Physicist, Emacser, Digitales Spielkind

Confessions of a data sink
Published on Jan 31, 2021.

I have had many, many accounts during the 25 years that I have spent online. Each had something of an identity connected to it but they all were shallow. Whether it was an account on a BBS somewhere (that wasn’t too expensive to dial into), ICQ, slashdot – yes, even facebook – or whatever other online space I was hanging out at at the time: they never had my name or any persistent nick connected with them and only few people knew it was me – if any. Even though I eagerly read through discussions and followed up on new posts in the hope that they were offering up an argument I had been missing, I very rarely actually posted anything myself.

In fact, I never created the accounts in order to post. I just wanted to observe and maybe have the option to say something. Which I only did when I felt certain and confident, for example on a solution to a technical problem. I would write those posts with utmost care, checking every link and double-checking any code fragment. And then, after posting, I would nervously watch for any reactions and be all excited when one actually came in.

In other words, I had been a (nearly) anonymous data sink all these years.

This is probably not a surprise, as I am more of an introvert, and I don’t think that there is anything wrong with being one, or a data sink for that matter. But recently, I have been wondering more why I had never been comfortable online. I do enjoy discussions, I have published in writing before, and I had enjoyed speaking publicly on various occasions. However, there is something special for me about writing online.

For one, there is a low barrier-of-entry. While that is obviously part of the magic of the cyberspace, I do get intimidated by potentially sending out a half-finished sentence to all the world with just one misguided click or press of the button. That anxiety can even freak me out when sending messages to my personal friends, so it’s certainly a concern with any public interaction. Press-enter-to-send is always the first “feature” I disable in any chat client.

Then there is the permanence of anything said online. Which is probably – to an extend – overrated and one should not dampen one’s creative impulses simply to better fit into a hypothetical future. One learns by making mistakes (and correcting them). But an odd feeling is not always easy for me to shake off when it comes to any personal, digital traces I am about to leave.

Finally, I get anxious without the social and communicative clues that would come with direct conversations. What sparks interest or bores usually becomes quickly apparent if you are talking/texting with a single person or a small group. I really appreciated those early direct modem connections with schoolmates, first established just as a test, but then used for hours to talk to each other through the keyboard. You could see each letter as it was being typed which allowed for a rather personal conversation through pure text.

Fast forwarding to the vast online spaces of today, and I don’t quite know who I am talking with. Maybe I get an idea of the community before posting, and maybe I reply to someone specific. But you never know who is going to respond. I rarely feel confident enough in the substance of my contribution to engage in a conversation – but this is to a large degree due to the certainty that there is someone out there who is more knowledgeable on any given topic than I am.

While in personal conversations I could gauge the room, judge people’s interest and eagerness to communicate their own experiences and knowledge, these clues are missing online (or are harder to interpret in any case). And the audience is potentially much bigger and driven by entirely different motivations. This intimidates me and makes me uneasy to articulate even firmly held beliefs. Leaving the space always seems like the easier option. And why not, when nothing connects me personally.

Well, I have made the conscious decision to show my face publicly and to stand by my quirks. Having spaces that suit me personally and resonate with my (digital) identity, such as this blog or platforms such as fosstodon.org help tremendously. And accepting that I do most of my writing for myself alone, or at best as an offer to the random traveller passing by, is the underlying assumption behind anything you will find here.

If you have come this far by reading the above lines, then I would really like to know who you are and why you felt this was of interest to you. Please drop me a line – or don’t and simply move on in your own journey :)

Tags: thoughts, mastodon, blog