The Open Web

Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.

—Louis Brandeis

Note: I originally wasn’t sure I was going to publish this. I wrote it to get something off my chest, but I was concerned it was too personal to consider publishing. Then someone had the immense courage to post on Hacker News about their depression and needing help. I spoke with that person, chatted with him, and hope we continue chatting. He’s a wonderful person. And that is why this post is being published.

I’ve used Twitter regularly since 2008. My intention is not to try and claim that I was using the service before it was cool; I’m not entirely sure I was. My point is simply that, for about four years now, I’ve become increasingly prone to tweeting without thinking. It’s more of a prosthesis, an extension of myself, than it is a service. At the time of this writing, I’ve posted 17,360 tweets. That’s almost eleven tweets a day, every day, for four years. More important than the quantity of tweets, however, is their content; you’ll find no better representation of my personality.

There are tweets about my ongoing love affair with pickles (1, 2, 3). There’s the ongoing epic around a teddy bear that is far more awesome than he has any right to be (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). There are my frank admissions that I’m absolutely crazy (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). There are moments of clarity, when I realise how fortunate I am (1, 2). There are times where I publicly harangue my good friend, Dylan (1, 2) (and, when he’s lucky, shower praise on him). There are jokes about what an asshole I am (1, 2), or how inappropriate I can sometimes be (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). There is my ongoing fascination with injuring myself in odd ways (1, 2, 3). There are my moments of hubris. There’s my ongoing adventure with (prescribed) medication (1, 2). There’s my love affair with Call Me Maybe. There’s my refusal to accept the way education and employment work. There are my public resignations to failure (1, 2, 3) and my shared exuberance at success. There’s my love of dancing. There are admissions that a project is not going as well as I’d like (1, 2). There are pep talks to myself. There’s my unique way of describing things I love. There’s my war against my roommate’s demon kittens (1, 2). There are silly parodies of pop songs I make up because I’m crazy. There’s my refusal to act my age. There are moments when I dare to dream—even if it’s a silly dream.

Twitter has all of these things, archived, stored forever as a digital representation of me in the purest form I can think of. Most, if not all, of the people I meet through Twitter end up becoming good friends. I feel as if I already know them, because they’ve been so well represented by their tweets.

I don’t wish to claim that this is globally true, nor do I wish to imply that Twitter somehow has a monopoly on this. I think that other social sites could do this, and already may for some people. For me, the tool that is best suited for my self-expression is Twitter.

My point, though, is that the web has given me permission to be transparent. There’s a lot of talk about the open web (again), but every time we talk about this, we seem to forget that an open web is as much about the people as it is about the technology.

Every time I’m asked about how to evangelise, I end up rehashing the same message: stop selling things, start engaging in a conversation. Be authentic, be open, be transparent, be honest. People can detect bullshit, people hate being pitched. But if you stop thinking about them as a customer and start thinking of them as a friend, you can actually try to help them solve their problem. And if they don’t have a problem or your product wouldn’t solve it, it’s for the best that you didn’t make that sale. Selling things on false premises only leads to poor customer experiences. I always wonder why this isn’t standard practice, why people don’t just intuitively know this.

Then I remember how much it took me to learn it. I wasn’t doing it on purpose. I was enduring four of the hardest years of my life, and a lot of times, I felt like I had nobody to talk to. So I threw tweets out, not caring if anyone was listening. I just needed to say it. It wasn’t about sharing, it wasn’t about fishing for retweets, it wasn’t about connecting with someone. Twitter was my free therapist… who would publish notes after every session for the world to read.

A couple years after I started using the service like this, I noticed it bleeding out a little into my offline life. I’ve never had a whole lot of self-confidence, but by daring to be open about what I thought and who I was online, I got little shots of courage to carry that offline. I stopped worrying if people didn’t like me or thought less of me because of something I said; if they didn’t like how I thought, why try to hide it to maintain a fake friendship or escape their derision? If I was wrong, the only way to correct my mistakes was to be brazenly wrong, so others could point out my flaws.

That’s not to say I went out of my way to offend everyone I could because “fuck you if you don’t like me”. It’s just a mental shift to realising that the only person I have to face in the mirror every morning is myself. And that that’s where my self-worth and morals should derive from, not from what the people around me thought.

So far, I’ve been rewarded for it. Despite tweeting things that are offensive and vulgar. Despite tweeting things I look back on and feel shame about. I’ve accumulated a respectable 350-some-odd Twitter followers, but it’s not really the number that matters. The number of people I respect and admire who follow me is astonishing; these are people who I would be intimidated to approach in real life, people whose work and creativity I am in awe of. And they subscribe to a feed of my unfiltered childish thoughts. I’m embarassed every time I remember they’re listening, but then I remember they’ve listened for years, and they know all the undesirable things about me. They’ve seen me at my lowest, my highest, and everywhere in-between.

And they still listen to me. They still think I’m worthy of their attention.

And if they think highly of me, maybe I should, too.

I’ve written before about how I use the internet as a crutch. It’s kind of a sensitive subject for me, and not something I like writing about frequently. It’s not something I consider a huge part of my personality, and it’s certainly not the most important thing I want to talk about. There are so many more interesting conversations I think I could add value to.

But we seem to be circling back to the idea of disconnecting. Of standing up, walking away from the keyboard, and getting some fresh air. Of taking some time to think and be with ourselves. And I don’t wish to discredit or argue that idea at all. Adam (who wrote that post) and &yet (the company he started) are precisely the type of people I was referencing earlier; people who leave me starstruck when they, for some reason, decide I’m worth talking to. And I think what Adam proposes holds value and is a wonderful idea, in many cases. But it’s not an idea I’m willing to try in the near future. Not because I’m afraid I’ll miss out on something, not because there’s an argument I want to be involved in, not because I’m afraid of being forgotten, not because of any of the reasons Chris Williams (another individual I respect) outlined in his (silent) talk.

It’s because what Adam said is very, very true. “Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually agreed to allow residence inside my brain.” And these voices are all telling me I’m good enough when poisonous thoughts tell me I’m not. They can drown out a mental illness. Because I’m able to express myself, and get positive reinforcement from others on that self that is expressed, I get to spend more time with my family, build more things that require creative vulnerability, have deeper relationships with friends, think about things that I wouldn’t be able to if I were caught in a depressive downward spiral, and find happiness with myself. You’ll recognise those as the same benefits Chris lists during his talk, but they hold true. And that last one is the most important.

Four years ago, I couldn’t say that.

Two years ago, I couldn’t say that.

Sometimes, what we need is to step away from the keyboard. Sometimes we need some time with ourselves, some time to think. Sometimes, we think too much, and what we desperately need is less time with ourselves. Especially if your self is an asshole, like I am.

Regardless, I’d argue we could all stand to have a little more openness in our lives. And that goes for our technologies and our communications.