The internet isn’t real life. A lot of people need to learn that. It’s just information, words and pictures on a screen. Sometimes it does bleed over, but mostly you can take or leave the parts of it you want to. You can just turn off the screen and walk away.
The internet isn’t life, but if you let it, the internet can enhance your life more than you could imagine.
It’s probably of no surprise to learn I’m a bit of a social misfit, someone who suffers with anxiety issues and has a history of depression. I’ve written about it in the past, I’ve spoken about it publicly on social media and at length with some of you in private. The past three years since the passing of my Dad and the later breakdown of some of my relationships haven’t been the easiest.
Through all of this shit, the internet has been a solid, constant and a vital outlet. I have enjoyed getting a presence on social media and some limited recognition, I’ve enjoyed talking to like minded people — plus it does feed the ego to see your words and idle thoughts shared far and wide.
It can also be kind of surreal, and at times it can feed the worst aspects of yourself. I found the less mentally healthy I’ve been feeling, the faster my online presence has grown as I focused on it more for validation. That brings onlookers and people who will cheer you on for going further and further into the social media shit-flinging.
In experiencing the good and bad of what the internet had to offer, I’ve come to realise the most important thing is the people who’ve stuck with me through all of it. Being online, we’re programmed to wear armour. We get on social media and beat the digital shit out of each other. Its good fun, but it requires a distant approach that makes real human connection difficult.
Total paranoia can feel like a safer policy online when there always seems to be a creep or a catfish hiding around the corner. There’s always the fear of someone wanting to exploit or humiliate you. It’s safer just to lurk or shitpost, to be anonymous in a crowd and never let that mask slip.
But since 2014 I’ve been slowly breaking my own rules more. I’ve found the more I put myself out there, and do the things I always thought you weren’t supposed to do online for fear of ridicule, the better my experience of the online world becomes.
It really started with my joining SuperNerdLand, who’s regular members have become like a family to me over the past three years. I spent an entire month in 2016 touring the United States, and meeting many of them. It’s difficult to get over the stigma of “internet friends,” part of me felt crazy for taking that leap of faith. Some people thought I was crazy, that I was going to get murdered or something by weirdos who I didn’t even know.
But I did know them, I knew them better than most people I talked to in my everyday life. I’d spoken to them almost every day for years. You can get a pretty good read on someone that way, it’s impossible to keep those social barriers up in that environment for that length of time. If you interact with people who like and trust you, then you end up learning a lot about each other even though you’ve never actually met in person.
I’m glad to say meeting those people only deepened those friendships — and gave me context to their lives. Lives very different to my own with perspectives I would never have considered if I had chosen to stay inside the bubble of my routine. Having met someone online through a video game, social media, or a shared interest, then having that person become a close and personal friend in real life is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my entire life. You worry about taking that big leap into reality, but for me those internet friendships didn’t just work in real life, they worked even better there.
Without taking a chance on internet strangers, and taking the effort to build those relationships, my life would be a lot poorer. I’d have never been able to couch-surf around America. I’d never have seen these places with a local guide. I had so many odd and wonderful experiences on that trip: I paid for an extra night in an AirBNB with a guitar lesson, I saw million-dollar waterfront sheds in Seattle, sun bathed in a sweltering January heat wave in San Antonio and rode through the ghetto in Cincinnati.
I didn’t just go on a vacation, those people allowed me into their lives for a week.
The more I learned to accept that my “internet friends” were my actual friends, the happier and more open I was able to become. People I didn’t expect to have been there for me were, in ways big and small. People check on me when I’m seeming down, they send me birthday gifts, they make me free art, and they trust me with their fears and hopes. There’s so many people I have to thank for still being here, even if their support is just in the form of a kind comment or thoughtful response.
I honestly don’t know where I would be without these people, some of whom of I talk to very rarely and some of whom I talk to every day. I know some of you have those people in your lives too; they’re you’re guild mates, they’re in your Discord, they follow you on Twitter, they’re that regular commenter on your Facebook posts, or the core group of people that support your content. Don’t ignore them just because you feel weird about having “internet friends,” I’m currently thinking about moving to a new country where my internet friends have been so good to me.
Previously I wrote about how social media can make us incredibly lonely, but in the past three years its done the exact opposite for me. You find people, they find you. Grow those connections, take the slow but sure road to a friendship. Those are the real wonders of light speed communication. The world is smaller, and that shrinking brings me closer to potential friends.
I want to be able to use social media in a way that puts me in touch with people I can form a genuine connection with. I’ve not yet had a bad experience in meeting someone I’ve connected with online. If you’re able to have those truly honest conversations and take the time to get past the surface level, then it’s a very good bet you’ll be able to maintain and grow that connection in real life. Being online removes most of those little social dances we do. Rather than being a hindrance to socialising, the online environment can liberate us from our hang-ups.
Ultimately the online experience for me is about the people I can take with me from it. If you can find people you care about, and who care about you, then I think you’ll be okay.
The internet feels less like shouting into a void when you have people there who will listen, truly listen, and take to heart the ideas you’re sharing.
Latest posts by John Sweeney (see all)
- Shouting Into The Void: It’s The People You Take With You — March 10, 2018
- 10,000 Hours in MS-Paint No.5 – Grab Them by the Vagana — January 17, 2018
- 10,000 Hours in MS-Paint No.4 – Virtue: The Signalling — December 4, 2017