Deep Dives: If we bring our loneliness to the internet, what do we take away?

‘Daydreamer’, by Günseli Sepici (2017)


2015 was the loneliest year of my life.

Over the past year, I’d begun experiencing a range of confusing, debilitating symptoms. Blinding headaches. Creeping neck pain. Inexplicable exhaustion. And then came the beast that would go on to eat my life: dizziness. A tilting of my axis I could not control, presenting itself at the most inopportune moments. The world transformed into a rocky boat, my long-standing fear of the sea finally justified. I ended 2014 on my oldest friend’s bed, propped up against pillows, pretending this was exactly how we’d planned to bring the new year in.

And then came 2015, which brought far fewer opportunities for pretence. By February, dizziness had overtaken my days. Diagnoses from spondylitis to ME to that great question patented by male doctors — ‘Are you stressed?’ — were conferred upon me, but none offered a solution. I went from being a public-speaking, bass-dancing, beer-drinking woman in her mid-twenties to someone who couldn’t walk ten feet without feeling the ground beneath her feet whisked away. I spent months at a stretch in bed, cut off from friends, activism, alcohol: the things that gave my life shape.

Bewildered and lonely, I reached out to steady myself — and found myself holding Twitter.

I’d created my Twitter account a couple of years earlier while working on a research study, and had used it intermittently ever since: to share articles, live-tweet conferences, and articulate my constantly changing politics. But when I found myself bedridden, with no conceivable cure in sight, I dove in headfirst.

I took 140 character flights from my aching body and spun long threads to escape the web of my spinning world. There I was, talking about my sexual awakenings. Here I went, re-tweeting relief efforts for a major disaster. Oh look, I had a bunch of new progressive friends.

Offline, I sank deeper into my bed, measuring time with failed medical treatments and missed events. Pills, Ayurveda, acupuncture. Weddings, scholarships, conferences. I was depressed, disoriented, and spent most afternoons curled up in a panicked ball of anxiety.

In the meantime, I clutched harder at my Twitterverse. But something strange had started to go down: the harder I clutched, the worse I felt. Voices that had collectively comforted me merged into a deafening roar. Politics were moving too fast for my unstable world. Simple interactions grew confusing and heavy, leaving me tired.

I’d come to the internet in loneliness, but when I turned off my phone every night, what was I leaving with?

* * *

In 2004, a guest user logged onto — a Q&A forum for media file conversion — and started a new thread: ‘i am lonely will anyone speak to me?’

Over the weeks and months, on a website designed for a specific techie purpose, the thread filled up with replies. People who were single long after their friends married and moved away. Folks whose relatives had rapidly died, one after the other. ‘I can’t believe I typed in this message and found so many people feeling the same way,’ said one user. Another wrote, ‘But the happy part is now we have a chance — if anyone is sad, if anyone is really lonely, drop me a line; then maybe we won’t be so lonely anymore.’

In fact, so many other people were lonely that for the next few years, if you typed “I am lonely” into Google (something that approximately 46,000 Indians Google every day), the MovieCodec thread was the first hit.

I’ve never understood people who prefer to figure things out on their own. Sharing pain is a deeply human act, and I take everything from difficult relationships to floundering self-esteem to wretched grief to the people I trust. I believe that together we can get through anything, even if ‘getting through’ means holding my hand while I weep in front of Buffy.

And when you don’t have a physical hand to hold, or at least not beyond your illness-mandated social circle of three, the internet connects you with others sailing in similar, solitary boats.

One such ocean I sailed into was the chronic illness community. Scattered across hashtags, Facebook groups, blogs and medical forums, the internet connected me with tens of thousands of people experiencing undiagnosed or incurable pain. I didn’t participate; instead, I quietly read. Of Christmases spent too sick to get out of bed, jobs long-since quit, decades of despair.

