As the presence of parents lugging rugs from mini-van trunks to dorm rooms and last semester’s acquaintances giving me polite head-nods of recognition announce that yes, sadly, surprisingly, summer is in fact ending, I am (unsurprisingly) looking back on the roughly two months of my summer that I’ve spent on campus. And I’ve realized that I spent the majority of that time in more isolation than I ever have before.
It’s not as dramatic as it sounds. To be sure, there were other people on campus, and some of them were my friends, so it wasn’t stranded-on-a-deserted-island level isolation. But there were much less people on campus, and many of my friends left over the course of the summer, either for long weekend trips or for the summer since their research schedules ended almost as soon as mine began.
As a result, I had hours of alone-time on my hands, that I often spent in various spots on campus (including my six-person suite, then home to maybe three impermanent summer residents) that usually had way more people in them. After spending a few evening hours with a friend or friends, I’d go back to my (otherwise empty) double, sleep, wake up, and repeat. Back at home, even when I camp out in my room, I intimately share a space with four other people and a dog–and an empty suburban house feels less jarringly off than an empty 200-person capacity atrium. Even when I went away to Canada, where I only truly knew two people (and didn’t know them exceptionally well), I spent my time surrounded by my class of twenty or so people, or in the midst of the whole conference population, about 200 to 300 people. In short, this summer, I spent more time alone in spaces much emptier than usual, and spent less time with less people that I knew than I usually do.
This is not to complain about that isolation, though. I actually enjoy a dose of solitude, even one a little larger than usual. During the school year, I often seek out the quietest spots on campus to study, or go on long walks in the glen with only my thoughts and Spotify playlists for company. And now that people are returning to campus, my hands start sweating when I hear voices rounding a corner, and feel a bit queasy when I debate whether to make eye contact with a person walking my way. Rather, this is to make an observation about my reaction to this (relative) physical absence of other people. Namely, I started desperately seeking out the virtual presence of people instead.
I already spend enough time on social media to fuel a Baby Boomer’s nightmares for weeks. My online personas run the gamut: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Tumblr–I even have this WordPress account and a Pinterest, for crying out loud. (Only my lack of musical talent and skills at parsing extended forum conversations has prevented me from venturing into Soundcloud, Reddit, etc.)
But this summer, my social media usage kicked into overdrive. I’ve made up for my isolation from my friends back at home or away from school by scattering virtual pieces of myself across the internet. I’ve jumped from a sporadic tweeter to something like a three tweets a day tweeter, and I’ve only encouraged my tendency to take photos until my phone’s memory bursts at the seams and spills into Instagram.
And in the hours yawning between posts, I’ve obsessively checked up on all of my accounts. What started as voracious consumption of anything remotely new on my assorted timelines became what I would call an unhealthy preoccupation with how my own posts were received. I slowly got accustomed to the gut-clenching nerves and sinking disappointment that followed a new post (much like the post-risky-text feeling). During the school year, I was almost too busy to shoot out a tweet at all, let alone check how it was doing every few minutes, convinced it must be inane, offensive, or at least grammatically incorrect if nobody liked it with the first five minutes of its life.
Let me pause to clarify I am not arguing against social media. Even if I disliked or abstained from using it (which clearly I don’t), I’d be a fool to think something so well-established in our society would go anywhere anytime soon, especially under the pressure of my solo WordPress whinging, no matter how passionate. No, I’m arguing that the changes in my personal relationship with social media this summer have struck me as disappointing.
In the absence of physical feedback on my social standing from my peers, I sought out virtual feedback. Through the act of repeatedly refreshing a page or checking my lock screen for notifications, I made myself away of just how much I depend on the approval of others to bolster my own self image. In those panicky few moments after posting something during which my content “still” had no likes, I convinced myself that it, and therefore myself, must be unworthy of approval. When I saw less views on my posts here, I assumed it had something to do with the way the post was written, and therefore with me, fundamentally, rather than the caprices of the Facebook and Twitter crowds on a given Sunday afternoon. In my desperation to gather likes from others, I’d forgotten how inconsequential they were to me when I gave them to other people. I’d forgotten that I could thoroughly enjoy a friend’s post and simply forget to display it with a like before closing the app. I’d forgotten that algorithms and differences in daily schedules could hide content from people who would otherwise like it. I’d forgotten that I could not like, in fact could actively dislike, something someone else put on the internet and still like them as a human being.
I don’t mean to further the idea that the physical always trumps the virtual or promote face-to-face interactions over virtual ones. I just want to note that somewhere along the way, I forgot that we live in a complex tangle of the virtual and the physical, constantly producing projections of ourselves in both spheres that are received in equally confused, complex ways by our peers both online and off, and convinced myself that my essence boiled down to my online content, that my success as a human relied only on the success of my posts. Hopefully, as my world once again becomes physically populated with other people, I’ll recognize I am more than the sum of my tweets.