Is Existing Online a Quest of Loneliness or Giving?

Image by Den Den

Do you sense a lack of clear meaning in this online rat race? On one hand, existence stands in its purest form, reasons to be online, missions of the niche! Then we dilute existence with digital records of ice cream trips, Nike Fuel runs, and manufactured savoir faire.

Self determination now exists at its ultimate zenith, coupled with a bizarre sense loneliness.

YouTube star Jenna Marbles reflected recently in a NY Times article that with all of her online fame and popularity and friends, she finds herself in an odd state of loneliness. We have many boys and girls trapped in their own online bubbles now.

Technology evolution brought industrialization, and with it a lost sense of identity that provoked the existentialist movement. Existentialism preexisted modernism with works like the writings of Soren Kierkegard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Then Jean Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus and others popularized the concept of the responsible and accountable soul existing alone and rudderless.

Existentialism focuses on the individual as the beginning and end of thought. Whether there is a God or not (this varies amongst the writers), an individual alone determines their actions and meaning in life, often with no path and a great sense of wondering about their purpose in life.

A newer version of this movement is rising up in articles like Jenna’s, random posts that now seem to create a glaring red thread, and books like Andrew Keen’s Digital Vertigo.

We exist in a time where anyone can determine and create unique lives online, accountable to no one, yet visible to and dependent upon all. Digital extistentialism extends the sense of modernistic distress. There are so many red herrings and lost pursuits that distract. You can drug yourself digitally with almost any pursuit, and at the end find yourself nano-famous and alone.

At least in the old modern world you knew the people next to you. Today you only know avatars, backed by a person who may or may not look and act like that voice online.

The Rat Race of Likes


Do you wonder if the effort spent online matters? If the time you invest in all of these blog posts and social activities and events really means anything?

I do. I question the effort all the time.

Perhaps it’s yet another blogger trip into nihilistic self exploration, but it becomes starts to feel like Groundhog Day, replaying the same song every day. .

I find myself acting like that despicable character Allen Iverson looking in the mirror saying, “For who, for what?”

And then I hate myself because unlike Iverson, there is no million dollar contract. The effort spent was given voluntarily, an internal need to communicate, to socialize, to market, or some other form of self-justification.

Suffering from an acute case of the doldrums, I’m bored off my social media rocker, drooling on the floor.

I start posting random shit on Facebook just to see if it will evoke a reaction, and then no likes happen and comments don’t fly at me, I feel worthless, a lame soul lost in the digital equivalent of modernistic hell.

Depression strikes, a result of the sudden realization that I just lost the hourly digital High School prom king contest. What’s worse, the college kids that do this drunk alone in the bar, or me the 40 year old man alone on a week night after my family has fallen asleep?

This despicable self awareness, makes me loathe myself like a pathetic version of Don Quixote chasing windmills around online, but worse than Quixote because unlike him with a fair [imagined] venture, I just have a shoddy excuse of egotism.

Saddened at the realization of crappy self esteem, worsened by a lingering desire to be liked online, I consider turning the noise off.

Then Sancho Panza appears on my shoulder reminding me, “No, that’s not it. I’m here to do something better, to inspire people and make a difference. To better my profession, to market my business, to FEED MY CHILD! That’s why I started in the first place.”

A microcosm of truth explodes in my heart, comforting the now ravaged ego. Shakily, I return to form, working with the original purpose. I refuse to look back, though trepidation nags at me.

Is your head spinning? Mine is. WTF, it shouldn’t feel like this!!!

Laughing and Moving Forward

Enough about me, what do you think about me? (Image by Kris Krug)

When you awaken from digital euphoria and realize vain pursuits are fruitless, it’s normal to feel distraught. Instead, we can smile. Effort spent does not have to be expended for nothing.

The past — good or bad — can always serve as a blueprint for a better future.

In fact, experimentation, satisfaction, or lack there of all provide powerful teaching. Without exploration, there is no knowledge. A fruitless pursuit informs us that a path we may have considered worthwhile won’t yield the desired outcome, and we can freely choose new pursuits.

Realize that emptiness provides an opportunity for fulfillment.

Existence continues. A new day begins. We can move forward or backward, give or take.

Giving provides the most opportunity for success, or at least so the successful say. Research verifies that giving provides a sense of happiness, a deeper fulfillment than the endorphine rush a like provides.

We exist in the moment. Every effort spent, every tap on the keyboard provides a chance to impact an individual, contribute to the world, and add light to the picture.

Sure, efforts can lead towards darkness. Sometimes when we awaken to our outcomes, we realize the fruitlessness, or worse the desctructiveness of our actions. What are you going to do, condemn yourself to the desert for a long march of hermitage? Or get up?

Consider Selflessness in the Face of Attention

Give Me Your Hand
Image by Maratinda

The problem with online popularity in its purest form remains its focus on the self. It creates a machine of self-involvement with no end other than validation through attention and hopefully monetization.

In the end, both outcomes represent numerical quantification of the soul, something doesn’t contribute to a larger goal. Exist for the self, exist alone.

