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My Life On The Internet

I turned off my phone for five days and the world I left behind went a little crazy. 

“Put the phone away”, suggested to me the title of a huge poster, in the meantime taken down by a crazy gust of wind. It was Sunday morning and a few firefighter and police crews had occupied one of the busiest boulevards in Bucharest. They had come to make sure that the poster, which could have easily covered two light planes, would not come down over passers-by and cars. Although I was already seeing it carried off by the wind like a giant bag, above the lively boulevard, going threateningly up and down with the force of a military chopper. In an hour, the poster disappeared off the building, and so did the crazy wind.

Now, besides the building pieces that can crash at any time over the passers-by, nothing threatens the busy boulevard: people swarm the sidewalks by the hundreds, with their faces stuck to their phones, and their cars are still blocking the boulevard and the crossroads.

And me – just like all the others, I live my two lives, physical and online, together: on the street, at the office or even during the night when I dazedly wake up to answer to insistent messages. And the two lives are not perfectly separable and they can be confused one with the other. From the moment I partially abandoned my real life, I make way for the second life, the virtual one. Social Media always asks me for answers to other people’s content and, at the same time, to generate my own content.

A part of my physical life has somehow started to be only to facilitate the content of the virtual life. Faced with a nature scene, the first impulse is to photograph it. I immediately upload the photograph to Instagram, choosing the right settings for it to be published on the other Social Media channels I’m present on, then I turn my attention to another adequate scene.

Loneliness on Social Media is associated with the fear of remaining only in the SEEN stage. Of generating content and not receiving any answer in exchange.

I live and work for the Internet, almighty, all-present and omnipotent. Google is my father, he knows where I am and with whom. Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail, iOS Messages, I’m everywhere. And also on LinkedIn, Twitter or on Instagram. All I’ve ever thought and read, images and pictures, all of my virtual history over which I have control can disappear with the help of a few clicks. In the end, the few gigabytes of information which belong to my virtual life could be erased in a moment.

Depending on the Social Media channel over which I communicate, I’m a complex bot-being: sometimes funny or sensitive, other times a Marketing professional; I give my opinion over art, music or politics. On Social media, I’m like a server with millions of circuits, capable to support a multitude of connections at the same time. In reality, I can barely hold on to a small number of human connections.

Loneliness on Social Media is associated with the fear of remaining only in the seen stage. Of generating content and not receiving any answer in exchange. In a few minutes, the life of a person can be destroyed: his business can disappear, his ugliest secrets exposed and his whole existence – brought into question.

But the true loneliness is the one that launches the excessive use of social networking sites, according to one of the most recent studies, done by the Communication Department of Kent State University. The study showed that people who feel alone and aren’t sociable could be more predisposed to using the internet excessively, up to the point where they show a compulsive virtual behavior which leads to isolation in the end.

The mobile phone has quickly turned into a partner in loneliness or rather – an antidote for loneliness. On grassy plains, from morning until late in the night, at the base of the mountains, where signal is rarer than the traditional Romanian wolf, we can imagine that the modern shepherd spends his time with his eyes on his mobile phone. When he doesn’t have signal for an internet connection, he most likely wastes his time with small action games.

From Jean Cocteau’s 1930 theater play, La Voix Humaine, which is actually a monologue over the phone, and until the present, when the internet has almost completely replaced voice, things have become even more impersonal, but more concentrated on creating some identities that reflect partially or fully our real lived. Cocteau’s monologue is governed by the woman’s fear that the conversation she is having with the man who is to marry another woman, can be cut off at anytime.

Cocteau’s fear that technology has affected the way in which we communicate would be evenmore justified today, when we have at our fingertips a multitude of instruments that depersonalize communication and when the way it spreads over its different channels is apparently unstoppable. There comes a time in our virtual existence when we do not hold control anymore: if someone takes an idea, a line of text or an image, they also take the right over it. It is an unwritten rule of the internet; it is, actually, the rule it functions upon.

