I’m good with people. In social situations, even in front of a large group of people, I am in my element. I don’t know if I’m good at reading people, or if I’m just completely deluded in my self evaluation, but I feel like even when introduced to a complete stranger I instinctively know what to do.
I don’t even try that hard most of the time. I flick the switch in my brain that diverts all available power to the social situation array. I put on whatever mask seems best to fit the moment and go about the happy business of being charming. Whether people react because I am genuinely wooing them into the comfortable sphere of my social influence, or because they see how much I need to have everyone like me and take pity, I don’t know, but I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel like I knew exactly what to do in a social environment.
The exact opposite is true in online social communication.
I hate Facebook. I don’t know how to manage it. I don’t know how to act. I don’t even know who to talk to and when. It is an alien landscape populated with invisible pits and titanic crags, an H. R. Giger nightmare.
Someone I haven’t heard from in a decade just sent me a virtual hug? What the hell am I supposed to do with that, exactly? What is friend finder and why does it think I'm dying to hang out with crazy people? Do I really want to expose this person, whom I know professionally, to the Minotaur’s Maze that is my private social circle? Wait, can everyone see these pictures that were just posted of me by someone else? Why the hell did I sign up for this exactly, anyway?
At first, I wanted to make an effort to stay in touch with some long-lost friends, but then I realized that if I only included these long lost friends it might look like I hadn’t met anyone in the years since. “Poor Sean,” they would whisper in quiet corners of the internet where people gather to conspire against me, “holding desperately on to the friendships of yesteryear. So sad. Also did you see that picture someone else posted of him? Who the hell is that pouring Corona into his mouth?!”
Then I added some current friends to balance things out nicely. But now that seems wrong because, let’s be honest, I wear a different mask with them than I do with my old friends. And, now my wife wants me to be her Facebook friend, but I don’t necessarily want to be visible to all of her friends and family and envelop them into the horrible mixing pot that is becoming my online social sphere.
How, exactly, do you decline a friend request from your wife?
I am the George Costanza of online social interaction. I like keeping the people around me very separate, and as these discrete social circles begin to crash, I feel, as he did, like worlds are colliding. I am the Soviet Bloc of relationships, except instead of one Berlin Wall I’ve got dozens criss-crossing to and fro. But now these lines of demarcation seem not so safe, and the invasion forces on each side are massing.
Even when I do bring myself into some online communication space, I still don’t know how to act. A friend who I’ve not seen in more than a decade just had a death in the family, and I spent a day wondering whether to leave him a message of condolence on Facebook or not. I eventually did, and he seemed grateful, so I assume that was the right thing to do, but now I feel like I’ve exposed myself to having to console every ill that befalls the online people in my life, and by God do some of these folks have a constant stream of ills. Does this mean that next time I will need to espouse a few dozen words in memory of Bumblina the Cat, the loving pet of this girl I once went to a few parties with when I was 20?
Dear Kevin, I was sorry to hear about your loss in the intramural basketball playoffs at your community college. Keep working on that mid-range jumper, bud. Best, Sean.
People seem to feel that every neuron that fires in their brains deserve a global audience. I could barely put up with that for one person, but when I have 30 or 40 people I’m trying to juggle, I just can’t manage. What do I do with the person who has now become an extreme advocate for a particular political agenda? What do I do with the guy who overpopulates my Twitter feed about whether Sharp Cheddar is better on nachos than mild? Wait, who are you again and why am I being told which Care Bear you are most like?
I have to admit that my inclination is to nuke the entire thing from orbit; to just go dark and let everyone not directly involved in my current affairs think that I was perhaps struck down suddenly by some kind of ancient and malevolent evil. Sean’s status is: moving to Boliva, hoping not to be killed by a venomous spider. That sounds good.
Sometimes I think that might actually be nice. I would rise in the morning, watch some kids weave baskets, eat some fresh Papaya, ride a Kangaroo … okay, I don’t know crap about Bolivia, but I assume it’s a place where no one ever runs up and asks if you’d like to join their Mafia Wars family. But, then of course, I’d also be without the actual friends that I have somehow managed to cultivate online. And, let’s be honest, they are there too.
There’s my Monday group of World of WarCraft addicts who make me laugh like a hyena with their adorable condescension and unrestrained nerdiness. There are these forums where people of incredible talent and humor engage in discussions profane and genius. There are these clowns that I do a podcast with week after week who do me the great favor of laughing at a good 47% of my jokes, which I must admit is above average. And, of course, there’s this guy I actually run a website with who I would say something nice about if he weren’t standing right over there.
As I think about it, I begin to realize that I have some very healthy online relationships — it’s just that they started there. They feel natural in this environment, and the problem is not with them but more often with the people I tried to bring out of reality and into virtuality. The big mistake was going back to people who I had had the good sense to move on from a decade ago and asking if they’d like to hang out with me online. It was a social chain reaction like dropping a ping pong ball into a tank full of mousetraps, or more specifically like dropping me into a tank full of mousetraps, and I have the virtual welts to prove it.
This online social experiment, one that I assume many people enjoy because they sure seem to talk a lot, is just not for me. I will keep and cultivate my online social experience in the confines of my own private Bolivia, and there will be strict borders monitored by space marines riding armored cybernetic bears. Just thinking about it fills me with a peace I’ve not known for some time now.