I’ve been addicted to the internet ever since it came out. When I was a Freshman in high school, I got hooked on playing the massively-multiplayer-online-roleplaying game Everquest. It was the virtual fantasy world my escapist self had always dreamed of. On Everquest, I created my alias, Aleolin, an African-American Wizard, on the Prexus Server, who would become one of the most powerful wizards in the history of Everquest. I would rush home from school to play the game every day up to 14 hours. While I got fat and bleery and red-eyed in the real world, in Everquest, I radically changed the game. I enginereed a new way to use the spell MANABURN in the game. By invoking all my wizard friends, upwards of 30 of them, to cast the spell simultaneously, it created an explosion of magic so powerful it could kill Dragons. Dragons, people! Without the aid of warriors, clerics, or even a Shadowknight! I had done it with weak wizards, and the game was being overturned…that is until the makers of Everquest, a corporation known as VERANT, Nerfed it, meaning GONE, badda boom, nadda no more. This affected millions of users worldwide, in China and elsewhere, all because Aleolin, the Wizard from the Prexus Server, had found a way to cheat the system. Outrage ensued! Strangers wrote posts on the EQ forums like graffe.com, keepersofthefaith.com, Prexus.com, all defending Aleolin, defending me. I would login to the computer lab at recess and lunch to read new posts strangers wrote about me, feeling validated at a time when I felt invisible to my real-life peers.
That is still the most internet famous I’ve ever been and likely ever will be: as 14-year-old boy masquerading as an epic wizard in a computer game.
I don’t play computer games so much these days. But I still check the internet compulsively.
I’ve read plenty of studies about how the internet is rewiring our brains. Receiving an email delivers a quick dopamine hit to the brain. Ah — someone is thinking of me, and I can connect to him or her by responding right now! This pattern is ultimately unsatisfying because the majority of emails (despite my efforts to unsubscribe from every mailing list I possibly can) are duds — boring, routine, and nothing special. So, I check and recheck my email for something interesting and usually feel disappointed. It’s like playing slots.
It’s my birthday this week, though, and I can already sense the impending attention the internet will shower on me. Does any of it mean anything? If 500 of my 4,021 (yes, 4,021) Facebook friends write on my wall to say they are glad I was born, does that equate to a feeling?
About the only time I actively put away my phone is during a movie, or a play, or on a date. In these situations, I’ve trained myself to abstain. So, if I know the detrimental effect the internet has on me and want to change my habits, can’t I just set more boundaries outside those contexts?
I’ve tried. I have returned from spiritual escapes (like visits to Esalen, Burning Man, and Bali) where I had no choice, given their internet infruscture, but to unplug. Every time I’ve returned back to the States, I’ve felt reset and refreshed. I remember pulling my iPhone out after the last Burning Man I went to and seeing it like some foreign supernatural device of great power and temptation, like the Ring of Power from The Lord of the Rings. I then attempted to create barriers to my compulsive checking: scheduling times in my Google calendar to be mindful doing Yoga or meditating, or burying the Mail and Social media apps on my phone deep within folders to discourage idle browsing, or logging out of my accounts so I would have to actively log back in to check on them. None worked well for long. I just reset to my compulsive habits.
Worse, I don’t feel relaxed until I respond. I remember my mom was the same way about getting chores done. She couldn’t relax until everything was finished. We’d be watching a movie as a family and she’d be jetting in and out of the laundry room multitasking to get the wash done, and then folding clothes behind the couch. Then, when she’d finally finish, she’d sit down with us and watch for about five minutes until she fell asleep from exhaustion. I feel the same compulsion to get things done now whenever they come across my way. Hokey sayings like “There’s no time like the present!” or “Just get it done and you can check it off your list” chide me into action. The problem is the list never ends. I don’t know who put this false sense of urgency in my head, other than it’s a learned behavior at this point. We are what we practice.
This is a poem I wrote about Doing:
I am a Do-er.
I Do all the time
I’d rather Be.
But Beings beyond
What I can Do.
So I Do
When I’m Done,
Till I Do some more.
I wish I didn’t.
I won’t Do anymore
I mean it.
But I don’t
I wish for
I’m gonna Do
Myself to death.
