Heads up, this content is 8 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

I’ve been troubled this week by the events in Boston — two bombs exploded at the Marathon, one of the suspects was killed in a shootout (as was a cop), and the city shut down for a day while they hunted and captured the other suspect, his brother, a 19-year-old from Chechnya.

I’m from New Hampshire and I live in San Francisco. An attack on New England is scary and heartbreaking for me. There are people I love who were personally and closely affected by it. A college friend whose family owns a running shoe store at the site of the blast. A friend from childhood who was standing in the blast area with his wife and, mercifully, left 30 minutes before it happened. My sister’s boyfriend’s kids who were standing 200 feet away from the blast, and are in middle school. A colleague whose house was searched during the manhunt. There’s probably more.

Attacks on big events in American cities also shake me and strip me of my sense of safety more than any other kind of tragedy we see on the news. Because on any sunny day, when I’m full of pride and celebrating my community, it could happen to me. And let’s not forget that I live in one of the LGBTQ capitals of the country during a gay civil rights movement. We’re actually a completely realistic target.

So I’m scared. And sad. And angry. At no one in particular.

It’s interesting that earthquakes don’t scare me as much, even though they’re probably more likely to kill me. They don’t come paired with me losing my faith in humanity at the same time.

Humanity. Okay, this post isn’t actually about humanity. This is post is about Facebook. (I get those two confused sometimes.)

As I watched the anger pour out all week on my Facebook News Feed — at the bombers, at people who cheer for the torture of the bombers, at Muslims, at people who blame Muslims, at foreigners and immigrants, at people who blame foreigners and immigrants, at the government, at law enforcement, at terrorism, at the media, and at individuals who make statements in the heat of emotion that don’t hold up under scrutiny — my heart kept breaking further. People I love are in pain and blaming each other.

So now I’m doing the only reasonable thing I can think of to do. I’m directing my own personal anger this week at Facebook, and at recent shifts in Internet communication. I recognize that this is no more righteous or responsible than the other expressions of anger I’ve been frustrated with, but maybe I can make it just a little bit constructive.

Stay with me here.

We used to speak in essays.

We used to write each other two-page letters in mediocre penmanship, and hold long conversations over coffee. We focused on sharing a depth of view, we listened, and we connected. We had differences, but we found our similarities through them, and friendship was a collaborative effort of building bridges. The internet started closer to this, with small forums and chat rooms (like coffee dates), longer emails (because we weren’t overloaded in our inboxes), and long-form blogs and diaries that sparked discussion and empathy.

We also had more carefully selected audiences when we shared those essays. Instead of the very real possibility of something we write being circulated to our mothers, bosses, and members of the Tea Party, we had some trust that our voice would stay in the context of our community.

The audience has shifted. What we have on Facebook now is a giant Rolodex of everyone we’ve ever worked with, slept with, shared a blood line with, went to high school with, or thought was cool once. Custom audience filters exist, but they’re complicated to use and we don’t really trust them anyway. Our default mode is to share anything we post with everyone we know.

The medium has shifted, too. We no longer speak in essays, because essays don’t really belong on Facebook. We speak in photos, links, one-liners, and battle cries. (We’re also hanging out on Tumblr and Twitter, which are no different.) We distill our points down to the jab, to the wit, to the pointy tip, and then we fling it out into the Internet and see who catches it and what they make of it. We derive self-worth from getting “liked” and being told what we said is “SO TRUE.”

One of these alone would be rough. The two of them combined is a death sentence.

Here’s what this pile of changes means for us:

It means that if you have a network of people you mostly agree with, you are now living in a self-sustaining propaganda machine, able to share inflammatory emotional statements and feel like everyone around you agrees with you. (Even if they don’t, or have other friends who feel strongly in other directions. You’re never really sure how your words land with the people who feel too alienated to engage.)

It also means that if you have a mixed network of people with dramatically different viewpoints, you now see multiple propaganda machines. You see someone saying something offensive and someone being offended in the same scroll. You see anger and name-calling, and you can imagine the face of their target because that person is your friend, too. You…

Okay, sorry. I. Let’s be clear, this is about me. This is what I see. And it’s painful. And the only solutions I have at my fingertips are to

A) Unfriend and hide people until I have a network devoid of diversity and old friends who’ve found different paths, or

B) Stop looking at Facebook.

