In my late teens I had a fantasy that I would get up and walk out of my life. I would open the door, turn left, turn right at the traffic lights, turn left at the dirt track that led up to the dam, and then keep on walking over the hills. I would carry nothing and never come back.
Like many young souls, in my early twenties I kind of did it. I moved to London, on a one-way plane ticket with £70 in my pocket and spent the next few years trying to build the life I wanted on my terms, but none of this really amounted to walking away without warning or a trace. I saved that until July last year.
I mostly work alone in the attic office above my kitchen. During my working day, my colleagues are friends and contacts who I interact with via a computer screen. The platform I mostly use to communicate with them is one that I am going to call the Big Blue. Like the sea, it is a place full of curious fish and a few monsters. In July last year, I climbed out of the Big Blue, and returned to dry land. I spent four weeks entirely on dry land. Four weeks drying out.
The first few days were weird as it became creepily apparent that I had got into a habit of summarising my thoughts and feelings into pithy one-liners that I would share daily with the world, and as the month rolled on, I found myself reflecting on how submerged – drowned even – I had become in Facebook.
Like many, I had first joined in 2004. Those were the days when its captain encouraged us to list our favourite movies and music next to our names, and I remembered how difficult I had found it. While others were sharing cult classics like Clockwork Orange and listed their fav musicians as Indie legend Jarvis Cocker, for me, Mary Poppins and Elton John sprang to my mind. Sure I liked Jarvis and I’d watched Clockwork Orange at a midnight showing at an arts festival, but they weren’t my favourites and I remember feeling the gap open up between what I actually liked and what I was supposed to like. Instead I posted a quote that I had seen on a greetings card: “One day I hope to become the person by dog things I am”, and left it that.
As the years went by, the Big Blue became a kind of scrapbook for life. A place to stick holiday pics and gig tickets, a place that reflected your life back at you. Life is about becoming. It is normal to have dreams and desires and wishes, and it is especially normal about being excited when some of these dreams come true.
I went horse riding across Iceland.
I got published in a famous newspaper.
I met a sexy man and he proposed.
But of course, the Big Blue didn’t just reflect your life at you, it reflected your life at every one you were linked to, and it wasn’t long before one of the first monsters of the depths reared its head: the green monster, jealousy.
While it’s natural that people get excited by the exciting things that happen to them – and want to share that joy – it’s not always easy for people to hear about other people’s success, especially when their golden moment intercepts your day from hell. Researchers began to study the mindsets of people who spent too much time wallowing in the Big Blue, and it turned out that that sharing our highs was beginning to wreck havoc in other people’s psyches, making them feel alienated and worthless.
Society is a bit like a self-cleaning oven. When things get too murky, it starts to auto-correct to bring things back to the less murky middle, and one of its favourite tools for doing this is shame. As age old as jealousy, shame is a brilliant tool for stopping people from doing something we don’t like. And so it came to pass that those who felt hurt, and worthless and sad by the Big Blue, began to mock the other people in the Big Blue.
“Those who swim in its waters are not authentic,” they said.
“All they show us is glittering reflections of themselves.”
“The Big Blue is a place of fakery.”
“It is not real. You are not real.”
It didn’t matter that people had been brought up to dream, to have ambitions, and do their best and try to make something of their life. It didn’t matter that it was once normal – even expected – to share your joy and holiday snaps and special moments with friends. Almost overnight, you were not really happy if you were sharing your life freely with others. In fact, you were bad. A traitor to the collective wellbeing.
And so, slowly, incrementally, the rules of the Big Blue changed, and the new consensus became that if you truly cared about the wellbeing of others, if you were a kind, community-orientated good person, then you needed to censor what you shared. And when you did share, you needed to share things that really mattered to everybody – not just you. And so within a few clicks, everyone in the Big Blue became chuggers.
Do you remember them? Charity huggers? The people who would accost you in the High Street and guilt you into signing a form that took £3 every month from your bank account and gave it to a dog/child/tap in some place you have never been? All of a sudden, the Big Blue was awash with people caring about lives of people they have never met, just so their posts no longer offend the lives of the people they do know.
And by god, there was so much caring to do. There was an opportunity for outrage at every moment of the day, and being in the Big Blue started to feel like you were treading water in a turbulent sea, randomly grabbing at bits of flotsam and jetsam to stay afloat.
Sink with a Guardian article.
Surface with a piece from the New York Times.
Float for a while on the back of a refreshing blog.
Pulled under by a petition from Avaaz.
Your own life, the one you live in an actual body that requires actually feeding and washing and sleeping began to seem unreal as the Big Blue washed over you and demanded more and more of your attention, more and more of your care.
You might have once wanted to sail a yacht in the Mediterranean or ride horses across Mongolia, but now you dare not want these things. Or if you still did, you made a calculated decision not to share them with anybody. The new consensus from the Big Blue was that dreams were wrong, desire was wrong. The only thing that mattered was the anguish and suffering of people who you do not know. The only life worth living was a life of sacrifice.
When I began writing about this, I did some research into people who go missing. According to the charity Missing People, up to 80% of missing persons cases involve someone believed to suffer from mental health problems. In Japan, there is a phenomenon of johatsu, or “the evaporated people”.
Tormented by the shame of a lost job, failed marriage, or mounting debt, thousands of Japanese citizens have reportedly started leaving behind their formal identities and seeking refuge in the anonymous, off-the-grid world. The book features a collection of vignettes from people who have fled modern society in search of a more secretive, less shame-filled life. That word shame struck a chord with me.
Shame was what the Big Blue was making me feel every day. Shame that I was white.
Shame that I had a roof over my head. Shame that I dared to have big dreams. Guilt refers to what we have done to others. Shame is a feeling that we have about just being. You can get rid of guilt by doing – by making amends, fixing things. But you can’t fix shame in the same way.
No wonder I swam for the shore.
I began to realise that being immersed in the Big Blue was like being in an abusive relationship where someone else was in charge of my emotions. I started to see that I was adrift in a choppy sea of reactionary feelings, never sure when another wave would come along and sink me. In the place where I had once played Scrabble with friends, I now felt powerless and overwhelmed.
It’s been six months now since I started to rethink my relationship with Facebook. During those six months, I also stopped blogging. I needed time to rethink what I put into the world and why I put it there. Half a year later, I consciously avoid political conversations on the Facebook platform, I rarely repost articles and perhaps most crucially, I no longer feel any impetus to share my private life with the world. That’s not to say I have cut ties completely. I still enjoy connecting with friends in faraway places, but I consciously keep it as light as I would at a wedding before the wine is served.
Am I happier? Yes. Do I feel calmer and more in control of my life and my emotions? Yes. Do I feel more empowered? Yes. Does this matter? Yes.
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