How the Internet Saved Me From Myself (October 28, 2010)

heart-internet-love

I am old enough to remember the days before the Internet and it’s offspring – blogs, streaming video, chat, porn – beguiled us so. My grade school and high school reports were researched at home via Encyclopedia Britannica, or else I had to go to the library for more sources. But when I was 14 years old, I spent a lot of time at the much cooler home of my best friend Jesika, part of a family of “early adopters.” They were among the first to sign up for Prodigy Internet service, and when I first “surfed” this archaic version of the Net, my mind was blown. You mean we could talk to boys from other states without attracting parental attention? Sign me up!

My Internet savvy and uses evolved somewhat as I entered college at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. In the Fall of 1996, I created my very first email account at this always technologically progressive institution. I registered for classes online. I still didn’t have a computer of my own, instead making use of my roommate’s old fashioned word processor when facing a deadline and there were too many bodies in the computer lab. There was no Google yet so attempts to search for information meant using one of the earlier search engine prototypes, which yielded an undifferentiated, cluttered looking bag of mixed results.

I thought the Internet could be a timesaver in some cases, a novelty in others, but I couldn’t foresee then that the invention would mean anything more than that to me. I was, and remain, an analog book lover, a person who writes in a bound journal every other day and exchanges old fashioned letters written on stationary.

But then a little gnawing voice that I attempted to ignore for most of my life, but grew progressively louder as I entered my 30s, started yelling at me to stop denying that I had to write. I am nothing if not practical, and I knew that the profession of authorship, like music, dance and acting, bore a success rate of approximately 0.1% So I went about the business of trying to be a corporate success, continuing to fail miserably, wondering why I couldn’t get myself to play the game, until, exhausted by all the efforts to normalize, I had to face the truth. I am a writer – come what may.

And this is when I realized that the World Wide Web is the best thing that ever happened to me. At best, the Internet is a source of endless information located at the punch of a few keystrokes. At worst, it is a way for the socially awkward to distract themselves, tune out from the real world and avoid human interaction. I say this is a terrible phenomenon because in the wrong hands, Internet addiction can deprive one of a meaningful life.

But for me this covert method of demonstrating perceived talent without actually having to look anyone in the eye has been a godsend. I am a bit of a conundrum. I am quite outgoing, gregarious and sometimes even charming in a room full of people with whom I already feel a safe connection. At other moments, in a space full of strangers, I give off the impression of having Asperger’s Syndrome: stiff, silent, nervous, drinking too much to try to overcome my discomfort, certainly not the confident smart aleck I appear to be with my inner circle.

This tendency to become a hot mess in new social situations goes to another level if I am on the spot professionally: giving a presentation, accepting an award or even talking about a subject anywhere close to my heart. I look down, get teary eyed, and my hands start to shake. Can you just imagine me trying to pitch a book? It all of course comes down to insecurity. Without the Internet, and its cousin, email, I may never have had the balls to put myself out there at all.

Because what I can’t bring myself to do in person, for fear of rejection, failure or just plain old looking stupid, I can do with rehearsed, unemotional confidence over the computer. The first time I reached out to the Editor-in-Chief of a local Chicago paper, the first publication to take a chance on me, my palms were sweaty. I felt faint and almost certain my offer to write a story would be shot down. But Suzanne didn’t see any of this. What hit her inbox was the thoughtfully worded, calm and professional request to throw me a feature. I nearly fainted with shock and fear when I received an affirmative reply a few days later, but again, Suzanne was not privy to that response. My practiced, “Thank you, I look forward to meeting your deadline” allowed no hint of neuroticism.

With very few exceptions, all of my writing has been for the web, that first print feature notwithstanding. On the page of this blog, I put myself out there, dare to inscribe things I often can’t say to myself. It has made me a better writer. The ability to hide behind my terminal has paradoxically done more for the real “me” than anything else. Some of the topics I have addressed in my work have opened up much needed, and often delayed conversations in my personal life. What can I say? I am better behind a keyboard than in a room – everytime.

I know I need to work on the interpersonal part of my game. I can’t simply flee when asked to have an adult conversation with a stranger who may or may not have some decision making power over my career. But for today, I am grateful for the opportunity to share my insecurities with a larger potential audience than I might otherwise have allowed myself to experience. In person, I trip over my own self-deprecation before giving others the chance to point out my flaws. Online, clad in sweats from the comfort of my home office, I am a confident, more risk taking Becky.

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