“I’ve always wondered about the assumption that our online personas are more fake than our physical ones. I often feel awkward and nervous in real-life situations; I almost always feel like I’m saying the wrong thing and am unable to articulate what I really think and feel. Online, I have plenty of time and unlimited space to consider what to say and how to express myself. It’s an advantage that makes me feel more like myself, not less so.”
– Summer Anne Burton, “Social Networking: A Love Story”
I don’t know where I would be without Twitter. I think about this often — sometimes I’m embarrassed by how often — but there’s no denying the tremendous impact it has had on my life, both professional and personal. Twitter is not the most important thing in my life, despite what some of my haters would have you believe, but it is the means through which I found some of the most important things in my life: my closest friends, my job, and an audience I never thought I would have, gracious enough to read everything from 140-character musings to 7,000-word articles I’ve spent months reporting.
Reading my colleague Summer’s lovely retrospective on her 20 years on the internet, I was delighted by how much I connected with it. Delighted but not surprised: One of the most important lessons the internet taught me is that there is always someone out there feeling the same things I’m feeling. There always has been, and there always will be. In my experience, the internet has never been about alienation or isolation, but rather an endless source of connectedness and comfort. My offline life is so much richer for it.
Inspired by Summer, I wanted to take my own trip down memory lane — a briefer jaunt than hers with just three stops, the three sites that have dominated my internet experience and most dramatically influenced my life. This is where I went and what I learned there.
LiveJournal taught me to never stop writing. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. (One of my earliest memories is sitting at a restaurant with my parents and writing stories that were essentially titles with illustrations. I repeatedly asked my mom how to spell “the,” because the word “the” didn’t make any sense, and frankly still doesn’t. I digress.) But LiveJournal made writing a part of my daily life again. It taught me that writing was an escape when I desperately needed one. The more I shared, the better I felt. In those early days, I had very few readers and I knew who they were — though, of course, my LiveJournal was public because I was too naive to think twice about that — but I was writing as much for myself as I was for anyone else. And yet, I can’t deny the gratification that came from a positive response. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit LiveJournal also taught me the thrill of instant validation, one of the internet’s double-edged swords.
Soon enough I was meeting new people on LiveJournal. Roxy and I were introduced through a mutual friend, but the internet is where we forged a real connection. It wasn’t until we were older and she was driving (I was late to that) that we relied more on IRL hangouts. And even then, we continued to communicate through LiveJournal comments, because that was the world we knew and the language we spoke. Through LiveJournal, I met the first boy who ever broke my heart, the first boy who ever got me to admit to myself — and soon after to a few trusted friends — that my feelings for the same sex weren’t going away any time soon. That boy, whom I found through a shared interest in Buffy, left me comments on my posts that melted my teenage heart, until we took it to AIM and stayed up all night talking about kissing each other. (That’s how innocent it was.) And when that boy moved on, because he was a year older and an hour away and maybe it was all just a game to him anyway, I went to therapy for the first time. My therapist asked if I liked boys or girls, and I didn’t hesitate before answering.
LiveJournal taught me to step outside of my comfort zone in a way I never thought possible. I was uncomfortable in my own skin, awkward around new people, and deeply afraid of most social interactions, but suddenly I was making new friends — and connecting in new ways with old friends — without breaking a sweat. I had a photo on LiveJournal, but it was carefully selected and cropped and flattering enough that I didn’t cringe to look at it. I rarely posted any other photos at all. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was being judged not for my looks, but for my words, and my words were where I thrived. I didn’t feel fat or ugly because my words weren’t fat or ugly, and even if I still felt out of place at high school, I knew that there was a haven to which I could always retreat. It was a place where I could speak freely and people would listen. I could talk about my crush — I used the gender-neutral acronym O.O.M.O. (“object of my obsession”) to refer to him — and my parents and my anxiety. And I was not alone.
I got Facebook the summer before I started college at Berkeley, back when it was still only available to certain colleges. (And you better believe I had a superiority complex about that. I was 17. Give me a break.) I envisioned it as a way to keep in touch with my high school friends, so many of whom were going to Facebook-approved schools like UCLA and USC. And it was that, for a while. But Facebook quickly taught me how to distance myself from high school, and from a version of myself I was never all that comfortable with. It wasn’t my first social network — I’d been on Friendster and MySpace — but it was the one that somehow meant the most. (It’s also the only one I still use, which certainly means something.) It was through Facebook that I discovered the ability to fashion an online persona, not drastically different from who I really am, but slightly cooler and more confident. With Facebook, I could choose what I wanted to present to the world, and that was such a rare gift. I didn’t feel like I was stumbling, because I was crafting my own path.
