New research is always popping up to enlighten (or terrify, or depress) us about what all of this time spent on the Internet—staring at computers, searching the old "World Wide Web," Googling, reading aggressive missives from commenters, typing snarky or sincere prose, Facebook status-updating our lunches, or whatever it is we do here—is doing to our brains. What does it do, though, to not only our brains but also to our emotions and characters and personalities? It's still pretty early to tell how our time here, especially for those of us who spend large portions of our days in front of a screen, reaching into and taking from and also resupplying the abyss, has changed us.
I've been "on the Internet" since the late '90s, when my college presented us with, OMG, actual real-tech email accounts. Back then there was a ridiculous span of letters after the jdoll@: my school's name, Georgetown, plus a bunch of other stuff—gusun + some series of letters now lost to the ages + edu. The screen upon which emails popped up was black, with neon green letters indicating incoming "mail." It was all very DOS.
Later, I worked in print magazines and upgraded from Hotmail to Gmail and found my way to working online, with all that's good (speed, intensity, immediacy) and bad (speed, intensity, immediacy) about that. I'd like to think the Internet has helped me craft stories faster, formulate more interesting concepts and ideas, improved the quality of writing through daily and hourly practice. One undeniable fact is that it's given me a job. But probably, the biggest single personality-impacting thing it's done is allow me an opportunity to respond to commentary and add my own thoughts to the mix without the kind of fear one might have about being so opinionated and forceful in real life. I've learned from working on the Internet that of course it matters, deeply, what people think about my work (what matters most is that they think about it at all!), but it doesn't really matter what they think of me personally. And certainly, while being thought of as "nice" and "a good person" is still sort of important in real life, who cares if that's what people online think of you? That sort of bland reception is a fate worse than hate, in some ways. So I'm far more willing to fight back and even get angry to prove my point than I might be in real life, though in real life, some of this has transitioned over as well. This is sort of empowerment, maybe?
I asked some of my favorite ladies from around the Internet for their thoughts on how the Internet has affected them, personality-wise, emotionally, and of course in terms of their work on the Internet. This is not a conclusive list—there are a lot of us online, thankfully—so please get in touch with your own stories. One obvious benefit of the Internet is and always has been sharing.
The Internet Has Made Us Tougher (and a bit ADD)
Noreen Malone, staff writer at The New Republic, formerly of Daily Intel: I think blogging is a very particular thing, and at least for me, it's made me less self-conscious. You always know exactly what people think of you, whether good or bad, so you sort of stop caring. I guess that boils down to it's made me tougher. It also makes me feel like the very cheapest sort of autodidact. Sometimes, when you're a blogger, you pretend like you haven't read about something, for the sake of making conversation like a normal human being and not bringing up weird Internet stuff, like, Oh yeah, I saw that tweet about that, as if everyone in the world were obsessively trying to follow all tweets about all things. I think general-interest news blogging is an extreme case, but there's a version of that that exists for everyone, really.
Doree Shafrir, executive editor at Buzzfeed: Writing for the Internet has given me a much thicker skin—I hadn't blogged before I worked at Gawker [Shafrir started there in November 2006)] and at first I was terrified of the commenters. But eventually I came to think of them as there for entertainment value, nothing more, and I stopped taking anything they said personally. These days, I try not to engage with haters, whether on BuzzFeed or on Twitter or wherever, and I've generally found that if you ignore people they go away, and if they don't, you can always block them. It's turned out to be a good lesson IRL as well. In general, the Internet has definitely exacerbated any ADD tendencies I might have had—I feel like I exist in a state of continuous partial attention, and it can be overwhelming. But that's why I do yoga.
Kashmir Hill, staff writer at Forbes: I had a thick skin when I got to the Internet. Undertaking a career in blogging when one has thin skin is just masochistic. That said, I don’t take criticism lightly and I can’t resist reading comments looking for holes in my arguments, logic, and grammar. I’m far more bothered by “this is stupid” than a “she’s ugly” comment. When I come across a “she’s hot” comment, though, I’m usually flattered, but then instantly wonder if I’m undermining the tech-feminist movement by being flattered.
Other than that, yes, I’d say working on the Internet, writing and tweeting all day has made me feel ADD. It’s also, sadly, made me kind of hate emailing in my personal life. Gone are the long, lovingly-crafted emails to family and friends. Now they get missives a sentence or two long, full of Internet acronyms.
The Internet Has Brought Out Our Inner 8th Grade Girl
Elspeth Reeve, staff writer at The Atlantic Wire: The Internet hasn't given me a thick skin, because I already had one. I think women are better suited to dealing with commenters than men because we have the experience of having been eighth grade girls. No troll in the comments will ever have as intimate an understanding of all your insecurities as your teenage best friends, so the trolls have no idea what scabs to pick. Men seem more wounded by mean comments, and they expect you to be, too, saying stuff like, "I can't believe the comments on your post! They're so personal!" And then you look and it's like someone calling you "a feminazi with bad hair." And you think, Are you kidding? I have great hair.
