Another Try at a Public Face


On the Internet, I am a pretty shy person. I have never really gotten the hang of any form of social media, including blogging.

I think I had a Twitter (Xitter)[1] account for a little over a year at one point, I barely posted on it and then eventually deleted it.

I was on Reddit for about 10 years under "kyren", where I would only very occasionally actually talk. I eventually deleted this account too.

Facebook? gone. Tumblr? bye-bye.

I hardly think anyone would blame me for deleting my social media accounts, "deleting Facebook"[2] is good advice that is almost as old as social media itself.

Weirdly, I never even actually had any actually bad personal experience on any of these platforms, I'd have to have used them more frequently and for more personal things for that to happen I think. What did happen though is that I always found them stressful in ways I really couldn't fully articulate, and eventually, I would realize that even though I wasn't fully cognizant of what, I needed to delete my presence on them to save myself from... something.

These days, even opening link aggregators makes me immediately tense up, I admit I still read them, but even that is now becoming a rarity.

I understand that everyone gets stressed out at social media... but there must be some reason it's still around, right? People must get something out of it if so many people keep doing it. I know there are amazing things that can happen on social media because there are always amazing things waiting to happen when a human being interacts with other humans, certainly it's not all bad.

I am on Discord in only a few (mostly small) public servers.[3] More than a few times, people have DMed me on Discord to say just how hard it was to actually find me. One person (I forgot which one) told me that I was so hard to find that in the middle of trying, they assumed that if it was this hard to find me, I must not want to have been found, and they wondered if they should stop looking.[4]

When I worked at Chucklefish I was unironically referred to as the most mysterious Chucklefish employee. I mean, I was on IRC... in the smallest, safest room...

Even my own friends and family Discord server honestly really stresses me out so much that I usually find myself avoiding it.

The weird thing is that in person I'm not actually that shy. I don't think I'm that much of a nerd stereotype really, I might not be the Party Animal™ Social Goliath™[5] that some of my friends are, but it's not like I don't know how to talk to people.

For some reason, I can get up on stage and be on camera at RustConf, but talking to one other person on Reddit stresses me out enough to make me want to hide? I am a grown woman, ostensibly a professional... something,[6] I would like to think answering a question on Reddit should not drive me into an anxious spiral.

The most obvious difference between in-person interaction and interaction on the Internet is physical closeness, and obviously that has a lot to do with why I feel differently about the two. Text communication just simply requires much more effort to infer tone, emotion, intent... and I admit that especially in tense situations, any form of text communication can be an engine to generate stress.

However, I don't think this is the primary reason why social media bothers me so much. One-on-one text communication, especially synchronous, is usually just fine for me. I think the main reason that I get so stressed out in social media-style conversations is just that... I am very bad at conversations with an unknown number of people, which could be simplified to: I am not good at conversation as a performance art.

Social media feels to me like what would happen if every conversation with your friends or family had every one of your other friends or family staring at you while you had it, or in some cases, an unknown number of complete strangers. The honest truth is that I really still don't understand how other people cope with this, am I just more sensitive to it than most people?[7]

I think the obvious answer is that social media is not for conversations with other people, it's for performance,[8] and I think it was probably only me who was ever confused about this.

Sometimes it feels like, to me, that people I interact with are so practiced at "conversation as performance art" that I can't even talk to them anymore. Does it ever feel to you like everyone is so used to pretending to talk to one person (but really to the 200 other people who are listening) that nobody can have a normal conversation anymore? Have you ever been talking to one of your friends about something difficult or serious and felt them switch modes, as though suddenly they were performing a very well-practiced play, saying words you've heard before but are designed to carry as little meaning (and as little risk) as possible?

I have had this experience quite a lot, and it's been really frustrating for me. Going into the full details of how this has happened so many times is a rabbit hole I can't get into right now, and I might write a post about it in the future, but I'll try to give a very short version. If you are gay or trans[9] and end up talking to one of your straight friends about gay or especially trans[10] things, you will see fear in their eyes. My friends are wonderful, and nothing that they accidentally say is going to make me suddenly not be their friend anymore, whatever they say to me, I'm going to take the most charitable, understanding interpretation of it because I am a real person and they are a real person and we're close friends that are currently talking to each other. And yet.. I can barely talk to them about something they don't feel like they're "allowed" to talk about, or they feel that somehow I might be accusatory over some perceived slight. I literally never do this, I'm really not the kind of person to take actual offense unless I know the other person definitely intends it, but they're not just talking to me, they're also talking to 200 imagined watchmen, ready to pounce on them if they get any answer wrong, as if I'm giving them a pop-quiz. I wouldn't want to talk to my friend if the conversation turned into a surprise pop-quiz either.

This is a huge tangent, I know, but for now, I won't go into it any further.[11] Plus, a conversation about the gay / trans[12] experience is hardly the same as a conversation about Rust, right?

