Thoughts on a year of being sociable on the internet

4 Jan 2015, 2:54 p.m.

Looking back on 2014, I would say that this was the year I finally cracked some things about being social on the internet, something I've been overthinking ever since I first got on in 1999 (which means for half of my lifetime. Oof). My main take on it remains, Sometimes the internet is just another place to be shy, but here is a bit of extra reflection.

I spent a lot of time on Tumblr this year. Probably too much. Okay — definitely too much. I spent so much time on Tumblr this year that my boyfriend complained about it and I felt the need to sign out completely for the last two months of the year.

The things that draw me into Tumblr are about equal parts positive and negative. I try to keep my feed there as slim as possible (as previously mentioned), but this is harder to do than on Twitter, since you can't just turn off reblogs as you can for retweets. As such, Tumblr poses the obvious danger of the ever-refreshing fountain of content. The unread-posts count climbs constantly. There are links and more links to click, newer pretty things to discover.

The obvious nice things about Tumblr for me were the endless stream of pretty pictures and the opportunity it offers for ambient awareness of friends I don't see in person much. What changed this year was that I also started using it for fandom purposes and made new friends there. Having spent years trying vainly to understand What Fandom Is, Why Fandom Is, and What I Should Do About Fandom, at some time in 2013 I stumbled across the Vampire Chronicles fanfic Gulfport and the Marvel Cinematic Universe/diary comics mashup American Captain and got it like the flash of light you see when you stick your head in particle accelerator. More or less. There turned out to be a bubbling online Vampire Chronicles fandom, more than ten years after the (then) last book had been published (look here! look here too!). This pleased me greatly, as I do love vampires, and I was just in time for the exciting announcement of Prince Lestat.

(Mostly) through discovering these fandoms, I got to know a few people who've brought a lot to my life recently. I've had conversations with people who were previously strangers to me! I also found the courage to compliment artists and writers, or let people know when their contributions online had really helped me out, which feels great and can open up even more positive conversations. To be honest, I always half-suspected that 'meeting people on the internet' was a made-up thing, but it turns out it can indeed happen. Awesome!

... Of course, there is also a downside to this increased sociability, which is that there are now more people in front of whom to be shy — and more things to be shy about, too. An online acquaintance that consists of reblogging pretty pictures back and forth from one another is a relatively low-stress one, although there's still some stress there. (What if I stop finding pictures that will interest them? Ohnoes.) As relationships are built up, though, a point approaches where it would be good to have deeper conversations, and that can be very hard! I've always felt deeply envious of people who can write openly about their thoughts, feelings and problems online. This feels wrong, somehow, because it's not like I envy them their problems, just their ability to open up to others about them. I find it very difficult to even comment on other people's (although I think I am getting better at offering sympathy or encouragement), and when I do it's treacle slow. This anodyne little post has taken several days' thought and many, many tab switches to distract myself from the difficulty of writing it. I would really love to be able to have deep, sensible conversations about serious topics with the people I know online, whether they began as meatspace friends or not, but this will probably take a lot longer. In the meantime, I find myself doubting that I am a very good friend because of this.

I did, however, finally talk about — all over the place, or so it feels, so I'm sorry for bringing this up once again — the gender stuff that's been percolating in the back of my brain for the last twenty years. Well done, Rae.

On a less scarily emotional level, I think I did well with MetaFilter and my public online persona (augh) in 2014. I posted eight times to the MeFi front page, which was largely well received although one post was deleted for being a double, and made a conscious effort to contribute more in discussions there. You can see all my MeFi posts here. This was partly inspired by the awesome and very successful JulyByWomen project.

What's more, over on Twitter — where my account is friendslocked and discourse is snappy — I would personally rate my human interaction as a B+ or even an A-. That probably means I think I'm far funnier than is actually the case, but I'm fine with this. Twitter is a very helpful tool for staying close to distant friends. I'm going to miss it when it finally turns into Facebook.

Having found the web development job I began at the start of 2014 pretty much through networking, volunteering, and building up a real-name internet presence where I established myself as an expert of sorts, I conclude that, some time in the course of 2013, I was abducted and replaced by a podperson masquerading as me. Still, I continued to actually use my real-name Twitter account in professionally relevant ways. It's particularly useful for following what's going on during conferences. I wouldn't say I've built deep relationships over public Twitter, but I've learned about interesting news and projects, found a tiny niche for myself in my city's tech and open data scenes, and kept sporadically in touch with people I've met in person.

CrowdPee, and my blog on gender-neutral toilets, have really not seen as much love as they ought to have done in the last year, because working on interesting things that have meaning for me is terrifying. Heh. At any rate, they haven't been totally abandoned.

Reading back over the above, I see a lot of ways in which I've managed to become more outgoing and get along better with people in the last year or two. (This includes both purely online relationships and offline ones that are supported by online contact, online behaviour being my focus in this post.) There's still a large overhead of anxiety/overanalysis/self-doubt that's holding me back, though, both from being sociable and from doing really productive things with my life. (I mean, just look at this post. One housemate is working on a maths project, the other is working on a new feature for the computer game he's developing, and I am gazing into my own navel in order to bemoan my inferior social and navel-gazing skills.)

This year, I will try to keep up the good behaviours I've learnt, like reaching out to people with positive comments, even if a small note feels like a token gesture and I'm not able to come up with something bigger. I will make an effort to see people in person as much as possible, both socially and professionally, because that's a much wider bandwidth channel than social media. (This month I'm going to a conference with two coworker friends and looking forward to it a lot, for example.) I'll take breaks from Tumblr and other social media if they get too stressful. And I will somehow try to keep chipping away at the anxious block between me and actually doing all the bright ideas I come up with — that's the hardest one, and wants to be broken down into more small goals, I think.