It's Remembrance Day in Canada. We take a moment to meditate on the horrific cost of war. The military and civilian lives lost. The young men and women who died without a chance to make peace with their families, their gods and within themselves. Whose last breath was spent in terror. The horror of war cannot be understated. It must never be forgotten when we turn our eye to threats beyond our shores.
We take a moment to honor those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for something greater than themselves. We also think of those who still serve today. The wounded warriors who come home changed forever. I am deeply grateful I will never have to kill or be killed. I am humbled by the sacrifice of those who do in my stead.
When I reach for my phone to post something on Twitter I run through a mental check list so familiar I barely notice its passing before I hit send.
1) Will this reflect well on me?
2) Will it piss anyone off?
3) Seriously, does this make me look good?
The thing about Twitter and Facebook is that they perfectly distil a major part of why we interact with each other. Not to share ideas, but to cobble together some kind of self-identity we can stand behind. Unlike our day to day existence where at times it feels like we have no control at all over how people view and respond to us, on the internet we can be considered and crafted. In shaping the message we can shape the response. The response shapes us and the cycle continues. It works right up until the moment we're handed a flaming bag of poop in reply to something we wrote.
The problem with relying on others to confirm our self-image is that they're wrapped up in doing the same thing. When we're in simpatico the system works pretty well. When we reach a place of disagreement suddenly the house of cards collapses and there's a crisis. The goal turns to (metaphorically) destroying the other person in defence of our opinions. Our very identity is at stake, after all.
We could also just curl up into a little ball and accept our wrongness and shame. Give others the keys to our soul and let them scrawl what they like. That doesn't seem satisfactory either, but what choice do we have? An assault of words, a lilly livered acceptance or maybe a few passive aggressive comments and blocking the person who failed to give us what we thought we needed.
This isn't the part where I tell you "haters gonna hate" (they will) or that what matters is how you feel about yourself. I can accept those old saws on a rational level, but at best they help me weather the harsh words I don't like. Advice like that carefully sidesteps the core issue: why are we so afraid to look within for respite? Why do we put all this pressure on the billions of people on the planet to make us feel good about ourselves with an IV drip of pleasantries and encouragements?
I think the answer is that in the short term it's easier and most of the time it works well enough. A nice review on iTunes or a reply telling me I rock can be enough to get me through a day. That is, if I'm already in a good mood and I generally feel good about myself. On a foul day, a kind word is going straight into "You don't know me!" bin and likely forgotten. Still, it's nice and I might even remember it later when I crawl out of my hole again. I'll definitely remember someone telling me I'm an asshole.
Twitter, Facebook and the rest are like the surface of a pool. When I gaze at my reply list I'm hoping I'll see something of myself reflected back at me. It doesn't have to be a good reflection. That's the sickness in the whole process. I just need to confirm something I'm already sure of in myself. Good or bad. Why? Because when it's all said and done, I can make some of these feelings someone else's responsibility. Either for the sake of humbleness or self-preservation we're willing to own our words and we're even able to accept the replies provided they serve in place of deep introspection.
Too harsh? Maybe. On a daily basis I consider my place in the online social game and what I want to get out of it. I value the connection with my friends and the opportunity to support them. I like joking around and linking to cool stuff I like. That's all play to me. What I get nervous about is opening myself to being vulnerable on there. To say something that might hurt other people. The reasons why I've done that in the past are so murky in retrospect. It's always about me, even when I think I'm defending someone else or an ideal I support.
This isn't about quitting our social media or not posting personal things on the internet. Twitter and Facebook are neutral by their very nature. Empty vessels we fill with whatever we like. The important factor in how we use them is our integrity. Using the public eye to make us feel whole is an abusive relationship doomed to fail. When you need it most, it's the people closest to you and your own inner strength that will see you through. You can't replace that with the words of others who are seeking their own identities.