Paid Attention 01: Finding your own harmony on the internet.

    7 min read

    It's been a while since I've taken time to pen some words for myself — and in pursuit of better habits, I'm working to be a little more consistent.

    I hope you're well wherever you may be mentally + physically — drop me a line and let me know what's on your mind.


    Personally, August was simultaneously regenerative and pernicious. I found myself with more time away from work than I've taken in a while — yet it was still somehow more taxing and beat-up.  From celebrations (hey I finally had that in-person wedding ceremony) to personal discoveries about my own health added into the day-to-day beating we just tend to take living in this world.

    Side projects were left untouched, the laundry wasn’t done, the things I told myself that were going to get done… well, I didn't get done. The rest I had aspired for came with a few more hiccups in the road.

    I found myself retreating from the same, online worlds that I sometimes feel more at home in than the real-life communities I navigate every day. I sought out more time to think about how we participate in the world, and why these online worlds are at a very real risk of being only further pruned, optimized, and too consciously curated. This brings with it impacts on one’s own social identity.

    I complained to my husband early this week about it — sometimes it feels like I just don’t fit in.

    • I’m not athletic enough to fit in with some athlete friends,
    • yet I’m too athletic for some tech spaces.
    • I’m too curious about nuance for 280 characters,
    • yet I’m not interested enough to maintain my own newsletter.
    • I’m too interested in policy to keep my mouth quiet on issues I feel strongly about,
    • yet I’m not interested enough to have a career in it.
    • I’m too interested in my career, thinking about it outside of the 9-5,
    • yet I’m not interested enough to want to start my own thing.

    I’m juggling multitudes of my own identity and interests — the various layers of Erin so to speak.

    Which — woe is me — can make this sound and feel like another angsty blog post written by yet another millennial on the internet, struggling to find themselves in a world that can all too easily make them feel like just another cog in the machine.

    Given what we know about the social norms and identity of the internet: this isn’t too much of a surprise.

    Our bios only have space for a limited amount of characters. And if you're reading this and of similar age to myself, you've been taught in your early adult years how to craft this online persona for a multitude of reasons:

    • to attract dates on various dating apps,
    • to fast track your careers on a network of professional sits,
    • to build habits on personal fitness apps,
    • to live a life deemed worth sharing on social networking apps (#DoItForTheGram).

    In these forums where connection with one another is commonly driven by the gamified dopamine triggers of likes, retweets, and shares — how do we push past this in defense of our own identity, authentic relationships, and our own sanity?

    My two cents? It starts by caring more about the world we live in (both online and off), and less about what our role or perceived identity is in that larger world.

    This is an act of resistance in itself. We gain parts of our own identity through socialization, through participating in a world that is much larger than ourselves in order to achieve some sense of belonging (thanks, social identity theory).

    I'm going to argue that, especially now, there's room for us all to be exactly who we are online. Let’s embrace the multitudes of layers that we all exist in and provide ourselves the space to participate in every niche community we want.

    Perfectly curated online presence.

    Back to my college years, we were taught how to “keep it professional” and “how to present our best selves” online.  Platforms (and smartphones) were fairly nascent, and we were just gaining our sea legs in the world of social media.  Our YouTube stars were yet to be canceled, our feeds were perfectly curated, and our online identities were polished — a sort of Elle Woods-esque sort of type.

    As Rex Woodbury wrote in an issue of Digital Native — Facebook sort of drove some of this. It was the first time we had to be... well, ourselves... online.  No more hiding behind digital screennames or monikers. In the issue of the newsletter — he calls out the Dolly Parton Challenge which had us all reflecting on how we carry ourselves across different sectors of the internet through a good ol’ fashion meme.

    Naturally, these different forms of digital identity are dying off as generations who are unaware of the sound of dial-up come of age.  But were we ever to blame for crafting these versions of ourselves? I’m pointing fingers at the algorithms — the same systems that had us jumping through hoops to game the system for likes and comments (as one influencer puts it comments are currency) have failed us in their promises to facilitate connection and authentic relationships.

    It’s almost as if authentic relationships take time, effort, understanding, and authenticity over a period of time — not an algorithm.

    Now, this doesn’t mean that I'm advocating for us to all air our innermost secrets, journal entries, and dirty laundry on the internet — I also believe (and have personally experienced) through using these social networks as a tool — your online identity can have strong impacts on your career, your professional relationships, and your personal ones as well.

