Social Media & Social Anxiety

Where is this blog going? What does it say about me? Since blogs also are representations of their authors (or at least embody certain aspects of their personalities), it is important to me that it looks like something I can identify with, that I want to be connected to. After checking out other blog designs over the last couple of weeks, I finally decided to make the transition to a new look. I really liked the compact layout of the old blog theme, but had grown tired of the colour scheme and tiny font. The new one has a more elegant typography and no visual clutter, and the so-called responsive design ensures that it can be comfortably read from a variety of devices, from desktops to smartphones.
Lugubrious Layara also got an organisational makeover during the holidays: I streamlined the “About Me” section a bit, and reorganized the side-column. After almost two years, the scope of topics written about here became too broad to be faithfully represented by the tag cloud any longer, so I took it out. The “Social Anxiety” tag got turned into a full category, as it is too important a topic about which I write. I added share buttons to the posts and a contact info with an email address to the side-column. Finally, I designed my own header.
And then, I also joined Twitter in an effort to promote my blog a bit. This step I was not sure about, as tweeting does not come naturally to me. I will give it a try and see how I like it in a month’s time, and whether it actually is worth the effort.

I am old enough to still remember the way the internet was when it first became widely available for private homes – back when you could not receive phone calls while being online and loading graphic-heavy websites was a real test of patience. The era of dial-up, when surfing was so expensive that I was limited to two hours per month (sic), and when I could not even have imagined some of the programmes and games I use routinely now. Before web 2.0 became a reality, the internet was a much easier place for people with social anxiety, like me. One felt much more anonymous back then, and conversations took place on message boards or forums. If you wanted to lurk from the shadows, you did just that, and if you wanted to join in, you had plenty of time to formulate a response.
Nowadays, very many places on the internet feel like the virtual equivalent of a party in full swing. Social media live off rapid-fire smalltalk, and like with a real-life party, those who are best at this kind of conversation shine, whereas the rest awkwardly stare at their feet. On a message board, you could drag posts from the archives and revive threads which had been dead for years, and the discussion would simply continue if some other forum members had sufficient interest. On Facebook, a status update becomes obsolete after a few days at the latest (depending on the size of your friends list), and on Twitter the half-life of a tweet is a few hours only.
I am terrible at smalltalking, both in real life and online. I never know what to say, or how to phrase it, and I am also very shy about approaching another person. Fear of rejection, fear of humiliation, fear of boring the other person… the whole palette of social anxiety at work. And social media have a much lower threshold in that regard than old-fashioned forums. Facebook is ok for me in so far as I know all the people there, and the update tempo on my timeline is not quite that high. But Twitter is difficult, because I do not know what to say: for the mindless quips and joking, I’m not nearly funny enough, and generally too long-winded for anything of substance. Some people have the gift to be profound and deep in 140 characters – but I don’t.
However, it’s not only Twitter which freaks me out. I can’t play any kind of online game where I would have to interact with other players; it is especially stressful because I am supposed to be leisurely around them, but can’t relax in such a setting and tense up. I am also very shy on other people’s blogs, more often than not leaving without commenting because a wave of social anxiety washes over me: “What if they don’t like what you are going to say? I’m sure they’ll find it boring as hell! Oh, look, there already are three comments, and they’re all so much wittier than what you were going to write. Just leave before anyone notices you have been here…” Even on my own blog, I sometimes worry about my own replies to visitor comments.

Both in real life and on the internet, I prefer moving in social circles I am familiar with – among friends, I can become surprisingly chatty. Among strangers, no matter how amiable they may be, it takes quite a while until I will start opening up, and one of the advantages of the internet is that through blogs or forum posts, you can get to know another person a little before you even exchange the first greeting. Social media which put more emphasis on exchange than on content (I am somewhat simplifying here, for the sake of the argument’s clarity), like Twitter or Facebook, are not any different from real life conversations to me, in terms of difficulty. Virtual worlds or MMORPGs are even more stressful than attending a party.
The truism that increased internet usage equals increased loneliness is too simplistic in my opinion, because its default assumption is that online interaction is less meaningful than offline interaction. When you suffer from social anxiety, however, chances are that – given a conducive internet usage – you actually are going to have more meaningful contacts with strangers than in the real world, while experiencing less stress at the same time.
Do not misunderstand me, I am not arguing for the superiority of internet contacts. If given a choice, I will always take a face-to-face meeting with my friends over emailing or messaging them. However, the media tend to paint a picture missing crucial details, both when praising the new interconnectedness and when condemning the arbitrariness of the new online platforms. For many people out there, the reality is much more complicated.
Despite occasional bouts of anxiety, I value the contacts I have through my blog, because they make me feel less isolated regarding my mental health problems, because I can learn from other people’s experiences, and because they allow me dealing with my social anxiety on a smaller, controllable scale.

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