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Making Change: The Internet 

The self in the shadow

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Let's talk about the faces we show to and hide from the world, and how the internet magnifies them all. Welcome to part five of Making Change, a six-week series on the hows and whys of personal, social and political change.

For as long as I can remember, I've experienced the phenomenon I refer to as being "wrong-Jenned." With 11 other Jennifers in elementary school, no wonder our teachers couldn't keep us straight. Here in my adult life in Humboldt, people confuse me with the other Jen who works on coastal environmental issues or sometimes the Jen who used to work on natural resource projects. At a former job, I sometimes received emails meant for the other Jen who worked there and who ran a sex club as a side gig.

My favorite wrong-Jenning happened when a commenter asserted the NCJ's Jenn Fumiko Cahill was "not Asian" (she is) because, on Facebook, they thought she was me (I'm not). Add to that the fact that another Savage with the first initial J. also freelances for the Journal, typically about environmental issues, and I often find myself in situations where someone is complimenting me for a story I didn't write.

While the mix-ups mostly make me laugh, I know people who've experienced less-funny sides of name mix-ups, who've received threatening calls from collection agencies or had "their" names show up on booking lists. We could chalk these anecdotes up as comical at best, inconvenient at worst, or we could think about how having to explain who we are not can become an unexpected reference point in our quest for self-knowledge.

Book rec: Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein

In her 2023 book Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World, Naomi Klein elucidates on exactly that and then some. For several years, Klein (author of the 1999 cultural analysis/manifesto/exposé No Logo) has been confused for feminist-turned-conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf (author of the 1990 polemical bestseller The Beauty Myth on the relationship between beauty and female identity). In her latest book, Klein illustrates how this specific confusion affects her life, then draws us into an examination of how the internet has magnified the disconnect between our public and private selves, and created a world in which the language of one political side is easily manipulated by another to sell conspiracies and create a false alignment. (One could say she leads us down a rabbit hole of what identity means.)

That our public and private personas sometimes differ has been true as long as humans have been telling stories. What has changed, however, is the extent to which social media has required us to make the life we share publicly into, essentially, a brand. My brand is coming-and-going from Humboldt County and urging people to stop using plastics. Yours might be babies and cakes that look like redwood trees. Our mutual friend's might be marathons and local music gigs. These are all fine topics but, even as places to promote ourselves multiply, the presentations prove reductive. The more we elevate only certain aspects of ourselves publicly — the more we commit to our online brand — the parts we don't share, which are often the vulnerable parts that resonate with others and create empathy, the less human we become. (Vulnerability is a risk and there will always be assholes, but you can't live your life playing their game.) And in a world where social interactions are guided by algorithms that favor controversy and we make objects of ourselves, no wonder cruelty, disdain and distrust run rampant. No wonder our own sense of self warps.

I know — and have experienced myself — that social media can be a positive place, a way to bond with others, especially if you live somewhere like-minded people are rare. But too often those online platforms that first served to connect us inevitably sour due to the conflict between what benefits users and what makes money for shareholders. Writer Cory Doctorow coined a great term for the process, "Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die. I call this enshittification."

This "enshittification" leads to otherwise rational people embracing conspiracy theories and other ideas anathema to a society based in truth, justice and equality. Klein explores how Wolf (Klein's doppelganger), in transitioning from a Democratic feminist to a regular on Steve Bannon's War Room show, became, in some ways, a doppelganger of her former self. If you feel like you're in a funhouse hall of mirrors, yes. But we also live in a real world where a shadowy entity has purchased a public tract of Eureka land and entire swaths of online posters seem to exist solely to contradict whatever popular opinion is about any local issue, personality or business. It is possible that some local news blogs write with a conspiratorial slant. Sometimes if the choice is between hearing an elected official say something cringe or listening to one mouth beliefs formed solely by what he knows is politically advantageous, well, depending one what's been said, sometimes I'll just take the honesty.

Look, people say, the internet is a just a tool! True, like alcohol is just a drink. Whether they build or destroy depends on how you use them. But both are designed to be addictive and too much use of either results in physical and/or mental health problems for many, many people. You wouldn't pick up a shovel and knock yourself in the head with it, right? Be as thoughtful about how you use the internet. Is it making you feel more whole and fulfilled? Like, are the people you're ranting with on NextDoor turning into actual friends who you could convene a neighborhood potluck with or are they "friends" based solely on a shared obsession? (Hint: Do you spend more time trading links than updating each other on your own lives or community events?)

We refer to "going down the rabbit hole," but rabbits are curious, social creatures that need to spend time with their families and pals. A better comparison would be a black hole: a dark place from which even light cannot escape. When the news depends on conflict and the algorithms reward extremism, people will land in the bleakest reaches of the internet and accept whatever lifeline, no matter how frayed with lies or lined with fishhooks it may be. And too often, too many of us will react by relentlessly crafting our online identities to make clear who and what we align with.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Klein quotes British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, "who talks about unselfing as almost a transcendent state where, when we behold beauty, whether in the natural world or in a piece of art, when we allow ourselves to be transported by it, what we're doing is we are forgetting about ourselves." In other words, we're not obsessing about how we want to present who we are to the world or how we are going to present the object of our wonder to others. Instead, we're letting nature or art or physical movement be the story in its pure form. This is a cool place to be. In Humboldt, we have the forests, the dunes, the beaches, the rivers — all great ways to inoculate yourself against the internet's negative side effects. Try spending at least as much time in or near them as you do online — without posting about it. Try to make your outdoor or creative time exceed your screen time. Maybe you'll feel a little more like a whole person again.

Jennifer Savage (she/her) is currently in Ottawa, Canada, trying to stop global plastic pollution and would really like to emphasize that you go enjoy nature in the very little time it has left. (Just kidding, that's the microplastics in my brain talking.)

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Jennifer Savage

Jennifer Savage

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