Connection online: Tracing the space between us

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The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
– The Rubâ’iyât of Omar Khayyám

[Part 1]

When I was a child, my dad used to quote the above regularly, he also talked a lot about the Recording Angel and the Akashic Records. It frightened me thinking that something or someone was there recording everything.

Nowadays, it is the Internet which records everything. The moving (typing) finger writes and even if you delete a social media account and all those dodgy DMs you sent someone, know this: There is a copy on a server somewhere.

And if you sent them to a computer scientist, know this too: They will have their own backup which they can reread at anytime. None of your piety nor wit will be deleting any of it, anytime soon. Oh no!

In lighting the fire, I explored how people can pick us up by their love and attention in our worst moments. The flip side of this is that some people can cause us so much pain when we are feeling vulnerable. I believe that they mostly do so unintentionally, because they are drowning in their own lives and they use us, selfishly, as a way to rescue themselves and feel better.

We all want more love to feel better and to feel that what we do and who we are, matters. We get that from our connection to others. In his book Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, neuroscientist Matthew Liebermann, says that being connected to others is a reward in itself it doesn’t need anything else. Not only is it a reward, it is as fundamental as food and water, which is why love is one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Sometimes though, in that space of love and connection which can relight our fire, people behave really badly towards us, and because we have let them in and trusted them, we may feel that we deserve such treatment. Thankfully, when there is a record of every conversation, we are able to reread what actually happened, so that we can see and know in our very being that we didn’t do anything wrong and we absolutely don’t deserve other people using us and treating us so badly. However,

If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.

Pema Chodron

But, that is a hard path to choose as research using fMRI brain scans shows that even minor social rejection lights up the same areas of our brains as physical pain, and the brain doesn’t care if this is when you are physically present with someone or doing this via social media. It is one and the same, the damage is the same. And, coupled with the pain of social rejection, it is hard to believe that we can, even with age and experience, be so wrong about people especially when it is a relationship online which is having the same impact as one in real life.

In his classic text book, The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson asks: How do we pick our friends? We pick them for many reasons but, most simply, we pick people who like us. Nowhere is it easier to connect to someone and feel better than via social media. Easy and low commitment – exactly how we like it. A simple message, a like or a loveheart lights us our brain’s reward centre (our nucleus accumbens) and gives us that little hit of dopamine for which we are so primed. We are always ready to be a little bit in love, it fills a fundamental need.

Quite often we are just in love with love, I know I am. (And there is nothing wrong with that. We have so much energy and passion when we are in love. We can do anything.) We may think that we are quite smart at assessing people, but online, it is quite different from in real life. We get cues in real life that we don’t online. And at the very least, they are much easier to ignore online, which is why it is well worth going back and rereading correspondence, like we did in the ye olden days of letter writing. Remember that? I know I would carry around letters and let the words and my feelings permeate, until it was time to write back, at which point I knew them by heart like that e.e. cummings poem [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]. It was also more visual. If you got a letter, everyone knew about it. Nowadays, if you get a text or a DM on your tiny screen, no one knows about it. It feels private, intimate, but as I have said before, privacy and intimacy are two different things.

There is a definite space of intimacy, a shared heart space we occupy either offline with letters (and books), and online too with our various ways of texting, DMs, messaging. Time slips away too: the past (when the message was written), the present (as we are reading it), and the future (when we respond) all become one. It is a magical resonating experience in a given moment which takes us away from humdrum lives.

And, this is where the problem may lie. We have immediate access to literally anyone on this planet but we have none of the usual ways of knowing if this person is worthy of our love or if they are there just to escape drowning in their own lives. In the same way we may love a favourite author but years later when we read their biographies we find out that they were not so nice after all. Due to the compression of time and space, and no cues, we have no idea if someone is giving us the full story or not, so how can we tell if they are not very nice, until they show us that they are not very nice. Offline, we can tell if someone is not telling the full story more easily. Online, we tend to fall into an immediate (dangerous) trust and share more readily because trusting and sharing is what builds intimacy. And, then if we are wrong, which we all hate, we may ignore the alarm bells, because cognitive dissonance makes us feel so bad, we will subconsciously square it with ourselves, especially if we have spent a lot of time and energy connecting to someone and extra especially if no one else knows about it. Remember how our mates used to save us from ourselves? They would let us know in no uncertain terms not to waste time on certain muppets we held dear and we would let that permeate until we realised they were right.

Well, if the price of admission is looking like a fool or getting your heart broken, then, well, I’d say Ms Lance is pretty well worth it.
– John Constantine, DC Legends

So what are we to do? This whole social media gig is not going away anytime soon. In fact, in this time squeezed reality in which we live, friendship and love are precious, precious things, both online and offline. We all need love as much as we need oxygen, and after writing here many words about social media, I do believe that we can form proper connections online, but it is a different sort of connection to when you meet someone in the flesh. There is a whole backstory that people have that we just don’t know about. There’s a lot of editing too. We may feel an intimacy with a stranger online but the reality is that it is just one part of a whole person’s life, it is not the whole, and like the letter writing and the book reading, a lot of the online experience we are having is really an experience and a connection with ourselves.

When we think someone online is wonderful often it is because we are imbuing them with the wonderful bits of ourselves. So! Should an online intimacy end and we feel sad and empty, we just need to know that all that love and admiration we had for that special someone on our little screen was really a reflection of the love and admiration we have for ourselves. And, in those moments of sadness and longing after we’ve been badly burnt online we can pull out and reread our conversations to see that we didn’t deserve any of their shoddy behaviour, nor did we do anything wrong by being our loving human wholehearted selves. So instead of feeling like we’ve been had (again), let’s just give thanks for the special muppet we loved online who came to remind us how lovely we truly are.


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