The game changes with the consideration of the well-being of others and society. As effort invested helps these people, from our very families to people we may never meet, our existence takes on greater meaning. We contribute, and make other lives better.

That’s why giving matters so much. In a world of self-centered attention that produces emptiness, giving offers the antithesis, a path to purpose.

In pure altruistic form, giving is an inherently selfless act. The Machiavellian giver seeds others, to pay it forward and receive a later return. Even in its lowest form, giving forces you to think about someone else’s benefit.

I see attention and popularity as a tool, a means to an end rather than the final result. It’s something to be used to help others and achieve meaning, at least in the moment. The more we contribute to others the greater sense of purpose and fulfillment we have.

That quest for meaning can lead to many great perceived things. To build a lonely purposeless existence looks and feels as empty as it sounds.

One of the hardest decision I’ve made in recent memory was leaving nonprofit work when my wife lost her job. My day-to-day interactions and work have lost a great deal of that special meaning. Yet, the well-being of my family came first, it was a decision that had to be made. I just need to look at Soleil to know that’s true and right.

Yet the change robbed me of immediate impact. The result forces me to reconsider contribution, such as helping others learn what I’ve found works online so they, too, can have good careers, or working with clients to hopefully become better organizations.

It’s still not enough, though. So I’ve turned to periodic blogs on the environment, service work and volunteering, giving away what I charge for — time — for the betterment of others. Currently, I do so anonymously, to give in its purest form and take as little as possible. And yet I am taking, a sense of fulfillment that comforts me with the belief that all the effort does impact the world positively.

Loneliness or giving, selfishness or selflessness; we have choices that create wide ranging existential outcomes.

What do you think?

Special thanks to Jessica Ann for some timely Google+ conversations that sparked elements of this post.


  • This is an amazing post – and it’s sort of odd because I’ve been pondering many of the same things.

    Have you read the book Alone Together? I’ve just gotten started with it, not even a third of the way through, but I am already in love. Right now the author is talking about how humans interact with artificial intelligence. She explores, for example, how kids become totally befuddled when they get to “take care of” an AIBO, a robotic dog that is so real it poops. They worry about AIBO’s feelings. They confide in it. They feel loved because they feel AIBO loves them.

    Now I’m in a chapter where she has moved on to AI robots intended to mimic people as closely as possible. When kids are shown how a robot “sees” them it doesn’t make the robot any less human to them.

    Because we can so easily assign life to an inanimate object, I think we can also roboticize humans that we encounter online. What are humans online but 2-D avatars, always with the sames facial expression? If you feel like caring about a person online you can. On the other hand, you can also turn off your computer when a friend is having a hard time. If they don’t have other means of reaching you, you’ve effectively taken the battery out of the robot.

    As for the other things, when I first started online and realized you could actually kind of get a lot of attention if you did things right, I promised myself that I would only use that power for good. Now part of that good, admittedly, is helping out my family agency, which is rather self-serving, I suppose. But I also look for people who are doing amazing things, like Jennifer Windrum’s SMAC monkeys or Angela Daffron’s Jodi’s Voice organization and I do my best to shine the light on them. I’ve made using social media as a social good tool kind of a hobby. It keeps things in perspective.

    • Well, you have to eat, Margie! So business is business. We can always do nonprofit stuff on the side, as it is with me right now given the household situation… Your employees need you, too. Keeping them and their families fed is a service.

      This book sounds fascinating, and I am going to have to check it out. I love the concept of turning off the robot. Speaking of which, I’m taking the day off from the social media world tomorrow. Eff it.

  • So much of this post is exactly how I feel, and have felt for probably almost 2 years now. I’m really struggling with my purpose and have been in prayer for some time, just trying to figure out what I can do or change. I think what makes it hard for me is I still NEED income so I have to continue doing what I’m doing but it makes it hard to find the time to give on a bigger, deeper level. And to boot, I’m not even sure I know where and how to divide ‘me’ into places that would be most valuable to give unto others. *sigh*

    Just more to ponder on I reckon. Hoping God gives me just a tiny whisper to help guide me.

  • Perspective in the online world is like looking at yourself in the crazy fun house mirrors at a carnival: it shifts, it changes, it morphs, it distorts, until you step out into the light of day and regain another perspective…that from the outside in. It’s a challenge. Cheers! Kaarina

  • Genius, Geoff. Thanks for digging deep and so perfectly articulating what many are feeling about social and the “connections” it provides. I summarize in the words of The Strokes, who wisely named their first album “Is This It?”

  • A very poignant article that really resonates with me. Whilst my online activities aren’t entirely altruistic, I do take time to contribute my experience, advice and support in a wide range of communities; I don’t just limit my input to areas that will provide me with ‘benefit’ i.e. professional reputation building. I think that the qualities valued in the real world – being a nice, caring person with a sense of community are just as important online.

    • I think most people are a balance of bost. It’s really unusual to have people swing one way or the other, but the extreme cases are the ones that seem to make the most splash. Overall, the social web is pushing us more towards taking, I’m afraid.

