photo: Jerzy Kociatkiewicz

How to take care of yourself online when the world has gone crazy

Welcome to the End of Western Civilization, week 2. And let’s be honest: week 1 was a mess. Between friends making each other cry on Facebook, and activists fighting on email lists, and premature blog posts explaining How It All Went Wrong And What We Need To Do Next, I can’t say that the Internet is doing us any favors right now.

So let’s slow the fuck down, Internet. Yes, this is an urgent situation. Yes, this is a life-or-death situation. Yes, each and every one of us needs to do our part to challenge the Trump regime, mitigate the damage and stop hate in the streets.

But we aren’t going to be able to do that if we are draining our energy with online conflict. And conflict seems to be the near-inevitable result of people engaging in online conversation when they’re still in post-election shock. That includes the many white people who, as Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock pointed out in a brilliant SNL sketch, just discovered that America is not the kindest place in the world. Traumatized people are — surprise! — more likely to lash out online, and less likely to be gentle with their fellow survivors.

But how should we be gentle with one another — and with ourselves? What can we do to reduce the risk of injuring ourselves or others? What can we do to ensure we have the inner resources and relationships we need to sustain our work in the long struggle ahead?

There are three major areas in which our online skills affect our ability to navigate the present moment, so I’m going to cover them over three posts:

  1. Taking care of yourself.
  2. Taking care of others.
  3. Taking action.

Let’s get started.

Taking care of yourself online: in praise of filter bubbles.

Many people are usefully ringing alarm bells about how to protect your communications in the new era, and I encourage you to look at the specific tools and steps that will help you do just that. But we need to think about protecting ourselves emotionally as well as technologically. As Kim Tran puts it, “treat yourself like you would your bestie who’s going through a breakup.”

One of the recurring themes of the past week, especially online, is the realization that a lot of us are living in a “filter bubble”: a media and social media environment in which we only hear news and commentary from people who mostly share our world view. I certainly share the growing concern about filter bubbles (read Cass Sunstein’s prescient Republic 2.0 on the dangers, or Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age), so I understand why people feel the urge to pierce them.

But a moment of political shock is exactly when filter bubbles can serve us very well. For the same reason that I’m not inviting Trump supporters over for dinner this month, I am going to stay cocooned online until I have gone at least 5 days without a crying jag. I am still in a state of grief and terror, and reading Fox News really does not help. Enjoy your filter bubble, if you need it: there is no shame in feeling tender right now, and if your filter bubble lets you get the support you want online without getting further traumatized, that is actually very helpful.

That filter bubble can keep people out as well as keeping you in. We need brave people to step up, speak out, and sometimes, to face barrage of abuse that can come from taking courageous positions online. But we need that from people who can step forward and stay forward. If you’re still reeling, you may not be ready for that role. And even if you’ve already been playing that role — if you’ve been on the digital front lines for months or years — it’s OK to admit you need a break to heal your broken heart.

Treading carefully during this fraught moment needn’t mean silencing yourself. By all means, use blogging and podcasting and tweeting and Facebooking to get your voice out there, if that’s how you process and think. (That’s certainly my own strategy.) But even if you normally have a thick skin, consider the possibility that the usual Internet nastiness is going to cut more deeply: before you post, assess your emotional capacity to deal with the backlash.

For the time being, consider giving yourself permission to preach to the choir, even if we recognize that broadening the conversation is crucial to the political work ahead. Right now, while you’re vulnerable and still just sorting things out, it’s OK to post stuff in a way that’s visible just to your closest friends; my own experiments with posting political content as “Public” on Facebook has convinced me that at least for me and at least for now, it’s not worth the heartache. And of course, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing: you can raise your voice in protest on Twitter, and save your deeper anguish for a smaller circle on Facebook or email.

If this feels like copping out, perhaps it will help to think of yourself as a reservist, waiting to be called up for duty. This is a long fight, and we need our people at full strength. I’m not just talking about the organizational strength we’ll need to address the sheer volume of issues in play, or the physical strength we’ll need to face the very real risks to many members of our community, or the strategic strength to make inroads in the face of the Republicans’ structural advantages.

I’m talking about emotional strength: the emotional strength to look this horror in the face, and stay with it. To avoid the temptation to say “maybe it won’t be that bad”, because we can’t stand the anguish and fear that come from recognizing exactly how bad it is. Finding the strength to feel the full horror of this electoral outcome— well, that is the only way we can do this work without putting on blinders, denying the experience of other people on the front lines, or underestimating the effort we need to put into the struggle.

That’s why I think the most important work we need to do right now is not figuring out the 4-year plan or the 1- year plan or maybe even the 4-month plan: it’s figuring out how we are going to take care of ourselves and one another, so that we are still here fighting in January, and in 2018, and in 2020.

In the next part of this series, I’m going to look at how the Internet can help us do just that.



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