“Online persona” has a negative connotation, and I get that, but I wasn’t trying to be someone else entirely. Even in the pre-Catfish days, when I probably could have gotten away with it, I never pretended to be anyone other than myself. If anything, Facebook allowed me to be a truer version of that person, someone who could honestly declare The Rules of Attraction to be one of his favorite movies, and Maurice by E.M. Forster to be one of his favorite books. My so-called online persona turned out to be composed of the aspects of myself I’d been repressing out of fear and discomfort. One of the most pivotal moments in my life — and again, this used to embarrass me, but now I don’t care — was adding a sexual preference to my Facebook profile. I am Louis Peitzman, and I am interested in men. It was paradoxically so simple to do and an incredible feat. Before Facebook, I didn’t have the means to announce myself with the click of a button. What a thrill to be brave and lazy at the same time.
After that things changed quickly. My new out status on Facebook brought in an influx of friend requests — it was a small enough community back then, relatively, that some people took notice — and I was suddenly confronted with the idea of meeting people from the internet. The “stranger danger” alarms went off in my head, but Facebook had stripped away a certain level of anonymity that I’d always associated with internet friends. There was a very sweet boy who added me and told me I was cute, and one night I let him come over and kiss me in my bed. I didn’t feel unsafe — my roommates were home at the time — but I must have felt something, because I shivered the whole time, even when he held me. It was exciting and terrifying to know how easy it was to make a connection, whether that meant someone to fuck or someone to fall in love with. As Facebook grew so did the possibilities, and at times I felt paralyzed thinking about all the people, the vast majority of whom I would never meet, but I also felt a little bit of cautious optimism because I knew some of those strangers might one day become my friends or lovers or more.
I’ve written a lot about Twitter and what it’s done for me, but I can’t leave it out of this trifecta. Apologies if I’m repeating myself, though if you’re still reading this, that’s on you. I joined Twitter because I wanted to share my writing and find an audience. That happened. But what I found that truly changed everything for me was how much I enjoyed laughing and making people laugh. In very little time, Twitter went from a tool for self-promotion (hey, not that I’ve moved past that entirely) to a place where I could explore and refine my comedic voice. I am not a comedian or a humorist — I guess at the end of the day I’m just a writer with a sense of humor. But I found so much joy and laughter following some of the funniest people I’ve ever known. And the ability to keep up with them, or at least lag behind from a minimal distance, gave me a newfound confidence in my writing. As committed as I was and still am to journalism and entertainment writing, I pushed the boundaries of what I thought I could do with my words. Twitter, which I had joined as a tool, turned out to be a new outlet entirely.
And with that confidence, I did something I never thought I would do: I got on stage. Not as a stand-up comic, which still terrifies me, but as a storyteller, which felt much more in my wheelhouse. Twitter unlocked something in me — many somethings really: among them, a desire to make people laugh and a need to perform, both of which had been suppressed by intense social anxiety. The more I perform, the more I realize how much it’s always been inside me. Twitter merely facilitated that by letting my find the comedic voice I needed to tell these stories, and to make the connections that gave me a stage to tell them on. I’ve written about this before, and I’ll probably write about it again, because I still marvel at the fact that typing words into a tiny box on a screen somehow allowed me to overcome a lifelong fear of standing up in front of an audience. I don’t have delusions of making my living as a performer or a TV personality, so maybe it’s all inconsequential. But what used to terrify me is now something to look forward to. To me, that’s a powerful thing.
What means more to me, than anything really, are the friends I’ve made through Twitter. I know how ridiculous I sound when someone asks how I met any number of people, and I answer with the same deadpan “Twitter” because I don’t know what else to say. But I also know I’m past the point of caring. LiveJournal taught me that the friends you make online are sometimes better than the friends you make in person. You can bond with people based on shared passions and senses of humor instead of being thrown together by circumstance. Facebook let me continue that exploration, opening my world up and letting in people I never would have met otherwise. By the time I started to connect with people on Twitter, I understood the power of the internet to create and foster relationships. As silly as it may sound to some (it sounds a little silly to me), I found my chosen family. But I’ve also found myself, an ongoing process that involves stripping away insecurities and speaking out without being ashamed. That’s what the internet has done for me. I’m a little embarrassed to be this gushy and grateful, but the internet has also taught me that sometimes sincerity works, too.