Talking to yourself – virtually

The following observations are not going to be easy for some to hear.

A few days ago I was walking through the Lanes in my home town of Brighton, UK. A man was walking on the other side of the road clearly talking to himself. It was quite an animated conversation and he was drawing mildly strange looks from passersby. I say ‘mildly’ because, these days, people are more used to disturbed behaviours on the street. We often joke that people on bluetooth headsets walking along the street also look like they are talking to themselves.

The man I saw in the Lanes was probably a bit disturbed. He was talking to himself, though he seemed quite articulate and angry in what he was saying to himself. People start talking to themselves for very different reasons. It can be part of mental illness and yet there’s a grey borderland because some people in the public eye -writers, philosophers, commentators confess in articles, chapters, diaries and columns to talking to themselves sometimes. You’ll find published scientists, pop stars, and actors all admitting to aloud self-conversation. So, this is one of those taboo areas because we tread carefully in wanting to avoid political incorrectness. Was the man walking along the street talking to himself a bit dotty, or was he perfectly sane and just being a bit creative or different? In at least some cases, a person becomes disturbed at being utterly alone and ends up talking to the only person there to listen.

In this particular case, I think he was a bit unstable, a bit disturbed. He looked very alone and I had a strong impression he didn’t have anyone else to talk to. I felt sad and a bit annoyed at myself and the rest of the passersby that we just… we passed by. I’ve seen him since, on a bus, and there he was, having an argument with himself again. Some children were pointing and giggling at him. I wondered again if he simply has no one else to talk to for days and days and days.

We now live in a western culture where the vast majority of human souls avoid anything more than split second eye contact with strangers. We are literally “alone together” in the street, in cafes, in public places and I am well aware that suits a lot of people very well indeed. But what if you really do seek connection and conversation with others? What if the distances between us all don’t suit you? How do you go about it?

I think it has become very difficult because starting up a conversation with a stranger is deemed to be risky and mostly weird! It isn’t the norm anymore, though it still happens at music festivals, at storm-hit bus stops, and wherever a bit of human empathy is still okay. People still say good morning walking their dogs in the park early in the morning, but pursue that hello further and you might just be a stalker.

But mostly, we have a culture of human avoidance. Not surprising then, that when people feel the need for a buzz of connection, they reach for the mobile device and cook up a text message. It is so easy. So accessible. And there’s no eye contact or physical touch involved at all.

We might even see this as a wonderful new thing – a new chance to connect to a whole load of people without the limitation of geographic proximity.

Hang in there please, the worst is yet to come.

I want to describe what I believe to be a bit of a tragic illusion. It is an ‘illusion of sharing’. An illusion of publishing. And it is to be found on the real of “online blogging”.

There are some great blogs – some excellent writing with a fair number of readers and even some vibrant interaction. Some people host visual galleries alongside their writing. Some blogs have really connected people and their thinking all over the world. But here’s the illusion. It’s an illusion that strikes “the little people”, the ordinary folk who have the potential to connect to other ordinary people, to develop friendships and be active citizens in vibrant physical communities. They may be poets. They may be philosophers. They may be inventors. They may have a unique take on the world, or they may be experts in some narrow field. They might just be sociable and extrovert. Whatever they are, they, like so many of us, would like to get a bit of human connection. What they fear is that, if they don’t, they’ll end up in the street, talking to themselves.

They see no easy way to achieve this in the physical world of today – in the world of real people in physical spaces. So they turn to the virtual world. They set up camp on Facebook, on Twitter and sometimes also start a blog on WordPress or Blogger. They join discussion groups and chat rooms. One of two of their friends and family know they are having trouble connecting, they know they are struggling with loneliness. So quickly they become flag-waving supporters, avid readers of the blog. Or do they? I’ve heard recent confessions from friends of one person – a poet – that they always “like” his posted poems, but rarely read them through. Several comment generally, trying to bluff their way into making their friend feel that they are not talking to themselves.

Look: If you have a wish to see the world and connect with a broader range of people, then take an honest look at your online “social whirl”. How many “friends” have you really got? Who is really responding to you, connecting with you? Of course the hugs and real – we aren’t THAT naive, but if it is real hugs you are aching for, then virtual hugs are a blind alley that leak will power in a kind of gentle, creeping distractive way.

