Being Normal

In a world of influencer-peddled illusion, we need to normalize being normal.

There’s a theory of Being Online that online isn’t merely a technological thing — access to a signal, say, like a telephone line — but a modality. A form; a way. And being, of course, is just being.

Early internet users have trouble with this theory because we remember using telephones. There was really only one way to be on the telephone before phones became everything. You were either on it, talking to someone, or not. In the beginning, being online felt like being on the telephone because you were on the telephone. Dial up internet was, literally, calling another computer on a telephone line. But instead of just hearing what was on the other end, you could see it. It fed you metaphors in the form of the sounds of opening and closing doors and words like web and site and address. No wonder we thought of being online like being someplace and took the very idea of disconnecting for granted. If you can be somewhere, you can leave. Also, back then, you could disconnect.

Thirty-or-so years of being online evolved being online from a temporary act of relocation to a steady state. That’s the digital native’s theory of Being Online, that to be is to be online. The analog/digital divide is meaningless. Being is digital.

This means that there’s no meaningful difference between the you someone else sees on their screen and the you they’d see in person.

But there’s another theory of Being Online that, while acknowledging the same thirty-year history, suggests that every act of being online is contrived. That because it requires some work to project ones self online, it is impossible to simply be online.

Both are true, I think. Of course there is a difference between the you that you express online and the you that you don’t. And of course it’s possible to make that difference quite slight as to be imperceivable.

But more importantly, both are true because all our acts of being online are as much us as those in “real” life. Even if our entire online identity is a lie, it’s a lie that we tell. It reflects some truth about who we are.

I think often about why I put anything online at all. Why I maintain this website. Why I write things. Why, in the past, I was active on social media. There have been many reasons, of course, some good, some less so. But as I continue to ask this question, I feel that I’m getting to a different answer.

These “theories” of Being Online matter to me because they also suggest a spectrum of purpose. One end is entirely personal. I keep a website for me. I write for me. I could keep a diary in a book in my desk drawer that no one will ever see but the act of making it public draws out a more careful and committed kind of thinking and writing — for me. The other end is entirely public. One’s effort could, of course, be in service of an audience — for them. There are plenty of people for whom Being Online is like this. Sometimes it even makes them money.

What drives me to keep expressing myself online is the tension between these two — the personal and the public. I’m obviously far, far more toward the personal side of the spectrum. I’m not an influencer. I don’t want to be. But I do have an audience, as relatively tiny as it may be. Don’t I have some kind of obligation to them?

I think I do.

What I’ve realized is that what I can offer is to be normal. We all could hear only from publicly-minded performance personalities online if we chose. From people who have something to gain from our attention. But what a distorted view of reality that would create. What I see when I “look around” the internet are millions of people projecting fake lives at me so that I will look at them, desire them, live my life through them. It quickly becomes an infinity mirror of aspirational thirst traps.

But I’m not special. Not only am I not the only one who can see that, I’m not the only one whose sincere reaction is “no thank you.” I’m not the only one who can look away. And that’s what I’m doing online. I want to share pieces of my life that can stand up as a reasonable counterpoint to the version of online reality that coalesces around everyone trying to be someone else.

I doubt I’m especially good at it. But that might actually help my case. My acts of being online are seasonal, sporadic, and inconsistent. When I’m not online I’m doing things that normal people do. But even influencers make a thing out of the mundane, so I won’t seduce you with our organic home cooking, our permaculture, or every DIY project I’m proud of. No, I mean, the truly mundane things that won’t an influencer make: I’m down on my hands and knees scrubbing the tub. I’m vacuuming the house. I’m taking out the trash and sorting the recycling. I’m stain-treating my toddler’s shirt. I’m walking home after dropping my twelve-year-old car off for an oil change and state inspection. I’m making a spreadsheet to track my fitness in order to stave off the inexorable entropic descent into dad-bod. I’m brushing and braiding my daughter’s hair at bedtime and thinking of new ways to bribe her to keep her room clean. I’m losing my hair and not doing a thing about it.

My normality is undeniably uninfluential. But it’s eminently sharable.


P.S. This is so obvious that it need not be said, yet I’ll add it here so to assure anyone who reads this that it is not lost on me: My “normal” is most humans’ — for the entire history of humanity — privilege beyond reasonable aspiration. That anyone who has what I have could want more is proof that the human capacity for desire exceeds all reason. And yet our culture is defined, more and more, by just that. This is why we need to normalize and celebrate normality.

Written by Christopher Butler on December 29, 2023,   In Essays

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