If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Yes, it does. Sound is a natural and measurable phenomenon that occurs whether we’re around to hear it or not.
If I fall in a forest, though, and no one is around to see it, record it, share it, like it, retweet it, duet it… did it really happen?
Let me rewind.
I’m afraid of a lot of things. I’m afraid of those evolutionary, caveperson things like lions, tigers, bears, capitalism. I’m afraid of disease and disaster, “acts of God” like earthquakes and twisters and hurricanes. I’m afraid of man-made things like climate change and gun violence and capitalism. I am a generally anxious person, so I’m afraid of most things, but none of that is what keeps me awake at night, lying there, in bed, in the night, in the dark (oh: and I’m afraid of the dark, too).
What keeps me awake and gives me enough time for those other fears to creep into my brain, what haunts me in bed, before bed, during dinner, during the entire day, is the fear of being forgotten.
I don’t mean “being forgotten” in the “not leaving a legacy behind after I’m gone” sense, no–I’ll be dead, so who cares? (That’ll probably be the first time I’m not scared of anything, too!)
I prefer to think of myself, of legacies, the way Tom Stoppard described words: “you can nudge the world a little, or write a poem people will speak for you when you’re dead.” Legacies, impact–they needn’t be huge. On a long enough timeline, even the biggest legacies mean nothing–just ask Ozymandias.
(Tom Stoppard and Ozymandias in the same paragraph. If we feel I’ve sufficiently established my liberal arts bona fides, we can move on. Cool? Cool.)
No, my fear of being forgotten is a daily struggle.
I grew up at the start of the Internet age. People younger than me take their connectedness, their devices, for granted. I don’t mean that in a “kids these days” kind of way–that’s not a value judgment, but a fact. When you grow up with a device, you don’t think about a world without it. I’m old enough to remember the first time we got a computer, and the promise of the digital age. Yes, Y2K was scary (another fear cultivated at a formative age! One that actually made me cry!) but computers and the Internet were ushering in an age of wonder.
They also ushered in a lot of time spent looking at female professional wrestlers on Geocities websites in middle school computer class, but that’s neither here nor there.
The Internet was the future and I was going to get to be a part of it. How exciting!
At the same time, I grew up in (and I may be biased here) the golden age of kids shows. Not only did I have Batman and X-Men, I had Pokémon and Digimon, Dragon Ball Z and Yu Yu Hakusho. I had Rugrats and Hey Arnold!, Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls. I had the Power Rangers. Beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989, Disney went on an absurd run of hit after hit after hit for a decade, and we had those big white clamshell VHS tapes of all of them (although to this day I’ve only seen The Lion King like, twice because I can’t watch that scene). There are so many great cartoons and movies I’m not listing but the point was there were a lot of great shows and movies filled with flashing lights and loud noises and my brain drank it all in.
I was fortunate (read: spoiled) enough to have every major video game console in the late 90s and early 2000s. More lights and more noise right at my greasy little fingertips!
In addition to all the goddamned sugar I ingested growing up (we used to have cake and ice cream at birthday parties and wash it down with Pepsi. It’s a miracle I don’t have diabetes. That I know of.) my brain was wired for stimulation. The world was SCREAMING at me 24/7, and my still-developing brain was drinking it all in.
Now take that hyperactive brain, raise it in the “express yourself” generation where we were encouraged to speak about how we felt at every possible opportunity, mix in the fact that it turned out I had quite the affinity for expressing myself, and you’ve got yourself a modern-day Tinkerbell–someone whose very existence depends on the amount of applause they receive, life energy waxing and waning with attention level–and boy did my cartoon-video game-sugar-centered brain need lots and lots of applause.
Have you had enough yet? Good, because I have another thing to add to that mélange of madness: an exhausting stubbornness that can broadly (arrogantly) be summed up as “quality over quantity.” I will never be a content creator. I can’t just… do anything… to create content. A lot of that has to do with my aforementioned anxiety and a lack of extroverted energy, but a lot of that also has to do with just… interest. I lose interest in things very easily. The fact that I’ve written so many words here and now is a miracle in and of itself (then again, they are about me, so…)
So when you’re the kind of person who needs bucket loads of attention but can’t just do anything to get it, what are you left with?
A constant nagging, tugging, buzzing, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning need in the back of your mind. Someone once said that the hardest thing a person can do is sit alone with themselves in a quiet room. I work from home. My job, though significant, involves long stretches of waiting, and even more stretches of thinking, punctuated by short, furious stretches of typing (please don’t fire me). I spend a lot of time sitting quietly. So imagine sitting there with an addiction you can only feed under the “right” conditions–conditions that are constantly changing, evolving, even being chased themselves. You’re chasing the high, and chasing even how to get high.
