Why "The Internet Is Terrible" Doesn't Console Me

[Content Note: Harassment; sexual violence; social anxiety; terrible bargain.]

One of the things about this job is that it comes with a lot of shit. And that shit is hard to talk about, not just because of my own personal hang-ups about burdening my friends with my problems, but also because very few people know what to say, even when I do talk about it. Unless you're in it, day after day, it's difficult to understand how bad it really gets.

I get that. I once went to a very nice and smart and clearly compassionate therapist and spent the entire session trying to explain what a blog is and what social media is and what the current shape of laws governing online harassment are, so she could even begin to wrap her head around what I'm dealing with. She took notes, and asked lots of questions about how the internet works. I never went back.

Because I get that it's hard to totally understand, I appreciate the friends I have who, upon seeing some public display of harassment, invite me to talk about it and just listen and offer what supportive words they can, without offering me futile suggestions on how to fix something I cannot fix. I value anger; it feels good when people get angry on my behalf, because it makes me feel like people give a shit, and because it validates my own anger. Those are great responses.

What is not a great response, though a frustratingly common one, especially from strangers who have seen one public snowflake of the avalanche I navigate every day, is some variation on: "The internet is terrible."

That might be a great response—validating, consolatory—for someone else, but it is not for me.

And I daresay I'm not alone in being a person who makes her living on the internet, who has community on the internet, and who thus finds a generalized denunciation of the internet to be more harmful than helpful.

Following are some reasons why "The internet is terrible" is a construction that doesn't work for me, based on my particular set of lived experiences. This is certainly not intended to be a comprehensive list of reasons why people might find it problematic, nor to suggest that everyone who may share some or all of these circumstances necessarily also finds it problematic. It's merely intended to provide some thoughts about why it shouldn't axiomatically be considered a statement of support, and how, in fact, it may serve to be precisely the opposite.

The Internet Is Made of People

The internet is not separate from culture, but a reflection of culture. It's not "the internet" that is terrible, but the terrible people who comprise a global community that inhabits the internet who are terrible.

And it's not the internet that makes them terrible: 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.

To lay the blame for harassment and abuse at the feet of "the internet" is to absolve people who exploit its nature. And further to redirect blame at me—because if the issue is really "the internet," then it's my fault for participating in the first place, and the only option for me is to disengage from it.

Blaming "the internet" and disappearing that it is people and their choices that make the internet what it is, is a way of distancing oneself from responsible participation. If the internet is inherently and immutably terrible, then none of us are obliged to hold harassers and abusers to account.

Which is really just a cowardly way of telling me: "You're on your own, kiddo." That doesn't feel supportive, for what I'll assume are obvious reasons.

I Contribute to the Internet

A universal pronouncement of how terrible the internet is always a "Swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon?" moment for me. Because here is how that goes:

Option A: "I am being threatened by scary people because of my job." "The internet is terrible." Long pause. "Well, my site is part of the internet." "I didn't mean your site!" "You may not have meant it, but if you're writing off the entire internet—" "Jesus, don't take it so personally. I'm just trying to be supportive!" "I know, and I'm trying to explain why that doesn't feel supportive to me." Exasperation and escalation, leading to the conclusion that I am even more terrible than the internet.

Option B: "I am being threatened by scary people because of my job." "The internet is terrible." "Uh-huh." "Hey, check out this YouTube video…"

Heads they win; tails I lose.

It's a shitty position in which to be put, to feel defensive about the very existence of my own work when I'm seeking support for the steep costs of my work.

And, the truth is, it's just as easy to say, "I'm angry people do that to you" as it is to say, "The internet is terrible." But the latter, unlike the former, doesn't necessitate even a momentary contemplation of the costs I, and other content providers, bear about which consumers of that content don't want to think.

All of which is to say nothing of the fact that the internet allowed me to build something from which I make my living when I was laid off during an employment crisis and could not find traditional work, and continues to allow me to make a living in a nontraditional way regardless of health issues that might have negatively impacted my ability to stay employed.

I Learn from the Internet

One of my major visceral reactions to the idea that the internet lacks value lies in my regard for the internet as an absolutely stupendous educational tool. No, the internet is not wholly terrible; there are parts of the internet that are amaaaaaaazing.

I have learned—and continue to learn—so much from resources available to me only through the internet. Not just fact and figures and news (although I cannot overestimate the value of those), but all the things I learn about other people and their lived experiences.

Communicating with and listening to people whose lives look fundamentally different from my own has made me a much more empathetic person than I was when I first got online. It is incredible to be able to connect with people in faraway—or near—places talk in their own voices about what's going on in their communities and in their lives.

I'm more sensitive to the needs and desires of other people; I'm far less judgmental about other people's choices; my language is more inclusive—all of this is because of the global community of which I can be a part courtesy of the internet.

I've learned vast amounts about other people, and I've learned about myself. I am more content in my own skin because of the internet, where I encountered, for example, fat advocacy.

That is about as far from "terrible" as it gets.

I Am a Turtle

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.

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.

I Met My Husband on the Internet

Obviously, saying the internet is a wasteland is perhaps not the best thing to offer to a person who's met the most important person in her life via the internet, but it's not the slight to the origins of my relationship that particularly bothers me: It's the indifference to how the internet facilitated our safe meeting.

It's not just that we met at all, but also that we met safely.

Because we met online, there was a lot more hand-wringing among friends and family about Iain's and my first in-person meeting than there would have been had we met at a coffee shop and I'd agreed to go on a date with him. (Approximately: A metric fuckton of hand-wringing vs. none.) But, realistically, neither proposition was inherently less safe than the other.

