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Guide

How to put yourself online

A guide to thinking through your digital self (or selves) by Darcie Wilder, with illustrations by Kurt Woerpel.
Prelude

Hey, I’m Darcie Wilder and welcome to the guide to putting yourself online. You’re probably already acquainted with the internet and all it has to offer—the endless scrolls, dog pics, incendiary flame wars, and troll olympics. But somewhere out there, there’s a reason we do this—the reason we log on. For many of us, being online is no longer professionally or socially optional. Plus, there’s this deeper human urge to put ourselves out there and connect. We would be remiss to overlook the beautiful and helpful parts of this technology, or to let ourselves fester in obscurity and isolation.

I “came up” on Twitter, which means people primarily know me for my stream of associative-minded short punchlines and memes. When I first started tweeting back in 2014, I was whittling my time away at a desk job, truly at a loss for what to do with my life. I’ve always spent a lot of time alone, and around this time I was into marathon-style solitude, spending eight hours of quiet-office alone time before going back to my apartment to spend another chunk of hours without speaking aloud. I began to wonder what would happen if I took Twitter seriously as a mode of communication, or as a medium to thoughtfully express myself. I had always assumed it was a black hole of time and energy, but what if I was underestimating it—what if there was something to gain from all the mindless scrolling?

So, I slowed down. I began to think of tweeting as writing sentences and jokes that other people might enjoy. I was still always on Twitter, but now I was more conscious, careful, and considerate. I became more tuned into the fact that the words I was reading were actually typed by other humans, and wondered: who were they, and what connection could we have?

As I continued to tweet, my life slowly changed, sometimes because of Twitter and sometimes just because it’s a life. I switched jobs, got more followers, made a string of mistakes and had some successes, and eventually published a novel called literally show me a healthy person (Tyrant Books, 2017). Now I bounce around freelancing as a writer, mostly online but sometimes nabbing some more lucrative gigs—all opportunities which I believe stemmed from my online presence. I’ve gone through phases of how I use and occupy space on social media, and at this point, four years after I first had the inkling to see how I could reach into the void and find something real inside of it, I have some tips to share.

Darcie Wilder

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Guide

How do you want to occupy space online?

Whenever a new social media site crops up, there’s the mad dash. Everyone begged for an Ello invite, everyone snatched up every possible username on Peach. But the truth is you don’t have to maintain an account on every single platform, filled with your attempts at “making it work”—people can usually tell you’re only using a platform for a specific outcome, or out of guilt or obligation. And those are not fun accounts to follow.

Consider your goals of being online

Truly take a moment to think about it: How do you want to occupy space online? What are your goals? For me, I am on Twitter because I enjoy writing short jokes and observations, tweeting dumb, fun tweets, and because I love reading dumb, fun tweets. Twitter is also the platform where I promote my writing, and find articles, books, and art I might not have crossed paths with otherwise. But most of all, I’m on Twitter to meet people and connect with other writers. I’ve forged so many friendships on the website, and it can be really easy to find people you click with or look up to.

Since Twitter’s functionality highlights my primary medium (writing), it’s a good fit for the work I do. On other platforms, my reasons for being there are different. I don’t promote my writing on Instagram because I don’t really see it doing well there. I mostly see it as a way to keep up with my friends’ lives and see cool and funny pictures along the way. I don’t have professional aspirations for Instagram, so it’s mostly just a vessel for all my excess energy and idle boredom.

Recently, feeling directionless, I decided to only post pictures on Instagram that fit a theme, which I would change every month—from knives to ladders to fire. These weird and lo-fi images don’t reflect on my personal or professional life because I just don’t feel a spark or any chemistry when I share my life on the platform. To me, Instagram feels like the party I just had to go to, and once I’m there it’s fun enough, and there are some people I like there, but I realize I probably could have stayed home.

Your goals may or may not change from platform to platform, or they could be entirely different depending on the medium—it’s really up to you to decide. Each platform has different capabilities, so based on your goals of being online, it makes sense that some spaces may feel more or less relevant to you. It’s all about knowing your audience, and figuring out what type of space you want to create for yourself on each site.

Some social analogies for social platforms

Each social platform has different cliques and spaces you’ll need to navigate. To me, Instagram feels like a chaotic school playground, whereas Twitter feels like the still-chaotic, but more structured school building. With the right attitude on Twitter, you could learn something or be somewhat professional. Instagram pretends it’s not a professional space, but secretly it is. It’s tricky like that. Professional opportunities sprout up on it because, simply, more people are active on it than on Twitter. And while there’s less posting of professional content, it feels like the after-hours bar, or the party where everyone is mingling.

