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Columns

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Online

By Serena G. Pellegrino, Contributing Opinion Writer
Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

You know you shouldn’t but you do it anyway. Impulsively, you type that text message. You hit that tiny powerful arrow. Sent. Delivered. Time for the dread to set in.

We all know the feeling. One day you’ve reached your tipping point and you send an unwarranted and possibly irrational message. Or maybe you finally worked up the courage to shoot your shot only to get shot down. Or there’s a chance your excessive enthusiasm was matched with the ever disheartening “k” or a complete ghosting. No matter the situation, we have all experienced the sharp descent into self loathing when we can’t retract our awkward or miscalculated words.

We’re filled with regret at the thought of those indelible text bubbles. They make us vulnerable. And it’s not just texts that haunt us; it's all of our many online mistakes. It’s as if they’re written in stone, except the stone is very light and it can never be destroyed.

It’s ironic to think that what takes up so much room in our minds occupies zero space in reality. Practically speaking, our messages, posts, and other online mishaps are mere pixels. Our communications are simply electromagnetic waves traveling between routers. Even though our real and online lives overlap significantly, the internet is a space largely created in our minds. It’s intangible, unidimensional, and lighter than air.

It feels contradictory that something so theoretical can make us feel so viscerally. That something which appears impermanent can be so enduring. Something so seemingly light can weigh us down so heavily.

This negotiation between action and consequence, lightness and weight is the subject of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” His biggest question: is life – or in our case, life online – heavy or light? The argument for heaviness embraces Nietzche’s notion of eternal return, the belief that events of our existence will recur infinitely. Weight is burden but also meaning. Lightness, meanwhile, is freedom, transience, and insignificance.

Most actions online feel exceedingly light. We have the ability to post, edit, delete Facebook or Instagram posts at any time. We have the freedom to search anything on Google and the capacity to contact nearly anyone through iMessage. On Snapchat, our selfies last just seconds before they disappear into the ether. We feel emboldened to send those risky texts, and in more harmful instances, some even feel powerful enough to harass others. Moreover, everything feels replaceable because what can’t you buy on Amazon? Human replacements are possible, too, thanks to Tinder. Just broke up with a significant other? Someone else is only a right swipe away.

Psychologically, however, our online existence weighs on us most heavily because our words can never be destroyed and their repercussions never get erased from our minds. The internet has the power to alter one’s life course completely. In 2017, ten students’ Harvard acceptances were rescinded for exchanging sexually explicit and racially derogatory memes in a private Facebook group. In 2019, incoming Harvard freshman Kyle Kashuv’s admission was also rescinded when it was exposed that he had written multiple racial slurs in a Google document. Kashuv called his actions retrospectively “idiotic.” But it is hard to excuse both him and the students of 2017 on account of simple immaturity. These individuals did not realize that the words they had carelessly shared held immense historical or personal weight for others. Even this year, David D. Kane, a Harvard Government preceptor, has faced allegations of blogging racist remarks using a pseudonym. His alleged words have likely cost him the trust and respect of many, particularly his own students.

When it’s just us and a screen, we can act lightly because we feel free. The illusion that life can be light online is possible since we can’t see the heaviness of others firsthand. In the absence of human connection, we lose touch with the reality that we have a responsibility toward others. But notably, we forget about our own heaviness, too – that online, we’ll face consequences more lasting than those offline. We struggle to grasp the gravity of our actions because it is so easy to act that we forget meaning is attached to action. Unfortunately, Nietszche is right; we will make these mistakes over and over because we are human. And online ones will be memorialized. The weight of eternal return drowns us, especially when we’re left to cope with the permanence of what we’ve done.

To create an account for most anything online, we’re faced with a cryptic, long-winded disclaimer in microscopic font entitled “terms of agreement.” It’s something we should definitely read but probably don’t. The rules are right before us, but they’re obscure and inevitably, users don’t fully understand what they’re signing up for. As a generation born into the internet life, we’re familiar with the phenomenon. Our online lives come with the inherent terms of agreement that actions do have meaning and consequence.

Yet, we try to or are urged to forget the consequences of our online conduct. Life is sometimes difficult and not always fun, so we seek the lightness that we’re led to believe exists online. Social media creators and internet developers profit off this desire by building a mirage for us: a virtual world that is easy, accessible, appealing, and above all, weightless. It is an escape from obligation when we don’t want to talk face to face or don’t want to engage with real life. But as we live our lives online, we should remember that just because we’re not signing a physical paper contract, doesn’t mean that we’re exempt from the terms of agreement. Our signatures are our words, images, videos, our choices. We create weight in a light space because we’re human and we’re born with weight. What we touch becomes necessarily heavy. Often, it feels, unbearably so.

Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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