Why would anyone be vulnerable online?

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

It’s a fair question.

Posting your thoughts online comes with its fair share of criticism, but I think the benefits far outweigh the risks.

My first taste of online condemnation

The first time I ever experienced any success and significant attention with online writing was when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala in 2010. I wrote about a particularly awful experience getting lost in the bureaucratic mess of the Peace Corps Guatemala administration— and about the disastrous consequences it had for my time as a volunteer in a tiny Mayan village in the northern part of the country. The response I got from readers of my blog was mostly positive, but there were also readers who were outraged.

How could you write that? You don’t deserve to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. You don’t have what it takes. You’re not a good person. There were jabs that attacked the veracity of my claims and the quality of my character. For a writer who had never had a readership outside of his close friends and family, this pointed criticism was surprising — and it hurt a lot.

Although there was considerable support from other volunteers — and even Guatemalan citizens — there were some who felt that my story was untrue and that I was simply complaining. The story got so much attention that it was posted to the front page of Peace Corps Journals for a year. The experience taught me that, if I were to to post my experiences online, I had to be absolutely certain I would stand behind what I wrote. I responded to every comment, but I chose not to engage in lengthy arguments with the readers who disagreed with me. I replied that I was simply sharing what happened, the truth as I saw it. That’s all that I could do.

After the story had been plastered to the front page of the Peace Corps Journals blogging site for a year and was finally taken down, I too decided to take my blog off the Internet and move on. I had experienced a swift and brutal lesson in exposing oneself to public scrutiny.

What I’ve learned

However, one of the biggest takeaways from that experience has stuck with me. It’s a major reason I still continue to write and post to this day.

Sharing my experiences validated other people’s experiences. Telling other people what happened to me allowed other people to accept what had happened to them. People felt heard. Many readers admitted that they were too ashamed to write the same thing, but they appreciated that I put myself out there.

When you share a part of yourself that is a big deal to you, it may not be a big deal for everyone, but it will likely resonate with a select few.

I write for myself first of all, but I also write for those who see their experiences described in my words. If you can put words to a person’s experience — in whatever medium, be it written or spoken, painted or recorded — you can testify to that person’s humanity. And deepening the connection with another person deepens the connection you have with yourself. Like two individuals pulling on a rope from either end, when the connection is made and the rope is pulled taut, the bond becomes stronger as a result.

The weight of living can feel awfully heavy and burdensome at times. When that happens, it’s easy to turn inwards and feel that no one else on Earth could possibly understand what you’re going through.

Lots of writing and seven years of living later, I know the opposite is true. When we share the parts of ourselves that make us feel ashamed, we learn that we are not alone. We ultimately receive validation for being one piece in the interlocking puzzle of humanity. The acceptance may not be immediate, but we are bound to find someone who shares our struggle, even if only a small part of it. The conglomeration of human bodies on this planet is too vast, and the range of possible emotions are too small for us to not find some commonalities.

Ask the question

I open myself up to criticism online because, whether you are posting online or making a statement in the real world, there’s no escaping the judgement of our peers. We live and die by our word, so it is much better to live a live of integrity than to carefully craft one’s image so as to avoid judgement altogether. Laboring to produce one perfect identity produces its own kind of judgement, and most people find that to be criticized for an identity that one does not truly feel is authentic is more painful than being unabashedly comfortable in one’s own skin.

Choosing to be vulnerable online is not the path that everyone chooses to walk. But the question of whether or not you should do it? It’s a fair one to ask.

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