Life Online: Pop Psychology and Instant Messaging

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“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breath free.”

This is an extract from the poem that lies at the proud feet of America’s Statue of Liberty that, when first built, served as a beacon to travellers and immigrants as they neared their soon-to-be home. It served as a symbolic gateway to a new life; a free life, where a person was able to pursue his or her dreams, with honesty and integrity, and above all, without fear of persecution or undue judgement.

In this new era however, a unseen country has arisen in the wake of the digital age; a new domain for men and women, children and adults, to express themselves, to open themselves, to find themselves; and like Narnia or Hogwarts or countless other realms of fantasy and imagination, this parallel universe is accessed via a magical portal.

Well, I still think iPads and android phones are pretty magical, anyway.

As the superficial pressures of modern society mount, and day to day human interaction becomes more and more segregated and cliquey; an ever increasing number of disenfranchised people have discovered that there is a place for them to be honest with themselves, through openness to others. The growing trend of online social media has created a new world for people to flock to, and often depend on, when the ‘real world‘ is failing to give them what they need. They’ve found a safe haven where they can say all the things that they may feel the need to repress, expose all the things that they may feel the need to keep hidden, and all without fear of judgement or consequence. In turn however, this has created an online asylum with an almost exclusive population of mentally unwell or socially isolated people, who solely depend upon and open up to other people who dwell in the exact same situation, equally searching for the means to escape.

As I grow increasingly invested in my online life, I read words and see pictures that reflect a sadness that thrives on loneliness. Everyone has found themselves on a path, searching for comfort with a situation or a feeling that they are unable, or unwilling, to express and discuss in open society. I’ve heard words from fellow bloggers that sum up my own feelings better than I’ve ever been able to do myself. It was liberating at first to feel so understood; to know that you aren’t alone; a depressed rabbit, lost in a field of happy hares. However, that sweet-smelling rose does hide a pair of sharp thornes.

The first snare of being introduced to your apathetic ilk, is that knowing how ‘common‘ your depression is can take away a portion of its significance. Some may argue that it’s a good thing to find a million other people who are just as miserable as you are: It can, in a way, serve to prevent you going down the path of ‘feeling sorry for yourself‘. It can make you understand how unspectacular it truly is to be depressed, and that perhaps it’s time to wake up and sort yourself out. Conversely, it can also serve to make you hate yourself even more for being ‘just another depressive person‘. The second problem of course, is that realising how many people feel as bad as you do, people of all ages, can lead you to the assumption that you’ll be forever stuck in terminal apathy; that none of these people have escaped it, and that you’re a fool to think that you ever could.

This coin has a flip side of course, and luckily it is a side of the argument upon which I believe my own opinions to more firmly lie. Unlike people in the ‘real world‘; people with whom we go to work, we go to school, we live with, or are related to; online friends have no obligation to know or care about you. As such, if someone ‘follows‘ your blog and actually reads and comments on what you write, you can know that they probably do genuinely care about you. It’s a lot easier to not follow someone’s blog, or not read their posts, than it is to physically dismiss a passing acquaintance, or turn your back on a colleague who is literally trying to speak to you. Half of our ‘real world‘ relationship are maintained out of obligation; because we have to, because it’s easier to, because we don’t want to be rude. We all know it, and we probably all know who they are. An online friend however is a commodity, not an obligation. We don’t have them because we can, we have them because we want them, otherwise we’d simply stop replying to thier greetings. This has meant that I’ve found myself opening up more readily to my online friends than I ever could to my ‘real world‘ ones. My online friends know me better than my family does. They’ve seen me, they’ve comforted me, and they’ve consoled me; throughout good times and down days, self-harm and self-assessment, sickness and health, all without ever really speaking to me, touching me, laughing with me, or crying with me. In short, my ‘fake friends‘ have become more real to me, than my ‘real friends‘ ever could.

All this being said however; I’m not necessarily any better off than I ever was before I joined Tumblr and Twitter and WordPress. Telling your problems to someone who understands what you’re going through is undoubtedly a comfort, but unless they, unlike you at this point, have come out the other side and ‘found the light‘, you’re essentially just sharing a burden; with neither party in a position to offer any solution to your dispositional dilemma. You’re making yourself feel slightly better, all the while giving them another thing to feel bad about, and presumably they’re eventually returning the favour when they find themselves in a dark place with no one else to turn to.

I guess the main concern of this tale is; in a kingdom of ‘blind leading the blind‘ psychology, will any of the mentally unsettled inhabitants of Internet Land ever break free and return to ‘normal‘ society, or will they remain in an inexorable cycle of despair, urged on by would-be savours who try so hard to help, but can never be more than letters and symbols on a screen, when the solution must come from real human contact? Can the comforting words of a virtual stranger from nine thousand miles away, ever really replace the comforting validation offered by a friend’s embrace, or a lover’s kiss?

In turning to a two dimensional world for affection and companionship, are we turning away from our only real chance of finding it?

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