404: The releasing power of non-existence (repost)

This is a shameless repost of a six year old article, which I was reminded of during the great Facebook outage of 2021. It did me good to re-read it. I suspect the stats are worse today than they were back then, I’m more realistic about social media’s shaping influence on my life than I was in 2015, and my wife has been looking for that upgrade for fourteen years now. But the point still stands…

This week I opened my Twitter app and was greeted by the following message: 


It felt like a pretty low blow, particularly for that early in the morning. A mind-bending existential practical joke, reducing my entire existence to a 404 page.

Or maybe it was just a technical glitch. I seem to be back online now. A resurrection of sorts.

But it got me pondering… in what sense does my online presence contribute to my consciousness of existence?

In his show Impregnated with Wonder, comedian Pete Holmes jokes:

I’m thinking of getting off Facebook and Twitter and all that and just signing up for a service that every 30 minutes texts me the phrase “you’re not alone!” I think that would do the trick. “You’re here. People care about you.”

It’s a pretty insightful joke that touches on something deeply sad; just how much we rely on social media for connection and validation. For many people, Facebook is their deepest form of connection. If I’m that person, the day hasn’t been worth living if the number of likes, favourites and RTs I’ve received has dwindled in the single figures. And whilst the way in which people engage with my posts may mean nothing to them – it’s just an absent minded swipe or tap – it may mean the world to me.

  • Like doesn’t just mean they like my post. It signifies that they like me.
  • Favourite beats like, since it implies a level of preference. As if my content was lined up alongside everyone else’s and deemed better than theirs – a favourite!
  • RTs don’t imply endorsements (people’s biographies are fond of reminding us). And yet they sure make me feel like you endorse me, even if you don’t endorse my content.

If social media is an existential lifeline – a reminder that you’re not alone – then a glitch like this can be potentially devastating.

I tweet, therefore I am.

Consider some stats:

  • Social networking accounts for 28% of all time spent online.
  • Teenage users spend an average of 3 hours on social networks every day.
  • The average number of social networking apps that people have on their smartphones is 7.4.
  • 18% of social media users can’t go a few hours without checking Facebook.
  • 39,757 years of our time is collectively spent on Facebook every day. 28% of iPhone users check Twitter before getting out of bed in the morning.
  • A grand total of two-dozen people worldwide actually enjoy receiving emails from LinkedIn.

(Ok, so I made up that last one. I’m sure the stats aren’t that high.)

I don’t personally feel like I’m a slave to social media. I have no doubt that it shapes and affects me and I add to some of those stats above. I’ve taken some simple steps this year to release myself from its stranglehold, which I’ve benefitted from.

But in a strange way, the Twitter glitch highlights something that is foundational to a healthy engagement with social media… The first step towards liberty. If I am to be free from its grip, I need to realise that there is a very real sense in which @liamthatcher doesn’t exist.

@liamthatcher is a fake. He is a façade. That guy who seems to effortlessly condense his thoughts into 140-character sound bites; who throws out well-honed jokes or thoughts, just off the cuff; whose every image is nicely cropped and dreamified with a light gaussian blur… that guy doesn’t exist. He’s a trademark.

@liamthatcherTM doesn’t exist. Instead you’re stuck with Liam Thatcher. And by comparison, that guy’s a loser. His comments aren’t anywhere near as well thought-through as those of his online counterpart. His musings spill out into rambling paragraphs that snowball hideously. He repeats himself, miss-speaks and tells the same stories ad nauseam, often with no idea how much he’s boring people around him. If this guy wants to communicate anything, it rarely comes out right the first time round. Or the second. Or the third. Condensing down his message takes time and effort. And he gets a little bit offended when people don’t find his jokes as amusing or his thoughts as profound as he does.

Liam Thatcher’s world doesn’t fit into nicely cropped squares. It spills over the edges and gets wonky. It blurs. And not the arty blur. More like a finger over the lens, camera-was-moving-because-he-was-too-clumsy-to-stand-still-whilst-taking-the-picture blur. This guy is too vain to take one photo. He’s taken a dozen and only chosen to share the best of a bad bunch.

@liamthatcherTM is a work of fiction. Liam Thatcher is a regular guy. You can mute or block @liamthatcherTM. Sadly that feature is unavailable on Liam Thatcher. Trust me, his wife’s been hoping for a software update for eight years.

There is a real difference between Liam Thatcher and @liamthatcherTM. The former controls the latter, allowing people to see only what he wants them to see. @liamthatcherTM is the edited projection of a vain man who wants people to give him a thumbs up. Liam Thatcher has a face, and it’s not always a photogenic one. @liamthatcherTM is just a white egg on a grey square.

The first step for Liam Thatcher to break free is to be honest with himself and agree with the Twitter glitch: @liamthatcher does not exist…

The first step for you to break free is to realise that your name – your true name – does not begin with an @ symbol.

The second step is to share this article. @liamthatcherTM is begging you…

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

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