In early 2002 I found myself staring at a screen at 2:00AM in the morning, wondering how I got myself into the situation I was in.
I was 22 years old, 23 in a few months. I had just been laid off from the only job I ever had, a job I dedicated more time to during college and high school than college and high school. I lived in wherever I happend to be, whether that be my grandparent’s, my uncle’s or my parent’s houses. I had applications out to graduate schools, was running out of money and at that point the biggest thing I had in my life was what was on the screen in front of me.
Six years prior I had created a website. An evening just after my 17th birthday when I was bored, had my new credit card and a new copy of Microsoft Frontpage.
Now I had a website that according to the stats that ran across the bottom of my screen, 200 people were currently logged into, 40 people chatting on and 1700 posts having been made that day.
A collection of experiences, joys, heartache, love, lust, jealousy, petty anger, multicultural misunderstandings and hate all running through a MySQL database hundreds of miles away. Emotion quantified within rows, columns and indexes. Drama in the data.
And I somehow owned it. At least I paid for it.
I finally at this moment realized something though: it was driving me crazy.
Three years prior, I had broken up with my girlfriend from high school around the time some people from this same site started a new discussion board aimed at ridiculing me. I had kicked one of them off the site for trolling, and this was the repercussion.
Someone tipped me off to that site, and I remember being at work reading it and feeling my face redden. Anger, and a bit of sadness. It brought up too many memories of being bullied, made fun of. But it also was something I created. At this point I was a member of Howard Rheingold’s forum and asked them for help on how to deal with this (Howard being an expert at virtual communities). They gave me good advice: confront them and own it.
I ended up meeting up with these people in Athens, GA. Getting drunk, embarrassing myself and all was forgiven.
But it struck me then the power that text on screen had. I had never met these people. I had never interacted with them either. All that I did was take the IP address from one of them, put it into a table in a database that was read every time someone visited the site, and prevented that IP from accessing the login screen. A simple chain of logic embedded in some PHP code. And yet this logic lead to one of these people creating a new discussion board, posting things about me, hiding it, someone else telling me about it and all culminating in me feeling things I hadn’t dealt with since I was in sixth grade: the feeling of simultaneous embarrassment and regret.
Now, three years later I was staring at a screen, watching lives pass me while I felt like I wasn’t living my own. I was the nexus point of the cumulative represented lives and virtualized existences of 22,000 people, the “admin.” I was also a rather shy person who had just lost his job.
The mix of these two realities nearly drove me mad.
No one likes talking about feelings very much. I don’t either. My wife calls me a robot and others I know feel the same way about me. Empathy comes with difficulty.
Anxiety is something I don’t like talking about very much. It’s something that sits above me like a boulder on a precipice, teetering on the brink of rolling downhill. I know that when it rolls it’s very hard to stop. The problem with anxiety is it’s like a cold; you can feel it coming on, but thinking about it makes it come on stronger. You get anxious about being anxious, and without stopping it, it’ll consume you.
I was unfamiliar with this at 2:00AM on this evening in 2002. I became familiar with it after that. I don’t know what triggered the boulder rolling, but it didn’t cease until nearly 4 months later (when I met my now wife).
Since this time I’ve been through bouts of anxiety a few times. I’ve come to know the triggers and avoid them. I don’t go to the discussion board I still run very much now. I avoid other situations that were triggers. In all it’s made me a more cautious and closed off person. Sometimes to the detriment of others.
I bring this up now because in 2002 I was watching the lives in a database go by, and in 2012 (nearly 2013) I’m watching the lives in tweets and Facebook go by. As I sit here with two screens running, the lives of so many cascading through the pixels, I can feel that boulder again. I can nearly see it. In the past year I’ve been connected to so many people, but through that connection have also connected to so much sadness, joy, happiness and tragedy.
We as people are not meant to do this. We have a limit. I became familiar with this limit one early morning and I spent four months trying to deal with the repercussions of that. Maybe ten years trying.
This year has been trying sometimes. My job is fun but difficult and exhausting. People lost loved ones, including a child in one case. I just lost my longest lived relative while another slips away. My days are full, and the hour I get when I’m not committed to driving or working I can either spend running or staring at screens again.
Some days I feel the boulder trembling and ready to fall. It’s that fear that keeps me a bit remote, a bit curt, a bit distant.
But I can’t let it fall, nor can I let it effect me like that. There is too much good in my life, in the world, and in the world I inhabit through the things my interest in technology has given me.
I’m not 22 in my room alone. I’m not 16 in my room starting a website. I don’t have to be that nexus of the accumulated digital selfs, because at this point we all are.
In 2013 what I hope to do is look up at the boulder, hope it doesn’t fall and carry on.
Maybe with a smile.