OPINION: We all need to stop being so Extremely Online

Two blue birds resembling the Twitter logo punch each other with pink boxing gloves. A sign with the words "Twitter War In progress" is displayed above the birds.
Graphic by Eloise Magoncelli

As a certified Doomer-Zoomer, I live approximately 92.7 percent of my life online. I have five classes and work two jobs; it’s not like I have time to make friends in this hellish meatspace. Not to sound like an AOL commercial from before I was born, but the internet has truly connected me to some weird and wonderful people.

Unfortunately, the internet has also allowed me to seek out content that I know is harmful for me. I don’t even have to venture into the hate-filled wildlands of neo-fascist vloggers — I can comfortably find juicy discourse that will make me absolutely hate myself inside left-leaning, social justice-oriented Twitter communities.

Such was my fall break, when two Twitter communities I’m part of broke down into strife. For everyone’s sake (but mostly my own), I don’t want to go into too much detail, but both cases involved a keystone member of the community having a very public and very controversial opinion and the rest of the community splintering off into factions aligned with or against the keystone member.

I unfollowed people. I blocked people. I had moments when I took a deep breath and thought, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t be friends with this person anymore.” And through the haze of confusion, sadness and a growing sense of betrayal, I had moments where I thought, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

Over the long weekend, wherein I scorned online communities in favor of taking too many naps and devouring Adam Higginbotham’s masterpiece “Midnight in Chernobyl,” I found that I felt better about myself. Maybe it was being able to sleep 14 hours a day if I wanted to, not having to go to class and being able to channel my cosmic ennui into the historical horror of a nuclear disaster, but I felt like I had let go of an emotional burden.

I let myself stray away from the internet and I let myself not be bogged down in the discourse.

Let me be clear: Walking away from these online arguments is not the same as disregarding these topics all together. I had to walk away from these arguments because they concerned facets of my identity that are incredibly meaningful and incredibly central to me. That’s not the same as not caring.

I fear there is an impetus — especially for young people and marginalized people — to be Extremely Online on every topic. We live in a world where so many of our interactions are mediated through giant sites like Twitter and Facebook. Our lives are increasingly bound by our online identities, and we are increasingly pushed to be more open about our politics and social positions on public forums.

It’s not appropriate, it’s not healthy and it’s not right to expect people to engage in this online discourse as part and parcel of being on the internet. Nor is it appropriate, healthy or right to expect people to be on social media at all. 

Every time I sank back down into the discourse over break, I felt pieces of my soul slipping away from me. I have nothing but respect for people who fight the good fight and stand up for the rights of the most marginalized within internet debates — but I realized I cannot keep subjecting myself to these kinds of spaces if I want to keep feeling safe and welcome on the internet.

In a lot of ways, it was like other forms of self-harm I’ve dealt with. I know that looking at these debates is just going to make me angry and upset. I know that no good is going to come of being in these spaces. I know that I keep looking because it’s making me feel awful … but I can’t stop.

It sucks. It really does. The Twitter communities that burst into arguments this weekend were two of a handful of places on or offline where I feel comfortable actually talking about myself and my identities. To see people in those communities — people whom I loved and trusted — engage in rhetoric that is directly harmful to me and lots of people similar to me stung. 

And this is where a lot of the advice around “healthy web use” fails. I can’t just log off Twitter. All of my friends are there. I’ve met people through the internet that I care about so incredibly deeplyand the general advice of “log off and take a walk” doesn’t work when my entire social sphere is contained within my phone.

So I adapted. Setting limits and trying to enforce them helps: Give yourself X number of minutes on a site or app each day, only use a site to converse directly and privately with specific people and force yourself to take breaks. Making sure you have something else to do that will distract you from the siren song of being online also helps. 

In the end, what I took away is that we need to be having a better conversation about what digital self-harm and compassionate communities look like. We need to have conversations about healthy web use that don’t assume logging off is an option for everyone all the time. We need to keep talking about the internet as a tool for both love and care but also for hate and discord within marginalized communities.

The internet can be a good thing. It’s a wonderful thing for me, a socially awkward, self-isolating weirdo with not enough free time to make friends in “the real world.” But the follies of the internet can occur in communities everywhere, and we should be talking more about how to take care of ourselves in an increasingly Extremely Online world, where “just log off” doesn’t always work. 

Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20, CG ’21 is a 4+1 BA/MPH public health major from Sunnyvale, California. They really want you to read “Midnight in Chernobyl.”

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