Over the months I came to realise that unless a forum was moderated by a specific intention (like ‘encouragement’ or ‘healing’) or helmed by one person (typically someone who had learned to thrive with or overcome illness), the chronic illness community was a deep ocean of despair. Threads that began with relieved agreement — ‘I feel that way too’ — devolved into litanies of tremendous grief. It often seemed that people were talking at each other, not to each other. But perhaps that was only natural. After all, how much of someone else’s grief can you hold inside yourself, especially when all you know about them is their pain?

In 2016, MovieCodec shut down. The site’s webmaster created a replacement forum, A Lonely Life, for the thread’s original users. By this time, though, it was no longer a top Google hit. Several other platforms had stepped in. The Web of Loneliness Institute. Friends in Need. Sharing Dard, a platform for Indians to share their saddest secrets.

Developers had caught on to the simple truth that for most people, knowing that others are in the same boat makes them feel less alone.

What isn’t clear, though, is if that knowledge makes us less lonely.

* * *

A close friend of mine in England is a well-known public figure, who spends most days with more members of the human race than I care to meet across a lifetime. Recently, I was complaining about how I sometimes feel terribly lonely as a writer: day after day, sitting at my computer, willing myself to be alone. After listening thoughtfully, she hesitated and then asked, ‘Do you know this feeling, when you’re surrounded by so many people all the time? It’s the loneliest feeling in the world.’

I did know. Maybe not in the same paparazzi-hounded way she did, but I knew. It was a feeling that halfway into 2015 had begun to permeate my online experiences. Escalating arguments. Fast and furious exchanges. A relentless cascade of news I could not change, but felt compelled to respond to.

I had pockets of solace: close friends in private DMs, slow-paced storytelling, the rich world of porn that I could passively consume. But the aching isolation of illness was gnawing away at me, and this time around, refused to be tamed by the promise of a hundred retweets.

Around that time, I met a woman named Torali online. She was 26 then, from a small town in Northeast India. Living in a tightly controlled, abusive family environment, Torali took to an anonymous Twitter account to talk about her pain. Closeted sexuality. Depression. Suicidal thoughts. She was not alone in her experiences, but what struck me was the deafening silence her tweets were often met with. I later learned that she had several online friends, but they lived far away, asleep when she was awake, and vice versa. But it was that lonely call into the crowded digital void that drew me in.

We had lengthy email exchanges, and I tried my very best to help her: listening, making gentle suggestions, contacting organisations. But the world is big, contexts are different, and I was spiralling into my own illness. Our communication faded gently, leaving me feeling sad, but also — I’m ashamed to admit it — relieved. The weight of her pain was too much to carry, especially when compounded with my own.

When I wrote to my friend Nadika — a trans* woman from Tamil Nadu — about this essay, she told me about her early experiences of going online. She was young, lonely, with few close friends, and the internet provided her with immense solace. Yet she echoed to me the feeling so many of us experience: on crowded trains, in the middle of a city, scrolling down our Twitter timelines — the loneliness of being in a crowd.

Cultural differences contributed to Nadika’s sense of loneliness. Trans-friendly platforms on Tumblr were very US-centric, and she explains, ‘It felt like I was in a crowd of people. I could follow the conversation, but really couldn’t say anything meaningful.’

The question of what counts as meaningful speech is closely tied to who gets heard — and by extension, who escapes the gruelling loneliness of being ignored. There are perennial jokes running across the Indian interwebs about men who reach out to women online: ‘how r u?’ ‘i am looking for frnd’. These creepy dudes seem to be everywhere: Other Inboxes, Twitter mentions, Instagram comments. But sometimes I uncomfortably wonder: are we more creeped out by their gender or by their English?

I visited the Instagram account of one such young man I encountered. A black and white picture he posted a day ago features a downcast minion accompanied by the words, ‘Do you ever feel like nobody really cares?’ Each of his posts is accompanied by a bunch of sad emojis. Four days ago, a picture (also featuring a minion) read, ‘It’s easier to fake a smile than to explain why you are sad.’

