The Internet gives us absolute freedom to reinvent ourselves. Do we really change? Or do we stay the same?
Recently, I closed — or at least tried to close — my Facebook account. I was directed to a page that gave me a list of reasons to choose from to explain this drastic step I was taking. One of them said: “This is temporary. I will be back”. And, of course, among the many other reasons that might have fitted the bill, this one hit closest to home. I clicked on it and felt a strange combination of relief and liberation. It was okay. I could leave, but I could also come back. This wasn’t Hotel California. This door didn’t have a lock.
Once my account was deactivated, albeit temporarily, I suddenly felt a bit lost; and angry at myself for feeling lost. I had a life, and there was no reason to feel like I didn’t just because I couldn’t show this life to the world, or at least the few hundred people on my list. But, suddenly, everything I was doing felt a little less important. There was no one to like or share my activities, no one to tell me that my profile picture was pretty, no one sending me links and no one — absolutely no one — too put out by my absence. These were the facts. But there was another fact, a bigger, more important one. I was still here. I still existed in the real world. What was I doing then, feeling invisible?
Almost every one of us has, if not many, at least one active social networking account today. It is often Facebook, but sometimes it’s Instagram or Twitter or one of the many other less popular ones. We put bits of ourselves on our pages. We take pictures and make them prettier, we copy-paste quotes on our statuses; we write and rewrite comments till they feel just right. And then we wait. We wait till someone notices. Almost always, someone does notice, and our faith is reaffirmed. We exist. We are alive and kicking, and we matter.
So what were we doing before this? Can anyone remember? Were we living only half a life, without the 500 friends and Facebook? Or were we living fuller lives? Like I said, it’ll be impossible to answer these questions one way or the other for certain, but may be it’s important to ask them all the same.
I have a friend, an honest-to-goodness bona-fide Facebook lover, who often says this one line that I find at once amusing and frightening: “If it didn’t happen on Facebook, it didn’t happen.” I always try to laugh it off, but never can. Because, frighteningly enough, I think that, at some level, in varying degrees, it might just be true for all of us.
The Internet is powerful. It might just be one of the most powerful tools that mankind has created. In an age where we put a price on water and extra oxygen, the Internet still belongs to everyone, and no one. Sure, you need money to access it but, once you are in, all the goodies in the mini-refrigerator are yours. And the best bit of the Internet is the freedom, the absolute freedom it gives you to recreate yourself, literally from scratch. Oh, you stay the same this side of the screen. You still have your unsatisfactory nose and your lisp and your bad memory for names, but all your tiny hitches, all those bits that you have wished and wished would go away; on your online profile, they actually do. The Internet becomes your fairy godmother, and she doesn’t even give you a deadline.
On Facebook’s log-in page, there’s a promise it makes that “it’s free, and always will be”. I wonder how much of that is true, and what are the hidden costs? What happens to us on the Internet? Do we change, do we really change? Or do we stay the same, only more unstable, unsure and aware of everyone else. I won’t explain this. Instead, I’ll give you a little analogy that might make sense or it might not. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, when a person wants to live forever, he uses dark magic to split his soul and put a part of it in an inanimate object; this is called a horcrux.
This way, if he does die, the little bit of him in a pencil or a rock or a ring lives on. Sometimes, this person, let’s not name him, splits his soul in several little bits just to make sure that things don’t go wrong. This is all very well, of course, but the bit of his soul in his own body keeps depleting and he lives in several places at once.
I’ve seen people get addicted to their choice of virtual drug; I’ve seen them feel restless and insecure about new, glossy albums of marriages, holidays and all-night parties. I’ve seen how dissatisfaction can creep in when your life is suddenly thrown into a virtual rat race, with all its good and bad bits under scrutiny, mostly your own. I’ve been one of those people. I will probably be this person again.
I think some poets could tell the future. They weren’t like Nostradamus. Their words weren’t hidden in oblique language that needed unravelling. They put it in plain verse, and we only needed to look carefully. T.S. Eliot, in his very famous, very quotable poem, ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, said, “There will be time, there will be time. To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…” I don’t think even he knew that, decades later, he would still be hitting bull’s-eye.