I had good reason to trust Iain: We spoke on a daily basis for months before we met; I had his telephone number and address, to which I'd sent packages he'd received; he happily trekked to an internet cafe to speak with me via webcam when he didn't have one at home. What measures he could take to ensure I knew to whom I was speaking, he took, without my even having to ask. Before we met in person, I knew his parents' names, his friends' names, his pet's name, where he worked, his favorite books, his birthday... More, way more, than I ever knew about someone with whom I went on a first date.

And, once upon a time, a person I'd been dating for months, after meeting in a "real way," raped me.

It's not, of course, that internet meetings cannot lead to heartbreak and even danger. They certainly can. But so can relationships formed in person. Trust is not established sheerly by proximity.

All of the trust we built, we two people who each had our own reasons to want to establish deep trust with any potential partner, was made possible by the internet.

I Have Community on the Internet

To state the obvious, there is just a fuckload of cool shit on the internet. It's not all terrible. It's just silly to say that it is, really.

Let's be honest: Some of the worst things on the internet are heinous responses to some of the best things on the internet.

And among the many, many cool things on the internet is the potential for community.

Among my internet community are a number of terrific acquaintances, brilliant colleagues, and remarkable friends who make me feel like the luckiest person alive. I have made friends over the internet who are an integral part of my family of choice.

My internet-made friend Mannion once wrote a pair of lovely posts about human connection and its being one of the great mysteries of the universe. Connection is one of my favorite topics; I could endlessly discuss the many ways that humans find to connect, and all the little intricacies of connection—what love feels like, how love between friends feels different than between lovers, coincidences of meeting, the strange things that happen among people of like minds and hearts. I love stories of meeting, of how great friendships and affairs and marriages came to be, because they are so often rich with mystery and providence, gilded with an intangible promise to abide, the inducement of which cannot be recognized.

My grandmother, who lived her life nearly in its entirety before the internet, was a passionate jigsaw-puzzler, with hundreds of the things crookedly lining overstuffed shelves in her cellar. I can't see a jigsaw puzzle without thinking of her, recalling the ever-present card table with a semi-completed puzzle on its top that she would carry from room to room. I have in my closet a 500-piece panorama of the skyline of New York City—the city she called home her whole life—that I bought her the Christmas just before she died. It's so many years ago now that the skyline still includes the World Trade Center, but when I look at the box, still in its wrapper, it's my grandmother that I miss.

Sometimes her puzzles would have an extra piece that didn't go anywhere; the puzzle would be done, but there would be this one odd piece. It was almost always a middle piece, instead of an edge, so it wasn't until the puzzle was complete that the odd piece out revealed itself. She kept these odd pieces, throwing them all into a faded old coffee canister, as if one day, perhaps, they'd all make a puzzle of their own.

I'm a bit of an odd puzzle piece. But I don't mind. My life has become a canister for collecting other odd puzzle pieces, and if we don't fit perfectly anywhere else, we are nonetheless joined by the inscrutability of how such odd pieces came to be. Among odd pieces, the awkwardness of not fitting anywhere else takes a new shape, a sort of sameness, a warm familiarity. Or so it seems to me.

In his posts, Mannion isn't necessarily talking about odd pieces, but he does mention a friend who he met online, which has a peculiar but wonderful way of connecting people, many of whom probably consider themselves odd pieces. "Before it happened to me," says Mannion, "even for a long time after, I'd have said it was impossible to become real friends with someone you never touched."

I was once as dubious as he was about the ability to forge friendships via the internet, also before it happened to me, but here I am, with a life full of friends made both offline and online across the course of my life. Some of my friends from childhood have become virtual friends with people I've met through blogging.

Last year, for my 40th birthday, a roomful of extraordinary people joined by their connection to me came together for a grand party. How each of us had first connected did not matter, in terms of the quality and ferocity of the connection. It only mattered insomuch as it was only the internet which ever could have delivered many of us into each other's lives.

The truth is that humans are adaptable creatures, and if you give them a new way to make a connection, even one that lacks a lens into precise circumstance or physical contact, they will find a way to make a connection. Not all of them. Surely there are people for whom falling in love with someone the way I did, before I ever even saw his picture, or forging a lasting friendship, is simply not possible, for one reason or another. Maybe such things are dependent on a transcendent imagination. Maybe they bloom in the soil of need.

Odd pieces tend to struggle with connection, which can be brutal—watching the beauty of connection lay itself across the faces of people to whom it comes so easily, over and over, and always just out of your reach. But the experience can be informative. Odd pieces uniquely appreciate connection, and thusly connect in a different way.

I was maybe six when I tried putting all my grandmother's odd puzzle pieces together. "If you stick those together," she told me, "they might not come apart, because they weren't designed to fit." She was right. They were tough to connect together, but even tougher to break apart again.

* * *

The internet is not terrible, not to me. There are terrible people on the internet, like there are terrible people everywhere. But without the internet, I would not have my work, my marriage, many of my friends. The first picture I ever saw of Dudley was on the internet; we filled out his adoption form online, with a greyhound rescue we found via the internet.

The internet is not so much a thing as it is a place. Bad things happen in places, and so do good things.

"The internet is terrible" is about as helpful to me as "boycott Indiana," for very much the same reasons. I don't want you to write it off, and claim that it's for my own good. I want you to help me fix it; I want you to see the things that are good, and the things that aren't; I want you to believe with me that it's possible to make it better.

I want it to be okay for me to expect more, and I want you to expect more, too.

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