Transcription: Jessamyn West, Technology Lady

The role of the modern librarian, and other things

This is a transcription of an interview I did with Erica Heilman for her podcast Rumblestrip Vermont.

Erica Heilman: Welcome to Rumblestrip Vermont. I’m Erica Heilman. Today, an interview with library activist and computer savant Jessamyn West.

EH: Let me just start by saying that Jessamyn West is kind of internet famous. She was one of the original moderators for the community blog Metafilter, which is like the civilized version of Reddit. She was recently contacted by the White House for her thoughts on their choice for the next Librarian of Congress. And she speaks internationally about the digital divide. Talking with Jessamyn is a little like being on a really fast ride at the Tunbridge Fair. In this interview, we sat in her kitchen in Randolph, Vermont, and talked about her passion for public libraries and the role of the modern librarian. We also talked about how different people manage their personal relationships with their personal computers. Welcome.

EH: So you have spent a lot of time in this state traveling all over Vermont to go visiting small libraries. What are you trying to learn from these places?

Jessamyn West: To me the most amazing thing about libraries and the reason I like to go there when I’m traveling is because no matter where I am, the public libraries belong to me. I’m the public. It’s for me. How magical is that?

Like I think for a lot of people maybe they get that from other places, maybe they get that from their workplace, maybe they get that from their church, maybe they get that from their community center. But I don’t have those places. I have the libraries. They’re all mine. And everyone’s. And I think you can’t really understate how rare it is to have a thing that’s for everyone. You, if you’re the library, serve, you know, the super… what I call the “beep beep beep” generation (and I’m making gestures with my thumbs here). You know, the people who are sort of ahead of the technology curve, behind the technology curve, somewhere in the middle. You help them solve their information needs.

So that used to just be like “Oh hey, Dr. Bob, here’s a good book.” But now it’s like you need to figure out how to apply for healthcare on the internet. You want to figure how to play the ukulele. You want to learn about where your relatives came from, you know, 150 years ago, and we can find the documentation from the boat they came in on in Philadelphia. It used to be a building full of five thousand books. And now thanks to the internet it’s an endless building with an endless number of books. But the person who works there, or the people who work there, are still the people who help you make sense of that.

I think for a lot of people technology and what you can find on the internet and what’s available there is a big not totally clear question mark. People do the best they can with Google. But you know, it’s worth knowing about Google — like 89% of Google’s income is advertising. They’re an advertising company who happens to run a search engine that’s the most used in the entire world. But they’ve got a particular view. Their particular view has to do with their particular business. Whereas in a library, their particular business is you, you and what you want to know about.

I think there’s historically been like, “Yeah, but you’re all about classic books, and kids’ puppet shows, and blah-de-blah-de-blah” but I think you see in Vermont some libraries where they do more traditional — what I consider to be traditional librarianship. They’re smaller, they deal with smaller communities, either that’s what their community wants or that’s what the librarian wants, hard to say. And I think you see other communities, possibly just as small, who are doing different stuff. Who are bringing in authors, who are having makerspaces, who are running tons of program. Burlington, Fletcher Free Library, they’ll lend you a rake. They’ll lend you a lawnmower. Like — that solves a problem for me, right? And they do it with my money, which is what’s the good news, bad news about it.

I think as we see in the Tea Partying of America, people are like “What? We give money to the library?” and say “I don’t like to read” or whatever the thing is, “How does that affect me?” And I think people forget how much it’s important that we have a public that, well, knows how to read, for one example. But also a public that feels like a public, where you don’t… and this is where my sort of technology leanings and my librarian leanings are a little bit separate… I think it’s easy to sit home on your internet and only talk to the people you know, and feel like you’re part of a community. But we also are answerable in some ways to our communities that we’re actually geographically, physically a part of, and the library is that contact point.

When I moved to Randolph from Bethel, which is the next town over, I went from a town that had a library that was open fourteen hours a week, basically one room, one computer, one incredibly nice lady, Cathy, who works there. And really not much of a library culture and community because the place was so small. And not open very often. But I remember when I moved to Bethel, when I used to live in Topsham, which had no library, I went to get my library card and Cathy was like, “Welcome to Bethel, we’re glad you’re here.” I just — to this day, I just, remember that, and whenever I see Cathy I just give her a huge grin. And then I moved to Randolph and —

EH [interjecting/ overlapping]: Why why why why

JW: Just cause no one else in Bethel said, “Welcome to Bethel”. Like, you know, she was a representative of the state such as it is. I mean, she was the lady from town. And I was the new kid. And just being like, “Hey, good to see you.”

