Tumblr. YouTube. Facebook. Netflix. Twitter. I spend so much time using media. If I’m not sleeping or in class, more likely than not, I’m using one of these forms of media. I watch hours of old TV shows and new YouTube programs. I read new tweets and look at old pictures on Tumblr. I catch up with old friends and make new ones on Facebook. A huge part of my identity is tied up in my social media use. It’s the best way I communicate. It’s where I find most of my community. It’s where I learn about past, current, and future pop culture trends. At this point, I don’t think that eliminating media would change my identity that much, but growing up in a media concentrated environment has definitely shaped my life.
I really believe that people’s social media says a lot about them. Facebook tells you where they went to school, which kids they played with when they were young, and what kinds of things they like to do. Twitter tells you what television shows they watch, what kind of politics they support, who they look up to. But more than the others, Tumblr really shows the most about someone. Because of posts on Tumblr come in multiple formats, it can show a more accurate depiction of everything from sexual orientation to media preferences. Whereas Twitter limits output to 140 characters, Tumblr can produce long text posts, picture or gif sets, or even sound clips, which is unique to Tumblr. My Tumblr will tell you pretty much anything you could want to know about me. And if you can’t find the answers you’re looking for, you can ask, with the option to do it anonymously. Much of what my Tumblr shows are only surface level hobbies and interests of mine, but they inform a deeper look into the kind of person I am-or hope to become.
Identity is really hard. Figuring out who you are is something that people struggle with for years, and I am no exception. I spent all of high school and into my college career struggling with the big questions of my life, and continue to do so today. All of the things I do identify with, however, I am comfortable doing so because of the community I have found online. As a young, gay, Christian, woman, there are not many places where all of who I am is readily accepted. The internet is one of those places. Tumblr is stereotyped for being the meeting place of young suburban queers, but it really has been an incredible resource, guidebook, and support system for me and many other young people. Aside from the larger LGBTQIA community on Tumblr, I’ve found smaller groups of people dealing with the ways the church has dealt with gay rights in the past, and how the church should be acting moving forward. Certainly I would still identify with those things without social media, but I would seriously struggle to find community without it.
It is incredibly hard to have identity without community. Even if communities don’t “define” what it means to be a part of them, they have some kind of qualifier. To be a part of the LGBTQIA community, you have to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, or asexual. There are no rules for the community: no one says all gay women have to wear plaid and have short haircuts. But there is something that differentiates them from other communities. People are then able to draw from that to decide what it means for them to be a part of that community, and how they can form their identity within that, and beyond that.
The internet and social media have become an important part in what it means to form a community. The bonds formed over the internet as it has become an instantaneous means of communication have changed from the early days of the web. In the beginning of the internet, communicating over the internet was a slow process, seen as another way to send letters. As the landscape of the internet has changed, so has the way we communicate on it. Posts online receive instantaneous feedback. The old way saw days pass before a response, but new technology can bring answers in mere seconds. That newer urgency the internet has adopted allows online communities to react with the same promptness as a face to face interaction, and the possibilities for people in similar situation to respond or to see the conversation later greatly increases. Rushkoff discusses this in his chapter on time. Rushkoff describes how the internet, when it was first created, was nothing more than a paperless mail carrying system. People sent correspondence, but didn’t expect to hear back from its recipient for days. As technology has advanced, and people have become more attached to it, information is sent out with the expectation of an immediate response. Online communities have thrived because of the immediacy of online communication. The instant feedback of modern day online communication mirrors face to face conversation in a way that the internet has never been capable of before.
Moderation has never been my strong suit. That holds true in my media use, and the instant feedback fuels my addiction. To be totally honest, cutting off, or even just limiting, my media use was a little terrifying. The thought of being disconnected from my online communities was not something I was looking forward to. Even though I don’t rely on my communities to find and maintain my own identity, it’s definitely helpful to hear from and talk to people who are in similar situations, or who have been in similar situations.
Pulling myself out of my online communities had some unexpected consequences. I often find myself ignoring my roommates, my friends, strangers on the street, to scroll the endless pages of Tumblr. Extracting media from my life did not change that. If anything, it made it worse. It pushed me back into my own head. Thoughts that would have been pushed out onto my blog were instead trapped inside my head. I found myself spending more time being sad or angry and mulling over the same incidents because I didn’t feel like I had a place to let it out. In a normal situation, I would have blogged about it, probably gotten some feedback for someone on the internet, and I would have moved beyond it. Without that outlet I found myself, even more often than I usually would have, doing things to ignore my roommates. Removing myself from my online communities ultimately made me less pleasant to be around in my everyday situations, and made me less available for the people in my life who wanted to talk to me. While it might initially seem like removing myself from the internet for several hours every day would give me more opportunities to interact with people and have more meaningful conversations, in reality, taking myself out of my online communities actually made me more unhappy and limited my ability to be emotionally available to other people.
I think it’s important to note that I did not cut myself off entirely for this project. I just limited so that I was using less than two hours a day compared to my usual four to six hours. The restrictions of my media use didn’t mean that I missed everything; I meant that I missed depth. I got many of the major points of the conversations and trends in my usual groups, but I missed the interaction. The subtleties of life on the internet, the mood and feeling of any online community, that’s something you can only grasp by consistently being around and active. By limiting my media use, I didn’t miss out on the newest jokes or latest videos, but I missed out on the comradery I’d grown used to. The way that I missed out shows an important facet of online communities: being logged in all the time is the major characteristic of these communities. If you don’t show up all the time, you just don’t belong. You lose the meaning, the importance, of the interactions and communications. Even though you can still understand what is going on, you lose the significance, that is, you become “illiterate” in the situation. You lose the ability to meaningfully connect and relate to the community when you don’t spend enough, or consistent, time in it.
Community plays a huge role in new digital media. The identities of people who live in the digital age are tied up in the online communities that they participate in. Even though identity is formed outside of community, it is reaffirmed and legitimized by groups of people online, even if they live states or countries away. The immediacy of current online communication has simplified and streamlined the process of joining and maintaining digital community.