“I feel seen,” I comment on a meme — think a “weighted blanket and die” ethos — that’s unbearably relatable, the kind that’s a relief to see existing outside yourself while simultaneously a bit invasive, too intimate to tap “like,” though you do anyway. It’s the last missive I send out before my phone runs out of battery.
Good thing everyone knows my *unique* truth before I’m cut off from the various forms of social media, sprawling and expansive and noisy but vital, urgent, connective.
I need my digital worlds today more concretely than I need them on most other days. I was in the middle of conversations with friends — many of whom, like me, are chronically ill and extremely online (a Safran-Foer-adjacent phrase by intention) — talking about the duality of our online socializing. We were agreeing that being digitally connected, being online in general, is both energizing and exhausting.
Does being online impact the social energy we have to engage with people “in real life”?
I have too many people watching what I do, a new reality I’m extremely grateful for but consistently overwhelmed by. I’m an “Instagram sensation,” according to the back of my book, a real-world object that exists in large part because of said virtual fame.
It’s how I’ve met most of my friends as an adult, built relationships I value with people I likely would’ve never met offline. It’s how I feel in touch with the world on days when I’m not able to do much else. It has made me feel at once more connected and more distanced, afloat in the “real” world and reluctant to socialize, in large part because I feel like I’m always already doing it.
“I can be socially awkward. Instagram lets me get around that easily, but it can be very emotionally draining as well,” my friend Alexis (aka @not.herrealname) tells me. She says that as a sex worker, “online socializing is a double-edged sword.”
The community she has online isn’t something she would be able to find in real life. At the same time, she says, “I feel like I speak so much in a day without ever opening my physical mouth, and it’s a strange realization.”
The reality that all of us have to keep multiple plates spinning at any given time just to navigate the “social” part of social media is unquestionable. In trying to make connections online with “real people,” we have to wade through the muck of brands, politicians, celebs, etc., vying for the most valuable resource of our time: attention.
Trying to swim through the clutter to the buoy of “friends” can feel like being constantly on the verge of sinking.
“It’s really hard to manage relationships because the internet is designed to be boundless,” my very online friend Aiden Arata tells me. “It’s like every moment online has sales tax, and you don’t know what you’re actually spending until you’re at the register.”
Being a Public-Facing Internet Person naturally comes with more relationships and, maybe, less clear boundaries around an already boundless space. But this experience is not unique to those who have a platform, it’s merely magnified for us.
“I’ve been wondering if I feel more worn out by IRL friends because I’m already socially worn out by being online CONSTANTLY,” Hope (@hopebroidery) tells me.
“I think the internet has kind of messed with my understanding of myself, because I feel so drained after interacting with people in real life now, I think, hmm, maybe I’m an introvert? But I’m not… I just forget that when I’m spending time online, that counts as human interaction for me.”
The methods we do have to set boundaries online, feasibly to preserve our energy — blocking, ignoring, muting — are complicated for many reasons, including that each of us carries our own ideas about when and how to use them and the potential social repercussions of doing so.
Online, “if someone fucks up, that’s it. We can block, unfollow, cut them out,” Kaye, aka The Artsob, tells me. This engagement protocol seeps into her relationships in the real world, she says, creating “a sense that I expect people to be as perfect as the insulated world I’ve worked hard to create online, and when they aren’t, it’s jarring and I hate it.”
I suspect my own exhaustion around socializing in person falls somewhere in that paradigm too. By being so active online (something I turn to, again, because I’m often too exhausted for other forms of connection), I give myself permission to not socialize offline. I already feel like I’m doing it, and knowing I can do more online than I ever could offline doesn’t help either.
But being a person who is larger than life online makes me shy about not living up to *her* when I meet people in the world.
I expect people to realize this, to know this, but it’s uncanny to watch people reconcile your multiple selves in real time, to see them puzzle out the performance from the person, as if they aren’t doing a version of the same.
Fancy Feast, a burlesque performer, compared her internet presence to the work she does hosting. “When I’m an emcee, it’s like a simulacra of conversation, but it’s one-sided and to some extent improvised, to some extent written. It’s geared towards a specific audience, for them to have a specific experience, so in that way there’s a certain calculation that goes along with it.”
“That’s not the same as social interaction at all, but it feels like it sometimes, and it tires me the fuck out and precludes my ability sometimes to speak at all after shows.” She adds that sometimes, after shows, her audience wants or expects the version of her that’s “still up on the mic. It’s impossible and I am exhausted by that.”
Like Fancy Feast, I consider my platform a stage, although I feel keenly how porous that position is. Being on the mic is confusing: I’ve fostered a sense of intimacy where there often isn’t one, to the point where thousands of people unload their truths to me directly.
I feel both grateful and inundated, energized and exhausted. In every conversation, I have to question what I owe people, how much of myself to be versus the performance of self I am online.
Sometimes it’s a reprieve to talk to followers in private, in DMs, to feel like we can actually have an exchange. But I can’t always do that, and when I remind people of this — and that we don’t know each other — it seems sacrilegious.
Rarely do we consider the ease of sharing online, or the excruciatingly embarrassing reality that we may be projecting the structure of a conversation on what is, in fact, a soliloquy.
As both a “big page” and just a person, I’ve felt how being online is consuming while at the same time it’s license to be a little less there. It doesn’t take my full effort, which is why I’m drawn to it in the first place but maybe also why I give up so much of myself without realizing the cost.
We can divert our energy without anyone noticing, something that for us already-energy-depleted people is a blessing. We can engage in ways that don’t require all of us, through a variety of shorthand communication tools, or just stop responding.
I wonder if this feature I consider a gift can also be a burden, one that reframes offline connection as Herculean if only because of the singular focus it requires.
So what if this theory — that being online impacts our energy to engage with people IRL — is true, and we can’t really unplug, generally?
Do — or should — we care?
My instinct is to recite the script many of us rattle off, perhaps without really knowing how or realizing the extent of our ask: “Log off. Go talk to someone in real life.”
This is unrealistic or impossible for many. It sounds like Tim Robinson wandering around in a hot dog suit in “I Think You Should Leave,” espousing a too-familiar Ted Talk argument about how ruinous social media is.
The expectation that logging off equals offline connection feels rooted in a longing for something that never really was. It’s yearning for a type of communication with strangers that never existed as a way to alleviate the overwhelming wrongness of right now.
We want a thing to blame, just like we want the right take. It’s easier to say we’re too plugged in than to reconcile that maybe a distinct dichotomy of “plug” and “unplug” doesn’t exist anymore.
But I’ve found, through much trial and error, that asking the question “What is this doing to me?” is as worthwhile, if not more so, than seeking simple platitudes by which to answer it.
As with most things, I think the answer is to talk about it, with yourself and your friends, both virtual and IRL. While writing this, I started to keep a list (one written on paper — give me that nostalgia) of the conversations I was juggling that I actually wanted to give a meaningful response to.
I’ve started to ask myself what I expect from other people, in the same ways I bemoan the impossible amount of energy I feel people ask of me. I’ve stopped trying so hard to “figure people out,” knowing fully well that my online self is both me and not me and that the clearest way to get to the truth is to ask.
Ask yourself when you’re expecting other people to be who they are “on the mic” and when they do the same for you.