Being Shy Online: Confessions of a Lurker

I remember my first experience with the online world. I was fourteen, my parents had recently installed our very first dial-up modem and I was enthralled by this new, futuristic technology.

A school friend had introduced me to the world of online chat rooms and I soon assumed a persona which allowed me to converse with people I would never have dreamt of approaching in ‘real life’. Boys and girls of my age (at least according to their profiles), men and women who shared similar interests to me; how else would I ever have crossed paths with, let alone spoken to, these people in ‘real’ life?

Despite the obvious and much-discussed risks of teenagers using the internet socially, in retrospect I credit online chat rooms with bringing me out of my crippling shyness. Through hours spent talking to strangers, I learnt the art of keeping a conversation going, of asking interesting questions and giving witty replies. Some of these strangers went on to become my friends; one even became more than a friend after we met in person several years later.

Of course, there were countless bad conversations (“What colour are your eyes?” “What’s your bra size?”) and admittedly, these were easier to get out of than their face-to-face equivalents. But still, being exposed to the unpleasantness of certain kinds of human interaction, unwanted male attention in particular, simply made me realise that it existed. I believe now that this was a valuable lesson which may have taken me years to learn, hiding behind my shyness, without the internet and living the fairly sheltered life I did then.

Yet despite this education in sociability gained in the earlyish days of the Internet, in the age of social media I find myself oddly paralysed whenever it comes to interacting with people online. In the same way as public speaking and meeting someone new gives me the sweats, the thought of tweeting or commenting on something shared by someone outside my immediate friendship circle fills me with dread.

You could argue that social media is no different to its predecessor, the chat room. Still, there is something absurdly vulnerable about the social media persona.

Is it its permanence? The fact that I feel like I am being watched, judged at every click? Being bombarded with adverts based on something I have typed or merely glanced at?

After Facebook suspended my account because I was using a fake name (OK, perhaps using the name of a Star Wars character wasn’t exactly inconspicuous), I created a new one and embraced the opportunity to start afresh. No more embarrassing pictures, no more old acquaintances I hadn’t spoken to for years; I would watch what I said and filter everything through my own dense mesh of what-is-acceptable-to-expose-to-the-world.

Still, these things have a habit of creeping back on social media. The embarrassing pictures are still out there in cyberspace and on friends’ accounts; people will still attempt to befriend me having only met me once.

Certainly, the ephemeral, anonymous nature of the chat room allowed for more openness. I am, of course, aware that despite recent restrictions by social networking sites, it is still possible to create any number of avatars to hide behind. However, there comes a point when the wall you build up around yourself is eclipsed by the desire to express yourself. And to express yourself coherently, authentically, you must let the veil drop. Not so easy, when you are afraid.

Since joining several writing groups, mostly on Facebook, I have realised that I am not alone in this debilitating fear of online exposure. Sharing one’s thoughts and work with even a limited audience can actually be an act of extreme bravery for many.

As humans, we have been thrust into this hypercomplex communication network which is not only unnatural, but also potentially damaging. Fear of criticism, even ridicule, is heightened by the fact that those who seek to harm us with their words are shielded by their own screens.

And so, we hide, behind our masks — just like the troll.

Like many who enjoy solitude and the independence of working from home, I am an introvert. An introvert with a wide circle of real-life friends and a fairly active social life, but an introvert nonetheless. Up to now, I have been part of the retiring class of lurkers, a read-only presence in forums and groups with seemingly little to offer to the conversation.

Long considered a nuisance, a useless, non-contributing actor in online interactions, the lurker has nevertheless enjoyed a surge of interest among media academics in recent years. Despite not actively contributing, the lurker uses the knowledge gained from online communities in other ways, they say.

And yet, even knowing this, I am ashamed of my online passivity.

Whatever I hide behind, I am still me. Anxiety-ridden, but eloquent enough. I have a voice. Perhaps it’s time I embraced that.