Microaffections: Using Social Media As A Digital Hug

Social Media is exhausting. It can easily become an all engulfing vortex of opinions and pictures that ultimately leave you feeling emotionally drained,and ready to roll down a steep hill into a swarth of freshly sharpened bramble bushes.

What can I do about this senseless violence? Who is this person with a dog avatar yelling in CAPS about their neighbor’s sex life? Did I change my profile picture too recently? WHY ARE WE ALL JUST MEAT BLOBS CONNECTING TO HANDHELD ROBOTS?!

I’ll often hear a person lamenting how emotionally overwhelming social media is, while also downplaying the legitimacy of any positive emotional exchanges. If someone posts a positive comment, it’s considered “nice,” but arbitrary, but if they upset you, that feeling is REAL and has sent your head into the a hell spiral!

I say, why give it one power and not the other? I believe if we can admit to ourselves that the internet IS real, and very much part of our daily lives both intellectually and emotionally, we can harness it as a tool in less destructive ways.

I will be the first to admit: the internet affects me emotionally. As much as I’d love to fulfill my dream of reincarnating as R2D2, I am not a robot, and reading the wrong words and going down vicious rabbitholes can ruin my day in both the physical and digital realm.

But conversely, the internet can be used as a tool of comfort after an emotionally draining day. It can become the origin of a ripple of needed microaffections that assuage forms of loneliness we all experience.

I don’t always have the time or language handy to express how much I care about or see someone. This isn’t because they don’t matter, but rather because my world is oversaturated with people I’ve met, media I enjoy digesting, and personal goals I sloppily fail towards. A “like,” an emoticon of a bunny rabbit hula-hooping in outerspace, a seemingly petty comment, these can all serve as tiny reminders to and from the people in my life that we’re not stranded on the islands of isolation we construct for ourselves.

One of the main arguments I hear against the legitimacy of online affection IS the “lack of effort” it involves. There is no eye contact, no harnessing of body language or focused commitment of one-on-one conversation. It can make these microaffections seem cheapened, or superficial, the “air-fives” of emotional intimacy.

However, I’d counter that most of our interactions IRL aren’t soul-deepening epiphanies either. When I see an acquaintance on the street and say hi to them, I don’t reach inside their body with my prophetess eyes and pull out their soul guts to inspect, I usually just say hi (although, if I had that soul-gut grabbing ability, my life would be a million times more fascinating). That doesn’t downplay the fact that I had a real interaction with someone I know and like, and it certainly doesn’t diminish the need for all these small ways of acknowledging and interacting with each other as we go about our lives.

In the midst of increasing personal anxiety and constant emotional exhaustion, I’ve been challenging myself to slowly transform my use of social media from a voracious, validation-seeking blackhole of frustration, into a calm(er) walk down a digital street full of people I enjoy and respect. I can make conversation if I want to, in the form of a comment or emoticon, I can smile or nod through a “like,” or let the unproductive yelling wash over me, as I would any chaotic scene on a city sidewalk.

Just as I’ve allowed myself to be affected by people’s trolling of my politics, or occasional low-blow insults and alarming private messages. I’m also learning to allow myself to accept the extensions of affection people send my way. Even if they are sometimes meant as shallow performances or jokes, it’s still a person, giving me a slice of affection, and I can always internalize that, multiply it, and send it back out to others.

The internet is real, social media is real, and most of us are connected through it. That fact doesn’t have to be inherently embarrassing or indicative of some cheapening of our humanity, it’s just the way our lives have evolved. The sooner we stop masking our feelings and actually acknowledge the real emotional effects of digital connection, the sooner we can accept the conversations and connections made online as real, and harness microaffections as the small, patient answers to all the trolling and microaggressions bombarding the airwaves.

I’m working on envisioning my social media experience as walking through my neighborhood and saying hello to my neighbors and friends. Sometimes all I have energy to do is wipe nervous sweat from my forehead and wave, but it’s still an acknowledgement, a connection.

Luckily — if I’m too tired for even that? I can just unplug the whole neighborhood, like a deflated dictator.

Bronwyn Isaac is a writer/standup based out of Brooklyn. You can find some of her jokes/brain scraps on Twitter at @BronwynIsaac.