A few weeks ago, one of my online friends deactivated his account. I had an inkling it was coming. He’d made a vague post about feeling overwhelmed by social media, but it still hurt when I went to send him a message to find he’d deactivated his blog. It was a bit like walking into a friend’s home to find they’d unexpectedly moved out, leaving empty shelves, bare walls, and rooms with no furniture. We hadn’t talked a lot, but our senses of humor really clicked. He was watching Doctor Who for the first time, one of my deep and abiding obsessions, which provided common ground to start building a friendship.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t empathize with him. I used to have a recurring fantasy of abandoning society to go live in a cabin in the wilderness. It would happen on days I was stressed by school and work, the times I most wanted to escape my overwhelming responsibilities and get away from everything, and reflecting on it now, it was an overreaction. I don’t think I’d actually enjoy living that fantasy; I like people and being connected to them.
Over the past few months that fantasy has shifted. Now I daydream of deactivating all my online accounts and abandoning my smartphone in a ditch somewhere. This is an overreaction too. I don’t think it’s possible without quitting my job and cutting myself off from people I have built friendships with online, or even most of my college friends. Living out that fantasy would essentially be shooting myself in the foot in today’s world.
Last year I watched a video essay where the YouTuber pointed out that with our high use of smartphones, humanity is already cyborgs. “The internet is not something we use, it is a limb of our body we are constantly aware of,” they spat out, moving on to their next thought before I had time to process the sentence. In the time since, I’ve tried to be more cognizant of this and its effect on me. If I can’t see my phone and reach for it, how often does my hand go right to it? How many times have I opened Pokémon Go before I walk somewhere? “How does the internet change how we form and perceive relationships?” he wrote with thirty-six Firefox tabs open, having simultaneous conversations via Signal and Discord. How does the internet change how we mourn?
Around the same time my friend deactivated his blog, one of my favorite professors passed away. I miss him too, but his online presence has grown, as his Facebook page became a digital community board/headstone. People I’ve never interacted with have shared their memories, and many of us had similar experiences. It helps me feel like part of a group, even if I’ll never meet the people. When I log on to Facebook, he still appears online sometimes. I know it’s probably his family reading through the comments, but I feel tempted to message him, the same way I feel tempted to message my friend’s empty blog. Neither will respond, but I want to say “hi,” to ask how they’re doing, to tell them how much their friendship meant to me, even if no response is coming from either.
The internet is full of ghosts of one type or another.