The Internet Is Redefining Humanness
By magnifying certain personality traits, the digital mirror has upended how we relate to one another
No one wants to be invisible.
Thanks to the internet we no longer have to be. Regardless of our geographical coordinates, all it takes to join the global conversation is a Wi-Fi connection and, ideally, something to contribute rather than simply the ability to shout louder than everyone else.
This leaves many of us voracious for praise, recognition, and even elevation to some different social status. We yearn for a personal version of exceptionalism that would distinguish us from the masses and turn us into a household name.
But for this to happen, we’re dependent on fellow humans not only to validate our message, our opinions, and our feelings but also to endorse them. Because we derive our sense of self from what others think, from our paycheck, or both, and we do not like feeling untethered and insignificant.
Without the internet, many of us have no idea who we are anymore; perhaps we never even knew. When we’re still insecure about our own abilities, skills, or qualities, this all-consuming yearning leaves us desperate for constant attention.
Online this can translate into copy dripping with overwrought pathos where tone drowns out voice. Thus, the way we say something becomes more important than what we have to say, which is often nothing more than “Look at me, me, me.”
Instead of behaving like adults, we have tantrums and frequently stand in the corner on a soapbox hectoring unsuspecting bystanders who are so mesmerized by the cash we flash they’d sooner lick our designer shoes than heckle us or question our motives.
Because envy is a spectator sport.
The definition of visibility varies from one person to the next.
To anyone who grew up in a culture where capitalism and individualism rule, visibility is fame — no matter what for — and the riches that come with it.
Meanwhile, if you come from a background where all human lives have an equal value from the get-go, then visibility is a matter of curiosity and heart. To be visible is to know there’s at least one fellow human who acknowledges and appreciates our existence, whoever they might be.
In this context, every single interaction counts.
The warm, fuzzy feeling we get when a random stranger smiles at us on the street? This impermanent gift of human connectedness has the power to transform our day, but only if we choose to attach importance to it. Don’t our friends and partners all start out as strangers and go on to become part of our inner circle through mutual appreciation nurtured over time?
Visibility is in the way we interact with one another: Throwing ourselves at the assembled multitudes demanding to be seen makes balance impossible in exchanges with those whose validation we seek.
Are ego and greed turning us into monsters?
While we’re more willing than ever to share ourselves with the world through crude confessions purporting to be authentic, many of us are oddly competitive about it. Honesty is no longer implied but underlined instead and used as a unique selling point as if humans were products on a shelf.
On this modern-day hamster wheel for egocentrics that is the internet, many become obsessed with vanity metrics as if they were a measure of worth rather than data, which is by definition neutral. As a result, human interactions have become very transactional and much less… human.
This calculating approach may help generate profit and reinforce a sense of self-worth if the latter is linked to our bank balance, as if money could buy us credibility and respectability. But instead of securing the professional recognition and human warmth we seek, such aggressiveness can put people off.
Weaponizing vulnerability to hijack attention is what it comes down to. Doesn’t it feel a little icky?
The personal essay has a lot to answer for.
When it’s used as an advocacy tool to counter stigma, bias, and prejudice, it can bring us together by making us see we’re more alike than different. It functions similarly when it documents our respective experiences of being a human in the world.
But when personal essays become about building a so-called “personal brand” that hides a multitude of sins such as passing off sponsored content as native storytelling without disclosure, it may alienate discerning readers. The attention merchants know our weakness for sob stories and aim to please, but the tone they employ can give their hidden agenda away.
We have no choice but to see them, although that doesn’t mean we won’t avert our eyes. If attention is both a gift and a reward for the value we bring to others, it has also become a currency that is being traded for monetary gain via social media and on the internet at large.
How can we even know people are who they promote themselves to be? How can we trust anything they say? It’s a crapshoot, especially when our emotions are being manipulated.
Instead of viewing every interaction as a transaction, what if we used kindness, common sense, and empathy to navigate life?
How about gentleness instead of aggressiveness? Gentleness is clandestine, it doesn’t seek the limelight, it just is. How about love instead of greed? Love grows between the lines but it runs away when we leave nothing to the imagination.
Self-worth lies within, not without. No amount of validation can ever make up for a lack of self-awareness, for not knowing who we are and trying to be who we think others would like us to be, for trying to be what sells.
No amount of validation can ever make up for a lack of self-acceptance.
There is however one foolproof way to be seen. It starts with taking a look at ourselves in the mirror, getting curious about the human looking back at us, and learning not only to accept but also to appreciate them. Only then can we begin to build the confidence necessary to make our way into the world and connect with others in a non-transactional manner.
From genuine, heartfelt connection all else unfolds.
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.