People Online are Realer Than They Appear

On eking out a living by writing about ourselves on the internet

You don’t know me, not really.

If you met me, my accent might surprise you. Although it doesn’t come through in print, it is resolutely British but I adapted to US English in print when I immigrated to America. At the time, I thought it was a courtesy, the least I could do even though every sentence reads like a series of typos and missing letters.

Lately, it has occurred to me I now sound just like another internet caricature, only minus the enormous ego boasting about the girth of one’s greed. Depression spent five years trying to kill me and still won’t let up; my ego went the same way as my career, down the toilet.

According to self-styled influencers, my problem is that I don’t dream big enough, I’m not my biggest fan, and I certainly don’t inspire myself. Come on, who does in real life? How does one sustain this level of megalomania without going off the rails? I’m simply another human behind a screen who is trying to stay alive another day in the hope tomorrow might bring greater ease.

Or a hug, whichever comes first.

Human warmth is what I hunger for, like everyone else on this planet.

If you met me, you’d also notice I’m more articulate in print than in person.

But far less serious in person than in print, even though I seem to be prone to frequent confusion and random bouts of crying. Because life gets overwhelming when you stopped living it for five years and love is proving far, far trickier than I remembered.

Emotional overflow happens a lot and can lead to unexpected kindness.

And yet, I can’t help but be restrained in writing, for fear the magnitude of the dark force field that often surrounds me might make you feel infinitely worse than you already do.

Therein lies my problem, a sense that I have a duty of care toward those I write for and therefore cannot and will not perform misery. At the same time, I’m sorry to say I have no dream to sell you; I could not, it would be dishonest.

That dream of changing your life through writing if only you stick with it long enough? It’s deceitful and posits success is guaranteed so long as you produce, no matter what you produce, regardless of whether there’s any quality to it. And if you look around, it’s easy to see why desperate people fall for this illusion; a culture pandering to the lowest common denominator will always elevate those who shout louder than everyone else, those whose greed feeds on our collective shortcomings and just keeps growing.

Much like we get the politicians who represent us, we get the content we enable, too. The bloated mind is a bottom feeder, its appetite is never sated, it’s a niche, a market, and innumerable platforms, none of which intended to elevate the human spirit. In this context, factual and dispassionate language is the best I can do. Alas, as the old journalistic adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads” but I really don’t want you to rejoice you aren’t me.

I want you to understand you could be.

And I do not see writing as bleeding gratuitously all over the page but as bandaging wounds and applying compresses to relieve pain.

That was were my writing voice came from originally.

Writing as service.

Alas, this always doesn’t translate well into personal essays. The format demands a little more self-centeredness than I’m comfortable with and way too much of my privacy. Perhaps those who willingly offer theirs up to the highest bidder are pioneers and could teach the rest of us how to monetize every single second of our existence, how to get paid just for being alive. Perhaps those who willingly plunder their personal narrative for clicks and bucks are also painting themselves into a corner.

What happens when your circumstances improve and you run out of misery to perform? Do you ham up every little event like a common cold, losing your phone, or a reader suggesting to you that you are self-loathing incarnate because you keep debasing yourself in print for online attention?

OMG, an ingrown pubic hair, look! “Here’s What Happens When you pop the zit,” the thinkpiece you never knew you needed but can’t look away from. Nothing glues eyeballs to screens better than human ooze.

As long as they are consumers for our humiliation and shame, why not cater to the market even if it further erodes our sense of self and our ability to connect with others, and them with us? Believe it or not, this is what keeps me up at night and makes me question the societal impact of such writing. Because I’m that cliché, a self-inquiring meat bag in motion blundering her way through life in a very stilted, very serious fashion I really can’t shake off.

My delivery is so wooden that I often eschew contractions in print, in an era when we’re urged to sound like we’re chewing on a triple cheeseburger and spitting wisdom.

To add to the list of insufferable traits, I yowl but I don’t “y’all”, and the only AF I know is the worldwide chain of non-profit French cultural institutes called Alliance Française. And yes, it sounds self-righteous and pompous until you realize that this isn’t bragging but my culture.

And I really, really don’t want American greed to swallow it whole.

Liberty; equality; fraternity.

We French couldn’t prove God existed so we bet on solidarity instead and made sure everyone got the message by plastering the slogan everywhere, like some state-sponsored indelible graffiti. And it is everywhere, on everything from city halls, to schools, cop shops, post offices, all official government buildings in France and overseas, and paperwork, right down to our voter registration cards.

I didn’t measure the impact of my upbringing until I crossed the Atlantic for good. Prior to that, I had lived abroad my entire adult life, mostly in the EU while I frequently traveled to North America for work. When I immigrated, I understood how being steeped into French culture from birth sticks and informs many of my beliefs. And they’re all about people, us, humans, together.

In principle, America isn’t that different from France, just far larger, with religion thrown in.

But in practice? Dog eat dog. So I hiss and spit out a few hairballs on occasion, expressing concern at the state of the world to raise awareness and urge others to start thinking about making it better rather than throw yet another pity party.

Life is not fair, woe is me.

Welcome one, welcome trolls!

No matter how good a social media marketer you are, writing isn’t a shortcut to conjuring up human warmth. You might have more luck hugging a tree if you’re really desperate given that it’s about as conscious as the internet is on a good day.

The web is a great tool but we’re using it to divide and conquer rather than bring the world together, the result glowing orange in the White House for all to see. Trolls are compelling though, they know how to rile up an audience and set it on fire but who is their right mind would troll an entire country, no matter how much it deserves it?

Donald Trump. Plus anyone following in his footsteps across the political spectrum and who can make logorrhea pay.

I’m tired of coming across article after article saying the same thing, nothing new, nothing insightful, just antagonizing for the sake of making bank. You know the type, men are bad, greed is good, how to wake up at 3am every day and be a success before breakfast. I’m tired of the disgust junkies, the outrage addicts, and the bullshit merchants who service them because it makes us all dumber by association, less tolerant.

Less discerning.

I have no doubt I’m like many of you, a truth seeker among zombies who is so utterly lost the most intangible thing of them all is the only one that ends up making sense.

Some call it religion, some call it love but to my little secular heart they’re one and the same guiding principle. Vocation is what keeps me coming back to the page day after day, looking for ways to process that which defies language.

Like how we’ve turned the internet into a voyeuristic playground where we spectate the lives of others instead of living our own.

Like the frustration inherent to being a human in the world yearning for connection yet incapable of forging any that feels safe and secure. Or the heartache of watching your loved ones die in very slow motion as hearts crack a little more every day, including your own.

And I don’t think I’m up to the task, at least not in the way that supplies schadenfreude on tap by demeaning myself or those I write about for public consumption. So I wonder out loud why the thing I love most increasingly feels like torture and if this may be a sign that the voice I fought so hard to bring back to life may be leaving me again.

“Survival,” my friends reply without missing a beat.

Two questions, one answer: Because needs must and all that.

I’m no different from you. I haven’t got a clue about life and I keep making it up as I go along.

But at least I’m not pretending to know what I’m doing.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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