So, again I ask. What have your really got? The same old crowd? What do the “likes” really mean and how nourished do you feel by them? If it’s all a bit of fun, fine. But how much of this time commitment of yours is reducing that itching feeling of isolation from humanity and loneliness in the world? If it is better than nothing and you have good reasons for accepting this as all you can get in your current specific life circumstances, then I am not trying to spoil your party. Take what you can, but if you have a wish and feel you have some will force for walking along a street where two people are next to you, deep in conversation with you, and where a cafe lies at the end of the road where you’ll meet someone new as well as connect with your current community, then drop the pretence. NO ONE IS READING YOUR BLOG. That is fine of you are using it for a genuine solitary journey such a keeping a diary or quietly exploring some thoughts (though why you’d want to share your intimate diary with the world is another question). But if you are spending hours checking in to an empty platform, perhaps it’s time to name the illusion and find a platform where a train actually stops.

In the world of business, I have seen whole departments and even organisations dive into the illusion that they are not talking to themselves. Post after post goes up and the same few people respond. They collect duff statistics of “thousands of hits” which, in reality, are all robotic search engines or people who have spent no more than a few seconds on the page. They talk it up , convince themselves they are succeeding and popular when, in reality, this is a dance where not even the band showed up to accompany you. There are blogs where the blogger is also the main responder! I even know one blogger who set up a couple of extra email addresses in order to make their blog posts look more responded to, by responding using these alternative identities!

I’d like to suggest that micro-blogging in nearly all cases is a kind of fleeing from the discomfort and harder challenge of connecting with a few people physically and authentically. Again, I remind you this isn’t true for absolutely everyone. But if you feel a deep and profound ache for others to connect with you, the worst thing you can do is enter Illusion Alley by lowering your expectations and then counting up the number of superficial and insincere “likes” on your latest one line post. Many posts go completely unanswered. More than you’d ever like to admit. Many individual and corporate blogs and discussion boards actually recycle the same few people, day after day after day. It is, of course, the equivalent of walking the street talking to yourself.

We are born with eyes to look, not only at the sky or our feet, but also each other. We are born with fingertips, made not only to type on a keyboard, but also to reach out and touch. Even if this is now a dangerous and risky thing to do with strangers, the benefits of feeling connected with others are nearly always healthful. They can be online too, if that connection is authentic and real – if the motive and activity of those who connect with us is genuinely real and warm. But if we have cooked up a fantasy by counting the number of “likes” and “facebook friends” and comment responses, when none of them were ever sent with care or a motive to truly connect, then we are crying tragically alone in the wilderness. This can happen in the physical world too, but I believe it happens less because over the effort required to make connections in the physical world. It’s the one-click nature of virtuality that fills the social jar with emptiness within minutes that is the big difference.

Soon enough, Facebook Timelines are going to start to look like tragic stories of loneliness, something a kin to confusing momentary eye contact with friendship, or accidentally bumping into someone on a train, with a hug. Try it now – look at some “timelines”, which are supposed to be stories of people. Too many are a monologue, a self-conversation, a narrative of recycled dreams and too much swaying alone to a slow tune on the dance floor of life.

The physical world is a counterpoint to the virtual. Complementing each other, the physical world is a place much harder to feel physically connected to others, whereas social media give you apparent, instant connection. It often borrows the terms of physical intimacy such as “hug” and “friend” and “sharing”. These terms are deployed at a much lower threshold of social quality. Friendship is one-click rather than given deeply or earned. It can be so, but rarely is. The connectedness becomes more functional than spiritual.

But if you are lonely, and lying in bed next to your Ipad, kissing your facebook connections goodnight, feeling the warmth of the device’s batteries – if this keeps the loneliness at bay, then this article has nothing to say to you. If you seek physical social connection, to feel communion with others through your eyes, your breathing, your curling upwards smile, the silences that come from warm vicinity, then you may just find that the illusion of connection online will be a kind of drug that becomes less effective over time, requiring you to take more and more of it, for less and less benefit.

Social media may be offering the illusion of connection, an illusion so believable, that many buy into it and yet, and the end of a long day, find hugging the digital world as satisfying as offering your love to a pillow. Time for an honesty check: who is really reading your blog – I mean, really? And when you “share”, are you really sharing with anyone other than yourself? How much care and attention is there in your online swirl? What is the quality of its quality? How deeply does it satisfy your profound (not your superficial) urge to feel connected?

What if your blog and your social media “story” is just one long walk-along-the-street conversation with yourself?

Posted on February 22, 2012, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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