The workplace rewarded and encouraged these behaviors because I got a lot done on a daily basis. I took perverse pride in being the “first responder” to an email thread. I was never off from work, and because I never set boundaries, I set up the expectation that I was always available. When I didn’t get back to someone within 24 hours, they would take the next step of calling or texting me for a response; because I always replied within 24 hours. And in order to just get it done, I would pick up the phone.
Checking my email like a crack addict makes even less sense these days, when I’m not running a theatre or a business. I don’t get the same overflow of email that used to occupy my mind and fill my time. Instead, I see an empty inbox and feel disappointed and empty and then angry that I can’t control my habits.
I’ve recently started tracking how many hours I spend via the iPhone app Moment on my phone everyday:
- I check my email every 10 minutes or less.
- I rotate between checking various social media handles, around every 20 minutes.
- I play internet-enabled games up to an hour a day, usually while commuting on busses.
- I play internet-not-required games (e.g. Candy Crush) up to two hours a day, when underground on the subway.
- I turn airplane mode ON and OFF to reset my cellular connection at every cellular-enabled subway stop and recheck my apps or search for something else to read (and yes, I can name most all cellular connections in NYC…on the L train alone, there’s signal at 8th Ave, 6th Ave, Bedford, Lorimer, and Graham).
Something I don’t do is spend energy on things that could help me feel less lonely, such as, I don’t know, online dating! That could be a good use of time! But I shy away from that because I’m afraid of it, and it’s easier just to occupy my brain waves with the latest enraging rhetoric Trump shared and then get very worked up about it and share on social media and wait to see if people respond.
I wish I could just cut the cord. But as much as it makes me feel gross saying so, social media is a platform to share what I create (such as this story). I feel a responsibility to promote my work; otherwise, what’s the point of creating it? I write and rewrite promotional posts trying to find a balance of ironic and sincere wording and usually hate the result and then share it anyway. When I teach abroad, I feel the need to post a photo of the class to document that I did what I did. To show that I actually am doing something with my life and isn’t it cool? Is this the reason we overshare so much these days? To prove to a lonely universe that we have opinions and a voice, and take risks, and survive roadblocks, and had an amusing or fulfilling moment? If a tree falls in the forest and no one takes a photo about it and posts it with a quippy statement, does it matter? How desperate is that last metaphor, anyway?
Social media doesn’t help with my fear of missing out and loneliness. I’m in therapy for it, so it ain’t news to me, but one of my recurring fears is feeling like I’m Not Being Seen. Social Media gives hard proof that people have noticed, even for a blink of the eye, something I’ve put out there and noted it as worthwhile by pressing a button. The boost of happiness I feel from people responding to me online is ephemeral and insatiable though, like eating a meal of Skittles. It’s connection over conversation and it doesn’t leave me feeling full.
I’ve reached the point of internet oversaturation. The more time I spend online, the more disappointed I feel. I react to people sharing moments by comparing everything to mine. Why am I not closer friends with that person? Why didn’t he or she invite me to play in their show or to that party? How did they get this great opportunity, and what am I doing wrong that I’m not there yet? Why do people respond to what he or she shares online and ignore my content? All sad comparisons and truly First World privileged problems. Like my mom used to say, “No one is shooting at you. Why are you so upset?”
I’ve felt more anxious than ever these Holidays, possibly because I’m in a time of transition in my life, and retreated even more into this online swamp only to be disappointed because the majority of normal people get off social media this time of year. I was left with little to distract me from these feelings, so I wrote about them today. I want to end this story with a declaration to quit Social media or something. But it doesn’t feel realistic to me. I’m skeptical of my former grandiose declarations to unplug. I’m addicted to the digital high of the internet: living as the epic wizard version of myself. I’m even addicted to writing about my insecurities, like an online diary. What I consider being vulnerable could just as easily be categorized by others as ‘oversharing’ things best meant for private conversation.
I’m straight-up pessimistic and at a loss for how to change my compulsions, short of creating environments where I just can’t check my phone even if I wanted to. I’ve googled Digital Detox retreats and all that feels like a huge waste of money for temporary respites. So I’m going to go treat myself to an early birthday present and soak in Korean spa for the rest of the day. Try to separate myself from the internet. That’s the best I can for do for now.