EH: Going into a library always feels like going into a church, to me. Part of it is structural, it’s quiet. It’s kind of a presumed hush.

JW: Sometimes quiet….

EH: But there’s something else, which is — and I’m trying to figure out what it is, I think it has to do with everybody’s there for something, and whatever they’re there for is private. That you’re not really allowed to ask, you know, “so what are you doing here?”

JW: You’re not supposed to.

EH: Is that true?

JW: Well, no, as the librarian. As the librarian, what you’re supposed to do is help people with their stuff without getting all up in their business, if you can avoid that, and also without telling other people what other people’s business is. Now that’s not always how is actually works in small town libraries -

EH: But why, why is — that to me in itself is interesting. And that’s part of what creates the atmosphere of a library. There’s something furtive and kind of — it’s one of the very few places anywhere where you don’t have to, you’re not being asked to spend money. And you’re alone in public, and there’s something about those ingredients —

JW: Well, you don’t have to check in. I mean that’s the big thing to. To me — again, one of the other divides between the library as place and online communities as a place is, you can just walk into a library and we don’t even know you’ve been there, necessarily. I mean, maybe somebody saw you. And in bigger libraries you have cameras and stuff to keep you from destroying the bathroom. But you’re allowed to kind of do whatever you want there.

We see more and more, especially in academic libraries, that libraries are used as social places. I mean, for students, they love getting together in the library, if you let them… working on projects and talking to each other and drawing stuff on whiteboards and figuring stuff out. And it’s been challenging I think, especially for sort of traditional academic libraries, to find ways to accommodate that while at the same time being a quiet place for people to study and get work done in their own private personal kind of alone space.

In the summertime I’m down in Massachusetts and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, which is down on the South Coast. It has this crazy bonkers giant library and it’s this brutalist building on the outside and on the inside it’s all like red and orange and purple and you can go all the way up to the fifth floor and have the fifth floor almost to yourself if you’ve got work to do. I can’t be that alone in my own home. And I think also one of the points that neither of us has touched on is that’s exactly what it’s there for. You’re using it exactly the way you’re supposed to. Whereas when I’m home I’m like well I’m supposed to kind of do the dishes and I’ve got to do this thing and plants I’ve got to give the plant some water and I’ve got to do some laundry. My house is for a lot of things. Including my work. But the library is for my edification. You know, mine.

EH: Sometimes people are coming in with deeply personal and pressing questions. So in a way, there’s kind of a priest aspect to being a librarian. What are some memorable exchanges you’ve had with people who’ve come in when you’ve been working in the building?

JW: Well, I think priest is part of it, I think social worker is part of it for people who are having challenging problems. A lot of time what ends up coming up is people who are asking for a thing and they feel weird about the thing because they feel like the thing isn’t normal. And I put “normal” kind of in quotes. You know, like, “Well, my kid likes to read, but my kid doesn’t really like to read what the other kid likes to read, my kid likes this particular kind of story.” Or “I want to read about people are exactly like me”, or “…who are not like me”, or “I’m very different from every member of my community and I’m hoping you have something at the library that’s right for me.”

One of the things we learn in library school is a thing they call “the reference interview” which sounds kind of goofy. But basically it’s talking to a person and through asking questions figuring out what it is that they really want. I used to work in a natural science library for a long time when I was in school, and people would show up and go, “I need something about caves.” And… you can’t do anything with that. But you can try and figure out — are they a student? Are they someone who wants something because they have to write a paper? Are they someone who needs to find this from a journal? Does it need to be current? Does it need to be…? And so, you ask questions that are hopefully kind of friendly and open questions, not like “Well, what do you [“ehh” wrong buzzer sound]”. To figure out what that person wants. Hopefully in a sort of open and nonjudgmental way.

I had one guy who came up to me in the library — I don’t even know if you can use this, but like, asked me what fisting was, because he’d read it in a book, and he wasn’t really sure. But I think he thought it was something very different. Like fisting as a sex thing. And I was like “Oh, well —” and I gave him like a two-sentence description. He was horrified. Not at what the thing was but at “Oh, I didn’t know I was asking you that!” and then I was like, “Here’s a Susie Bright book that will probably help you understand the rest of it.” And he ran, basically — like just got out of there. But realistically speaking, why shouldn’t we be the people that you ask that question?

