Illustration by Ana

Illustration by Ana

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You turn on your computer, check Facebook, see some notifications, and suddenly your heart beats faster. That tiny red box makes you feel like you’re about to take the first bite of a piece of molten, cheesy pizza or unwrap a birthday gift from your best friend. Twelve people care about me! you think. They probably liked my hilarious yet understated screencap of Leslie Knope eating a waffle!

But then, the HORROR: Your notifications consist of seven FarmVille requests from your uncle, two updates from an event to which you responded “maybe,” and three comments by people you don’t know on a group photo where only the top of your head is visible. Deflated, you check Twitter to see if anyone favorited your last update about dinner. Maybe someone on Tumblr reblogged that GIF you made of Harry Styles winking. Did anyone on Instagram give a thumbs-up emoji to that picture of you pretending to look apathetic while eating an ice cream cone? You repeat this cycle about four more times before you give up and get back to whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing.

You are not alone. In the process of writing these two paragraphs, I checked Facebook about 13 times, because I am obsessed with acquiring likes. The internet is basically a cute boy I’m crushing on, and I desperately want him to like me back. So now you probably think I’m going to tell you how this is totally messing up my perception of self-worth, that I blame the internet for making all of my relationships feel shallow and that I am about to present a few easy steps to detox from it. But honestly, the internet is the reason I am a (mostly) confident person today.

Up until seventh grade, I went to a very small Christian elementary school and spent most of my free time doing whatever is the opposite of developing social skills, like watching the Lifetime Movie Network. When I started public school, I basically felt like Cady Heron in Mean Girls (aka a homeschooled jungle freak). In my head, I had a clear idea of my style and sense of humor. I used to sit in Barnes & Noble for hours and look at art books of vintage clothing and think, This is what I want to look like. I watched archival footage of Gilda Radnor on YouTube and longed to be as funny. But I was incredibly awkward and scared of standing out. For a while, I barely had any friends, because I was so scared of saying the wrong thing that I just didn’t talk.

So, like a lot of 13-year-olds with tons of thoughts and few friends, I took to the internet. I kinda wish I could say my formative interests were a little grittier, like “I went in search of obscure punk music” or “I needed to share my poetry with SOMEONE or else I would EXPLODE.” Instead I joined a message board on the website of the N (the channel now called TeenNick) so I could talk to other teenage girls about episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation and designer capsule collections at Target. But simply having an outlet to talk about the stuff I liked made me feel like my thoughts weren’t insignificant.

After that, I started writing a blog (whose name I am too embarrassed to share with you) where I mostly talked about the stuff I still care about today, like TV and baking and vintage clothes/accessories. And an amazing thing happened: It wasn’t just relatives that my dad awkwardly sent the link to who read it. Other teenage girls began to leave comments, like “Gabby, I love your style!” or “Your writing is hilarious.” It sounds a little cloying when I repeat this now, but at the time, no one besides my mom had ever told me I was cute or hilarious. I made my first internet friends, who turned into some of my best IRL friends (including my fellow Rookie Hazel).

When Twitter came around in eighth grade, I just about died. See, whenever I tried to be funny in middle school, I was mostly met with blank stares and “cool story, bro.” I very vividly remember a joke in which I compared a burrito to a baby both in size and because it was so deserving of my attention, and it landing with a thud. But online, remarks like “I need to stop confusing burritos with love” got retweeted by kindred spirits. People followed me because they wanted live updates of my ~incredibly amusing and important~ thoughts. In real life, I didn’t always have time to think of an appropriate pop-culture reference. I couldn’t link to a YouTube video to make my point. I couldn’t just say what I wanted without having to face anyone’s reaction. I couldn’t just drop the mic and go. Could I?

By the time high school rolled around, it occurred to me that my online persona wasn’t an invention. It (she?) was the person I was in my head and when I was comfortable at home. So I started gathering inspiration from the feedback I’d gotten from my blog and made what might seem like trivial changes, like wearing dresses to school instead of the unofficial uniform of T-shirt and jeans. I risked being funny again, and experienced a very life-affirming moment when I joked in social studies that I wanted to open a milkshake stand called “Better Than Yours” and people laughed. WITH ME.

Slowly, I worked up the nerve to share my opinions. It was super easy to discuss topics like feminism on anonymous message boards with like-minded girls, but talking about it in public with people who wouldn’t necessarily agree terrified me. One time, in my junior-year English class, we ended up having a debate about gender equality. I remember summoning facts that I’d read on the internet about how some anchorwomen feel forced to retire earlier because of their appearance and how women in general don’t make as much money as men. It wasn’t a profound argument, but people actually listened. And as I became less afraid of talking freely, I made more friends. For the first time, people didn’t just sign my yearbook “HAGS,” but with actual notes of kindness and inside jokes.

The puzzling part of all of this is that now, a few years later, the difference between internet life and real life is becoming more pronounced. Like, I notice an acquaintance who frequently likes my status updates rarely ever talks to me in person, and it makes me wonder if the praise I am seeking isn’t that sincere. I realize these exchanges are sometimes obligatory—I liked you, now you retweet me, and so on—and I’ve definitely stopped romanticizing every single positive interaction I have on the internet. But, like I said, I still get excited by approval and endorsements and emojis. Am I reading too much into gestures that are sometimes nothing more than the touch of a thumb?

I feel like I should say this validation doesn’t even come close to real-life interactions, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I enjoy receiving feedback for pictures of my breakfast—not as much as I enjoy getting an A on a paper or a compliment from a friend, but it’s not so wildly different. Every encouragement, big or small, is a boost. I still struggle with feeling shy or uncomfortable in public, and the internet still reminds me that I should say more things out loud. The world is a giant status update waiting for me press enter. ♦