One of those methods, of course, is social media: you mean to tell me I can perform, with words, with pictures, with videos, at any time, and I can actually get points for it? Bo Burnham recently said that when choosing between sleep or staying awake and looking at your phone, sleep had no chance. How could sleep (which he referred to, appropriately, as “oblivion”) compete with having the entire world right there in the palm of your hand, glowing warmly at you from behind your screen? Sleep is absolutely no match for someone who spends all day with that nagging tugging buzzing. I can’t just ignore it or drown it out and try to go to sleep: I have to feed it and feed it enough so that’ll be content and go to sleep–and thus let me sleep, like some kind of demonic pet. That’s why my phone is with me at pretty much all times. God forbid I miss the exact moment when I’m awarded a new fresh and juicy point from Social Media™, and the beast in my brain can feed.
I live far from… everything. If there are social events, I’m usually commuting for an hour to an hour and a half (if and when I actually decide to attend said). My commute, at its worst, could see me riding the 6 train from end to end. That is a lot of time underground. That’s a lot of time, on my own, in my brain. A lot of time to think about all the likes, retweets, likes, shares, likes, reposts, likes, and likes I could be missing out on. I know the MTA has made the subway Internet accessible. I don’t know how they did it, but it’s a lot easier to get WiFi and a phone signal while on the subway than it was a couple of years ago. But because it’s not constant, quality access, because the signal can drop, or not connect at all, especially in between stations, in the deep, dark, underground tunnels of the City (to say nothing of the general dubiousness of connecting to a public internet connection), it amounts to a terrible tease. To a person with an addiction, that can be too much to bear.
“Read a book!” you say. “Listen to music!” Putting aside the fact that I think wearing headphones in public is dangerous (in New York City, no less), remember that brain I described? The one that was built upon a foundation of sugar? Yeah, take that into one of the most visually and aurally stimulating places in the world, and you’ve got a person with an attention span that–a notification! Fun! See? Isn’t that so much better? Your phone periodically goes ding! or bzzz and then the brain chemicals go whoosh. That’s a much better way to travel, isn’t it? Rather than coping with your phone essentially being off? Oh, the sweet, sweet bliss of the train finally going above ground and getting a reliable signal again! There are times I actually pay to take the more expensive coach bus from the City all the way home, just so I can be above ground the entire way home, not just part of it. Sometimes I even pay for rideshares if I can’t make the bus, all to be spared the dreaded “No Service” status on my phone.
Keep in mind that, in all this negotiating with the tunnels and the sky to let me have my Internet, in most instances, I haven’t really posted anything that might prompt a response.
Are you confused? Frustrated? Because same!
It’s not like I posted a selfie I worked hard on or some scorching hot take I was waiting for the fallout from. I usually just… wait, like that young boy in The Incredibles who saw Bob lift that car over his head that one time, then went by the house every day after, waiting for “something AMAZING, I guess…!” I usually just… hope for some kind of inspiration so that I can then post something that might get a reaction. And even then? If I do it? I lurch forward in stop-and-go traffic on the FDR or sway side to side as the bus zig-zags through Harlem, clutching my phone in my hand. I may look quiet, tired even, but, inside, I’m screaming at my phone, “DO SOMETHING, PLEASE. TALK TO ME. NOTICE ME. WITNESS ME, BROTHERS.”
Sadly, I am not awaited in Valhalla because I will seemingly never accrue enough points. Likes, retweets, reactions on Discord or Slack–these aren’t just validation of what I said, what I felt–they’re validations of my person, of my existence. The stranger has no idea that when they hit “like”, they’re saying, “I see you.” Hitting like is, like, the easiest thing you can do. It costs nothing, but for someone like me, it’s a jolt to a body Frankensteined out of stimuli, sugar, and attention. Enough jolts of validation electricity, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll become a real boy (I’m conflating metaphors there but, whatever)!
Most of the time, though, I’ll settle for enough validation to just help me get to sleep. I never really know what “enough” is, especially since, like I said, the rules, the standards, the circumstances are still unclear. My relationship to validation is still so unclear that I don’t know how to navigate my way towards a reasonable end point. I grew up with attention. For eight years I was the baby of the family. I was the Valedictorian of my 4th grade graduating class. Salutatorian of my 8th grade class (including President of the National Junior Honor Society). High school was odd because I went from being a big fish in a small pond to an average fish in a not-so-small pond. But even then, I attended a prestigious private school and people were impressed whenever I told them where I went. In college, I quickly found success as an actor, and was surprised by how many people told me how good I was.
Forgive me for “bragging,” but it’s important to list all of this to know that my life was built on rewards. I did a thing, I was rewarded for it. Constantly. A young, developing brain grows addicted to that, especially when you think those rewards are truly tied to your value. Go to school! Get good grades! Go to college! Get a good job! Those are the things you’re taught to want, the things that tell you you’re Doing Well™: on the path of Life you’re supposed to walk, that’s how you tell you’re winning!
(Never mind that this is all just a capitalist ploy to generate a never-ending work force and that there is no “winning,” but that’s the subject of another piece.)