    This doesn't mean it’s fair or even equitable. These platforms are often built upon a previous system, containing systemic biases that put some folks at a loss right out of the gate.

    How can we fight against a system that seems stacked against our odds? By building new habits that are true to ourselves.

    It starts by doing the things that the system originally didn’t care for: being ourselves. Building authentic relationships through conversations — online and off.  Through thinking about the habits that we partake in within our society. Not for the sake of what it means for our career, or for our social lives, but because of what it means to a fellow human in this world.

    There's no mistaking that the past 18 months since March 2020 have been a slog. It feels like we're waking up each day preparing to read whatever the latest updates of the doompocolypse is of the day.

    We've been trained to be cogs in this machine — an aftermath of the assembly line processes à la Henry Ford + the digital revolution of the early 2000s as well. Optimization, outsourcing, and fitting in in your own unique way became normalized.

    We'll need to retrain not only our day-to-day routines through habits, but also retrain our brains to ignore the social pressures and external forces that we're socialized to pay attention to.

    C. Thi Nguyen talks about the seemingly mundane habits we discover and cultivate in our lives through sport, in his article for Philosophers Magazine: “The Aesthetics of Rock Climbing”.

    In the article, Nguyen reflects on the beauty that exists between sport, game and existence — to absolutely oversimplify the problem and reduce it to its simplest form — it’s about the journey, not the destination. It’s about the appreciation of the sport in which they’re participating in.

    “One might be tempted to say here, if one were caught in a traditional aesthetic paradigm, that the climbing is just a technique, a trick to focus the mind on the really beautiful things – the rock itself, and nature. But I think this ignores what climbers are actually doing, feeling, and appreciating. They’re paying attention to themselves, to their own movements and appreciating how those movements solve the problem of the rock. The aesthetics of climbing is an aesthetics of the climber’s own motion, and an aesthetics of how that motion functions as a solution to a problem.”

    I was reminded of my own journey as an athlete while reading this. I was someone who chased black lines on the bottom of a pool for hours on end, only to become an adult who embraced the same sort of masochism through triathlons and endurance races.

    As far as extra curricular activities go, I chose some of the most expensive, injury-prone, mundane training activities. There’s something beautiful about the solace of the cadence of the bike or the sound of just waves and heartbeats from stroke to strokes — even if your shoulders are on fire.

    The hard part is: these experiences, often discovered in solace through sport, philosophy — are not as commonly rewarded in public through algorithms, or group social norms.

    It's an act of resistance to find your own sense of harmony in these online worlds.

    We don’t see the years building in quiet or one’s personal struggles broadcast to the world — we don’t see the mental or physical struggles one has overcome, either. We only see the end result. Which at times can feel unremarkable. The mere act of showing up somedays can be a damn struggle.

    “There is, for the climber, a very special experience of harmony available – a harmony between one’s abilities and the challenges they meet.”

    Too often, we've presented ourselves to appeal to an in-crowd but less so for ourselves.

    This takes time and no it won’t scale. There are no hacks, there are no shortcuts or swipe files. It won’t always make a great Twitter thread and tends to have more nuance than fits neatly in 280 characters, but I can guarantee it's worth it.

    Unplug yourself from the algorithm, let’s pursue what brings us joy.


    How have you unplugged yourself from the algorithms?
    How do you discover your own sense of harmony online?

    Shoot me an email and let me know — I'd love to hear what you're up to.


    Recent reads that have inspired this post

    "The Aesthetics of Rock Climbing," by C. Thi Nguyen for Philosopher's Mag

    There is, for the climber, a very special experience of harmony available – a harmony between one’s abilities and the challenges they meet.
    "Our Need for True Connection is Giving Rise to Phone-Free Spaces" by Joelle Renstrom for Psyche.

    Our habits can make the benefits of pleasant interactions easy to forget: researchers at the University of Chicago in 2014 found that people underestimate the positive impacts of interacting with others, particularly strangers.
    "Reflexive McLuhanism" by Shawn Wang

    To paraphrase Churchill: First we shape X, then X shapes us. If a defining characteristic of humanity is making and using tools, then a defining characteristic of society is being shaped by those same tools.

    Comments

    Sign in or become a member to join the conversation.
    Just enter your email below to get a log in link.

    Erin Mikail Staples

    Erin Mikail Staples

    Read more posts by this author.

    brooklyn, nyc