In my other life, there is only one.
Many of us live double lives, presenting one version of ourselves to real-world intimates and another to those — friends and unknowns alike — estranged by the filters of the Internet. (In truth every interaction, online and off, provides an opportunity to dissemble, but.)
For example: A few months ago, I posted a picture of myself on Instagram in which I’m standing in front of a mirror wearing an acid green tank top tucked into worn, high-waisted jeans. “Earlier I had a lil anxiety attack,” the caption reads. “Now I’m going to see a metal show.” I can’t now remember the cause of it, but crying had been involved, certainly; some hyperventilating, too, in all likelihood. At some point, I’d started yelling at my husband because he could understand my distress only imperfectly. In short: the attack hadn’t really been “lil.” In context, the diminutive was deliberately deflationary, something between a wink and an eye-roll at my (hours) past self. Joking about the attack signaled — to me — that it had passed. Every like from followers signaled that I had handled an embarrassing episode appropriately (by brushing it off), and that I could still look cute after twenty-plus minutes of uninterrupted bawling.
My husband doesn’t use Twitter, has a limited Instagram presence, is gently baffled by the world of social media; his Internet is the New York Times and weird animal stories. To most, the self-mocking post would easily be read as an attempt to cope, but my husband was confused, hurt. My ability to pass the episode off as minor diminished the pain he had witnessed, a pain which, as someone who loves me, had pained him as well. It’s not that he believed I’d been faking my distress before, in real life; it’s that he couldn’t understand why I would fake nonchalance now, online.
A couple weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing the distance between the lives we live online and off; I found myself recapping the old disagreement, whose source I was still struggling to understand. “It’s that he doesn’t get to make fun of your anxiety,” she said, “and you do.”
Conventional wisdom has it that we curate our Internet presences to make our homes look more beautiful, our children more precocious, our relationships less fraught, our food more appetizing. And while that remains true in general — few are those who post genuinely, as opposed to ironically (which is to say performatively, which is to say not very), unflattering pictures of themselves or their lives online — social media rewards the kind of jokey authenticity that acknowledges and even inflates personal foibles and failures.
I’ve been accused of doing just that. In November, the writer Nina Renata Aron cited my work — and my Internet presence — in an essay outlining the emergence of what she called “Hot Mess Somehow Published in the Paris Review Twitter.” “I’m tired” Aron wrote
of reading the anxious apologetic essays — and tweets — of a generation of super smart women who seem to spend half of their time writing with confidence and appearing in literally the best magazines and journals in the country, and the other half pretending to be failures, broken, stained by the last shameful drops of Seamless takeout, hanging on by a fucking thread.
When the essay appeared, my best friend texted me, furious. Another friend reached out over email to see how I was doing. The force of their reactions was affirming — it’s always nice to know that your friends have your back — but also slightly perplexing. As sensitive as I am, the piece intrigued but did not pain me — in part because I appreciated the thoughtful, provocative spirit in which it was (well) written, and in part because its speculations about the reality of my life were incorrect. (The compliments Aron pays my writing probably also helped.) Whether Aron thinks I am or am not a failure, I certainly often feel like one; no part of the self-loathing I perform is pretend. What I am pretending — and in pretending, hoping for — is that I have enough distance from whatever mental health crisis I’ve most recently weathered to trivialize it.
Aron wants to “suggest that the flippant micro-chronicling of every bad mood, awkward exchange, and looming, soon-to-be-abdicated responsibility works to obscure all of the privilege, yes, but also all of the striving that got you to the big boys’ table in the first place, and to undermine your actual (often extremely good) work.” I’m with her on the obscuring of privilege. (Just now, freshly aware of that privilege, I feel deeply uncomfortable knowing my overtly personal writing is taking up any space online at all, feel uncomfortable being a distraction.) But I was always more likely to be passing a serious depressive episode off as a bad mood than I was to be micro-chronicling a simple case of the blues.
It’s this passing off that I increasingly find personally (i.e., with respect only to my own internet presence) troubling. It’s not just the fact that while lots of people deal with me in person, I’m the only one allowed to make fun of myself online. It’s not just that pretending I’m okay in Twitter’s company has not, so far, made me feel okay when I’m by myself — or even appreciably better. It’s that I’m worried the Internet is getting the best parts of me: my jokes and my small kindnesses; in short, my attention. The people I know IRL get my heart palpitations and my tears.
I’ve been thinking, recently, about what gets my attention. I can waste hours, an afternoon, a whole day, on my Twitter timeline, mentally recalibrating my position on any number of issues and emerging substantially wiser about none of them. (This is, to be clear, a function of how I use Twitter — as a scrolling slot machine whose jackpot I have yet to, will never, hit — rather than a critique of the platform itself.) What I’m doing is spreading my attention out, spreading it thin, so that after, there’s never quite as much as I need of it left over: for my husband, who would like to have a conversation with me; for my friends, to whom I owe emails; for my work, which requires sustained investigation.
I won’t pretend it’s possible — or even desirable — to collapse my two lives, the one I live in the flesh and the one I live in the digital ether. I do know that the time that goes into processing the flood of information available to me online, that goes into constructing a social media persona that’s slightly funnier, that’s slightly chiller, that gives slightly fewer fucks than I actually am and do, isn’t time I’m anymore sure is well spent. Others find the space between the real and the virtual thrilling, or liberating, or necessary. More and more, I find navigating that space makes it harder for me to figure out what I think, what I want, what I am. More and more, I find it vertigo-inducing.
Miranda Popkey is a writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.
In My Other Life, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2016.