Navigating authenticity online
Whether or not you love it for enabling connectivity, or hate it for causing isolation, or like me, are torn between both, the internet is an inescapable reality of 21st-century life (in a country like Australia). So the question on my mind is: how can we use the internet so that we get all the perks, without having to feel all the existential dread? In this article, I will do my best to put your (read my) mind at ease by figuring out how to be real not IRL.
Trying to answer this question, I did what any millennial would do first. I googled. (Yes, it is now a verb). Specifically, I googled “pros and cons” of the internet. The most common pro was the way the internet democratises information, allowing more people to know more stuff. This capacity to spread information can break down power imbalances in society not only because less privileged people can access more information more easily but also because the information itself can be empowering. After all, knowing your rights is an essential step in fighting for your rights. For example, you’re less likely to get underpaid at work if you know what the minimum wage is for your job type.
Similarly, my own experience has taught me that social media can replace or supplement traditional forms of education. This may sound strange, but if it wasn’t for Instagram I honestly don’t think I would have learnt (or at least been able to articulate) half the things I now believe about feminism, queer issues and race politics. In fact, the personal nature of Instagram allows it to be a space for exchanging ideas in a way that classrooms or lecture theatres struggle to match. People communicating ideas learnt from their own life experiences in a non-technical way can change who gets to know what, therefore challenging traditional knowledge hierarchies. By providing new ways of accessing the experiences, ideas and values of others, the internet can position people to understand (and empathise!) more easily with a wider range of views. This has clear social benefits and is especially important in a society that often dismisses the importance of lived-experience. Basically, free information = good.
Crucially, the internet can provide marginalised groups of people with something more than information. It can provide a tool to create community. Unfortunately (and unacceptably), certain demographics of people may feel unsafe in public space. For these people, online communities can be invaluable spaces for sharing resources and, perhaps most importantly, for free self-expression and the development of friendship.
Google also offered some familiar ‘cons’. These include a decreased sense of privacy and an increase in rates of internet addiction, defined as compulsively prioritising online ideas, friendships and activities over their real-life counterparts. Apparently, this addiction can get so serious that people stop meeting their basic human needs like feeding and cleaning themselves. Not good!
Another con, which is particularly related to social media and which I definitely experience, is fear of missing out (FOMO). FOMO is often thought of as a form of quasi-jealousy and is defined in the dictionary as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on social media.” To my mind, the best way to explain FOMO is a feeling that we’re not living correctly. FOMO manifests when we see pictures of smiley people on our news feed or insta-scrolling and assume that these people are always smiley. This makes us feel bad because we know that we are not always smiley and conclude that there must be something wrong with us and/or our lives. Since FOMO is a contemporary mental health phenomenon, it begs the question whether connectivity and isolation come as part of the package delivered by the internet. To answer this question, we need to talk about the other part of this investigation – authenticity.
Authenticity is one of those words that is used all the time in everyday conversations but is surprisingly hard to define. We look for it in others. We try to cultivate it in ourselves. We are moved when we see it on film and media. But what is it and can it be taught? Part of the reason it’s a tricky one is that understanding what it means to be authentic requires an understanding of who we are, which, as we know, is not so easy. Translating our true selves online, then, is a whole other ballgame. Especially in a society that places so much importance on fitting in, it can be hard to know whether we post and share certain things because we want to, or because we feel we should want to.
Being authentic online is more likely to happen if we limit the time we spend glued to our phones. It may feel funny at first limiting phone use but that just shows how important it is to do so. Sometimes we don’t realise we have dependencies until we try and stop. Switching off every now and then also makes you realise that the world is oh so big and that you are oh so small. This perspective can be calming and can make you care less about what you post. What you post then becomes more you because it is less curated and more knee-jerk what you like/think/feel/are interested in a moment. It also makes you realise that no one is always smiley and it has been shown that limiting phone use can improve mental health by reducing the anxiety associated with FOMO.
So, are we destined to have to take the good with the bad and is being authentic online an achievable goal? My answer is mixed – it is possible to enjoy the perks of the internet without suffering the aforementioned cons but, counter-intuitively, this goal is best achieved by limiting the amount of time we actually spend online. Despite this muddy picture, hopefully, you are now less confused about being you online, or at least, authentically confused.
Finola Laughren wrote this article if you are interested in helping to build the Stir Blog email us at Magazine@causeastir.com.au