I don’t accept these options. This is my Internet, too, dammit, and I want something better for us.

I’m not upset that we are passionate people with opinions, criticism, pride, and voices. I’m upset that we’re communicating these values in a medium that reduces our points to lolcat-style images with IMPACT white text, and leaves off why we feel this way and how we got here.

I’m also upset that we’re using our “inside” voices with an unfiltered audience.  And that through the magic of a self-editing News Feed algorithm, we’re led to forget that half our contacts exist, and believe that our audience actually is just our friends.  Or worse, when we’re led to feel like this is Our Page for Expressing Ourselves, and that anyone who has an issue with that is way out of line. Because then we’re making people choose between listening to our heated rants and not being able to know us at all.

Broadcasting distilled, emotional battle cries without background context to our entire Rolodexes is further polarizing us as a community. And aren’t we polarized enough as it is?

I want us to speak in essays again, to connect compassionately over our differences, to listen, to be respectful, and to learn from each other. The fact that our audience has broadened to everyone we’ve ever met makes it that much more important to be real, human, and long-form about where we’re coming from and why we feel the way we do.

I’m writing this on a blog that I haven’t contributed to in a year, because Facebook was easier. Speaking in essays is hard work.

But what if we tried?

Heads up, this content is 10 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

My longest romantic relationship is not the three-year partnership I just ended. (Though I prefer to say it’s been “rearranged”, because we’re grownups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.)

My longest romantic relationship is with the Internet.

(And I have written it so. many. love letters.)

Something about the way it swept me off my feet and carried me into adulthood, the way it told me I was beautiful and valuable when I’d always been a misfit, and the way it provided me with resources and answers whenever I felt sure that I was completely on my own… the Internet has always been more than just access to other people. It’s been my home, my nourishment, my partner… the thing that showed me understanding and gave me an identity when I was so far away from society’s standards that my own sanity was in question… the thing that gave me what I needed when what I needed didn’t seem to exist.

I realize I am now speaking for the next generation of Crazy Cat Ladies — we are the Crazy Internet People — who rely on non-human replacements for human relationships. I could justify it by saying that the Internet really is all about the People, but it’s not. They’re part of it, sure, but they were always there. The Internet added something to make them better.

The Internet is about the access.

It’s about being able to shout a question to the sky and actually get an answer. It’s about being able to shape our own secret stories so they can be heard and felt by that stranger on the other side of the world who desperately needs to know they’re not alone. It’s about being able to create complete crap and fling it out into a field knowing that no one will care, unless you happened to be wrong about it being crap. It’s about building a brilliant wall of mixed sensory input that feeds you exactly what you asked for, along with everything you didn’t know you needed but it thought you should have anyway.

It’s not perfect. Like any lover, it comes with more baggage than a cross-country flight on Christmas Eve. It has daddy issues, it has a temper, it has weird fetishes that you’re not interested in, and it wakes you up at 3am to say things like, “We need to talk.”

Maybe that’s what makes it okay for us to be messy humans right back at it.

I knew this year would have me nose-to-the-grindstone building and rebuilding my foundations. It was time to stop thinking about what I wanted to do, and to just push myself to get it done. A new full-time contract. A new startup. The closure of six years worth of freelance clients. A relationship breaking down. Mix in two speaking engagements at universities on the East Coast and a meeting in Canada, and yeah, that’s a full plate.

No one would fault me for shutting up, disengaging from Facebook and Twitter except for basic updates, and not blogging for awhile.

But I do.

Not just because its professionally important for me to keep building a community, an audience, a constituency, a position in the greater conversation, and (ugh) a personal brand. Yeah, I’m a social media kid, and those things are all my life blood. And when I’m not blogging, I’m not keeping it up. (Actually, I decided that none of that mattered this year. I’ve already got all the fuel I need to build what’s next, and what’s next is for my people, so it’ll all work out in the end.)

