Invisibility: The Internet's Greatest Gift?

Here's a question for you:

Why does anyone blog?

Put more specifically, why does a person with no celebrity status ever think that people (aside from their parents and closest friends) will want to stop by the little corner of the internet they've set up to share photos of their living room or their garden or their summer vacation, to explain their thoughts on common core or marathon techniques or the minimum wage or homeschooling or the particular merits of a neutral color scheme in the living room (spoiler alert: it lets you change your look seasonally at low cost with accessories in "pops of color!")?

It sounds ridiculous.

And yet perhaps one of the most fascinating phenomena of this particular moment in time is that, apparently, the person who believes that people care enough to follow their little story is not crazy. Folks will follow. Some point to the social media frenzy as a narcissistic tragedy of modern culture. Perhaps there are elements of truth there. But it's not the whole story.

What seems both more apparent and less traumatic is the complete fascination that we have with each others lives. If internet behavior is to be believed at all, people do want to know what you did over the weekend. They'd like to see pictures and read about your mishap with the dishwasher. They want to sign on to Facebook and hear about how potty training your toddler is going. They want to know who you're planning to vote for in the upcoming election, what type of shampoo you just switched to, what articles you're reading, why you've decided to stop eating gluten, and how you made that quilted table runner.

Not everyone, of course. Some will scroll through or will jump off a page after a quick scan of the photos, but a shockingly large number of people - more than most folks could rally on a street corner with a flyer that promised "Come see photos of this stranger's holiday decorations!" - are showing up to read the stories, from the short twitter versions to the multi-scroll blog post versions, of people they don't even know.

* * *

In an episode of This American Life, John Hodgman asks people whether they'd rather have the ability to fly or the ability to make themselves invisible. Through the responses, a picture emerges of the people who choose to fly as bold and guileless and the people who choose to be invisible as ashamed perverts (who want to watch other people have sex) or thieves (who want to steal clothes or sneak into movie theaters without getting caught). As someone who instantly chose the invisibility cloak, I questioned this outcome.

There is no doubt why I want to be invisible - to spy on other people's lives. In fact, for weeks after hearing the episode, I caught myself in moments of fantasy where I had the power to stand hidden in someone else's living room and watch them have dinner with their spouse.

I'm not denying the sneakiness factor, but spying is such a sinister word - what I'm really talking about is an intense curiosity about other people. How do they behave when they're alone washing the dishes? What do they talk about with their spouse at night after the kids are in bed? What makes them cry or dance around the kitchen? And perhaps, yes, what is it like when they have sex?

Of course, there's no doubt some self-comparison in it: Does she eat spoonfuls of peanut butter straight from the jar after a bad day too? Does that couple also fight about drawers left open in the kitchen? Does he talk to himself in the mirror? Are they like me? Am I normal? How much the same are we? How much different?

* * *

The internet - for better or for worse - is a giant invisibility cloak. Slip it on and cruise around other people's lives unannounced. See what they had for dinner last night, what made them cry, what they're fighting about, and even what turns them on if you want. They've put it out there for all to see, but chances are, they're not thinking about you showing up. They don't even know who you are.

Much has been written about how the anonymity of the internet turns people into the worst versions of themselves, and there are truly deplorable instances out there. But the vast majority of internet perusal appears to be of the invisible sort. We "like" a birth announcement, retweet a funny joke about our favorite tv show, comment on our best friend's blog. But for the most part, we scroll through unannounced. We lurk. We stand silently in someone else's living room and satisfy our curiosity.

And maybe that's not a bad thing.

In all the fear of anonymity and the "selfie culture" and the concern about a tragedy of narcissism, the incredible gift of invisibility gets forgotten. Perhaps curiosity killed the cat, but it's also responsible for the majority of human progress. It is by being curious that we learn. And here, on the internet, we can satisfy that curiosity without being perverts or thieves. We don't have to sneak into someone's house under cover of dark to find out if they're pacing back and forth, paralyzed with fear about the zombie apocalypse.

Nope. They have kindly invited us in by sharing their entire zombie apocalypse strategy (minus the exact location of their safe house, of course). People share their stories of depression, and we find comfort in the knowledge that someone else's brain works like ours or we realize that the way we've been telling our friend that it'll all get better hasn't been helping, or we file it away in the back of our mind and remember it one day when our ten year old says he wants to die. A woman posts on Facebook about her kid's struggle at school, and we give our coworker a break the next morning when she's cranky because we remember that she had to get two children into their clothes with lunches packed and onto a school bus before we were out of our pajamas.

Someone posts about their mother's death and we include them in our prayers that night (after we call our moms). We read tweets from gay people if we're straight, black people if we're white, disabled people if we're able bodied, people who have mental illness, people who have kids when we don't, and we get a glimpse. We get perspective. We get knowledge. If we're having a good day, hopefully we say a quiet thank you to them for sharing their lives so we can learn from them.

Our curiosity is our connector. It's what gives us the desire to learn. And social media is curiosity's workhorse.

Through Twitter, I travel to Iraq, the Gaza Strip, a gluten-free kitchen, the bed of a depressed author, the streets of Ferguson, the writers room of my favorite tv show, the hallway of a high school, the desk of a jewelry maker. And I go many of those places with not just a media-approved story. I go there with a regular person whispering 140 characters into my ear about their opinion or their experience, what they think is funny or sad or poignant or unacceptable. And every one broadens my understanding of the human experience - even the ones that make my jaw clench.

Every one helps me better understand what it means to be a person muddling through this confusing landscape.

On my best days, they allow me to see the world through someone else's perspective. On my worst days, they confirm that there are others out their grappling with similar demons.

I started here with the aim of sharing why I stopped blogging a year ago and why I'm thinking about blogging again. But I couldn't get that question out of my mind - why do we share at all? This is my answer.

This is me, taking off my invisibility cloak, walking into your living room and giving you a big juicy kiss on the cheek.

Thank you for the photos of your child in their Halloween costume, for all the Facebook posts about how much you hate your job (though I hope you aren't friends with your boss or coworkers on there), for the tweets about your morning coffee habit, for the blogs about your home renovation, for the posts calling for prayers and assistance, for the times you told us what you had for dinner, who you voted for, how you fell in love, how you fell out of love, why you started meditating, how to build a compost bin, what you believe (or don't) about God, why you homeschool, how to make your grandmother's cornbread, and on and on and on.

Thank you for letting us in.
Thank you for your stories.

I have some I'd like to share too.