We listen to people who sound like us: correct grammar, on-point cultural references, chat up lines prefixed with “yass kween” — not “hai frnd.”’ As Rebecca Solnit writes in The Faraway Nearby, ‘The tragedy of the imprisoned, the unemployed, the disenfranchised and the marginalised is to be silenced in this great ongoing conversation, this symphony that is another way to describe the world.’

Lots more people are online today, but the idea that everyone with a smartphone can now be heard is far from true.

* * *

Over the past decade, I’ve closely followed the work of British journalist George Monbiot — even after I lost the ability to keep up with the news from two different countries, also known as my two homes. Recently, Monbiot has been focused on telling a particular story. In an article for The Guardian, he writes, ‘We are shaped, to a greater extent than almost any other species, by contact with others. The age we are entering, in which we exist apart, is unlike any other that was gone before…This is the Age of Loneliness.’

Using data from the UK and beyond, Monbiot compellingly argues that human beings, who are intrinsically social, are being peeled apart from one other.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle holds technology responsible for this feeling of being ‘connected, but alone.’ In her 2012 TED Talk, Turkle argues that our excessive reliance on communication technology is taking us further away from each other. We mistake connection for conversation, and we expect more from technology (faster internet speeds, more effective mute buttons) and less from each other (*hugs* not hugs).

Or do we? Sure, we’re replacing phone calls with text messages and movie theatres with Netflix, but according to Monbiot, the central cause of loneliness isn’t technology; it’s ideology. More specifically, it’s neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is a sneaky fucker that takes two diametrically opposing ideas — free market capitalism and actual human freedom — and tells us that they’re inherently linked (spoiler alert: they’re not). The way it does this is by focussing on the importance of the individual, who is then placed in competition with other individuals. Competitive individualism is freedom, neoliberalism tells us in many different ways. Phrases like ‘standing on your own two feet’ or being ‘self-made’ makes this logic feel palatable, and even desirable.

But as Monbiot writes, ‘…of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous.’ Very few people win at capitalism, and studies show that even those who do reap its promised benefits — fame, wealth, success — are still plagued by loneliness.

I’d take this one step further, and bring it back to technology. Today, ideology and communication technologies are very literally being shaped by the same small set of individuals. The ideology that is shaping our markets is also shaping our tech, which then shapes, to a certain extent, the communities we create using that tech. As Monbiot writes, ‘…far from curing the disease of isolation, [this] intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves.’

And social media is a prime hunting ground.

* * *

I joined Facebook when I arrived at university — back then, Mark Zuckerberg’s mega-platform was still a social network for students in higher education. As Facebook expanded, its principle structure remained the same — your profile serves as a point of confluence for various streams of people you encounter — school friends, building friends, university flatmates, colleagues, family. The pressure of people who would normally be kept very far apart from each other converging on your profile means that Facebook is often the shiniest, happiest farce on the internet. Everyone is their best mythical selves: gorgeous holidays, Hallmark romances, BFFs evidenced by TimeHop.

After I fell ill, I literally couldn’t stomach it. Twitter feminism made me feel useful, important, and capable. Scrolling through pictures of yet another club night I was too dizzy to dance at made my intestines turn to lead. I left Facebook in a fit of aching jealousy, but if I hadn’t, I am almost certain that green-eyed monster would have ripped me apart.

It turns out that jealousy is a prominent feature of many people’s internet lives. A friend of mine recounts a time when her self-esteem considerably wavered, and watching others say things confidently on Twitter made her deeply jealous. ‘It spirals,’ she explains. ‘All of this really horrid stuff comes to the surface.’ In turn, I clock a disturbing amount of time scrolling through the internet profiles of writers who are infinitely more eloquent and prolific than me.

Digital communication technologies allow us to edit ourselves — and we constantly do. Backspace, delete, and the Nashville filter are not available to us offline, and in many ways, this is one of the gloriously freeing things about the internet. We change genders, try out new voices, extend ourselves into different avatars. We often take these avatars offline: political understandings, newfound body confidence, deeper understandings of people very different to us.