The Internet Has Made Us More Careful
Katie J.M. Baker, staff writer at Jezebel: I didn't think I cared what people thought of me before I started writing for Jezebel, but by my second day—when I wrote a mean-spirited post about Kony 2012 that garnered over 500,000 pageviews and a ton of hate mail—I realized that there's a big difference between being snarky and opinionated to your friends on Gchat and being snarky and opinionated to tens of thousands of readers who are all too happy to tell you exactly how you're a horrible person who's contributing nothing to society. I used to be the type of person who spoke first and thought later; now, I make sure I'm 100% behind whatever I post, because I hate getting attacked on points that I don't completely believe in or know enough about to defend.
The Internet Has Made Us Jaded
Maureen O'Connor, features editor at The Cut, formerly of Gawker: As a junior in college, I ran a college gossip blog. I am now 27, and every job I've had has been Internet-based. I'm actually more passive, in that I've become jaded. Racism, misogyny, and hate rarely shock me. I still feel viscerally upset when I see it, but I also feel hopeless and bored. Emails and comment threads describing my murder, rape, or participation in various pornographic scenes never stopped freaking me out, but the fact that I have a routine for dealing with them is odd. My emotional mind has all kinds of partitions that didn't exist before.
Over the course of reporting on the seedier side of the internet, I once unthinkingly described an actual snuff film as "just like" a scene in a horror movie I'd seen. I then felt like my entire psyche had become a cautionary tale about the dangers of the digital age, which was pretty depressing. On the happier side: I have also learned what lots of different languages sound like, and how to do various complicated hairdos, by watching YouTube videos.
The Internet Has Given Us 'Internet Time'
Maura Johnston, music editor at The Village Voice: I first went online in... 1989? 1990? I was definitely younger than 16, because I would tell people in CompuServe's chat rooms that I was 16, and also that I was blonde and skinny and smart—basically the opposite of what I felt like I was in high school. In college we were allowed to have email accounts right away; the year before I'd had a(n abortive) crush on a college-radio DJ who would play the Smashing Pumpkins' "Starla" for me every week, so I picked that as my handle. I also joined a New York City-based BBS called Echo sort of accidentally -- I was looking for a place that offered dialup access in the summer of 1994, so I could keep in touch with my friends who had stayed in Chicago.
In the summer of 1996 I wanted a domain name of my own, and starla.com had been nabbed by Hasbro a couple of weeks (thanks French version of Rainbow Brite!) before I decided to give Network Solutions my $70. So I bought maura.com instead, although I didn't use it. That act, though, cemented my online persona becoming entwined with my real-world one. I launched an online zine of microfiction in 1998 after a whirlwind Paris trip that didn't work out as romantically I might have hoped. I took the train to Maryland and Philadelphia to meet people whose writing I admired. I was "maura dot com," the person who was always online, trying out text messaging via email on my monophonic, monochromatic Nokia phone, working for dot-coms, getting teased by my friends that it was easier to find me online than to get me on the phone.
When I went into the full-time music-blogging world in 2006, it was exciting! This churn of news and commenting and new songs. But I also eventually felt like it was eating my soul because I had to read all this negativity that was just knee-jerk with little basis aside from not having time to have a reasoned opinion. In a way I understood why it was happening; something had to counterbalance all the anodyne "hey, here's my email" Entertainment Tonight Juniors that were online. But it still made me feel a sort of low-level despair, not least because it was particularly onerous toward the bodies of famous women. I feel like the fast-information churn of the Internet, and its reinforcing of norms, has just made people meaner and more quick to sneer.
And now we have Twitter, where everything blows by me at this super-fast rate, and norms get reinforced at an even faster pace, and uniques are king and appealing to the broadest number of people often means pitching things to the lowest common denominator, which means shortcuts and bitchiness. I can absolutely feel my attention span atrophying and my nervous system kicking ever upward, afraid that I might be missing something (or someone?). Tuesday night I listened to a song that I first heard in 2004, which I guess is forever ago in Internet time, and it filled me with this euphoria in part because it was one of my favorite songs of that year, but in part I could feel my brain bending in a different way than it had in years. Or maybe months—it's honestly hard to tell time these days, because hours and minutes and years feel like taffy being yanked in different directions all the time.