I don’t care, I thought it was a reasonable question to ask. And occasionally you will get people who you feel like are asking you questions in order to get a rise out of you and not because they want to know anything, but because you’re a woman and you’re trapped behind a desk, and you have to help them. You get a lot of mentally ill people who will ask you the same questions over and over and over again. Eh, you know, no big deal. They’re part of the community also. But other people sometimes respond to that in a weird way, you know — that they look at who’s in the library and they’re like, “rrrrrr, the library just serves the homeless!” or whatever, and you’re like “Well the homeless are using the library. Guess what, they’re your neighbors.”

People don’t always feel good about that. People have moral panics about bedbugs in their library or perverts in the library or — you’ll catch a cold from the library, like, whatever the thing is. And there’s a shred of truth to that, but realistically people are afraid of their own public, I think, in a lot of ways. And so being kind of matter-of-fact about the fact that, “Well, these really are who your neighbors are. Like, you can choose just to ignore that that’s how the world works, but you know, these are all your neighbors, and you see them all at the public library. You’re welcome.” I think has social utility.

And so — meet your neighbors. Welcome, welcome to your actual neighborhood.

EH: For the last ten years, Jessamyn has worked with the Randolph Technical Career Center here in Central Vermont. She’s the self-described “computer lady.” Now, first of all, computer problems have a way of making most of us unpleasant. And second, if you ask me, looking at someone’s personal computer is a little like looking in their sock drawer. You learn more than you probably want to know. But every week for two and half hours Jessamyn sits in a classroom and helps anyone who comes in with their computer questions and their problems. Here’s Jessamyn.

EH: Who shows up? Who are the people who come to this?

JW: It’s mostly — most of the people are between about 55 and 85.They’re not always retired but a lot of times they are. In the past we’ve had relationships with voc. rehab — someone who had maybe lost a job and needed to be retrained in order to do a new job, and we’d help them do stuff like fill out a resume, apply for unemployment, whatever. But a lot of it was just people with very low computer literacy. Maybe they’d never touched a mouse before. Maybe they used to have a computer in a former partnership but then the partnership dissolved and that person took the computer and they hadn’t used a computer in five years, or ten years.

EH: I’m 45, I think — 44 or 45 now — and I didn’t grow up — I mean I’m old enough that there was no training in computers in my primary school life. So anyone older than me and even some a little younger than me never studied computers in school. Can you talk a little bit about the range of kind of emotional states that people come in with their computer questions?

JW: Yeah. Well, I mean I think the first thing is, if someone is, let’s say 50 — and I’m approaching 50 — and they don’t know how to use a computer at all, there’s probably a reason. And that reason is probably not just, “Oh I never got around to it I’ve been living my fabulous life!” Sometimes it is! But a lot of times they have fear, they have concerns, they have anxiety. Maybe they used a computer for a very specific thing but they don’t know how to generalize that experience.

A lot of times I’ll find, for example, someone who was a logger. And that was what they did for a job, they cut down trees and they brought trees in and they prepared wood and they worked in a sawmill. And then they got injured. And now if they want to work with lumber at Home Depot, they have to fill out a job application online. And oh my gosh, the Home Depot job application online is the worst. It may be worse than, I’m not sure. But it is terrible.

So part of the problem is, that guy doesn’t know it’s a bad website. I know it’s a bad website because I’ve seen a hundred thousand websites and I know that’s a bad one. He doesn’t know that, and so what he feels like is that he’s a bad person. Because it’s hard, and it’s complicated, and you’re not sure if you’re doing the right thing. Or you try a thing and you get some popup that says, “No” but you don’t know what “Yes” is.

A lot of times, I think the most important thing I do for most people — I have a little arsenal of useful phrases that I try out with people. One of the ones that’s the most important is, “You’re not a bad person, this is a bad website.”

And I explain to them that not everybody who makes a website is good at making a website. And we talk about their jobs. You know how there’s some people who just can’t cut down trees? Or I talk about what it would be like if I tried to cut down a tree. Like I cannot even imagine how terrible that would be. But like this guy has a huge skill set. It just doesn’t translate at all into the internet world. And maybe he doesn’t — maybe he’s frustrated that he has to do it in the first place. You see a lot of people like that.