Even if your reasons for being online are primarily career-driven, in my opinion, there should always be some crossover between professional and personal. This simply means bringing your personality out and sharing some nonsense or other small talk. It’s not a call to air your dirty laundry or the dark corners of your personal life, but to be yourself in the most palpable and enjoyable way to others. No one likes an account that solely exists to promote one person, book, album, or product. For instance, successful Instagram accounts tend to post variations on a theme, whether it be on wellness or a certain type of humor. On Twitter, someone’s work, hobbies, and interests can be folded into the entire idea of the person who created the account, as a fully fleshed-out human who is living and hanging out online.

It’s nice when people treat their social media accounts as extensions of themselves, rather than as ads for themselves. The internet should not be a space to spam innocent bystanders with Soundcloud links and promotional blurbs. Instead, it should be a space to really exist inside of, and a place where you can forge connections that organically grow into mutual interest in—and support for—each other. The bridge to this is through organic connections and honest communication. Otherwise you’ll just be “using” the people who follow you for ego-soothing hearts and clicks.

Drawing lines between your various online selves

It’s an unfortunate fact that every one of your interests will not appeal to everyone universally. As a way of dealing with this, some people like to keep multiple accounts on the same social platforms, especially on Instagram, because it makes it easier to juggle personalities and goals. For example, it’s really difficult to have an Instagram account with a substantial following that posts about each one of your interests, like personal photos, stuff promoting your work, and things you find funny or interesting. So, maybe you need two Instagram accounts: one where your goals are more defined, and one where you can be free to play and post whatever you want. It’s all about knowing yourself and what you want to get out of it all.

As you consider how to articulate yourself (or selves) online, the most important thing to remember is to maintain your sense of self. While it can be hard to remember to move slowly online, pausing to think about what you want to say before posting can be a big help. Moving more thoughtfully and deliberately online will also help you avoid the situation where there’s a post floating around with something you wrote out of a reaction to fear, or out of some perceived urgency. Remember: you can always take a moment and have a break.

It’s unsustainable to always be logged on, and ridiculous to assume everyone has the time to reply, chime in, or log on consistently. Giving yourself the space to choose how you want to be online should be one of the most important pieces of your personal strategy. Another thing to honestly consider is what you do and do not want to share. The internet is not often a forgiving or loving place, and it’s imperative we preserve and protect ourselves. For example, it’s completely normal to avoid posting pictures of your face, or not mentioning day jobs, intimate relationships, et cetera. No one has a right to know the nitty-gritty details of your life, and you don’t have to publicize your entire emotional and personal journey in the public square. Unfortunately, this simple truth is easy to forget.

Social etiquette online

Thoughts on lurking and following new people

There are so, so many people online. I’ve fallen into the habit of not getting people’s information or phone numbers when I meet them in real life, and just searching for their accounts later. This might not be the most forthcoming behavior, but everyone kind of does it to some extent. Sometimes it’s creepy and inappropriate, and sometimes it’s not. There’s a line of plausible deniability where every one of us does some sort of lurking/information-seeking about people around us, and that’s become normal.

On the other hand, we have to be careful about how our behavior makes others feel. For instance, even if you don’t reach out to them, following your cute barista’s personal Instagram account could be crossing a line in and of itself, making you feel creepy and, if they ever found out, making them feel uncomfortable or preyed upon. Boundaries are important, so the best rule is if you have an inkling something you’re doing might make someone else feel uncomfortable, feel into that. Consider the social implications of your online behaviors and ask yourself, would this be okay in real life? For example, following a coworker’s personal account could be a welcome gesture depending on your relationship, or it could be seen as you crowding in on one of the few personal spaces they have. It’s hard—nearly impossible—to tell, but something to give some thought to and take with a grain of salt.

Also, this should go without saying, but when you follow a new person, don’t like every picture they’ve posted from the past five years. Or, as someone did to me, don’t scroll back six years to their first post and leave the comment, “What an interesting life.”

