It's really hard for me to be around online culture these days and not feel that it would be better for me (my heart, soul, mind, health, well-being, creativity) if I wasn't connected at all.
This realization really started with two events last August. The first was Michael Brown's death and the subsequent events in Ferguson, MO. In the wake of that, many voices sprung up online to express anger and frustration (rightfully so) over how our country and our law enforcement handles race. I started following many of them on Twitter. The second was the GamerGate debacle that began maybe a week or two after that. Again, angry voices sprung up, and I followed some on Twitter. My investment in HB2 and the Wendy Davis filibuster in 2013 had brought a lot of online feminist voices into my Twitter feed, and GamerGate added may more. Soon, my feed was filled with a lot of anger and rage - justified in most cases - that I started emotionally responding to. I was angry ALL the time. Upset all the time. Constantly reading things, reading more things, reading comments sections, and just letting that anger and rage spiral.
And I made a decision. I realized that I was actually choosing to interface with the things that were causing me to feel so much anger. My consumption of these things on the internet was voluntary. Was it important? In most cases, absolutely. These were and are important conversations to have. But it was still making me miserable.
This past spring I took on many, many design projects - I did seven shows in the first five months of the year. I was also interviewing for more than one faculty position, something which, if you have never done it, can evolve VERY quickly into something that consumes a lot of time and energy. I had things to do, things to make, and I needed that energy and time, and so I started to pull myself back from these discussions. I unfollowed many (not all) of the people I was reading on Twitter. I started blocking anyone who was remotely adversarial towards me, just so that I wouldn't be distracted. I realize that may sound like I was blocking opposing viewpoints, not hearing/listening to the other side, and if that's what a person wants to believe I'm not going to stop them. I was in non-stop lighting designer mode. It didn't matter.
Some days I spent less time online than others - and most of those days were the GOOD days, the days when I was productive, creative, and happy. There are now days when my husband asks "did you see your sister's post on Facebook?" and I have to say that I haven't been on Facebook for most of the day. Those days kind of feel good.
There are other places in my life where the immersion in online culture and discussion began to feel toxic, and I started feeling the need to do exactly what John Cameron Michell said in his speech at the Tony's - take what I love, turn off the internet, and take some time. And create - whether that's a real life community of people I love, or a new design, or art, or gardening, or cooking good food.
The thing about online discussion, even the kind that I agree with, that I would want to be a part of, is that it gets too extreme too quickly. There are so many people who refuse to consider middle ground in anything. There are subcultures of people who spend so much time in their niche that they forget the larger world bears little resemblance to the one they've created. And the discussion itself quickly turns into something that, in real life, would NOT be helpful to anyone. If we all argued out loud to each others' faces the way we do online, there would be nothing but yelling! I have yet to see anything actually get SOLVED this way, any issue resolved or moved forward, any agreement reached. I do see a lot of people going out of their way to be jerks. Why should I even bother trying to be a part of that?
This is the part where, if it were six months or a year from now, I would quote an entire long paragraph from Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. Given that this book came out only a few weeks ago, that it's long, and that those of us who read Stephenson understand that it can often take quite a bit of effort to do so, I won't do that. It's on page 641 if you're so inclined. It also serves as a great warning for people who use social media without thinking about the consequences it might have on their future selves (*looking pointedly in the direction of someone who shall remain nameless*).
I started reading these books in 2002. Granted I didn't wait in real time for the first three to come out, but I definitely sat through the waits for books 4 and 5. I am as hard core of a fan as you can get without being someone who also runs 17 ASOIAF websites and has the time to read all of the boards. In the past 13 years I have passed these books onto a ridiculous number of friends and have been discussing them in depth with everyone I could. Then, the show starts, it explodes in popularity, and we are at the moment we're at in online culture.
I've seen the crap that people can pull on the internet when they REALLY want to spoil something. My husband was halfway through Half-Blood Prince when he went online TO CHECK THE TRAFFIC one day, and someone had posted a comment that said "SNAPE KILLED DUMBLEDORE." On a traffic blog/site. If people want to be jerks and ruin things, they will find a way.
However, I still fully believe that it's my responsibility - and ONLY my responsibility - to remain unspoiled. Case in point, last night was Kacy Catanzaro's qualifying run on American Ninja Warrior, something for which I've been waiting a long time. I couldn't watch it in real time so I started about an hour late, and had the internet and twitter opened on my laptop. When it became clear that some of the ANW people I followed on twitter were talking about the current broadcast, I made a CHOICE - I closed twitter down until I had watched the whole episode. I didn't scream at everyone on twitter for spoiling something that I hadn't watched yet.
For people who have read the Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series by George R. R. Martin, the TV show is at a point where we have to make choices. The show Game of Thrones (GoT) is about to surpass the books, and in a few instances has already done so. The sixth book in the series hasn't been published but the show has caught up to the rest. Unless it comes out before next June, if I watch season 6 of the show, I will possibly be spoiling the books for myself.
My point here is, we make choices about what media we consume, but it seems like for MANY people they don't think of these as "choices." I choose to read Facebook, Twitter, Winter Is Coming, Tower of the Hand, various ASOIAF podcasts and the ASOIAF reddit board. I know that I have a weird relationship with pop culture and that could possibly explain this, but if I chose to avoid those things starting June 15, I would remain unspoiled about season 6 (and book 6) provided I didn't have friends who were jerks and went out of their way to tell me things. I can walk away from Monday morning discussions of the show. I can NOT click on Buzzfeed articles. I can unfollow people who, like me, fervently and excitedly talk about Sunday's episode on Monday. Those are all things that are within my control. As is watching featurettes like the "Inside the Episode" thing that HBO puts out - this week, one of the two showrunners for GoT let slip a possible future book spoiler. Given that they've received so much (deserved) backlash for violence and sexual violence in the show, given what they were showing in this past Sunday's episode, "The Dance with Dragons," I can completely understand why they wanted to deflect some of the criticism that was undoubtedly going to come their way by saying what they said. But, that's another post on online empathy.
Suggest to people that the consumption of social media is a choice, and they will go out of their way to prove you wrong. Most of the time the argument is that their job requires them to be online. While I can believe that there are jobs that require access to Facebook I absolutely refuse to believe that there are jobs that require you to access Facebook on the same personal account with which you talk with your friends. Some jobs require you to comb through Buzzfeed articles. I don't think those are most jobs. I don't think there are many jobs out there that require employees to follow the #gameofthrones tag on twitter or spend half their day browsing the reddit threads on the subject. I've worked in software and web development. I *still* could have stayed entirely away from these things and done my job. And that was when LOST was on - if you think the GoT online community is a big deal, you should have seen what that was like.
Is it foolproof? No. There's no guarantee in life that you won't run across complete jerks. Or even that people who aren't jerks won't accidentally spill the beans. But no one - NO ONE - has the responsibility of making sure that YOUR media consumption is tailored in any way to your specific wants or needs. The creators of the Game of Thrones show have in no way signed a contract with book readers that says they won't spoil what's not yet published. People in online communities don't have any agreement that states they will remain reasonable and civil at all times, and refrain from inflammatory discussions. We have to choose to reduce the chances that we will run into things that upset us. Or, perhaps, decide that the thing to which we are exposing ourselves is important enough to risk the consequences, and understand that even then, we aren't absolved of responsibility. I stuck around the online feminist discussion as long as I did because it's very important to me, and I believed that I *should* be aware of what was going on. I now think there are healthier, more productive ways for me to stay involved and informed.