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Dean Whitbread 2013

Dean Whitbread 2020

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Written on September 15, 2014, and categorized as Art, Autobiography, Flip side, Personal.
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I was telling someone yesterday that at some point, I stopped knowing why I was pumping out online stuff to an audience which was measurable, but distant. “Why do you share all these pictures?” she asked.

“People like it!” I responded. I started to show her some stats, but that was simply crude. I was just showing numbers and images, and it was no answer. In fact, it was so far from the explanation she was seeking of the roots of my impulse, that it was avoidance. “Anyway, it’s not just pictures,” I explained. “I used to write three times a week. I entertained millions.”

This insouciant quip wasn’t believed, but it should have been, because it was true, once. But it didn’t explain, either.

“I started doing this years ago and I found an audience, I got readers, viewers.” That sounded worse than the stats I had abandoned showing. I started to explain that the people with whom I had connected more than ten years ago, via blogging and photosharing and making podcasts and video chat, in the pre-smartphone days, the pre-app days, the pioneering days of yore, were real people and remained real friends. Friends. All over the world. People I had met. People I still have regard for, in whose lives and well-being I remain keenly interested. I was really doing it, I supposed, for them. Maybe.

She just looked at me as if I was mad.

“Some time back there, maybe 2009, I stopped,” I found myself saying, “I lost my reasons. I didn’t know why I did it anymore. So I moved stuff around, shut blogs down, deleted tweets. I took a net-free holiday, forced myself to stay offline and told myself it wasn’t an obsession, wasn’t an addiction.”

But it  had been very nearly a kind of addiction, though without involving obvious self-destructive behaviours except staying up far too late because you are communicating in several timezones at once, and replacing active, alert daytimes with hollow-eyed, compromised concentration. Back then, in the days, the internet was a social club being constructed and played in by intelligent, creative people with interesting lives and things to say. Everyone was experimenting. This community provided something my life had previously lacked, contact with my international peers, a global bunch of like minds. Wit, humour, surprise. Learning. Kindness, warmth. Friendship.

Previously, I was not so isolated, but I loved the expanded sense of connection that internet-inspired relationships gave me. My life had truly been enriched. Even my bank balance was enriched, eventually, by some of this activity. So this was not a fake replacement for life, it was the real thing, dammit, even though it was 90% virtual. Who even says ‘virtual’ any more?

Despite trying harder, I wasn’t making great sense, to myself or to my listener, who was by now drifting off, bored with the lack of easy comprehension. I didn’t blame her, I was talking confused bollocks. I only half-believed myself. I hadn’t prepared for this.

“It isn’t an obsession, this online social behaviour,” I volunteered. “It’s a habit, maybe. If that’s any better.” It didn’t feel that it was. Is.

But it is at least true that I had once weaned myself off the compulsion to remain online. I had to cut the umbilical cord and breathe once again on my own. I recalled it was a bit like drying out – not that I was an alcoholic, no, not me, but still, I drank too much internet, and needed a break, so I took one. Took a break, dried out, detoxed. Dropped negative contacts, unfollowed, went private.

This is of course the kind of logic a true addict employs in order to continue the buzz.

“It’s not just me,” I said, “lots of people do it. It’s a way of communicating. I enjoy it.”

“But you do it all the time,” she said.

She had me there.

Perhaps, I thought, it is simply nostalgia now. Perhaps it is just a habit. Perhaps it’s just that once, I was doing alright, and I never moved on to anything better. Perhaps it’s simply for want of something better to do. Perhaps I, along with everyone else, am on a treadmill, some sad character from an unwritten Beckett play, half-conscious and pathetic and without hope, yet communicating and commenting and liking and favouriting away, despite the futility, and despite the point being only and always the sharp end, chasing some vain illusion of posterity, despite there being always and only now.

Under the bridge

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