The Internet Has Made Us Nostalgic
Jen Carlson, deputy editor at Gothamist: The Internet was incredibly fun in the beginning—the little circle of NYC bloggers was small, there was no Tumblr, no Twitter, no Facebook, and I actually hand-coded my first blog via Geocities. It was so safe, and welcoming, and like Cheers, where everybody knew your URL. "Internet circa 2003" is actually my happy place, and that sad fact alone can probably tell you enough about what the Internet has done to me. I probably need years of therapy before accurately commenting on this, but I will say, like any relationship, it has had its ups and downs, and I prefer to focus on the positive. It has given me not only a job, but an outlet... and only like one or two panic attacks. And if you know your way through the massive and endless content world well enough, you can still find "Internet circa 2003" in there.
The Internet Has Made Us More Confident
Callie Schweitzer, deputy publisher at Talking Points Memo: The Internet has made me so much more comfortable with who I am. My personality has become completely ingrained in my Twitter persona, and I am now just as proud to tweet about how much I loved the bad rom-com that everyone hated as I am to tweet a well-reported political article and offer my opinion. When I got promoted to Deputy Publisher at TPM, I couldn't believe how many of my followers congratulated me and asked if Josh Marshall (my boss) had bought me some Diet Coke or if this meant I'd go to Tasti D*Lite more. Those are personal things that I always talk about, and it meant so much to me that people I didn't know would reach out like that and share in my excitement. I have met so many amazing people (and gone on dates!) through Twitter, and I'm always more confident going into them knowing that if someone follows my Twitter feed, they know exactly what they're getting when they meet me in real life: someone with a lot of energy and a love of capital letters. I am 100 times smarter because of the Internet. If Twitter had been around when I took the SATs, I would've done much better than I did because Twitter requires you to find the 140 character nugget, gem, or thesis of every piece you read. You want to look good when you share, and in most cases, good means smart, funny, witty or informed. Twitter has taught me how to find that in a way that no SAT prep book could.
The Internet Has Changed Fun into Work
Rebecca Greenfield, staff writer at The Atlantic Wire: Working on the Internet has turned leisure activities into work activities, which some might say makes it a dream job because it also means I get to do things I would do anyway for pay. But it has had more rancid effects than expected. What once used to give me pleasure is literally a chore now. It's like having mandatory homework time at your favorite bar. So I have just stopped going to the bar. I don't click around the web "for fun" anymore. If I see a tweet on off hours, I get all anxious inside. Overall, maybe that's a good thing—it gets me into the real world. But even reading on paper sometimes feels like a covert work mission. Upside of that: I have learned to compartmentalize my online life. Twitter and Gchat are work spaces, Facebook and Instagram are social ones.
The Internet Is a Two-Way Street
Lizzie O'Leary, correspondent at CNN: Since my work is largely on TV, and there is a fairly standard format for that, I fell in love with the ability to report little tidbits of news via Twitter. And while I do read the comments on CNN posts sometimes, comments are often, well, cesspools. (Case in point: I did a video for YouTube about how reporters use data and they had to turn off the comments. I still have a screencap of my aunt typing "way to go, Liz!" in between a line about whether I was a giant nerd in high school and whether the carpet matched the drapes).
Over the past two years [Twitter has] become a bit like a fan dance: flash a little news, maybe some wit, show something inadvertently hilarious my parents said. The beauty of if it—and the thing that can make you cry—is that it's a two-way street. I tweeted my own appearance on Jeopardy in what I thought was a self-deprecating manner. Fishbowl dinged me for being self-absorbed. It stung, but you laugh it off (they were funny) and learn from it. That's the social contract of the Internet: it can feel like a one-way mirror, but it's the farthest thing from it.
I quite like the 140 character format because of the discipline of focusing your voice (as silly and journo-professor as that sounds). What do you mean? Say it clearer, make it crisper. You asked me to think about women, and I think the sharpness of the format is helpful there. Distill your argument, don't back away or muddy it up with parenthetical caveats. If you can laugh off the bullshit with grace, it builds confidence. And there probably is an online community that will cheer for you.
The Internet has an unerring way of pulling out a person's essence. It's no accident that I have several close friends who I first "met" by following them on Twitter. Even if you don't think you're putting a bit of your identity out there, you are. That little bit of distilled essence can be extraordinarily revealing. If you're going to play in this pool, best be prepared for it. Twitter makes me feel funny, which I appreciate.
The Internet Has Made Us ... Feel
Edith Zimmerman, editor of The Hairpin: The Internet and I really made it Official in ... 2007, I think, when I started blogging for The L Magazine, where I was working as an assistant editor for both print and online. Hmm. I wake up earlier than I ever did before, and I think I curved my spine a little! Seriously. Maybe that's not what you mean, though. I spend more time alone than I ever thought I would, while also communicating daily with more people than I ever thought I could. It has given me a career. I love her, I hate her, I love her, I hate her, my mother, my sister, my mother, my sister.