Maybe they went through a divorce and now they’ve got to get their own healthcare so they’re kind of mad at the crappy website. And that is a crappy website. But they’re also just mad that they’re divorced and that they have to deal with all of this stuff. And so a lot of their emotional feelings about why they have to do it get channeled into the thing they have to do.

One of the hardest things about technology is you really do feel, a lot of people feel thrown into the deep end. Like, I don’t care, fucking learn it. And they’re like, well how am I supposed to do that? Because it used to be that stuff came with a manual. And I hear people say that all the time. And part of my job is, yeah, I know, that’s crappy. And part of my job is, yup, but — you know, moving on. Because again, going back to why has this 50 year old never used the computer, part of that may be because they have emotional issues with learning new things, with technology, with — who even knows, right? But it’s really worth figuring those things out before you dive in to try to help someone.

In the past we’ve always wanted to have a list. “Here’s the list of how to do the thing, here’s the list of how to teach someone to read.” At some level, if you follow the steps, and you have a person who’s on board who doesn’t have any major disabilities that are getting in their way, you can teach a person how to read. With technology, I believe that same thing is true, but instead of a set of steps, you have an ever-increasing flowchart of — well, if they have a shaky hand, do this. If they don’t have a shaky hand, try this. If they’re afraid of computer, do this. And each of those things expands, so you wind up having to make 50 or 100 choices before the person’s even signed up for an email address.

All of those things are things that even if you were teaching somebody to read, with a grownup, with an adult, you’d be managing all of that preamble also I imagine. But not only are you managing that with technology, it’s that it doesn’t come easily out of the physical world, or our conception of the physical world. And that’s almost impossible to conceive of, if you weren’t born into it. If you don’t already accept that this thing is — does not have any linear shape to it. Well that’s exactly it. We all know what a book is like. And they have different reading levels maybe and they look a little bit different, but in general, all text in all books is more or less the same with a couple outliers.

Technology, the difference between looking at Facebook on your phone versus looking at Facebook on a desktop computer…. They’re different tools, even though they both say Facebook across the top. If you come to me and you’re like “I don’t like ads on Facebook!” I can’t even start helping you with that question until I know how you’re looking at Facebook, and you may not even know how you’re looking at Facebook because it would never occur to you that they’re different. How would you know? Whereas for me, I totally sort of know that and can tease it apart.

Part of the issue is people know there’s a lot of parts, but they don’t know which ones are important. So they’ll do a thing and they’ll get an error message and they’ll stop. And I’ll be like, “Oh just click OK, blow that off.” And they’re like “Well how do you know that?” And I’m like, “Ahhh, well it’s just a thing I know.” And that’s awkward and crappy.

I’ll help people kick the ball down the field, but I resent a little bit that we’re in a world where we kind of have to teach people to ignore some errors and pay attention to others.

And these are people a lot of whom, again, if you haven’t used technology and you’re 50 or 60 you get a lot of messaging about technology from your television. From the newspaper. From media that is in danger from technology, and so they tell you a very particular story about technology. Which is: it’s dangerous, and you’re at risk, and you’ve got to be really careful, and you might be able to buy your way out. You know, like maybe you can buy a thing that will make you safe. But it’s inherently unsafe.

Realistically, there are things that are unsafe about the world of technology. But there are things that are unsafe about the world of your bathroom. We feel like we can evaluate those risks. For a lot of people who have used technology but who just want to learn another technology, they’re already in, at least a little bit, so you don’t have to kind of make it seem worth it to them.

I definitely get people who are novice users who come in and they’re like, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. And I’m like, I don’t know, maybe you don’t need to use technology then. And, you know, I tell them a little story about how it’s like not learning how to drive. You don’t have to. It’s not the law. But your life is going to be inconvenient and you may need to get other people to do parts of your job of being a human for you. There’s nothing wrong with that. But people need to realize that’s the choice they’re making. Like, driving a car is scary too. You could kill someone a lot more easily than I could kill someone with Facebook.

EH: How do you actually communicate, while looking at the computer? What are you actually doing to help somebody learn?