Once I graduated from college, however, the rewards started to dry up quickly. The things I was good at were no longer relevant or special. The places I was “somebody” were long gone. Seemingly overnight, a life of being “special” and congratulated for it came to a screeching halt.
My mind was ripe for the dopamine rush of social media to fill the void. Like I mentioned earlier: social media allows me to perform, and I get points in return. Every day of my post-college life became an exercise in trying to extract as much validation out of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as I could. I remember one particularly bizarre stretch during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when people were repeatedly “checking in” on social media that they were “safe” despite the Hurricane not even really hitting yet. I was very angry at that time–a symptom, no doubt, of suddenly no longer being special–and out of frustration and snark (which I was fluent in), I crafted an elaborate parody in which I “checked in” repeatedly and pretended to have my sanity degrade over time like Jack Torrance in The Shining.
Again, it was all a performance, but it spoke to a different kind of “degradation”: I worked so hard to get attention. I felt like one of those monkeys forced to perform on the street for change, but I was also the organ grinder. I got the attention I wanted, but at what cost? I went through all of that, and for what? What did I achieve? And if I achieved anything, how long-lasting, how satisfying is that achievement? If that “high” wears off before bed time, I’m almost afraid to go to sleep; like Bo Burnham said, I would much rather lie there, scrolling on my phone, trying to rub together scraps of validation on my gums, all in the hopes that my brain can quiet enough to make the oblivion of sleep seem okay, “I’m not missing out on anything, right?” I’d ask. “Have I finished this day without ‘doing enough?’”
What would Hamlet have done in the 21st century, I wonder: he who “could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams?” Would his dreams get worse? Would the constant noise push him that much further from his imagined peace? Would he be just like the rest of us, susceptible to the bombardment of distractions and demands, spending his days fending them off for just a moment of quiet? (I know I promised no more Liberal Arts flexing but that was a good one! Let me have it!)
And say I do get enough validation: I score enough points, I get to sleep, and get a full night’s rest. Guess what? I wake up in the morning and the nightmare starts all over again. Am I chasing something I can truly achieve? Am I feeding something that can truly have enough, or is it one of those things (crap, I have to quote Hamlet again–I’m SORRY) “as if increase of appetite had grown / by what it fed on”? Where the more I get, the more I want? Am I just running another rat race, where instead of chasing money, a house, a car, a white picket fence and 2.5 kids, I’m chasing digital validation––enough likes and retweets and comments to make me feel like I Did Something? Where does that end? Does it ever end?
It’s exhausting to even think about, isn’t it? (I can’t imagine what it must be like to read someone else writing about it.)
Look, there have been times when I’ve found peace. Times when, either by choice or circumstance I was forced to be away from social media for longer than the average commute. It’s strange, at first, but you learn to not miss it. Those stretches, for whatever reason, however, come to an end, and I find myself returning from a trip and re-downloading all the apps, eager to do the dance all over again. It’s like that moment in The Matrix Revolutions where Neo and Trinity pilot their ship into, through, and above the storm clouds of the surface world, emerging from the oppressive, never-ending darkness to glimpse the sun for the first time. It’s a beautiful, brief moment, its briefness made all the more devastating when you see the shadows being to retake their faces. They have to dive back into the darkness to save the world, but what if they didn’t? What if they just kept flying?
Is the only way to “win” to not play at all? Could that be possible? Is that allowed? After all the effort and stress, the Tweet crafting and photo editing, the intentioned tagging and breathless sharing, could you really just… not? Trying to wrap my brain around it is like trying to grip water in my fist.
I’m reminded of Taylor Swift’s “the lakes”: in it, she describes escaping to a quieter world and, to bring my rant full circle, imagines her own version of a tree falling in a forest:
“A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground / With no one around to Tweet it.”
Is that the goal? Is that where peace lies? Tearing myself, body and mind from the validation machine, and just not participating at all? It’s hard to fathom from where I sit, leaving it all behind. Even as I write this piece, as I imagine a world free of needing validation… I’m also imagining the validation I might get once this piece is published and people read it.
But what kind of world that would be, huh? A thing happens–in Taylor Swift’s example, a beautiful thing, a rose growing out of ice–she alone bore witness to it… and she was okay with that. No need to share it. No need to “get credit” for seeing it. Just seeing it was enough.
There’s that word again: “enough”. Maybe in this world by the lakes, where nature takes its course heedless of our eyes on it, there is no such thing as “enough”: not because you’ll never get it, but because that’s not even a thing to be measured. “Enough” is the moment, “enough” is then and there: there’s no transaction, no need to “do” anything with what you’ve experienced. All you have to do is just… experience. It’s hard to wrap my head around, just being, just… living.
If Tinkerbell spends every day of her life on stage, dancing, singing, performing, fighting for attention, for applause, for validation, what would happen to her if she just… walked off?