Almost a year ago, I deleted my Facebook. The one that I had set up in the early days of Facebook becoming a ‘thing’. I was a MySpace kind of girl for a long time. I don’t remember why or how I got onto MySpace, but for a while it was how I built my first business. My husband was creating artwork for bands (mostly heavy metal bands) and I was helping him build the business. My first attempts at learning to code came when my husband got too busy with artwork, and asked me to take on the coding of the custom MySpace layouts he was designing.
I also used MySpace to market our business (though in those days, I didn’t really use the term marketing). I would see what bands were up to, and if they were ‘heading into the studio’ I would hit them up and ask whether they had their artwork sorted. We built a thriving business through MySpace.
Eventually, we had to move to Facebook because MySpace was dying. It wasn’t so great for bands in those early days of Facebook, and it forced us to make changes in our business. Gone were the custom layouts, so I had to learn how to set up websites instead. This is a skill that I am glad that I have, but it was definitely an adjustment.
And now we had to be ourselves online with our actual names, which also changed how we related to people. Some of the anonymity was gone. And Facebook was a lot to get used to, and I really didn’t like it. Do you remember how weird Facebook posts were in the beginning? Like we had to talk about ourselves in the third person… “Jamie is really bad at using Facebook” was one of my first posts (see below for an actual screenshot). This post makes perfect sense – of course I was bad at it; it was asking me to talk about myself in a way that I never would. As my kids would say, Facebook was so cringe.
“I post, therefore I am… and what I am is miserable”
I remember that as the site began to grow in popularity that I said to my husband that instead of Descartes’ philosophy of “I think, therefore I am” we had entered an age where people felt like “I post, therefore I am.” And it didn’t feel like an improvement, although I could never have guessed just how problematic social media would be for our society and for our collective mental health.
Over the years I did find Facebook becoming more and more problematic, but I stuck with it for years because it seemed to be important for business. And as time went by and our business evolved into a branding and marketing business, it seemed like I would never get out of the world of Facebook.
A few years ago our business and our lives in general were in a bad way, and during this time being on Facebook became something that was much more harmful than helpful. First, it wasn’t actually helping our business anymore. Facebook became more and more ‘pay to play’ so nothing we did was really going to be helping unless we were willing to pay for ads – and even that was no guarantee. We didn’t have the budget to take the risk on ads. So there wasn’t much that Facebook was doing for us.
And it was really hurting my mental health. As my family struggled with a lot of mental health issues and sensory issues, it would only add to my feelings of failure to go online to see all these happy families going on holidays, attending social events, sharing their kids’ successes at school when my family’s experience was nothing like that.
This was also a time when I was part of all these ‘girl boss’ and entrepreneur type of groups. I would see all of the successes of my ‘fellow girl bosses’ who were raising families while getting shit done in their businesses and on Facebook it really looked like they were living the dream while I was stuck in a nightmare.
Every time I read their stories of success, I hated myself more and more for being such a fuck-up. And even more surprisingly, I started to feel like I hated some of these people (I am really not a hater so this really shocked me). I would find myself angry and bitter at the unfairness of it all.
Being on Facebook became a sort of hell, but in my isolation, and out of habit and probably also my desire for dopamine, I kept scrolling. I suppose now the term that people tend to use is doomscrolling, and with good reason. When I think of those times, a sense of doom does come over me.
Eventually, I began to post less and less; and then my overall participation dropped off; and then I took the Facebook app off of my phone and I even stopped scrolling when I was on my desktop. And then one day, about a year ago, I decided to delete my account altogether. I didn’t do one of those farewell posts. I backed up all my data, and after some length of time without logging in (I think it was 30 days), my account was gone. Almost a dozen years of spending time on that site and poof – I didn’t look back.
That’s not completely true, actually. I did set up a new account under the name I use for writing because there are a few friends overseas that would be much harder to communicate with if I didn’t use Facebook Messenger. And I kept access to my business pages. But in terms of posting, scrolling, and participating – Facebook is just not a part of my life. My ‘friends’ list is under 10 people that I do consider friends ‘IRL’. I only use it very deliberately and incredibly infrequently. And even though I was on it for over a decade, and at times was a heavy user, Facebook is something that I do not miss at all. Not for one second. I have no Facebook FOMO.
I never did much with any other social networks. Over the years I have set up Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Twitter, but never participated much at all. I don’t have Snapchat or Tiktok. I have one friend that I talk to on WhatsApp. I don’t comment on YouTube videos. I have lurked on Reddit, but it took a year or more of lurking to set up an account and I only participate very sparingly.