JW: Well it’s more like coaching. Like the big rules are: get on their level, which means if they’re sitting, you’re sitting. Make them drive, unless there’s some reason they can’t. My basic deal is, unless somebody has a one-time only, I need to do this thing right now and it’s, you know, I’ve got very little time and I just need someone to do it… My whole deal is, I’m not your administrative assistant. You either have to do this yourself or you pay someone to be your administrative assistant. That’s not me. This is free help. And so they run the mouse, they run the keyboard. Part of it is getting people used to doing it on their own or with sort of minimal feedback.

If people ask questions, I’ll answer them. If people want to, like… drop down menus, you know? “Tell us how much schooling you’ve had” and there’s a tiny triangle that you have to click, and behind that tiny triangle is a list. “Didn’t graduate high school, high school, college…” whatever. And you have to pick from a list, which involves clicking a triangle, then clicking a thing from a list, but then if you use the rollerball on your mouse then maybe it will change it and it will go away and suddenly you’re in graduate school applying for a job at Home Depot. And people resent the hell out of it.

I think people who are used to kind of division of labor, especially people who are used to sort of boy-girl division of labor, you know, they see — I mean, it’s funny, because it’s not — it’s gendered and yet it’s not gendered. I mean, in certain gender splits I’ve seen where like a married couple comes in, the guy does all the driving. You know, and she kind of watches and whatever. And in other gender splits, the guy tells the lady how to do the driving, he doesn’t sully his hands with touching the stuff. So I think it’s unclear, just like balancing the checkbook. I mean, is balancing the checkbook the power move, or is it the administrative assistant move?

EH: There is a kind of — Jesus, it’s like Sisyphus. Watching — you have to have a great deal of patience.

JW: You get the feeling with some people — like I’ve had some people who started out not knowing how to do stuff and here eight years later they’re doing all sorts of stuff and they just needed a little help. But I think what’s hard for me is in some people I recognize that they have an attitude that is going to get in their way, and it’s really not my job to be like “you’ve got a bad attitude.” But one of the things I do with people is say “You know, it sounds like you’ve got an emotional issue with this situation, I actually can’t help with your emotional issue.” Which is a little bit chilling.

And at the same time if I were a guy doing this job, would anyone start telling me about their breakup and how their boyfriend took the computer and the computer he met his new girlfriend with and that’s why I’m having a hard time learning email…? I’m like “I don’t need to know this, that’s your business.” And it doesn’t matter. People act like that’s a germane reason why they didn’t do the thing. And I’m like “I’m sorry, that sounds difficult. But I can’t help you with your emotional problem. I’m here to solve your other problems, you know.” If it’s someone I’m close to I might be like “Therapy and meds have really gone a long way to helping me accept the things I didn’t want to accept about the world.” But it really is that level.

They’ve got some kind of eddy of pain that is about something entirely different but it happens to involve the computer, and so they’re getting stuck in it and it’s making their progress difficult. But part of managing anxiety, besides, you know, therapy and medication and whatever, is you’ve gotta kind of get over yourself. Like, you can’t show up and be like, “I want to use a computer but I just want to use it hating it the whole time…” and get very far. But anyone can learn to use a computer. Anybody. I don’t care. Any person, if they want to. But they have to want to.

EH: I want to ask you, I think it’s such a common thing, about dealing with people who have, who are click impulsive when you’re trying to teach something —

JW: Always.

EH: What is that about?

JW: I just think it’s some kind of attention deficit disorder-linked behavior. That basically somebody will click on a thing, nothing happens in half a second, and then they click something again. Which in the computer language is two separate clicks… sometimes. And so I feel like sometimes if you can untangle that and sort of explain to people, like, you’ve got to kind of work on this. Like, click once, give it a two count, if nothing happened, click again. Or ask somebody. And look for cues. Do you see the little spinny thing? That’s your website saying it’s going to look for another page. If you see the spinny thing, it’s working. So then, count to five. Like we have a whole bunch of sort of counts that are built into it. But one of the hardest things for me is dealing with people where I’m like, click on that thing. And they click and click and they click and I’m like “What did that say?” And they’re like “I don’t know what it said.” And I’m like “How do you live?”

Certain ways of thinking about things make it more easy for you to adapt to a world that technology has a role in. You know, being able to understand a metaphor, for example.

