In college, everyone had America Online Instant Messenger (AIM). We all had screen names that were related to us but that were not our God-given monikers. Mine was nightwing8782. I still use that today on many things, such as my Xbox. I remember sitting at my Dell for hours at night hoping that someone would send me a message to see how I was. I would post statuses that would just ask for communication. And it drove me crazy whenever no one would say hello. I would go to chat rooms or other places just to have some personal interaction. The ironic part is that only five feet away was a roommate, twenty feet away were fellow cross country runners, and within a quarter-mile was over 900 real-life people.
When I read the article Is Facebook Making Us Lonely in this month’s The Atlantic Monthly, I had to agree with the main point, but I also had to disagree with the idea that this is a new phenomenon or that it is isolated to Facebook. The Internet has created a home for the lonely in a way that even Roy Orbison couldn’t imagine. It gives us a glimpse into the good days of all of our acquaintances. It allows people to stay close but far enough away as to not get hurt. But as the writer notes in the article, it’s a tool that can be used in many ways.
Over the past few years, I have worked at using the Internet, Facebook, and even this blog, as more of a tool instead of my source of communication. I do not sit on Gmail, or AIM, or any other instant message mechanism hoping that someone will contact me. I do my best to call people and now I actually make the bold decision to have physical friends. I turn to Facebook to share in people’s joys, not to dwell in my failures. I use Facebook to post stories that I have written, this blog that I have begun to take more seriously, and share a few thoughts about my day.
But the Internet over the years has also given me confidence.
This past weekend, I went to C2E2, the Chicago Comic-Con. Yes, there are lots of people who wear costumes of their favorite superheroes (as shown above), video game characters, and other themes that they enjoy. I went with friends from work who had listened to me talk about the mundane daily interactions among the comic book Internet community. When I first read comics in high school, I did not know a single other person who went to a comic shop on Wednesday. Even in college, I would hide them under my bed because I thought they were embarrassing. No one understand my AIM moniker for instance. Nightwing is the adult version of the first Robin, Dick Grayson. But then I went online to find people who like what I like. I found communities with message boards, blogs, podcasts, and lots of other mediums. I wrote a Blue Beetle story for a fan fic Yahoo Group. I realized I wasn’t alone. And it was marvelous!
But the Internet can be an angry, lonely place. At The Iceberg Lounge, Steve K. writes blogs about recent trades or comics and recently wrote about the state of the Internet community. This is a community that I dream of becoming a part of. I imagine sitting around a table at a convention one day with all of these great critics and men and women who just love comics. I find comics so interesting and amazing and I dream of talking about it. I love talking about the different art styles, some that I like and some that I dislike. I think to myself about the great writing being done at many of the small presses.
As Steve K. notes, it is also full of vitriol, and it seems to be on the rise. The Internet (and Facebook) give us all the chance to complain to a wide audience. We all become Simon Cowells – judging people we barely know to try to be funny, iconoclastic, annoying. I am sure that everyone has at least one friend on Facebook or Twitter or whatever that is constantly complaining about their job, their spouse, their kids, their … I might be that friend to you.
And there is a reason why: people like reading angry diatribes. People like bad reviews. A good review or a good story doesn’t get the attention of someone talking about how sad they are or how bad their friend/spouse/boss/President is. Think about your likes or comments on a wall. Do you respond to positive thoughts or to negative thoughts? I know I remember the negative ones more. The same is true about comic book commentary. I remember when someone writes badly about Stephen Wacker or Marvel. I remember when someone badmouths something that Dan Didio is doing over at DC Comics. It’s more entertaining.
This creates isolation, however. If the marketplace of ideas does not hear good thoughts due to lack of voice, then those who, for instance, liked Avengers v. X-Men don’t feel comfortable adding their two cents to the dialogue. If someone is trying to get attention on Facebook posts about how great their day was and no one asks why, but if they post about how bad their day was and get five people trying to sympathize, what behavior is incentivized? The Internet can become very homogeneous with everyone agreeing and posting on a topic such as to to fit in. The Internet can become very homogeneous because no one wants to counter the points that others are making and decide to hide in the shadows instead.
Loneliness created from a man-made device is difficult. It may be ingrained into distant relationships. But when people reach out because they want to talk about a comic or their day at work, it may be helpful to try to respond to the positive ones than only the negative ones.