I often see people growing frustrated with their social media accounts. Do any of the following sound familiar?

– “I had to get off the grid for a while.”
-“Facebook is so lame. Everyone posts dumb stuff.”
-“Everyone’s ‘opinions’ are so annoying. I have no idea why I’m friends with some people on my list.”
-“Do I really care if you’re at the gym? Or that you ate an ice cream sandwich? NO. GTFO. So sick of hearing the same things from everyone.”

I don’t think any of these outlooks (and these are just some random examples) are inherently wrong – social media is what you make of it. Social media is there for you to use how you wish. For some of you, it might not be your thing. For those of you like me, it is most definitely your “thing”. Granted, I’m not a social media guru. I am a beast on Facebook, usually (some of my friends refer to Facebook as ‘Joebook’), and ho-hum on my wordpress blogs. Tumblr I still use pretty infrequently. Pinterest? I’m kicked off it. (Long story) Twitter? I suck at it. Instagram? Nope. MySpace? Yeah, I still check mine occasionally. Ello? I’m kind of ignoring it until more people I know use it a lot.

So why all the drama about social media all the time? During my marriage, social media was a constant point of contention. We were living in the MySpace age, then, and MySpace is a big part of how my ex-wife and I connected before we were married. She seemed to have forgotten that in the midst of all the “adult” things we were doing. Working our jobs, caring for our animals, going on trips – etc. She didn’t realize that social media, and the internet in general, was what helped me out of my shell of anxiety and was what introduced her to the man she would later come to love (if only for a short time).

I’ve always been somewhat of a lone wolf. Not really by choice, but more because I was always on the move. I can’t tell you how many times I changed schools or how often we moved to a new apartment, but I can tell you that because of all that I never perfected the art of making friends or making lasting connections with people. To this day I have trouble keeping friends close to me or letting people into my personal sphere. Again, not a choice – it’s just sort of how things ended up. I try to change that in as many ways as I can, which is why I love social media.

Before social media, I was lonely. Oh so lonely. My first experience with social media was my introduction to chat rooms. My uncle used to bring me to his college (one I would later go to and graduate from myself) and showed me how to use the chat rooms in the computer lounge. He smirked as he got someone to begin chatting with me – a young woman I will always remember as PrincessLeia. (Her chat handle was something to that effect) She endured my bumbling, nervous, teenage attempts at making conversation with the opposite sex. From that moment, I was hooked. I “spoke” with a real live girl and she didn’t spurn me or walk away in disgust or laugh at me. I was enamored with the possibilities this granted me. In my mind, I was almost akin to a superhero. By day, I was a socially-awkward teen who sweat from his palms enough to leave streaks on his desk. By night, I could be CHAT ROOM LAD – whose powers included being able to talk to ACTUAL PEOPLE without having a panic attack.

My interest in chat rooms only grew from there. A couple years later and I was a chat room pro, having only had a couple instances where I feared for my life when a man from British Columbia said he’d fly to my home and “kick [my] fucking skull in”. The other was when I created a chat handle having to do with the creepy movie Strangeland and this weird couple kept following me to every chat room I went into, saying they’d love to slice off my nipples and boil them for eating. Yup.

From chat rooms, I eventually graduated to message boards. Message boards are still around but are now all but defunct. The one in particular I used to post on was a message board for Top Cow Comics. I think it was just called the Top Cow Message Boards. Well, this was around the time that I was actually IN college so I spent a lot of time on the computers in between classes and during downtime when I waited for my grandmother to get out of work (I lived with her and she worked at the college, so I just commuted with her to and from school).The time I spent on the Top Cow Message Boards was a special time for me. It might seem silly to those of you who are adept at making friends in real life, but for me – the reality of my ‘real life’ was the hardest. There, on the net, I could enjoy meaningful conversation and friendships with people I’d never even met in real life. Still think it’s silly? Well, I still haven’t met most of them in real life but many of us are still friends almost fifteen years later. Chew on that. We’ve called each other, written letters to each other, played video games online with one another, taken part in collaborative art projects or writing projects together, sent each other gifts, helped each other with problems. It was a good system. Many of the friends I garnered from that time have been better and longer lasting friends than some of the ones I have made in “real life”. These people inspired creativity in me and also supported me when nobody else could be there. I even created a comic strip at one point which featured characters based on people I talked to on the message boards. I called it “The Comic Geeks”.

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This was the final “strip” I did in a limited run of comic strips written and drawn by me featuring friends from my message board.

From message boards and chat rooms came something bigger – MySpace. MySpace was a natural place for me to flock to. It enabled me to express myself better than ever before. I could put music I wanted on my page and people would know “Hey, Joe really likes Pitbull.” I could change the color schemes of the background and create my own images to put in it so that people would know I have an artistic side. I could document my adventures with photos and text, almost like an online journal or diary. MySpace enabled me to get through my work day with some sanity. MySpace, as we all know, eventually was replaced by the monolithic social media program we all  love and hate called FACEBOOK.

