When I was a kid, I loved playing role-playing games. (Still do.) I love that you can be whoever you want to be…that you can explore the world around you and open any door. Even your nosy neighbor with the weird striped lawn wouldn’t bat her wrinkly eye if you walked right in and started jumping on the bed or smashing the flowerpots looking for gold coins.
You can walk up to anyone and say hello without any social anxiety whatsoever; they’ll even reward your gregariousness by telling you a secret that will aid you in your quest.
You can have purple hair. A name like “Esmerelda”. You can be a mage or an archer or a master of hand-to-hand combat. And tomorrow, you can change your mind completely and start over as “Jane” or “Jim” or even “Sarah of the Alps”.
Social media used to feel that way for me. The internet felt more anonymous in those early days before it was called “social media”. None of my real-life friends had any idea that I had this alternate online life, and they weren’t particularly interested. The anonymity gave it a level of safety…I could just be myself, without the social masks we all use in face-to-face interactions. There was a certain level of self-consciousness that I just didn’t have to deal with.
Every new website was a new door to open with interesting treasures to rummage through. Every new avatar was a person I had at least one thing in common with — we were online while everyone else was not.
The internet has changed so much, and for the most part, I am glad. It’s wonderful to have access to all of these tools and information that we never had before. I love being able to download the world’s greatest books and literature and be able to take classes on pretty much any topic from my living room. I love knowing what my friends are up to, and that there is no longer this clear separation between “internet friends” and “friends in real life”.
But I do miss those early days. I miss feeling like I was a part of something special, and that perhaps I myself was special…that I belonged to a world that most regular people weren’t a part of, and that I had some level of skill in navigating it. When we talk about “how to do social media” and “how to have your ideas go viral” and all of these tactical things, I remember the internet when it was a relatively small nation of a handful of weird and wonderful folks, and I wish an impossible wish that those days would come back for a visit, if not to stay for a while.
The internet has lost some of its original magic for me, even as it has gained so much in terms of practicality and usefulness. There are so many people (including all of those friends who used to wonder why I loved the internet so much), and our social masks have taken an interesting role as we curate the best parts of our lives for everyone to see. There is so much information and so much to do that it feels like another job just managing all of it.
Today as I was sitting in my car in the university parking lot, I had this weird moment of being amazed by my steering wheel. My little hands were resting on this hefty grey pleather circle, and I felt alive.
I looked out at the many buildings that made up the school, and I realized that I could walk through any of those doors and interact with any of the objects in them. I looked out at the people walking by with their different faces and bodies, and I realized I could say hello to any of those people, and who knows what would happen? I could take my little car and drive to a new land, have an adventure. I could sit in a tavern or a coffee shop or an amusement park and I could have a whole array of different experiences, with my entire body — not just eyes burning through a screen.
Experiences lose their magic when they become ubiquitous. When we have too much of something, it doesn’t feel special anymore. Too much screen time, too much hunching over computer keys, too much trying to be aware of what’s going on around me so I can tweet about it.
But before the internet, I wonder if real life had lost its magic, just a little bit. If we were so used to the physical objects in our lives that we just didn’t notice how perfectly delightful it all is.
I read a quote by William James the other day. He wrote:
“It all depends on the capacity of the soul to be grasped, to have its life-currents absorbed by what is given.”
Perhaps too much of the internet is a good thing. Perhaps it allows the physical world we inhabit to feel more like the soul-grasping magic that it really is. And vice versa.