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Dead Souls: Reflecting on the Internet and Social Media


As we begin a new year, I have been thinking about how as of 2022, I have been involved in internet forums for now the majority of my life. This has not been a good thing, and in this post I'll reflect on the changes I have seen this cause in myself, and why I no longer participate in them.

Most people who hand-wring about social media will focus on the way people treat other people. Often they focus specifically on social media's alarming tendency to facilitate a complete demonization of another person, and reduce them to an avatar of an ideology rather than a human being, which provides a green light to treat them with cruelty. All of this happens, and all of it is indeed important. But what I have found is that there is a more subtle damage that occurs--a damage to my own sense of self and identity.

In a real life conversation with one other person, your interlocutor sees, hears, and perceives you as you. This recognition of yourself allows your thoughts to be your own more easily, and the privacy of the encounter lessens external constraints that may shape your thoughts and responses. One of the goals you will have is to reach consensus, in which case you both see something of your own self in the other's thoughts and recognize it externally. By "consensus" I mean a shared belief, a shared perspective, something in which you both find humor, or pain, or joy. But even if you do not reach consensus, because there are only two of you, you are still balanced equally, even if on opposite sides. No one is left outside in a group of two, because there is no outside.

A group conversation has a different dynamic. With two other interlocutors, the group is still small enough for your own self to exist positively within the conversation. Yet here a lack of consensus has different implications. It could mean that all three of you have independent views, in which case you are still balanced. But there is also the possibility of two of you agreeing while the third does not, and now a group has formed on one side, and someone is excluded from it.

As a group grows in size it becomes less likely that there will be the balanced consensuslessness (this probably isn't a word; don't use in real life) of two individuals who do not agree, or three individuals who take three independent views. It becomes extremely likely that there will be an unbalanced lack of consensus, in which some are within the majority and some are not.

The internet allows for groups on massive scales, while simultaneously, it flattens the human participant to no more than a screen name and maybe an avatar. Because interaction is public, there is a panopticon effect, which when combined with the dehumanizing flattening, intensifies the group-ness of the group conversation, and all of its dangers.

Exclusion is no fun at all. The unconscious fear of it can cause us to subtly adopt mannerisms, humor, language, and ideas that will place us within the group and win us acceptance, while avoiding mannerisms, humor, language, and ideas that risk placing us in opposition to the gorup. When everyone in a given group (especially a large one) is constantly measuring their thoughts and responses in terms of how they will be received, the thing that governs the interactions within the group becomes a type of god--an invisible hand, or animus that subsists within the discourse. It is godlike because it is an Ideal to which each participant subjugates and conforms their individual selves. Since any Ideal can be failed to be reached, every Ideal is also a Judge. We can clearly see how this is a Judge with the power to damn and exclude.

The loss of my self came about slowly. It started perhaps when someone else posted something that was initially received negatively. The first few responses tend to dictate how the rest of the thread will go. So I would pile on. Even if I was factually right, it's not necessary. Here I was competing for attention and recognition of the group. In my mind, I thought I was contributing, correcting, or otherwise being useful. Subconsciously it was a desire to be seen as smart, or insightful, or funny, or most dedicated. But in reality, it was an attempt to demonstrate my worthiness and conformity to the Ideal, a plea to avoid Judgement and damnation, a prostration before the idol.

This gradually and imperceptibly proceeded to adopting linguistic terms used by everyone else in order to signal my belonging. These weren't my words. They weren't anyone's words. Whoever first used them is irrelevant and forgotten. They were the idol's words, and we would simply repeat them back to show our fealty to it.

I would spend a lot of time refreshing pages to see if my contributions were met with approval or recognition. Any criticism of my posts or comments would have a much more devastating effect on my psyche than text on a screen from a stranger ought. At first this loss of self was limited to my online behavior. Then it seeped into my thoughts. I began to go about my daily life thinking in terms framed by the community, and even judging my thoughts by that standard, rejecting any that might have received criticism if voiced online.

At a certain point I became aware of this, and frightened by how much different my thought patterns were than they had been fifteen years earlier. I could not distinguish between my own thoughts and those that came from outside. Validation, attention, recognition, and external approval were driving so much of my behavior that my own self was effectively dead.

I quit all of it. I deleted all of my accounts, limited my time spend on the internet to a minimum, then eventually eliminated even that to just what is required for my job, updating this blog, and nothing more. It took some time, but I eventually felt alive again, and no longer imprisoned by my own ego's relentless desire for validation.

I'm not sitting up here in condemnation of anyone, except my own self. I'm not claiming to be totally free of this problem either; becoming alive is a lifelong process. I also realize that not everyone will be affected by the internet in this way. But I suspect that the viciousness that we see on the internet can be attributed to this subconscious idol-worship that causes us to lose our own individuality, and replace it with the animus of the group. To constantly seek approval, likes, upvotes, and retweets rather than engage with each other seriously. Instead of speaking to each other, we are in a cafeteria shouting across the table, with one eye over our shoulder checking to see how many people are listening and making sure they like us. Instead of forming our own thoughts and expressions, we reflect those of the group like a mirror, always afraid of judgement. We have dead selves, and dead souls.

"The glory of God is a human being fully alive."--Saint Irenaeus