Thoughts on the nuances of communicating online

There was once a time where you could be flippant online with ease, but that time is over and done. Social media is the new public square, and straining to be cool or funny is not as important as respecting everyone’s livelihood and wellbeing. Sometimes things typed quickly on social media don’t come off as intended, and may sound cold, curt, or weird. More often than not, the person who posted something weird will realize it and delete what they posted soon enough. So remember to pause before assuming the worst about someone, and before jumping into a heated conversation on impulse.

Communicating without the nuanced, necessary messaging of body language and facial expressions is not always easy, and digital miscommunications abound. I’ve moved passed the idea that any online beefs could be fun or productive for me, so I would never criticize something online without a specific goal. I engage politically, but I’m not in the game of targeting people I disagree with and screenshotting, memeing, or taunting them in any way. Some people do, and I can’t speak for them. But for me, it’s not my move.

In any online space, the biggest rule is respect. We’re not living in an especially neutral time, so it’s more important than ever to respect and fight for the needs and rights of the vulnerable, who are being systematically attacked. And while it’s imperative to fight against injustice, it’s also imperative to realize who your allies are. It’s not productive or enjoyable to spend the day arguing with someone who you generally agree with, who is fighting for the same things you are. Sometimes this gets lost because of the nature of communication online. But, having an argument online can be just as physically and emotionally damaging as having an IRL argument. Taking yourself out of a potentially harmful situation simply requires calming down, reorienting yourself, and checking in with your motivations. The internet is an important place to get our news and communicate ideas, but engaging in ego-based drama serves no one.

Thoughts on finding and reaching out to people online

DO: Scroll and poke around using explore features and your friend’s likes tab and following lists. Follow people and accounts you feel like you connect with. Most of this will feel like just staring into the void, but not all of it. Establishing actual communication online is slow and weird, but rewarding. It’s different depending on every situation, but I’m of the belief that if you’re mutuals (i.e. if you’re both following each other), it’s ok to slide into someone’s DMs (direct messages) to say hi. Some people even tweet me asking to slide to DM, which is fine but sometimes unnecessary. Best practice for forging online friendships is to “read the room,” as they say.

When you’re super active on Twitter (or any other platform), open DMs can be a really overwhelming experience. For me, it often feels like a constant barrage—whether it’s well-meaning, kind messages or harassment, spam, or stalker-ish type stuff. So even if your messages to someone you’re hoping to connect with are friendly, don’t send 31 of them without ever getting any back. Even if you assume they don’t check their DMs and you’re shouting into the void, it’s not ok.

DON’T: be one of those people who says something weird, and then instead of owning it and apologizing, makes it weirder by forcing the other person to confirm or deny that it was weird. If you start to feel defensive of your own behavior online, this could be a sign that you don’t love how you’re behaving, and that you should reel yourself in.

DO: use DMs to reach out and approach people you appreciate and admire, but DON’T lead with something self-satisfying. Ask yourself: are you reaching out to make a genuine connection, or are you looking for something selfish? Whether it’s personal advice from them or a retweet for your book, I would advise you not to use DMs as a way to solicit someone to do something for you. If there is an organic tie-in that allows you to make a more casual ask, all the power to you, but leading with an ask—or shoe-horning it in in a way that compromises the integrity of your connection—will make you come on too strong. Odds are that if someone gets to know you and actually appreciates your work, they will help you to promote it organically.

If you’re not mutuals with someone you admire and their DMs are closed, that’s a sign that this person is not currently interested in communicating directly with you, either because they secretly hate you, or because they don’t want to deal with a barrage of DMs from any type of stranger. So respect that, and move on with your life.

There are special circumstances in which it may make sense for you to get in direct touch with someone whose DMs are closed, like if you have an opportunity for them. My preferred method of reaching out would be to have a mutual friend connect us, if possible. If you don’t have a mutual friend, you can always tweet at them requesting a more private channel through which to communicate, or look for their email address on their personal website. But most of all, don’t take it personally when someone you don’t know doesn’t respond to you. It’s a crapshoot, everyone is always swamped, and messages get lost. It doesn’t mean any of the million negative thoughts that can pop up in your mind.

Thoughts on not being annoying online

Have you ever lived under a loud walker? A neighbor who walks with their entire weight on each foot, unaware of how it’s rattling the ceiling above you? Think of social media posting like that—whatever is annoying about you will be amplified a million times, and everything that irks you about someone else will be imprinted onto your brain. It’s the nature of social media that we’re boiled down into our simplest selves, and then we’re stuck on the timeline with each other, rattling off our thoughts into the void. This repetition brings a natural tension. This is the beauty of the best social media feature: the mute. Unfollows hurt, because they’re a form of rejection. But muting someone is like ghosting. You get to stop seeing this person’s posts, without them even knowing you’re gone.