I didn’t really find Facebook – Facebook found me.

MySpace was waning right around the time that Facebook, and my marriage, was just taking off. I got married in 2008 and that’s around the time that my last MySpace post was entered. Everyone, for whatever reason, began to use Facebook instead. So, naturally, I started posting wedding photos and honeymoon photos for friends and family to see. It was an exciting time. I went to Viriginia Beach and had lots of fun thanks to my aunt letting us use one of her timeshares there for the week. People would comment on photos of us at the zoo or on the beach or of our marriage and it felt good to have people, if only online for the most part, involved in our union.

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A photo from my wedding reception. From left to right: Gary (brother), Mom, Me, Debbie (Aunt), Alex (Brother), Monika (Sister)

 

Me in 2008 at the Virginia Biological Zoo

Me in 2008 at the Virginia Biological Zoo

Unfortunately, my marriage ran into some troubles a couple years later. Money issues, mainly. The wife thought that my use of social media was a waste of time. I thought she was crazy because it was literally my only outlet and my only contact with the outside world away from our myopic little marriage life. In any case, we ended up splitting and I moved out. After that, during the loooooooong period of self-loathing and depression, Facebook was my biggest savior. My sister and other family and friends hung out with me a lot, trying to console me – but it was during the wee hours of the night, when I couldn’t call on any friends, when I needed someone the most. With Facebook, I felt like someone WAS there. I could expell my anxiety into the void of a Facebook post and all would be well. Sort of.

Having a lot of emotion rolling through your body and mind is like tinder for creative thought, at least for me. I began to write things on Facebook. I began to make poignant posts, insightful musings. Eventually, one of my old high school friends messaged me and reminded me that I should try to get into a writing program she graduated from called the Stonecoast MFA Program. Well, I finally attended and a lot of it had to do with my ability to connect with people online. As a prospective student for Stonecoast, I was supposed to acquire three letters of recommendation – one of which was supposed to be from a published author. So I began to jump through hoops to make the most of my connections. That same high school friend who messaged me said she knew of a Stonecoast alum, a romance novelist from Seattle, who might take a look at one of my writing samples and give me a letter of recommendation. Excited, I began chatting with this novelist through the Facebook messaging program and we soon had a good back and forth. She read my story, e-mailed me her thoughts, and sent out her letter of recommendation to the school. I also acquired a letter from a professor I’d had during my time in undergrad who’d published several books and who remembered my work even though it had been around ten years since I’d worked with him. Finally, I also received a letter from another uncle of mine who writes for television in Los Angeles, and that technically is a publication right there. To top it all off, I was also given a letter of recommendation by the producer of the movie Marmaduke – who’d read some of my script writing and decided to do me a favor and send out a letter to the school. So – through the internet, and largely because of social media – I was able to not only get three letters from three different published authors, but also a bonus one from a Hollywood movie producer. I put in my time at Stonecoast for two years and am now an alum myself. Thanks, social media.

Graduation 068

I’m the dude with the beard, third one in, about to receive his MFA in creative writing through the Stonecoast MFA program.

Ta daaaaaaaaa - thanks (in part) to social media

Ta daaaaaaaaa – thanks (in part) to social media

Another artistic medium I’ve been able to branch out with aside from my artwork and writing, due to social media, has been cosplaying. If you know me, you know that I cosplay as three main characters – Jareth the Goblin King (from Labyrinth), Abraham Lincoln (from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and Obi-Wan Kenobi (from Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith). If I had even suggested to my teenage self or even me in my early 20’s that I should put on a costume when it’s not Halloween and parade around in front of hundreds of people – I would have had an instant panic attack. To be honest, it’s still quite difficult for me to get up in front of more than a handful of people but I’ve been able to hack away at my own mental walls over the years through the use of social media and the support I’ve gotten from everyone with creative endeavors. There are tons and tons of trolls lurking out in the wilds of the interwebz, but for the most part you can count on some kind words from genuine people who appreciate hard work and dedication to a hobby or art form. I am constantly inspired by men and women on my Facebook feed who write amazing things and get them published or who create works of art to post online, photography, costumes, dance, music, singing, film. It’s a plethora of art and it costs almost nothing. This is an amazing resource we have and through social media we can not only consume untold amounts of art and culture – but we can grow because of it. When I see someone post an amazing photo they took of ocean waves rolling in – it makes me want to be a better photographer. If I see someone do an amazing dance move, I want to try to learn it. If someone produces a piece of art or writing that gives me goosebumps – I want to try and create something as raw, as part of me, as that was to them. It’s a constant cycle of creative support. So, instead of being an awkward and panicky person who is afraid to express himself – I am the lord of Joebook and on top of that, I’m not afraid to display my cosplaying side via my cosplaying Facebook page you can see HERE.

