On Being Liked
(transcript of episode #43)
To set the scene, it was autumn, or fall if you want to be dramatic about the whole thing. I went to theatre school so you can guess which one lean towards.
I think my first question was “The fuck do I need another MySpace for?” the next was “Will we be friends if I sign up?”
To further establish the scene, and in the interest of honesty, I have no memory of either answer or who I was speaking to in this hypothetical story if anyone at all. But something to that effect was said.
Thus began my first tentative steps into the now megalithic monument known as Facebook.
Flash forward 15 years, As part of the research process for my podcast, I’ve recently been browsing the first posts I ever made on the site.
They’re juvenile flailing, overcompensation at it’s most blatant. Calling them cringeworthy is being kind.
My records only begin at the start of 2006 even though I joined in 2005. Over the course of the previous Christmas holiday I’d gone through a particularly brutal breakup, at least by the standard of my life experience of the time, and in a fit of editorial madness had deleted everything I had ever posted on the site.
Apparently I only began thinking of posterity in my second year.
All this is written after. After I’d spent three years stoned more often than sober. In bed more often than in class. After I’d waded through the fog of my abandonment issues with my father and the identity crisis that I compensated with, awoken to the reality that the mask I’d constructed for myself and duct-taped to my face was cutting off circulation to my brain, making me even less interesting than I was convinced I probably wasn’t. All this after admitting not only my difficulty in trusting others but my inability to trust myself.
All this to dramatically say I was obsessed with Facebook from its invention.
I’ve tended towards being outspoken since long before the words social and media were sandwiched together like a gruesome pb and j for fledgling authoritarian states, being raised by a cynical divorced mother and a mostly absent father tended to make me overcompensate. To lash out with underbaked opinions that I clung to far past their expiry date.
The new freedom the platform promised was intoxicating to a burgeoning keyboard warrior such as myself. Equal parts narcissist, toxic masochist and straw man fantasist, I was the platform’s perfect test subject.
Initially, the biggest draw was the idea of connection. Of making friends and having them all arranged in a neat little list for all to see. Quickly, whether consciously or not, we all started judging each other by the length of that friend list.
Something I have struggled with since I was a kid was making and keeping friends. Almost every year in grade school I had a different friend group. Without fail I’d make a couple friends, usually whoever I sat beside in class, we’d strike it off, have a couple playdates but within a couple months, a year max, something would break and we’d drift apart. Then September rolled around again and I was struck with a fresh wave of anxiety as I wondered if this would be the year that I finally spent truly alone.
It was especially intense in high school, when I was still freshly reeling from my dad kicking me out of his house, a story for another essay, and was floundering to try to first create, then maintain some semblance of an identity for myself to believe in, let alone be something that would make people like me.
Being liked. That was the name of the game. A game that I was utterly convinced I was always doomed to fail.
Because that was the point I kept coming back to. That no matter what I did, no matter how much or how little I tried, at the end of the day, I was inherently unlikeable.
This pattern of rotating friendships continued long into my adult life. It became a joke with some of my snarkier acquaintances. “How long will it take for James to sabotage this one?” To this day I still hear the sneer of one of my groomsmen as he commented on my spinning door friendships, as he called them.
When he said that I remember feeling rattled. All my life, I was convinced it was other people. That something about them was what broke the relationship. Here it was reversed. That it was all my fault. All my doing.
It’s a horrific thing when you are confronted with your own patterns. And while I maintain these kinds of interactions are a two-way street, it forced me to reappraise my own behaviour.
I realized that I have always had trouble trusting others. Certainly this is a product of my parent’s divorce, the depths of which I’m sure I will spend countless hours diving into with my therapist down the line.
But there it was, Maybe it was just me all along. Maybe in preparation for what I think is the inevitable collapse of connection, I take the initiative and break it off before someone else can make the choice for me.
Maybe that groomsman was just a self-righteous dickhead who I should never have had in my wedding party, let alone given so much space in my mental health.
But I digress.
It’s probably interesting to note that we no longer speak.
Despite my reputation as a cynic, it was never my intention to be unlikeable. I always try to be friendly, outgoing, understanding. But something seems to always get lost in translation.
I remember once in third year a classmate of mine stumbling up to me at a party. “You know James,” She said “I used to think you were such an asshole. But now I think you’re alright.”