Like, it’s a file, you put it in a folder. What? What? Like you have to understand that the computer is — that the operating system of the computer — is abstracting this in a way that’s supposed to make it easy for you. But what you have to do is be able to kind of understand the metaphor of like, when I click and drag this thing, there’s actually not a physical thing that’s happening, but the computer’s showing you a picture to help you understand and help you get organized and help you assemble things in a way that’ll make sense to you.

So, I have a real life filing cabinet. And I put real life files in it. And that’s one of the ways I stay organized. If you’re a person at home who can’t make a real life filing cabinet and real life files work for you, for various reasons, good and bad, you’re going to have a really hard time with the metaphor of files and folders -

EH: Or, or you do, that’s the way you’ve functioned for decades, and you know that you can’t fit ten thousand files into a folder, and so conceptually it does not make sense to you. Do these metaphors work, or are they more confusing?

JW: They work for who they work for, and they confuse the other people. Part of the job is learning it. You know, math didn’t make a lot of sense to me either but it’s how numbers work. And so if you started out organized, the computer can help you be even more organized and it’s amazing. If you started out not organized, the computer just gives you another space to be disorganized in. And occasionally I’ll have people come to drop in time, they’ll open their laptop, I’ll look at it, they have five hundred icons on their desktop, and I know exactly where we need to start. Right?

Part of the issue is telling somebody, “Well, you’ve got to do this differently if you want to understand what’s going on.” You know, it goes one of two ways. They get organized, or they say they can’t, and they don’t, and it’s always going to be a struggle. Whereas you know if you were in a partnership, either a business partnership or a life partnership, maybe one of you did the files and the other one cooked the meals, you can share that work among the people who are good at it. One of the things about the computer that makes it so challenging is it’s all about you. So few people share — I mean it’s personal, personal computer. Right? So few people share it, that it means that if you’re part of a partnership and one of you’s organized and one of you isn’t, one you’s going to have a computer that’s easy to use, and other’s — their computer’s gonna be a mess.

A lot of times I see people in couples who come in and they are having a hard time working between computers on their network at home and it’s exactly because one of them’s a mess and one of them’s not a mess. But what do you do? Tell them to go to counseling? I tell them “Well, this is why, I’m not sure this is how you want to solve that.” So I spend a lot of time kind of telling people what the issues are. I remember when my knees were hurting and I was climbing up stairs and being tired and exhausted all the time and the doctor said “You should probably lose some weight.” And I’m like, “I don’t care what you think!” But realistically, you know, he was the professional who knew, maybe that’s what I needed. But it is hard when you’re the professional who’s got the message that somebody doesn’t want to get about how they need to change in order to get their life to be more functional.

EH: You have a really rich online life. And I often think — you know, last night I was online and I’m clicking, clicking, clicking, I’m like, what am I — ? I haven’t had a television in twenty years. But I can spend hours online and I can’t tell you anything that I did for three hours. And it’s, I leave sometimes feeling slack, kind of —

JW: Sure.

EH: And what is that? It almost feels soul-crushing. Do you experience this, or…?

JW: No, I mean, I feel like I do the same thing. But for me it fills — I mean, sometimes — but it fills the role almost that television would fill. You know, I just need to kind of zone out for a while and let information wash over me and if I do it online it’s a little more self-directed. But there definitely are times where I’m like, yep, I’m just going to turn it off, not do my work, not answer my email, not interact with people on Twitter, not do writing, not read web pages I’m supposed to read, and I’m just going to follow links down the rabbit hole and learn about something on Wikipedia, for example.

My favorite thing that I like to talk about as far as what motivates us, like a lot of people ask “Well what motives you, you know, or what motivates humans?” And people are like “Oh, sex and aggression, you want to just like fuck or fight anything.” Right? Or fear and aggression. But Temple Grandin, who’s the animal researcher who wrote thinking in pictures — she’s on the autism spectrum and writes about what she knows about animals — talks about like one of the things that’s really motivating to animals is what she calls the “seeking” instinct. That it’s not the finding the piece of food or the hot other hamster or whatever the thing is, it’s the anticipation of being on the hunt for the other hamster, or the piece of food, that’s actually more captivating than what you would actually get at the end.