Me as Abraham Lincoln in Salem, Mass posing with people for a photo. I never would have done this back in high school

Me as Abraham Lincoln in Salem, Mass posing with people for a photo. I never would have done this back in high school

Hundreds of people took my photo when I went to Salem as Obi-Wan. In the past, I would've been sweating buckets.

Hundreds of people took my photo when I went to Salem as Obi-Wan. In the past, I would’ve been sweating buckets.

One thing, though, that humbled me and made me examine my relationship to social media happened recently in the summer while I was at my graduation residency with Stonecoast. I was renting a farmhouse with around eight of my school friends and we were all to pay a certain amount to lessen the burden on everyone else, financially – not to mention getting to hang out in a house full of friends for ten days. I showed up in my Hyundai Elantra and had the time of my life for a couple of days, at least until one morning when I was giving my friend Frank a lift to his graduate presentation and a deer burst from the trees to my right as I was cresting a hill. Nobody was coming in the other lane so I veered left and began to brake, thinking the deer would have time to change direction or stop – but it tried to leap over the passenger side of the car and I slammed into it as it jumped, not clearing my hood. I braked hard and veered back to the right, not wanting to get stuck in the left lane and the deer flew from my car as the brakes took. We came to a stop and helplessly watched as the deer careened head over hoof along the tar. For a moment, I thought that I hadn’t hit the deer all that hard, that it would get up and run into the woods, that my car would be okay. But then my car started smoking from underneath the hood and looking back at the deer – it lay in the middle of the road, unmoving. My car was a loss. I had no money in the bank, having just spent $500 on a new water pump the week before graduation. I had to have the car towed back to my garage to avoid any sort of “storage” fee for keeping it – as I still had to worry about graduation in a few days. So, my car was towed and I then had to rely on the kindness of my school friends for rides to and from the house we all had our workshops in.

My totaled car.

My totaled car. It doesn’t look terrible but there was lots of stuff damaged under the hood. $3,000 worth of damage.

I was devastated. I’d been having a hard time with cars lately (another car had died on me a few months before) and I’d been spending a lot of my money on them, money I really didn’t have. I tried to ignore this bad bit of luck and focus on graduation. But then one night a couple days after the deer incident, my school friends summoned me into the big living room of the house and presented me with a card. I looked around at all of their faces and opened the card. Inside were signatures from students as well as faculty, and a whole lot of money. I began to cry, and so I also received lots of hugs in addition to the money and the signatures. I thanked them all and then was told on top of all that, that my portion of the farmhouse rental was taken care of – and the same with food. I couldn’t believe it. I cried for a long while that night. Over the next couple of days, I was approached by many other students and faculty who wanted to help but didn’t have cash. I told them it was okay, but they told me they still wanted to help and that I should set up a GoFundMe page or something. So, when I got back home after graduation – I set one up. Through GoFundMe and social media, people began to donate. I soon had enough money to not only secure a decent car (a 2009 Nissan Versa) but also to get an apartment because I had to move out of my current living situation relatively soon after this coming winter. Being proactive, my girlfriend and I sought out a decent place and were able to pay the deposit and first month’s rent largely due to the money I received.

My new place!

My new place!

Social media literally saved my life. I had a degree, but no money – and all the bad luck came at the same time. People I care about rallied around me, lifted me up, and gave me some wings to light out on my own with. It was unconditional, largely unsolicited and came 100% from these people I love, who I’ve invested my own time and interest in. I have never before felt such an amazing amount of love from other human beings. I am still honestly shocked at how it all unfolded and I don’t know if I can ever give these people the proper thank yous that I think they deserve. THANK YOU, if you’re reading this – if you’re one of those people who donated. I don’t know if I can ever fully repay you, but I will try and I will never forget this act of kindness as long as I have my own thoughts.

Social media can be what you make of it. For me, it’s a creative outlet. A bonding opportunity. A journal. A storytelling device. A time capsule. A thread to humanity. As long as you don’t let it consume you and define you (which is why ‘unplugging’ every now and then might be a good thing) then it is one of the most healthy tools in the world to help foster human connection and sanity of the psyche. I’ll see you on Facebook.

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Graduated from Saint Joseph's College Of Maine with a Bachelor's in Fine Arts - Creative Writing as well as Stonecoast, a low-residency MFA program through University of Southern Maine. Has several screenplays, a novel, graphic novel and a memoir all in development.

One Comment on “How Social Media (And Friends) Saved My Life

  1. Pingback: Erik Caswell | Away With Words

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