In one of my favorite novels—The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham—the protagonist Kitty Fane learns many lessons through conversation. To quote my book blog:
…Kitty “collects” conversations like you might collect seashells on the beach. They are not always good ones, but in the moment, and upon reflection, she begins to see a larger picture than the narrow one inside her brain.
I feel like I’ve been having “Kitty Fane” conversations quite a bit this year.
Mostly, I’ve been talking with people about personal identity and what it means to be authentic. And during a recent conversation with a friend, I realized something very important. Not only do we all have “masks” or multiple identities that we wear, but these masks are tied to specific places, people, and contexts in our lives.
You might remember I’ve been trying desperately to lose my internet addiction and problematic relationship with social media. Past successes have been short lived. I can take a social media fast anytime, but I come back to it with a vengeance. I can leave Instagram, but I transfer my addiction to another app. What is going on here?
This conversation helped me realize that I am closer to the real me online. There’s many reasons I am not the person I want to be “in real life.” Mostly due to context and lack of opportunity. Online I am blunt and loquacious—or to put it more nicely, genuine and outgoing. Offline, the relationships and situations are different. I don’t have a lot of close friends close by. I have fewer responsibilities and chances to speak.
My desire for social media, then, stems not from a particular app, but rather a desire to be this version of myself. My favorite version. Maybe even the best version.
This was a eureka moment. Because it means the only way to become a digital minimalist would be to find opportunities to be this person offline. In other words, this identity is exactly the void that my internet addiction fills. Maybe it seems obvious to an outsider, but it’s taken me a very long time—years, in fact—to figure this out.
The question is, now what?
I honestly don’t know. The tiny, offline social life I did have, once upon a time, is no longer. Friends get busy, jobs change, and with the pandemic, opportunities become fewer. Efforts to build a social life have led me back to the internet, due to distance, pandemic restrictions, or just a lack of finding anything worth doing offline.
I feel better, however, knowing what the root problem is. I understand now why my efforts towards digital minimalism have always fallen short of my goal.