I’m kicking myself for being quiet because I am less happy when I’m not interacting with the Internet. I could go on a long anthropomorphizing rant about how you’d be unhappy, too, if you weren’t talking to your lover of 14 years. Or I could just quote gapingvoid and make it simple:

“Sharing makes us happy. Not sharing makes us unhappy. Like I said, [it’s] a fundamental human drive.” –Hugh MacLeod

Or, to expand: The Internet is about access, and access matters because it allows us to bear witness.

That’s it. That’s what we’re showing up for.

Tonight I’m listening to Lady Gaga’s latest album, Born This Way, in which she sings her heart out, making direct eye contact with every young person who’s ever felt like they didn’t belong. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t like her style of dance mixes, or that I think her bridges are trite. She’s singing, and she’s connecting, and she’s telling people they’re not alone, and I love her madly for it. Tonight, she is my Internet. She’s standing up in that role that I treasure — the one that saved me, and the one I stand in whenever I can handle the weight of it because it matters so damn much. The one where we reach out to sad strangers and say, “It’s okay, I’ll hold your hand. Now walk.

I have no conclusion. I’m just hitting publish because that’s better than not. And because if we censor our impulses out of fear of what future opportunities might think, we’re as good as having forgotten our dreams.

(And also because I promised myself no sex until I started blogging again.)

So what do you say. Does this count as showing up for you, Internet?

Can I get a witness?

Heads up, this content is 10 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.
Sarah Dopp

Photo by Dreamfish

Hi Internet,

Wow. That was some year, huh? I’m still rubbing my eyes to wake up from it all.

Here’s a recap:

I organized some social media workshops, I started an industry blog about community management, and I launched a campaign to build a clothing marketplace (which hit it’s funding goal three weeks early, last Monday!).

I also spoke at Oberlin College, co-coordinated a camp weekend for transgender children, produced a public reading of content from Genderfork, started a personal newsletter, and was published in two books.

I kept hosting Queer Open Mic, I kept shaving my head, I kept on twittering, and I kept Genderfork running smoothly.

I built websites for some amazing clients like Gender Spectrum, Marc Davis, The Personal Data Ecosystem, and THE LINE Campaign. And I pushed my focus from “website development” to “online community development,” consulting on projects for Offbeat Bride, Cisco, and a few others.

It was an odd year. A creative year. A year that required a lot of long drives just to clear my head. It was filled with rebuilding, reorienting, and rethinking. It was jumpy and inconsistent. It ripped me open in all the right places, and it held my hand when that hurt like hell. I’m grateful for every moment of 2010, but let’s be honest: I’m glad it’s over.

It’s time to stop turning my brain upside down and shaking its pieces all over the place to figure out what matters. I know what matters. I know what’s next.

Now it’s time to build.

What about you?

I hope your Internal Annual Review today is just as clear, and that whatever’s next for you is stretching itself out in front of you with a welcoming smile. I hope you’ve seen it coming, and are ready to change gears and launch forward.

And speaking of which, while we’re here, do you mind if I make a few suggestions?

1) Send yourself a letter today using FutureMe.org. I do it every year at New Years (and a few other times during the year when I’m drunk or punchy, just for kicks).  The letter will arrive in your inbox at exactly the same time a year later. Use it to write out what you did last year and what you hope to achieve this year. And use it to remind yourself of what’s important to you.

2) Don’t make New Year’s resolutions that set you up for failure. Every time you break a promise to yourself, you trust yourself less, and that poison seeps into all aspects of your life. Don’t take the bait. Set intentions instead. Make predictions. Generate ideas. If you must play into the resolutions game, then set gentle, realistic goals and make a plan for how to meet them. But really, I think you should just go outside, take a deep breath, be quiet for an hour, and reflect on how far you’ve come already. You’re kind of amazing. Remember?

3) Whatever you focus on this year, make it special. Keep it small enough to stay special, and let it grow when it’s ready. Don’t litter on the Internet by posting things you don’t actually care about. Build up your character and integrity by only doing things that actually matter to you. Practice discardia. Be selective. Don’t just throw spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. Pick your spaghetti off the shelf carefully. Go for the one that smells the best. Love that water as it boils. Make your sauce from scratch. Taste test. Get it right.

May your year be full of what you need, and may it challenge you to reconsider what that is.

(And thank you for being here. You make me happy.)

Love you,
Sarah