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6 September 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 8:06am

I used to find joy in sharing myself online – but now, the internet seems a more hostile place

By Naomi Morris

When I was 13 years old, my laptop felt like a portal to a different world, one that was better than where I was living. My mental health had just started to make a dent in my everyday life and, like most people with some kind of difficulty existing in the “real world”, the internet offered me community, escape, and meaning that I couldn’t find elsewhere. I disliked school with fiery neuroticism and felt isolated from my peers, mostly due to my own insecurities. The online realm was a welcome relief.

While I am no longer active on Tumblr, I long for the intimacy it offered me. For years, the microblogging site was a means of survival for me: I forged online friendships that I still treasure today, as well as an identity that my schoolmates weren’t privy to. I created a secluded cove for myself on the internet, one that allowed me to cultivate selfhood at a comfortable pace. While the world moved dangerously fast, on Tumblr we nurtured our virtual spaces tenderly.

It felt as if strangers were more understanding, more sympathetic to whatever was going on in my life. I could easily find people halfway across the country, or the world, who were going through similar issues, and we’d commiserate together. Our follower counts weren’t a form of social currency. There were those rare people who achieved the title “Tumblr famous” but their popularity was never a means for selling something – nor did selling something translate into popularity.

We didn’t know it at the time, but this was Tumblr’s golden age – when it offered its users the kind of utopian space that the internet was made for. Tumblr taught me how to express myself freely, outside of my multiple filled notebooks. Thanks to the support of people I met online, when I first emailed editor Tavi Gevinson about writing for Rookie magazine, I believed I had something worthwhile to say, and able to say it.

I have never found a community as encouraging as Rookie was, especially for a teenage girl. For around three years, I wrote a weekly diary entry, publishing my most intimate thoughts about mental health, loneliness, romance, and God for anyone to read. If this sometimes felt like a risk, like when a group of girls at college found my “blog”, it had wider and better implications than college gossip. My vulnerability became a strength. And by far the best bit of writing the diary was the comment section: where other teenage girls across the world felt secure enough to say they felt the same as I did.

But since Rookie officially folded, the internet seems a more hostile place. Now, I’m reluctant to disclose any details about my life, not only for fear that my online presence is some kind of perpetual job interview, but because confessional writing no longer seems to have a space of its own. Sometimes I try to be vulnerable on the internet, only to feel disappointed in the lack of response. Where once there was such a strong community for young women, today I struggle to find one.

At times, Tumblr and Rookie felt like a slumber party where we shared secrets amongst ourselves. Now, Instagram and Twitter seem to offer constant, dangerous exposure – like one great, sandy desert, with no shade in sight. I often run for cover by deleting my posts. I wonder that there was ever a time when opening Instagram didn’t mean becoming overwhelmed by a slew of adverts and influencers, selling everything from holidays to sunglasses to counselling apps. Recently, even Tumblr moved to ban “sensitive media” to the detriment of women and the LGBTQ community.

Today’s sphere of influencers feels flat, aspirational and commercial: the opposite of confessional. Capitalism has infiltrated internet spaces to the extent that people are now turning their very personhood into a product, as if the perfect life can be bought. I myself am guilty of acting as if my social media is a way to “sell” myself. I am sick of only seeing the glossy covers of people’s lives, just as I am sick of only showing mine. We’ve had to resort to private “finstas” with selective audiences to allow ourselves something beyond an Insta-ready ideal of existence.

There are, of course, lights in the dark. This is one reason I am such a fan of Trisha Paytas – a YouTuber with an infamous reputation for making “kitchen floor videos”. Though she also relies on sponsored content to make a living, Trisha’s kitchen floor has become synonymous with a kind of emotional unburdening that is becoming rare to see. It is where she films her most messy, abject self for all the world to watch, and alongside her more primped posts, the kitchen floor is the site and symbol for a person who has a complex inner life beyond a curated timeline.

I appreciate Instagram for it’s free, easy access that allows sex educators like Zoe Ligon, Erika Hart and Sonalee Rashatwar to democratise and reform sexual health education and information. Twitter still has the potential to galvanise people into political action. And celebrities like Ariana Grande have the opportunity to use their personal social media as a way to speak about their mental health and control the narrative in a way that Britney wasn’t able to when she was having her every move scrutinised by tabloids.

But I wish there was still a place like Rookie for young women: an internet space that isn’t looking to sell you anything, which cultivates a readership who feel safe and validated, that champions community, that allows our multifarious vulnerabilities to exist.

I’ve always been a person who feels their strength lies in sharing. There is a paradoxical joy to be found in sharing the ugly sides of life – the discomfort, the confusion, the heartbreak, the mistakes – and realising how common they actually are. I may not want to give away the details of my old Tumblr, where I keep all my posts tucked away for nostalgic purposes, but all my Rookie diaries are available to read on the archived site. You can still go look.

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