a lot on how inclined to turtliness the listener hirself is.
The internet has made disappearing easier, in the sense that I don't totally disappear. I can maintain the necessary indulgence of my introvert nature and still be the one doing the reaching out. Sometimes, it is during a disappearance that I write the most meaningful emails, have the most wonderful tumbling conversations via text, give my friends the biggest laugh by posting some elaborate Photoshopped monstrosity of their favorite things on their Facebook walls. Dispatches from the shell.
That is a life that feels real to me, and fuller than my life without the internet, which is a tool that helps me actively maintain relationships with my dear and deeply valued friends, in spite of the social anxiety that constantly invites me to retreat.
I find less need now to attend events during periods when my shyness and anxiety conspire to engulf me; I have fewer instances of sitting at the end of the bed, ostensibly deciding what to wear, but actually contemplating whether it is worth risking a panic attack in a crowded space in order to avoid having to make a call to a friend who would totally understand that I'm not coming. Not disappearing completely helps me engage in self-care.
Which is to say nothing about all the friendships I have made via the internet, not a few of which are with people who are shy in the same way I am. I value beyond measure my extroverted friends, but they can't totally relate to the part of me that does the disappearing act. It feels good to be understood intimately, by people who disappear, too.
It is a combination of in-person and online communication that lets me be who I am actually am.
That, I realize, it what gets under my skin about the diminishment of online communications and friendships as "not real"—because the internet has helped me become my realest self.
[Related Reading: The Sound of My Voice.]