Truth and the Internet

Journalism was a huge part of my high school and college lives. I spent countless hours designing, photographing, calling, fabricating content out of thin air, organizing, work planning, production managing — and most difficultly, writing. Though I served for my college paper most notably as its production manager, I felt most natural as a writer.

Writing in journalism takes on an entire world beyond just storytelling. A good journalist is a essentially a documentary detective: you gather evidence, you evaluate your findings, and then report. My natural curiosity was allowed to not only set itself free, but to truly sing. Every single story became an exploratory exposition and the ability to put myself in little corners of the world — corners that excited me, enlightened me, and ultimately made me understand a tiny fraction of the world’s curiosities.

But not all stories were so uplifting. One of the last stories I wrote dealt with Salem’s polarity. Willamette University, my alma mater, was an upper-middle class, private liberal arts Methodist school in the middle of polarized city. Salem is filled with politicians as well as some of the most poverty-stricken meth addicts in the state. Talking to ‘townies’ revealed what I already knew about the university’s bubble and minimal interaction with its own home. Stories like that were hard to interview for; stories where you held a stake. I wasn’t living in another’s shoes for a day. Instead I was forced to live in my own and listen as a writer first, and as a temporary resident second.

A story dear to my heart in high school was on a student with ADHD. At the time, even less was known about the disorder. Though the student worked through his challenges with great success, there was a certain sadness that permeated through the tone. Classically trained to not allow my own biases to taint the piece, I would not want to admit that the sadness was remnant of my own empathy for the boy, but instead that it was just merely the tone of truth. A perk to journalism was the ability to try my hand(s) at a $5,000 set of drums, spending the entire sunny day at the skate park, or listening to a cello that brought me to tears. But journalists can quickly tire of playing band member, trick skater, and classical enthusiast. What brings a journalist back day after day, call after call, edit after edit, is truth.

After many years of truth-seeking (through journalism and other avenues, particularly design), I’m not sure that truthful journalism (or storytelling) exists. If anything that short-lived TV show, Lie to Me, said is true: humans are compulsive liars. Most are neither malicious nor psychopathic, but all are guilty of it likely more than once a day. I catch myself inflating numbers or coloring words all the time. I try to correct myself, but my inner comedienne wants to entertain; entertainment is rarely truth in its entirety. Given that, humans are the one telling these stories.

Try our damndest, even, but to think that we could tell any story truthfully is a bit silly. It would be to assume that all potential observers saw the same thing. Coral to one could be red to another. The evil eye could have been a tired gaze. To strip our pieces of these details, we would be merely sharing countable facts. The number of people or the temperature (which, I might add, could in complicated situations even cause debate). In short, truth is an ideal but not something we humans intrinsically possess. Not in the written word. Especially not when on the internet.

* * *

I was told a story about a man who tried online dating. He would talk to women, find them interesting, and finally meet face to face. He noted that so very often, women misrepresented themselves. It was not to say they always looked better online, but that their photographs and profiles did not even closely align with who their physical beings were. Now I understand that it’s not possible to recreate yourself in electronic form. It’s only possible to curate a façade of our real self. We may begin with truth in mind, but we worry what we put out will be misconstrued, so we edit and refine ourselves like advertisements. Leaving out the blemishes and emphasising the assets. It’s natural.

There are many reasons to skirt truth or a close version of it. Who we put out of ourselves on the internet will become searchable by all future employers. We are creating something more permanent than ourselves. We are committing to this version of ourselves — even if for a second — but the commitment can be anxiety-inducing. We want to eternalize our best representations.

It’s fine if it’s just adding an extra inch in height, enhancing clever cropping, or emphasizing your role in a project. When you add up all of the minor fibs to the major lies, we end up with a world of completely inaccurate statistics, a world full of people striving for these averages and standards that are based on complete lies and in a world that is essentially an inflated version of itself.

On the dark side of the moon, we have truth-seekers looking even worse. People who fight to portray the closest variant of storytelling to truth they possible can are left to look unimpressive, bland, and underwhelming. To share a detail perhaps too intimate with a work colleague or to reveal identity secrets to any stranger who can search, or to simply post an accurate photo of yourself, snapped spontaneously, would be considered an egregious error. A sabotage of your electronic reputation.

So the brave either go boldly forward with their truthful selves and are ridiculed or they hide like the rest. We hide under our covers and read each other’s stories, in feeds, in tweets, in captions to photos. Perhaps we let ourselves feel a little bit sad. Maybe we’re bad journalists and are allowing the sadness of our own lives to permeate into these little snippets of others’ lives. We connect all of our various connections, friends, links, follows, likes, only to feel most disconnected from ourselves. Our personal truths become defined by the summation of 15 second decisions of distant relations.

We all know — particularly those of us who design in this medium — how very flawed it is, yet we still take these artefacts as gospel. We fall for our own advertisements, our own subliminal messaging; we accept our lies as truth in this vicious and unstoppable cycle.

When I look at social media — even for work — it brings me an unbearable sadness; a heaviness of being. I see numbers to tell me how many theoretical friends I have, but then wonder why I’ve spent so many days where my own thoughts flooded my head, wishing I had someone to listen. To really listen. To listen without having to check their phones to see what the valuable news their pushes and pulls. I quantify my self worth through numbers that are arbitrarily determined by instantaneous decisions from people at lunches with friends who needed an ear, but instead got an Apple. I sometimes wonder if I’d even have friends if I didn’t have a phone or the internet. Deep down inside, away from these quantifiers I know I do, few yet good, but these profiles meant to elicit confidence and affirmations do the very antithesis of what they seek to do (or at least market themselves to do). I know that these visualizations of happiness could be silent cries of sadness.

At an entrepreneurial event I attended once, a speaker commented how the world still doesn’t understand social media. I could not agree more. Our genius has created these tools, but we have no idea their power, their breadth, their countable benefits and their uncountable losses — yet we use them constantly and irreverently. We are basically children armed with M16s that shoot words rather than bullets, doing as much damage as its physical counterpart.

There’s not a lot we can do about it except to continue to reach for the proverbial sun. We can continue to depict these isolated facets of ourselves, even if limited, with the most honest story we possibly can. Truthful stories will leave us vulnerable much of the time. But vulnerability, as I learned in journalism (in the form of silence there), can force people to talk — perhaps in the most honest way they possibly can. We are vulnerable in our honesty, but collectively we can find strength in the surprising and real connections beneath the multi-million dollar interfaces. Truth may continue to drift just out of our reach, but I will continue to grasp at its golden straws if I must — and to believe it is out there.

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