3 weeks ago

Dealing with Anti-Social Anxiety – Is There a Cure for Obsessive Hashtagging?

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A philosopher once asked – if a tree falls in a forest but there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Bleak as it may be, I find myself obsessed with the modern equivalent of this philosophical question: if I publish an article but don’t publicise it on a myriad of social media channels; if it doesn’t go viral, garner me thousands of followers or cause a tsunami of likes, does it even count? Does it mean anything? Does it – and thus, by extension, do I – even exist?

Many of us feel guilty about the length of time we now spend online. Just like we vow to quit the chocolate biscuits or the wine on the weekend, we begin each new week with a promise to spend less time on these platforms that only exacerbate insecurity and cultivate anxiety. Not me. I find myself oppressed by a different form of panicked hyperventilation: anti-social anxiety. The prevalent and pervasive fear that, instead of spending too much time online, I am rather not spending enough time or energy on the Internet. I am consumed by the imbibed belief that, in order to be successful, valid or visible, I must incessantly and consistently interact on every kind of online platform at every hour of the day and night. 

This compulsion to prove my worth, promote my work, and feel like I belong to some vague and elusive “community” by devoting my time, energy, and creativity to a screen is debilitating, exhausting, and frankly, unnecessary. How to protect against it? How to safeguard my happiness while furthering my career? How to mind myself against this compulsion to conform to a hashtag, a distorting filter, or a pithy Tweet?

Honestly? I have no idea but here is my attempt to find out. To understand why I feel I must be answerable to a social media deity at all times and why, somehow, I find myself believing that everything is better with a hashtag.

I used to think online interactions began and ended in pressing ‘upload’. Now, I long for that naiveté of a ‘copy, paste, post, resume business as usual’ mentality. Instead, I find myself in a full-time job of self-promotion that requires me to share lack-lustre breakfasts and intimate reunions in a vain attempt to qualify, certify, and commodify my worth. In a twisted inversion of the old adage, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’, I feel our reality is more ‘an unnecessary thought shared is a following doubled’.

In the democratisation of the internet and the decentralisation of information, I have somehow become not a writer, not a woman, but a publishing powerhouse. I am moonlighting as PR specialist, hype person, marketing manager, agent, and brand ambassador whose sole purpose is to promote a brand I’ve only recently discovered: the brand of me. Pedalling my wares is not just about selling a product – it is about selling myself. We are no longer building profiles or even platforms online – we are building a whole ideology, a circus of entertainment to satisfy the most insatiable demands for more, more, MORE.

It is only in this back-slapping, hand-clapping, emoji-endorsing networking that I can ensure that, when my tree falls, there is a receptive audience to champion, simper, and cheer.

Thus, I feel pressurised to deliver the same hype, excitement, and furore to rival the latest Pulitzer prize-winning novel, critically-acclaimed album or Kardashian fad. Frantically, I donate evenings to the editing of carefully-worded captions, I trade hours for a basic knowledge in the art of filters, I succumb precious sunsets to curating a perfect story I’ve spent the entire workday storyboarding in my mind.

Not only do I feel overwhelmed by this demand to invest inordinate time, energy, and creativity into the arduous creation of “me”, I’ve recently learned that I must similarly invest yet more time, energy, and creativity into discovering and supporting other people too. It is only in this back-slapping, hand-clapping, emoji-endorsing networking that I can ensure that, when my tree falls, there is a receptive audience to champion, simper, and cheer. I cannot just curate a safe corner for myself in this world of tagging and reposting, curl up with my quirky captions and sporadic interaction and assume those interested will come over and say ‘hello’. I must be consistently, doggedly, and incessantly on the offence.

While I understand the potential for comfort interacting with an online community can bring – uniting otherwise strangers in like-minded euphoria and allied camaraderie – my reality is an exercise in masochistic, soul-destroying voyeurism. More hours are lost to the vortex of a stranger’s newsfeed and the inevitable pastime of finding a million ways they are funnier, wittier, prettier, more intelligent, articulate, popular, and impactful than I am. I project every insecurity onto the veneer I am seeing before me and draw unfettered conclusions from a superficial supply of information. And then I totter off to find new ways to ignore my own sense of self and instead mimic their success.

Reading this, the answer seems simple: disconnect, delete the apps, and turn off my phone. Except – and this is the true nub of my anti-social anxiety – if everyone else is doing it, can I really afford not to? If I fail to play the game – even when I’m not even sure what the game is – am I threatening my own success and undermining my future? While my anti-social anxiety may be an existential and philosophical pondering, for many it is a viable financial fear.

Most of us these days have a side hustle, small business, freelance project, or innovation we are trying to keep afloat. Whether make-up artist or personal trainer, hipster café owner or Pilates instructor, we are all clambering to make ourselves heard in an overcrowded ether of insomniac competition. This isn’t just about visibility or validation, this is about survival. Because if we don’t, someone else will or, in reality, two thousand others already are – and that’s just within a ten km radius.

Too many words later and I am still befuddled, bemused, and already wondering how I’ll caption this piece when lambasting the small following I feel I’m supposed to wish was more. However, I hope in simply owning my anti-social anxiety, of contextualising a witty caption, envy-inducing photo or impressive following with the far less glamorous reality of a cricked neck from hunching over a screen too long, a frantic, near-tears scrolling at an ungodly hour hating just how well everyone else is “killing it”, or even a demonic obsession with the ‘refresh’ button, there is comfort. A comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our online securities or our offline anxieties. And sometimes, that’s all we need.

Holly’s full portfolio is available at www.earnestandethereal.com and @earnest_ethereal where you can find her keeping an online quarantine diary for the amusement of friends, strangers but mainly the future historians who will surely canonise her.

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