I find myself at a crossroads
In February, I decided to start the Autism at Midlife blog. When I decided to build the website, I wasn’t thinking about marketing. I just needed to write about what I was going through, and I knew that I wanted other people to see themselves in my stories; that it was important to build the site both for my own personal growth and to benefit other people who can relate to what I write. It felt like a directive from the universe, and so I put my attention on writing.
And now I am feeling more stable, and capable, and confident about what I am writing. And it does authentically feel like it’s the right time for me to start sharing . But how the hell do you get people to read your blog if you don’t use social media? I guess I would have to use it, but I wanted to be thoughtful about how and where I used social media.
I thought about where and how I could share my blog in ways that felt safe to me. Using Facebook just felt like the wrong starting point. And so did many of the other options. I wasn’t sure where to begin.
My counsellor Hollie was kind enough to share one of my posts within her private online community. And one person commented on my website with some encouraging words – an indication that what I had written had helped her. That was a nice first baby step.
And then I found out about a community called Autastic. Autastic is an online community for late-identified autistic adults. I thought I would give it a try. I was getting on board in the early days of the site, so that was cool. I signed up. I set up a profile. I poked around to see what the site was about. I read people’s posts.
But I was not ready to be back in the online world. I started to get really stressed out about it. And I wasn’t really sure why. I just backed away, and didn’t log on to the site for a long time.
But I still wanted to share my writing with a larger audience than I was getting. So I contacted someone I know in publishing. And she was very supportive of what I was writing, and gave me a lot of great feedback. But she also said that publishers want to see that you have an audience and she encouraged me to share online.
So I had to work through why it felt so overwhelming to get back into an online community. I talked to Hollie about it, and she had a really interesting perspective which made a lot of sense to me. Hollie and I have talked in the past about how sensitive I am to noise. Usually when we talk about this it’s in reference to auditory noise. Hollie said that being online was ‘noisy’ to me. Okay, so maybe I don’t ‘hear’ what everyone is saying – but when I am in that kind of environment, I process it is a ‘noisy’. So it got me thinking that noise isn’t always related to sound. My husband says my mind often seems like a ‘noisy restaurant’ and while I understood and agreed with the analogy, it never struck me that I was experiencing ‘noise’ in my mind without sound.
I get overwhelmed by digital noise
To me, the online world is filled with digital noise and I find that really overwhelming. I am sensitive to reading what other people write, and to the images that they share. I am sensitive to the demand that social networking places on me to respond to posts and comments. This is true even if it’s just a perceived demand, and not an actual demand.
Due to some instances of online bullying that I have endured, there is also a very real anxiety response that happens in me when I write anything online. No matter how innocuous (or even ‘nice’) my statement is, I worry that someone will attack me. And sometimes I may even perceive a difference in opinion as an attack, or at the very least I will feel myself shifting into some kind of defensive mode. Or that gifted, perfectionist kid in me will come out and worry that someone will point out that I was ‘wrong’ or made a mistake, and I will have to contend with appearing foolish.
Also, I just don’t get people sometimes. I am astonished with the number of people who will knowingly post things that are highly inflammatory online – and I wonder how the hell they don’t have panic attacks reading people’s argumentative responses. I wonder how they haven’t worried about the impact of their words when I painstakingly comb through each and every one of mine. Many traumas in my life have put me firmly in the ‘fawning’ state which is something that I am working on overcoming so that I can share what I am writing with less and less worry but it’s a work in progress.
I don’t believe that I am often writing things that would typically cause arguments, but in today’s online culture, it feels like there’s always going to be something that pisses someone off. So I suppose I have to learn to put that into perspective.
That said, with my history of anxiety, panic disorder, depression, self harm, and suicidal ideation, there is no way that I would be putting myself ‘out there’ without a strong support team. When I get frightened, I remember that I am not alone in this. That there are people who will help me through. And these people have helped me get to a place where I am strong enough to be here for those of you who aren’t. Because I know that I needed to hear stories from other people who have been in similar situations, or states of mind, and have found a way to live through some really fucked up shit.
Even introverts need to belong somewhere
I am so grateful that I took such a long sabbatical from social media participation because it gave me some perspective. And it’s also helped me to recognize that I need to set some ground rules for myself when I use social media.
I did log back into Autastic recently, and shared a blog post and a poem. I have had some encouraging responses, and nothing ‘bad’ has happened so far. And don’t get me wrong – while I have a strong motivator in getting back on social media, I am not only participating in order to get people to read my stuff so I can impress a publisher.