This is partly why we like soap operas, this is partly why we like internet discussions, this is partly why we like Reddit, this is why we like Facebook. Because it’s not so much — although this is part of it — that we get to put our own self into it. Hey I like that, way to go, your kid’s cute, I like that dog, whatever. But it’s also that we get to see what people say back to us. And so that what happens next, click, click, what’s after this link, what’s after this link? And sometimes I try to think to myself while I’m doing that: “What would I want to find here?” Like you get the — like my computer makes a beep when I get an email. What do I think the best email I could possibly get would be? Like there’s no best email, like the whole concept that email could deliver you something that is that worth it -

EH: But that to me — that implies a problem, that it is -

JW: That it’s promising what it doesn’t deliver, or -?

EH: That you have some desire that’s not going to be met and that perhaps it could be met if you were looking in different places.

JW: Yeah, well when I see people — in the online communities that I’m a part of, and I see people that are kind of like “heavy in” or online a lot,… One of the things when I’m talking about people who are, you know, 50 years old and they haven’t used a computer, there are other people who they’re 50 years old and they’re online constantly. And if you’re online constantly, like the person who’s offline constantly, there’s probably a reason. Good reason, bad reason, but reason. And so figuring out what that is — you see people are spending a lot of time online who are also complaining that they have depression, they have anxiety, they have concerns, a lot of people who spend a lot of time online are managing various issues. Again, good and bad.

One of the steps a lot of times is: turn off the computer, interact with real life people. Slow it down. Deal with the pace of things, you know, somebody knocking on your door, walking down the street, the slower pace of interactions, but with people who maybe know you more.

When I was dealing with a whole bunch of anxiety — I had some health issues at the beginning of this year, went to therapy because I was concerned — I talked to my therapist about my jobs and how I get up in the morning with a cup of coffee and sit in front of my computer. She was like — it’s ridiculous that I did not come to this on my own — like “Why don’t you spend a half hour, 45 minutes with no computer in the morning?” And I was like, but, reasons! And she was like, you know, just do something else. Just stay away from the screen, do your dishes, watch birds, go to the post office, do something else. And I was like [ahhhh], never work, I hate it. But I did it. And it’s become a part of how I live my life now.

It’s changed my day dramatically just not feeling like that — I call it kind of the hamster wheel of the internet, because it’s always going whether you’re on or off. Right? I don’t feel like it’s a thing I have to respond to with that kind of urgency anymore, and it’s encouraged me to not only take care of my own stuff — you know, I do more of my dishes, I keep more of my stuff clean, I’ve got 35 minutes, 40 minutes in the morning where I have to do something, read a book.

It’s also just put everything in perspective, that it doesn’t require my immediate attention, that I don’t have to get on this immediately. That even if other people — and you see this all the time in offices, “an emergency on your part is not an emergency on my part necessarily” but it’s really helped me conceptualize that, in sort of a real way. I would feel other people’s urgency in the online world. Like, I need your response immediately. Or, you know, puppies dying every minute that you don’t help the puppy farm, or whatever. Or your friend is sad. The urgency of that in a lot of cases comes from my mind not other people’s.

If other people feel something’s important, that’s great, they’re allowed to, there’s nothing wrong with that. But their urgency doesn’t have to become my urgency. I was such a pleaser as a kid, and wanted everybody to be happy, and wanted — not even happy, but just not mad. So I spent a lot of time being very responsive, like touchy responsive, to how the people were around me, and it took a really long time for me to realize that that didn’t serve me as a grownup at all.

EH: That’s a very dangerous cocktail for somebody who’s also on the internet a lot.

JW: Yeah in online discourse there’s a lot of people who have things they want… gun control is a disaster. Bernie’s running for president. You know, the guy in my town needs a ride to the doctor. You’re bombarded with messages, all of which may have urgent attached to them, and if you don’t have good boundaries of your own, you have a very difficult time sorting out what you want and what you need and what’s relevant to you, and so it’s easy to be reactive. And a lot of being online, I think, is figuring out how to allot those things in ways that feel appropriate and true to your own values.


That was Jessamyn West. There is lots to be read by and about Jessamyn. You’ll find some of those links on my website, Your comments are always welcome there as well.

And I want to thank everyone who’s donated to this show. I am so grateful. These donations help keep me going. If you haven’t donated and you’d like to, any amount is welcome and appreciated. You can find a donate button on my website, It’s green and it’s in the upper righthand corner.

If you have ideas for shows that you’d like to hear, just send me an email at This is Erica Heilman. Thank you very much for listening

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