The illusion of online success and what it really feels like to build stuff on the internet

The illusion of online success and what it really feels like to build stuff on the internet
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Last month I had a text exchange with an old friend I’d lost touch with who expressed her concern and disappointment that I’d “made it” and forgotten about her in the process.

It was a gut punch of a reality check, not because I am unaware of the fact that many of my relationships have crumbled under the weight of the metaphorical bricks used to build this business over the last year but because I was suddenly faced with two uncomfortable resolutions:

(1) lie and confirm her suspicions that I am deliriously happy and successful and totally maxed out on friends, or

(2) admit to her and to myself that I’ve failed to balance work and life and have never really felt more alone.

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I must have been visibly moping around because not long after that, Ted (dad, golfer, magician, my business partner) asked me a very direct question on one of our little brainstorming strolls through Third Ward: “Are you happy?”

Again, I was faced with the choice to lie and move on or to admit that I’m frustrated, isolated and sometimes paralyzingly sad. Neither sounded like a fun addition to an afternoon stroll so I mumbled something neutral and changed the subject.

I didn’t have clear answers in either of those conversations so I left both with the same question: Why at a time when I am more connected (virtually, professionally and socially) than ever before do I feel so damn alone? Moreover, if I feel so damn alone, why do I continue to craft the illusion that everything is fine?

The answer, I know, is because so much of my life is tied up online.

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Everything’s fiiiiiiine

The thing about building a business of any kind is that it’s grueling, all-consuming, isolating work to which any entrepreneur can relate. The thing about building a business online is that you lay your grueling, all-consuming, isolating work at the feet of an army of strangers who, for better or worse, have a direct line of access to you.

Ever had a performance review? Even for top performers, the uncertainty of how your work has been received can cause little pangs of stress. Was I accurate enough? Useful enough? Good enough?

I perform for the internet every single day. And every single day I await my review. The difference is that instead of being delivered in private by a direct supervisor I know and respect, my review now comes from thousands of uncensored strangers who let me know right away if I was accurate enough, useful enough, good enough.

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Creating stuff on the internet is weird because if you get credit at all, you the creator are reduced to a black and white byline or a thumbnail headshot. These lifeless things are easy to attack so people say things to those pixels they’d never say to a person with blinking eyes and a beating heart. On the internet you’re an idea not a person so on the internet you are an easy target for feedback of all kinds.

Last week I was out to dinner with some friends and posted a photo of our food to Instagram. It seemed like a harmless enough post to me – an overhead shot of a table of food, a standard sighting on Instagram. But one woman used it as an opportunity to let me know how worthless and arrogant I am. Just like that, it was like I’d pulled up an extra seat at the table for a virtual stranger who hates me.

That’s kind of what it feels like when online feedback enters your real life.

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And online feedback is really complicated.

Positive feedback feels good and can reaffirm your work, but too much positive feedback creates an illusion of success you haven’t really earned.

Criticism feels bad and, especially when it’s warranted, can spotlight insecurities you didn’t even know existed. But too much negative feedback creates an illusion of failure you haven’t really earned.

And a constant stream of all kinds of feedback – from very high highs to very low lows – leaves you fumbling for some clear form of validation.

Am I a talented writer? An unqualified fake reporter? A producer of thoughtful social commentary? A worthless listicle machine? A compelling storyteller? A delusional blogger with an undeserved far-reaching platform? A successful startup co-founder? A career-hopping opportunist? Sometimes it feels like everyone has an opinion but me.

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In my fear of online criticism and my quest for online validation (More likes! More hearts! More views! More followers!) I’ve become so addicted to other people’s opinions of me that I’ve ignored, blurred or perhaps completely forgotten what I think of me. I’ve become a defensive writer churning out safe stories I don’t even stand behind because they’re less likely to elicit a response.

The result has been a systematic distancing from reality, obsession with my online presence, intentional isolation, writer’s block, unfortunate loss of friendships and an overwhelming sense of personal failure in the face of pretty impressive business success.

And although this might feel extreme, I don’t think the experience is unique to me or to my work. I think this can happen whether you work online for a living or just use Facebook to keep up with friends, whether you have 400 followers in Instagram or 400,000.

We’re all trying to do our best work. We’re all crafting an image of ourselves. And we’re all seeking feedback and validation. Maybe it’s time to look somewhere other than the internet for it.

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"It's good. I promise." - Emma   Emma Way