The “following” feature serves a practical purpose: it’s the basis of creating a timeline and seeing posts, and it is also a symbolic act. Following and unfollowing allows you to align yourself with, or in support of, other accounts. Understanding the symbolic act of unfollowing creates even more misunderstandings and resentment. Our social system is currently set up in a rough way where we want to preserve ourselves and not get all worked up by other people, but we also don’t want to bestow the harsh rejection of an unfollow. This feeling is normal—people are working out their stuff on both sides, and whether you don’t want to see posts about your ex or you can’t stop posting about some niche obsession, there’s no way to fully avoid being annoying or being annoyed by others online. Remember: the muter is no more or less wacky or sane than the muted.

If you can manage, avoid being muted by other people. Here’s how: abandon jokes before you get sick of them, because everyone around you will get bored before you. Avoid over-posting, which means read the room/timeline and make changes depending on the energy, and don’t always be going on a posting spree. Remember that people are going to be reading your words as a direct reflection on you. Don’t make my mistakes—clogging up the timeline or acting out online—I made them so you don’t have to.

Lastly, everyone’s tastes are different, but personally, I dislike it when people remind me they have sex, or constantly hit the same schtick, which is basically repeating the same statement or type of image over and over. Basically, just as you can burn out on social media, your social media can burn other people out, too. So keep tabs on how your posts are adding up over time, and avoid letting your posts turn you into a one-dimensional, one-schtick person.

Being healthy and protecting your own vulnerability

Mitigating annoyance and amplifying sustainability online goes both ways. As much as we don’t want others to burn out on us, it’s even more important to maintain boundaries between yourself and the internet. Scrolling is addictive—all of these sites wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for their innate ability to prey on our insecurities and exploit our desire to stare into the void.

Make new friends but keep the old

No matter how it feels, the internet is not more important than your brick-and-mortar life, i.e. than your actual friendships and relationships. There is a myth that people online are your “real friends” because you came together despite distance, or out of unbelievable coincidence, beating the odds to find companionship. There is another myth that the people online don’t “really know you,” and again, aren’t your “real friends.” Online friendship are definitely real relationships, but the myth that they are more or less meaningful than in-person relationships is incorrect, or at least hyperbole. Online friends are just different than your IRL friends. So, do not drop your friends or completely abandon your “old life” when you get a few hundred or thousand followers online.

Don’t let it suck you in too much

It’s easy to establish boundaries for how and when you let yourself be online, but it’s harder to actually enact and follow them. The only way to successfully keep a grip on your social media usage is to be honest, to truly try to follow the guidelines you set for yourself, and to alternate between gentleness and strict discipline.

A general approach to avoiding overuse of social media involves everything you’ve heard before: keep your phone out of the bedroom, keep your charger at a distance from you, download time-restricting apps, put your phone in your bag in meetings and at dinners, and stare off into space sometimes.

It sounds so basic that it doesn’t seem that important, but truly, one of the most imperative things is to avoid burning yourself out. You simply must take care of and protect yourself from the exhausting and soulsucking drag of modern, digitized life. It isn’t about cutting yourself off from people or becoming either a cyborg or a luddite, but rather about finding a healthy balance between yourself and the technologies that surround us. Finding balance strengthens our sense of self, our ability to think and work, and our relationships with others. Faced with nothing but the internet and a scrolling stream of each other’s fleeting thoughts and bad jokes, any one of us could go insane.

In summary…

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater—social media is a place to make friends and share work. It’s not the be-all, end-all for your social status, and it’s not indicative of your overall success or the quality of your work. But, it’s a great resource to find like-minded people, and to spend time with others while we’re all feeling disconnected and overworked. As always, be polite, respectful, and light-hearted with your communication, never punch down, and always give others the benefit of the doubt. Basically, don’t be rude. Take care of yourself and know your goals, your limits, and your boundaries to creating the type of space you want to exist in. Find your voice by tuning into what you’re thinking and feeling, and by finding a space where you can try things out. Lean into that developing voice and, more importantly, into the world around you.

About the Author

Darcie Wilder

Writer

Darcie Wilder is a writer about town, a friend of many pods, and the author of literally show me a healthy person (2017).