I actually used to really love being part of online communities back in the early 2000s. It was a time when there was no ‘social media’, but I was connecting with people in forums and chat rooms based on a shared interest (often bands I liked). I found a real sense of belonging back in those days – like I didn’t have to mask, though I wouldn’t have recognized it as masking back then. There was a sense of openness, connection, and freedom. I felt like I had found my tribe for the first time ever. Of course, we all know what the internet has devolved into now, and those innocent days are behind us, unfortunately.
And while I am no extrovert, I do need to experience belonging. Hollie and I have been working on my goal to find a sense of community again. After four years away, I came back to Australia in March 2020, so it has been extra challenging to feel like a part of things here. As part of my work with Hollie, I had listed some of the values I was seeking in a community, and Autastic does tick many of those boxes, and so does her community.
And truly, it’s through written communication that I feel the most able to connect with others. Whether it’s writing my own posts, or in responding to others – I feel a million times more confident with my written (or typed) words than with my spoken words.
Setting rules and keeping boundaries
As I tiptoe back into socializing online, I set myself a couple of rules to get started.
First, I only go on the site once a day. This means that all of my replies and posts are to be done with intention and within a limited time period, and not on a dopamine-seeking or responsibility-avoiding mission.
Second, I am only using the desktop version of the website. This ensures that the site isn’t always accessible, and helps me stick to that first rule much better.
Third, when I start to worry about whether someone will attack me online, it’s a signal that I need to stop and do some breathing, and remind myself that people get upset with people online all the time, and it’s just the nature of our current society; and that while it’s okay to allow myself the emotions that it is bringing up for me, I can also get some perspective, and let them go. As Don Miguel Ruiz shares in his book The Four Agreements, Everything is personal, so don’t take it personally. To me, what that means is that I need to remember that how people behave and treat others is a reflection of where they are in life, and their own unique mix of nature and nurture, neurology and experiences. So if I can give them that grace, I don’t have to take their behaviour as my truth, or as a reflection of my intentions. All I can do is act with integrity and have some compassion for myself if I do fuck up. I know myself. I know my intentions. But I can’t expect everyone else to have that same insight, so hopefully, any suffering that I endure from putting myself ‘out there’ will help me learn more about myself and about the world, and help me continue to evolve toward ever greater compassion for myself and others.
In fact, all four agreements are really useful in navigating the online world, and perhaps if we paid more mind to these ideas, we might find a more peaceful existence.
The fourth rule I have made is that I have to continue to build up my energy accounting ‘deposits’ when I make ‘withdrawals’. Social networking can have its moments where it bumps up that dopamine and that can be very enticing to chase. When someone makes a connection with me, that can feel really good in the moment – but like any social interaction – it has a net effect of exhausting me. For any time I spend on social media, I have to do something that rejuvenates and helps me make an energy ‘deposit’. So today, I went on to social media for a bit, and then I sat down to write this. Because this is what puts really big deposits into my energy account. Writing like this. Writing without worrying about how large of an audience it will reach. Trusting that it is helping, even if the only one it’s helping is me.
I am not sure where I will end up on ‘the socials’. I have recently tried tumblr but I am not sure that it’s for me (I feel really old there – but to be fair I haven’t given it much of a browse). It may be that I go back to my roots, and stay in smaller forums like Autastic. I may do a bit more participating on some thoughtfully-chose subreddits.
And I am definitely open to out of the box ideas for sharing my writing, but I think that the best advice I’ve received from my friend Lisane, who is a brilliant business coach, is to put most of my focus on participating in social networking in places that are fun for me. I know that sharing my writing is something I am supposed to focus on as a matter of building an audience. But I can’t live a life where I do what good marketers say you’re supposed to do to ‘build a platform’. That just isn’t me.
When I think about my writing, it is often me putting into words what I have been feeling and ruminating over, but haven’t known how to express until I have a pen in my hand, or a keyboard under my fingers . It may be idealistic and naïve of me, but in sharing my writing, what I want for my readers is to feel like their own feelings have been validated or expressed. Or for them to see themselves from a new, more compassionate perspective. I want people to see themselves in what I write and to use it to be better understood by themselves and others. I want my writing to be shared based on the authenticity intrinsic in the writing, and the connection people feel in my willingness to share so vulnerably. And I trust that if I am doing all of these things, I won’t have to worry to much about doing all the sharing.