It isn't, of course, most of the things I would usually ever talk about on the Internet are ultimately pretty low-stakes, but the watchmen are still there, and I'm still performing for an unknown audience. Depending on the seriousness of the discussion, I might have to pick my words extremely carefully, or make countless caveats, not only to save face[13] but even to just keep the conversation from spiraling into some horrible tangent that accomplishes nothing but bringing me stress. The number of times that I have the emotional fortitude to withstand an impromptu public thesis defense over say, having an opinion about game development, is approximately zero, so you bet if I'm talking in public it's either excruciatingly carefully or not at all.[14] I'm sure this is not news to anyone who spends time talking on the Internet, but somehow I'm still actually kinda new at this and I guess I'm still processing it all.

I don't blame anyone for this state of affairs, certainly not even the people in the various spaces that I find so stressful. There's a lot of bad out there but honestly I'm usually so careful that I don't get much of it directed at me personally. This is really about very normal, honestly blameless stuff that happens when people who individually are probably extremely nice act as an aggregate, when I find myself having to thread a needle of conversing in front of an audience and realize that they have to do the same thing, and that's why it all feels so tiring. I also realize that really... this is going to sound harsh on myself but like... I might just be a big whiny baby? If that's true that somehow doesn't really surprise or upset me as much as it should lol. Sometimes I have pretty thin skin and can get pretty emotional, I admit as much, I have a delicate, barely functioning[15] psyche and the Internet is really scary and I absolutely hate conflict more than almost anything else, so why ever go there?

I realize I am being pretty generalizing and vague here, and probably far too unkind. I'm not going to be able to sum up the awkwardness of large-scale digital interpersonal communication in a few paragraphs, but you can probably at least sort of see where I'm coming from. I have so much more to say on this topic but I could easily write 50k words on it and an entire series of insufferable blog posts about it, but that is not what this post is supposed to be about. The important point is that I simply really don't like it, and I'm trying my best to figure out why that is and what, if anything, I can do to make it easier on myself.

After many years of struggling with every attempt I made at being a Public Internet Person™,[16] I'm ready to try a slightly new strategy.

I think I'm actually pretty good at personal conversations with one or small numbers of people, and I might end up being good at long-form writing and video presentations, but posting things on Reddit and Xitter, talking to people en masse... I'm going to try to avoid that as much as possible this time.[17]

Five years ago when I did RustConf 2018 I made a lot of promises that I would keep doing writing / presentations and I didn't do that. I have a lot of things I actually want to say and do, honestly I'm dying to do it, lack of inspiration is not what is in my way. I'd like to really figure out what is in my way because this is a thing I'd genuinely like to do, and I can't seem to do it.

My plan this time is simple:

  1. Have a blog on an actual website, not connected to Reddit or Xitter or GitHub or anything (done!).

  2. Try to be as unguarded and genuine (read: "weird") as I can stand to be (sigh... done). There are a lot of very professional blogs about very professional things, there are a million good engineers and artists and only one me, so whatever I do I need to be that first.[18]

  3. Try to sustain a small group of interested readers. Not promoting myself very well (DONE!) and being weird (still done!) are good qualities for this.

  4. Take feedback, but try to do so mostly through personal channels. Prioritize friends and regular readers[19] very highly over strangers. If something I make or help make blows up again and suddenly a lot of people on the Internet have Opinions about it and post it on Hacker News or Xitter or Reddit... I might actually genuinely not read most of it. If you really hate me or something I did or said and want me to know, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you may have to resort to e-mail. If I actually upset or annoy you, I promise I didn't mean to, and I would probably probably really enjoy talking with you in person WITHOUT an audience present anyway.

  5. Don't go many months (or years) between posts, not every post has to be a magnum opus, just say something interesting (or at least mildly entertaining) in a way that people can understand.

It may sound like what I want is contradictory, or in very un-kind terms, it may sound like what I want is to be able to effectively "say things on the Internet without consequence". I genuinely want to hear feedback, but I do want to moderate the delivery mechanism of this feedback to mitigate my own limitations. If I were a more confident or resilient person, it's possible that many of the steps I outlined above would be unnecessary, and in fact, I think starting this way is maybe a good path to becoming such a person in the future. But, I shouldn't be too unkind to myself either here, it hardly sounds like a character flaw to be uncomfortable talking to thousands of people at a time with all of them talking back to you seemingly simultaneously, each unwillingly part of a mob that nobody can see the size of except the recipient.[20] Even so... I still might just be a big whiny baby.

This post has gone on quite long already. The important thing I wanted to say is this: I'm giving writing another go! The Internet might be the most stressful thing in the world to me, but it doesn't change the fact that I will always deeply want to make things that make other people's lives better, and I want to figure out how to do this in a way that's sustainable for me.