The Internet is as Exhausting as You Make It

In the consistently-fascinating journal n+1, Alice Gregory insightfully expounds on the modern race to keep pace with the imagined expectations of the social digital world.

I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both “keep up” with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM.

I have felt this pressure myself, the desire to maintain a respectable degree of relevance online means, even for a lowly, largely-unknown individual, generating content on a regular basis. And I often fail. But I intentionally used the word “imagined” in the first sentence to describe the expectations, because they are just that. No one is forced — or even asked — to be social networking machines, or reliable human e-periodicals. If we take part, if we struggle to tread water, it’s because we choose to.

But Gregory sees it differently, writing as though she has little choice. In the context of a novel review, she writes:

Shteyngart [the novel’s author] says the first thing that happened when he bought an iPhone “was that New York fell away … It disappeared. Poof.” That’s the first thing I noticed too: the city disappeared, along with any will to experience. New York, so densely populated and supposedly sleepless, must be the most efficient place to hone observational powers. But those powers are now dulled in me. I find myself preferring the blogs of remote strangers to my own observations of present ones. Gone are the tacit alliances with fellow subway riders, the brief evolution of sympathy with pedestrians. That predictable progress of unspoken affinity is now interrupted by an impulse to either refresh a page or to take a website-worthy photo. I have the nervous hand-tics of a junkie.  For someone whose interest in other people’s private lives was once endless, I sure do ignore them a lot now.

To which I would say: Then leave the phone in your pocket. If these “analog” interactions are so important to a given person’s humanity, then allow for them. Embrace them. And as the other riders with whom you share the subway stare into their own iPhones, accept that this is the new reality that you are presented with to observe, one in which the private lives that interest you so now have a new factor.

But if you actually prefer the life of the iPhone, if it actually suits you, despite whatever preconceived notions you have of yourself or what you are “supposed” to prefer, embrace that, and make it your own. Not by some unwritten (or unblogged) standard of content generation consistency, but by the e-periodical that is you. If nothing else, the Internet allows us the space to give as much of ourselves as we wish: no more and no less.

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