Things Are Real Even if We Don't Share Them
What if living is hindered by sharing?
Some people identify as “external processors” or “verbal processors.” These people, as the label suggestions, think through problems, situations, and otherwise by talking about them. Others identify as "internal processors” or “non-verbal processors.” These kinds of people think through the problems or situations they face and figure out solutions or ways to respond without talking with others about them.
I’m not sure where I fall on the verbal/non-verbal processing spectrum.1 Since I was a teenager I have felt like writing is the second half of the thinking process for me. This doesn’t mean I have been a good writer since I was a teenager, of course. But it does mean that writing has always been an important part of the thinking and problem solving process for me. I suppose writing would live somewhere in between verbal and non-verbal processing as it requires the production of words, but not necessarily the verbal communication of those words to other people.
Sometimes the writing half of my thinking process takes place publicly in a newsletter like this, but most of the time it takes place in physical or virtual journals that I keep as I read, reflect on my days, or otherwise.
There is a sense today that sharing experiences on the internet is the second half of experiencing them. It’s as thought we can’t be sure something we’re experiencing is real, or worthwhile, unless we receive the non-verbal communication of likes, comments, and shares to affirm that the experience did, in fact, happen. Bo Burnham explains this in a quote I share from him in Terms of Service (and a few times in this newsletter). He says:
What is the feeling of walking through your life and not just living your life, not just living your life—which is already hell and impossible—but also taking inventory of your life, being a viewer of your own life, living an experience and at the same time hovering behind yourself and watching yourself live that experience? Being nostalgic for moments that haven’t happened yet. Planning your future to look back on it.
Those are really weird, dissociative things that are, I think, new because of the specific structure of social media and how it disassociates ourselves from ourselves.
Perhaps the right way to label the person who must post in order to feel real (or think is to call them “attention processors,” in contrast with verbal and non-verbal processors.2 Because, ultimately, what we receive in exchange for our content is attention, the true currency of the social internet, and this attention is what ultimately makes us feel alive. It gives us meaning. It makes life feel real.
I’ve heard many jokes in the last few years that go something like, “If you didn’t post it on social media, did it really happen?” These jokes are meant to be just that, jokes, but as I spend more time studying social media and our relationship with it, the more I realize that this is not a joke for many who truly experience a sense of derealization if they do not share experiences on social media and receive some kind of attention and feedback in the form of social media engagement.
Living > Posting
This phenomenon is toxic for many reasons, some of which are likely clearer than others. Maybe the most toxic effect, though, is the sort of inversion of reality that takes place when we become too dependent on attention for too long. Reality becomes defined by “that which earns me the most attention,” our online lives become primary, and our offline lives begin to serve our online lives. We begin to see our offline lives as little more than raw materials to be harvested for online attention. As Burnham says in Inside, “The non-digital world is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space.”
You may think I’m being overdramatic here. I am not.
This is real. And it is far more gloomy to live among this phenomenon and not identify it than to call it out for what it is.
Marriages happen even if you don’t have a wedding hashtag. Your child will remember their lives without your countless Instagram posts. Your thought can be profound without accruing likes and retweets. Things are real even if we don’t share about them.
The more ferociously we document our lives the less we actually live.
Probably more non-verbal.
At first I thought “digital processors,” but that could get confusing. :-)