That was the common refrain. When I met you, I thought you were an asshole.
I could never truly grasp why. Talk to the people who know me and they’ll give you all kinds of answers. I’m outspoken, opinionated, quick to judge. All things that are supposedly celebrated in cultural circles as the mark of some accomplished being, but when put into practice simply make the actor seem like an obtuse oaf.
Voicing an opinion is the first step in having an opposing opinion which is the next three steps in how to lose friends and alienate people.
Facebook, in some strange way, changed all that. It made it easier to speak my mind. What started as a website to collect friends quickly opened up to a new type of digital forum. Within a couple of years it had morphed from a website where we passed notes back and forth from missed classes and became the go-to platform for sharing conspiracy theory links and rants about the government. The security blanket of being alone while screaming at the world made it safe to speak out with little to no fear of repercussion.
Don’t agree? Don’t read it. Disagree further? Disconnect.
That magic word that I have built a healthy part of my burgeoning legacy upon.
Let’s not be friends.
Facebook has the miraculous ability to connect us to everyone we have ever met while simultaneously making us feel more alone than we ever thought possible. With the swipe of a thumb, we can connect to almost any human on earth with a decent internet connection, barring government censorship or other pesky human rights violations.
But what does that accomplish? We cultivate this digital presence and fill it with likes, shares, and comments. We sit vacantly in quiet rooms, the dull glow of the screen illuminating our ever slackening jaws as we constantly refresh our feeds, desperate for the little adrenaline hit when a new red box pops up. In this economy of followers and retweets and impressions, what does it even mean to be liked any more? What does it even mean to be a friend?
All this to say I’ve been thinking about my mental health in the last fifteen years and I’ve come to a pretty basic, and probably pretty obvious conclusion.
Maybe we should try less hard at being liked by others, and put a little more effort into just liking ourselves.
Maybe we shouldn’t be friends.
But what does that even mean now?
Disconnection is next to impossible. I take someone off my facebook feed and I immediately add them to instagram. I still can message them even after we’ve unfriended. In this cowardly new world, what even is a friend?
I really want to know.
Because I want to be your friend. I want to be everyone’s friend, cheesy as that might sound. I don’t want to alienate you. I don’t want to make you feel bad. I don’t want you to feel alone.
Because I know what that feels like. I know what it feels like to lay awake at night, wondering what you did wrong, wondering why they don’t love you, wondering what it is that is so broken in you that no one could possibly like you, let alone love you. I know what it feels like to be so sure you will die alone.
But short of finding out what gun metal tastes like or some other variation on the act, life continues. Years pass. And holy shit does it pick up speed as you get going.
All those fears and uncertainties of being accepted seemed to simultaneously grow and disappear. I’d spent years compulsively lying about everything I could think of, desperate to make myself more interesting than I thought I ever could be. But eventually, I woke up. The pressure of maintaining the narratives I’d constructed for myself got to be too much. And I saw how much Facebook, and social media as a whole, contributed to that compulsion. So I started stepping back, incrementally at first then more and more. I still got my fix on other platforms, but the carnival ride of Facebook seemed to have lost its sheen.
Of course, fifteen years on from my first posts my life couldn’t be more different. For those of you rolling your eyes at my more colourful passages, yes I’m no longer alone. I’m married now for one thing. To a woman who I can be honest with. Who I can admit my faults to. There is nothing in the world quite like being allowed to be yourself. To not compensate. To just like yourself, quietly and momentarily.
But most importantly is, I’ve calmed down. I’ve worked on forgiving myself. On liking myself. Because that’s what it comes down to. I didn’t like myself, and that lead to others not being able to stay around me.
I think when we’re young and we don’t know who we are or what we want to be, we have a tendency to be anything we think will get us liked. We dress a certain way, we speak in certain cadences, we stand differently all in the hopes of telegraphing the right codes to the right people. I think I wanted so badly to be someone important that I thought I was behaving like someone important would. But it’s only later that I realized that those dick heads screaming about why their opinions are facts are the ones making everyone else look bad.
I no longer want to be important. I want to be secure. I don’t want to be famous. I want to be seen. The way I choose to do that, is by making sure I see others. I choose to not overwhelm myself with being liked, and just try my best to like the things I do as honestly as I can.
And if you don’t like that, well you can just go fuck yourself I guess.