the problem with the internet

The Internet is amazing. It gives a place for socially outcast kids to come together and realize they are not alone in both their interests and struggles.

You, the senior in high school with the Pokemon backpack. It’s okay. You’re not weird. There are others like you.

You, the guy wearing the black lipstick. It’s okay. You’re not a freak. There are others like you.

You, the person who owns the complete Gilmore Girls series on BluRay….well, there’s something wrong with you but the point is what makes you strange to one person makes you intriguing to someone else. And it’s hard living in a certain area where you don’t fit in because it makes it seems like you’re the one with the problem but that’s not the case at all. The only one with the problem is the one giving you a hard time for being yourself.

Are you gay or trans or like people of a different race or believe in a different god or like foreign movies or prefer to visit graveyards instead of The Gap? It’s okay. There are other headstone hoppers out there who would gladly let you tag along.

Social networking sites like Tumblr allow you to find these people and connect with them in a way you would not have been able to otherwise. With that connection comes reassurance that you are not abnormal because you sculpt Dr. Who action figures or enjoy analyzing the subtext of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Saturday nights. Whatever freaky fetish or outlandish longing you have, someone else out there shares that same passion. You can find a community. You can find support. You can find friends.

The problem lies in the fact that the majority of these friends are usually hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away. And it’s nice to be able to exchange instant messages and even a text or a phone call with these people, but I can’t help but to think it still doesn’t beat face-to-face interaction. I fear there’s so much we miss out on when miles are placed between us. I fear we never get the full effect of friendship. I fear there’s only so much we can put into a chat window. The nuance of voice and body language gets lost amid text messages.

And you can’t drive to that person’s house on a whim in the middle of the night for a chat session. You can’t embrace them when you need physical reassurance. You can’t see their face light up when you walk into the room. While we believe we are developing bonds, are we only getting half the connection we need to feel fulfilled?

I was always weird. As hard as I fought to fit in with everyone when I was in high school, it was apparent from the beginning I wasn’t into football and church like my peers. I favored art and vampires. I was always drawn to the darker aspects of existence and that made others uncomfortable. I liked to draw and write poetry and no one appreciated that until I went online and found others who were into the same macabre material.

It felt good to get positive feedback on my writing and my thought process. While my peers thought I was weird, others thought I was wonderful. I felt like less of an outcast. I felt less alone. I felt like I was beginning to belong, a feeling I had been craving for years.

But that only took me so far. I felt I had a place to go as long as I was in my room but out in the real world, I was alone again. I saw people pairing up all around me, holding hands. I only had a computer mouse to hold.

And suddenly I found myself wanting to interact with my Internet buddies in real life. I wanted them to sit on my couch on a Friday night like normal people did. I wanted to watch zombie movies and eat pizza with them like normal people did. I wanted the closeness, the physicality, the social norms most people experienced. Instead, I had to log on to hang out. It was great but it wasn’t the real thing. I thought I had started to belong but that normalcy was still out of reach.

I couldn’t go to the mall or a restaurant with my Internet friends. I was limited. I was stagnant in the progression of relationships, of intimate interaction. I never fully learned how to look people in the eye and hold it. I never learned the art of touch and now I don’t like for people to touch me because no one ever had before except for a stray hug here or there. I’ve never cuddled and only held one hand in my life and the whole time I felt uncomfortable because it felt so foreign.

Interaction is easy when you’re sitting in your pajamas in front of a computer screen where you can edit your thoughts and feelings before sending them into cyberspace. But it’s not the same when that flat screen turns to flesh, when text turns to touch, when social simulation turns to social suicide.

I think online friendships are still great, as long as you have a foundation of real life relationships to glean the majority of your social skills. Once you know how to act with real people, Internet interactions are likely healthier and more satisfying. But what happens when online friendships are all you’ve ever had?

Places like Tumblr are simultaneously wonderful and tragic. You see you are not the only one like yourself but sometimes I think instead of being reassuring, it can make you feel worse because you know there are others out there but you can’t touch them. They dangle in front of you, tantalizing in the potential for healing. But they’re just out of range. You reach up and bleed out in succulent agony. And at the end of the day, when you sign out and shut your eyes, you are still alone.

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