If the subject abandons– either partially or completely – his virtual life, disappearing off Facebook or whichever channel he was present on, the audience starts questioning his real existence and even his physical integrity. When I decided to turn my phone off for five days, during a vacation, those who were used to me answering immediately got worried. Messages, e-mails, dozens of notifications which waited their turn. Both Twitter and Instagram showed worry about my absence through a few automatic e-mails.

A revolution could have started in those five days, and even end in those same days withover throwing the government, North Korea could have attacked the United States or entire peoples could have disappeared off the face of the Earth, and I wouldn’t have known about it. Although nothing happened, the world I had left behind while I was being preoccupied with other things went a little crazy in my absence.

Now, when I actively live my second life but I do not give all of myself to it, the people who message me and to whom I don’t reply immediately – maybe even before the message reaches me, they feel offended because I ignore them, some even get angry when they see I published a photo in the same day when they messaged me. This feeling, associated with the thought that someone is reading our message, but doesn’t react at all in any way, becomes even more intense when we feel mainly alone, isolated from our peers. Because, according to the same Kent State University study, we do not have someone that would listen to us and empathize with us in the real world either.

For my second life, the experiment of the turned off phone was, how Elliot Alderson from Mr. Robot would put it, like a software than ran in the background, getting more and more monopolizing while I was occupied with other things, a small software that, once I stopped being idle, burst into my virtual life, changing its direction and purpose for a while. All in all, I had to explain why I had been missing.

Like a person that knows the small engine called empathy from Social Media, I can say that this is exactly where the mirage is, the misleading affection form that leaves you with the impression that it swallows up loneliness. Because, had I disappeared forever from all the social networking sites, the people I have no connection with in real life would had completely forgotten about my existence. Physically speaking, nothing but a byte transfer connects us.

The subject of the Mr. Robot series, produced by Sam Esmail, if phrased around the alienation feeling that the internet pours over the users: the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, is alone and lonely, sometimes paranoid and he has a sharp sense of righteousness. The series is, somehow, an expression of pirated life which is then exposed to the whole world so that it will be blamed for justice. The sensation that everything we do on the internet is not just stored and it can always be used against us is the leitmotiv of the internet’s existence during the past few years.

“Nobody cared about who I am until I put on the mask” said Bane, the character played by Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises. On the other hand, this could work as the backdoor definition of Social Media – I would say, but also of the double life we lead on the internet: behind a profile picture in which we appear happy, a funny status or images with Labrador pups, hide away anxieties that we sometimes do not, under any circumstances, want to project over the identity we created in the online world.

The internet doesn’t accept us unconditionally either; we have to be in one of the extremes to feel like we really exist. Poor or rich, single or in a relationship, sad or happy – any way we would be, there must be a status that documents our life and the moods that own it. The success of our virtual life could be measured with a Social Listening platform, which shows the total number of mentions, shares and likes. And the internet forces us to a life, if not entirely, then partially double which, from a certain moment forward, we cannot restrain. While it unfolds, it becomes faster than we can type.

The beauty of these feelings, with all of their digital cynicism, will be absolute when there will be real connections, with a correspondent in the physical world.

Just like in White Bear, an episode of the Black Mirror series, one day we could all find ourselves hunted, publicly humiliated, and the whole show will be documented, in real time, on the internet. Only in an absurd future – because, not at all surprisingly, the internet still creates exabits of information under the rule of emotion. Ideally, our share of the internet could function based on the same principles and rules that govern our lives: we revolt, we rejoice, we start revolutions or we fall in love. The beauty of these feelings, with all of their digital cynicism, will be absolute when there will be real connections, with a correspondent in the physical world.

And, of course – just like that poster suggested, I put the phone away only to realize I can never let it down again. I am the only one responsible for the addiction and commitment to technology. In front of my God called internet, the one who makes me shudders at the small wonders off Instagram, I present myself sometimes sincere, sometimes hypocritical. And there will be days of insubordination, when I will decide to live without internet. As it is, without any projections, as beautiful as they would be.

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Laurențiu Ion

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