At the same time, it is a collective participation in this very editing process that leaves us resentful. Everyone is always doing so much better than us, even if all we know about them is a thinly curated slice.

* * *

I re-entered Twitter as my health began to improve, but a series of even the most positive public interactions still leaves me feeling emotionally drained. I’m carefully watching what I say, curating it for my audience (many of whom now include my friends), because the internet has become terribly unforgiving. As Olivia Laing writes in her essay on the future of loneliness, the internet is creating a culture of ‘perpetual scrutiny’. Social media makes us hyper-aware that we are being watched: by Big Brother, but also by all the little brothers and sisters who we, in turn, stare back at.

On the one hand, there’s Google, carefully archiving away your misadventures for all of posterity, and on the other hand, are your fellow netizens, lining up in a kangaroo courtroom to call out language, opinions, ideas. The internet rarely forgives us our mistakes, so we edit ourselves into people who never make any.

Putting my best face forward is a wonderful ego stroke, but it doesn’t make me feel particularly human. As Laing writes, ‘The cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person — ugly, unhappy, awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready’. By design, every tweet is haunted by ghosts of the tweets you didn’t send; every Instagram picture cuts the mess just outside the frame.

I was texting a close friend (who I made online, btw), telling her I was almost grateful for my illness, because otherwise I’d have to actually meet Twitter folks and be the world’s biggest IRL disappointment. I was half-joking, but in the throes of severe illness, the awning gap between my online and offline selves had begun to terrify me. The Cyborg Manifesto hadn’t prepared me for the terrible realisation that this physical body is the one we ultimately live in. We get to have out-of-body adventures in cyberspace, but this body is what we come home to.

Don’t like this thought? Neither do I. This body is a train-wreck. It is a massively dislocated jaw, frequent spells of dizziness, migraines for breakfast disaster.

The things I do to leave my body are, in many ways, life-saving: they nourish me, make me laugh, sometimes even teach me more about my body than I knew before. But when I turn away from the screen, switch off the light and close my eyes, I am still in my body. And the further away from my sore muscles I fly in cyberspace, the worse the shock of falling back into myself.

This landing, its terrible thud, is the sound of crushing loneliness.

* * *

In 2016 I started to feel much better, for reasons that are as complicated and non-linear as any human story. I was accidentally adopted by two kittens who didn’t care that I was broken. I spent a month on a beautiful farm with a very brilliant friend. I learned to sit on a yoga mat and breathe into every shitty complaint my body had. I received a concrete diagnosis, with a plausible cure somewhere down the road.

But I know, too, that a part of losing my sense of deep loneliness was learning to use the internet in a way that didn’t make me crazy.

I began engaging with the parts of online humanity that uplifted me: art, books, music, sex. In turn, I tried to avoid the parts that dragged me down: call-out culture, fast-paced politics, moralising.

I found women online, often writers, who lived with illnesses. They helped me better understand how to consider my own life: with grace, determination, joy.

I sincerely tried — and still try — to close the gap between my online and offline lives. I talk about my health, no longer pretend I can hold my alcohol, and regularly add photographs to the internet’s cat-fortress. I take the people I love in public into private: direct messages, texts, email, snail-mail. These less surveilled forms of communication let me be a truer version of myself: I’m less careful about language and self-image, which gives me more time to be interested in people and conversations.

The truth is, I love the internet, and I really do believe in the possibilities that it makes room for.

But this love, like all loves, is not always straightforward. It is tinged with wariness: at technology that is bound up in all sorts of oppression, including my own; at awareness that sometimes all it takes is a few tweets to ruin my morning; at the knowledge that digital technology has choicelessly entered our lives — so rapidly, so deeply that to disentangle ourselves is very nearly impossible.

And that despite all the wonderful people the internet contains, maybe the cure for loneliness isn’t connection or connectivity. Maybe it’s two tiny kittens purring into your ribcage.

After all, you can always Instagram them later.

This piece was first published on Deep Dives on 24 March 2017


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