I need to tell you something.
Two weeks ago, while walking through my local East London park on the way to see my therapist, I opened up Instagram Stories and I started to talk.
I told an unknown number of potential viewers a truth: a collection of facts which I’ve been keeping quiet for months now.
- My dad is really sick.
- He’s not getting better.
- My mum died eight years ago, and now the same thing is happening again.
- I’m scared, obviously – but more importantly? I’m done with not being honest.
Over the next twenty-four hours, dozens of messages popped into my Instagram inbox. Some were real life friends, some were acquaintances and many were strangers. All of them said the same thing, and all of them were so kind and concerned that it made me want to cry.
We’re so sorry. If you need anything, please just ask. We’re here for you.
The world of the online community
This online world we inhabit is a strange one.
For the last decade I’ve lived out a large part of my life on the internet – and I don’t just mean professionally. Nowadays, many people would define their own personal communities as being both the locally-based friends they see each day or each week, and those who live far away enough to require staying in mainly virtual or digital contact.
As a traveller, many of my closest friends either live halfway around the world or are off traversing different countries to the one I’m currently in. It means many of my friendships are maintained thanks to a combination of Facebook chat, Instagram Stories, pre-organised Skype dates, delayed WhatsApp messages and lengthly emails.
Those of us who cultivate a version of ourselves online see just as much value in our digital communities as our real-life ones.
But when you’re a blogger, or someone using their online self from a business perspective, suddenly the concept of community can shift.
What is our real goal for building a community?
Behind the scenes of social media, one of the most important things we look at is our numbers. It’s a community made of statistics: unique visitors and newsletter subscribers, Facebook followers and Instagram commenters, all compiled into Google Analytics bar charts which dictate whether or not a company will want to work with us.
For bloggers, ‘community’ has become something we chase after because we know it’s important – but I’m not sure what our ultimate end goal is anymore.
Surely it’s more valuable to simply have a community itself, rather than obsessively counting the members within it?
I’ve always been scared of being alone
Growing up in London, I never really knew my neighbours or hung out with the kids on my street. Our family was always small and I’m an only child, so I knew it was basically up to me to expand my social circles.
When I first started blogging, I was really excited by the prospect of fostering some sort of online community with strangers-turned-readers. I remember noticing the same names in the comments sections of different articles of mine, and I realised that some people were regularly invested in what I had to say.
But I didn’t know (or perhaps, didn’t quite believe) that their interest stretched to actually caring about me.
The other result of becoming a blogger was the discovery of hundreds of other bloggers who I was able to network with: people who shared my passions for travel and writing, and who understood how to navigate this online world more than I currently did.
As my blogging readership grew, my virtual community on this site and social media became more apparent. I’m in no way a big blogger, but I do occasionally get recognised – and it’s always really bizarre.
Once it was a curious expression on a girl’s face in a London yoga class before she whispered my name across the room; another time I heard a joyful shout from a backpacker when hitchhiking along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
People who read you think they know you.
And thanks to the internet, I guess to a certain degree they do.
Of course, do they know the ‘real’ you or the version you’ve decided to present? Since publishing a recent article about that very topic, I’ve had a lot of fascinating perspectives from different readers which have made me think deeply.
Who we are online is one thing. Perhaps a more pertinent question is why we’re actually online in the first place.
At our most basic level, we all crave interaction with others. It might be because we’re seeking validation, sharing an opinion, bolstering our insecurities or venting our grievances: but it’s still predominantly about being connected to people.
So sometimes, when real life pushes itself sharply into focus, our immediate reaction is to be brutally honest with our communities.
A problem shared is a problem halved
Everyone has their own methods of coping with life-changing situations. But although many people have told me I’m being brave for talking publicly about all this, I honestly don’t see it like that. It’s an intrinsic need to speak up.
During the two weeks when my mum was dying in late 2008, my house remained virtually empty. This isn’t necessarily either a bad or a good thing: I just didn’t know I was allowed to ask people to be there for me. I was twenty years old. My dad’s way of coping was to keep things private. I went along with his decision.
When my mum died I felt like an outsider in too many situations: I knew my tears would drag a conversation down and make people feel awkward, but I also knew I couldn’t avoid talking about what had happened. It was too all-consuming. And it wasn’t fair to me, or to her memory.
So when I first heard my dad was going into hospital back in March this year? The first thing I did was message my closest friends. My core group. They needed to know, so they could help me carry this weight.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been talking to a therapist since last year, but at this point in my life I’m very conscious of my mental health and my own specific needs.
I’m moving out of my East London flat and back in with my dad. I’ve suddenly taken on a huge and unexpected amount of responsibility. I’m facing a heart-breaking, life-changing event. Now I’m asking for the help I know we both need.
Even so, it’s not something that comes too naturally.
I’ve had to pull myself firmly into adulthood, making phone calls to solicitors and hospitals and palliative care teams. I’ve set up a network of neighbours and my dad’s friends who can help me manage things.
And by doing this – by making myself vulnerable, asking for help, and realising that help is actually appearing – it feels like people actually care. Like my dad and I matter enough that people are willing to go out of their way to make sure we’re as OK as we can be.
And I feel like I’m not quite so alone because of it.
The importance of asking your community for help
I’m growing increasingly aware of the pitfalls of an online world. Attached to our phones and our screens like we are nowadays, I feel strongly that our virtual connections often eclipse our real-life ones, meaning there’s every chance that we forego strengthening the latter in favour of the former.
But because I’m acutely aware of how my dad’s situation is affecting me, every time something happens, I tell someone. It might be a vague tweet or a suggestive Instagram post — it might be a copy-and-pasted text message I quickly send to my core friends, my own little personal army — or it might be an urgent impromptu phone call to hear a real voice of someone I love calming me down.
Hold onto those moments which make you feel something. Even if you’re sitting in a London kitchen with barely any time to think, keep hold of that mental image which illustrates your ability to FEEL. Perhaps you’re holding onto the red walls of a Spanish island, dressed in a gold silk skirt from a Rajasthan market, giving a slightly awkward smile because you don’t know how to pose. . . It doesn’t actually matter, you know. You’re probably not a model being told to stand there. Most of us aren’t selling aspiration for a living. In fact, usually we’re just walking, travelling, breathing, feeling, and looking for a record of that moment in a photograph or a memory. That’s it. . . So feel bright. Feel happy. Feel awkward. Hell, feel distraught and cry and shout out about it from time to time. Just make sure you keep on feeling every speck of it. Feel alive. Live it.
Until very recently, I’ve felt alone and overwhelmed by all of this.
It seemed like I was expected to know how to handle it – and moreover, that I should automatically be strong enough and able enough to handle it, which of course made me feel worse.
But even a few minutes of confession on Instagram has been enough to reassure me that there are people who care. It’s amazing how supportive an online network of virtual strangers can be – but I guess we’re all people behind these screens, and we all understand what it’s like to go through pain and fear.
So what I really need to say is thank you.
If you’re reading this, you’re part of a community I didn’t really realise I had – and I feel so incredibly privileged to see the full importance of that.
This community, this support network, is waiting in the wings for you. For all of us. It’s just a matter of asking for help.
NB: This article is part of a new series called ‘Behind The Blog’ — where I delve into all the bizarre elements of living out your life online. Keep an eye out for further articles on this topic!