  • Geoff, thank you for not holding back here. You touch on crucial points and your expressed introspection is welcomed over here. This is why I try to make a point to establish real bonds IRL with people who I want to build a relationship with. @jasonbaer:disqus thanks for sharing this post on Twitter.

    • Those real life relationships do keep you grounded, IMO. Thanks for coming by and i hope to see you again soon!

  • Ah, the beautiful long-form essay! This was pretty introspective… I mean, for a guy who is vain and self-servingly nihilistic ;)

    I often say that the only thing I’ll regret when I die is not being able to come back and see “what happens next”. We’re evolving along with our new digital lives and I wonder where it’s going to go. Maybe I don’t want to know!

    I see two forces at work here (well, two for the purposes of not writing a whole essay):

    1. Our tendency to anthropomorphize. We assign life/cognition to everything from our teddy bears to our cars to that movie character to invisible deities in space. It’s only natural that we extend that to our avatars and whatever is next in AI. Except those things are not actually real so we mess up our own heads and forget (or maybe reinvent?) our own realities.

    2. Our tendency to put ourselves at the center of the universe. I mean, everyone is looking at us, right? All day! Every word, every photo, every witticism. It’s all fascinating. Except social online relationships are not a party in someone’s living room. It’s more like walking into a football stadium and shouting at the guy across the field and waiting for him to tell you how clever you are. And getting sad when he doesn’t.

    So I think we are evolving to adapt to a new kind of connection and figuring out how these new relationships work. It remains to be seen how successful we are!

    • I think that’s pretty poignant, and I do see this as a settling in period. We’re really getting shockingly integrated and seeing the good, the bad and the ugly of social. I wonder if we’ll have enough time to adjust before the next wave…

  • I wonder if some of this is a function of age, because when I bring this up around the 20-somethings I know, they just look at me with blank stares.

    I’ve been struggling with these questions a long time. Social media is both the most amazing and most destructive force that I have ever allowed into my life. Lately my gut is telling me I should walk away and never look back. But part of my head says in response, “and how would you feel if you did and realized that no one even cared?”

    Thank you for a beautiful, thoughtful post. Best wishes that your whispers are heard soon.

    • Are you calling me old? LOL!

      I think you are right, that as we get older, we wonder about purpose a lot more. I would agree with you on the power of social for good and bad. As I said to Jack, if I didn’t have intent and a purpose out here, I would be gone.

  • Geoff,

    I think we all struggle with the numerical validation game. And wonder about the effort that goes into building a digital castle of….what?

    Here’s what I’ve concluded, subject to ongoing revision, just like my life is:

    1. Online activity has been a great tool for discovering and growing a wealth of friends. That has its own ROI that can’t even be quantified.

    2. Online activity has helped me create a business modeled around who I am. Not based on “likes,” but based on connections and communications over the long haul.

    3. I have a deep inner drive to communicate, and online platforms enable me to do so (& evolve in it). For better or for worse…!

    4. I may never be completely free from the siren song of the online popularity contest. Sigh. Being a mere human rots sometimes.

    5. Creating and cultivating online connections can lead to both business and giving opportunities, sometimes co-mingled.

    6. All that really matters is creating value and making a positive impact – for family, friends, even strangers. Online stuff may be an enabler, or it may be a distraction from that. Sometimes it seems to be both. Can’t quite figure that out and probably never will.

    7. I’ve gotten to “hear” your thoughts for years via online activity, and still look forward to doing so. Surely that counts for something, Geoff!

    • Great thoughts, Steve. You are one of the good ones for sure. I really appreciate all of the insights you have had to offer, and your general good demeanor. You really are one of the better voices on the web, and an original one at that. Thanks for your words of encouragement!

  • The timeliness of this post is uncanny. I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose and meaning in my online participation which finally came to a head in my own post from earlier this morning. Some might deem it navel-gazing, but it’s a worthwhile discussion to my mind.

  • Incredibly interesting article Geoff. I believe the online space is
    simply a reflection of our offline space. If you are someone who needs
    the constant reaffirmation of all the people around you to react and
    praise, then you will be saddenened when you do not get the usualy
    number of likes. People shoudl not expect to be online and suddenly be
    completely different than they are in real life. Its all part of life,
    it’s all part of your personality and what we need to realize online is
    that we have the chance to develop “fans” at a much larger and abundant
    “pace” or presence than in real life of course, because here we are, in
    every moment in our “fans” or “friends” homes, on their screens, in
    their hands… we also need to remember it is not just us, it’s all
    their friends, and all the other people they fan. And so onto your
    statement about giving. If your reason to be online is truly to give and
    share, and if you truly love doing it, then you don’t become resentful
    when people don’t respond. You don’t feel unloved when you have no reply
    or “likes” because that’s not why you did it, you did it to share, you
    did it to touch even one person, not necessarily thousands. And so for all the
    reasons you mention above, of why giving is good and why giving makes
    people feel good, beyond that when you do somethign to give, truly give,
    it doesnt irk you that much if you dont get a huge response, because
    you got what you set out to do in the first place…give. Not get.

    (stepping down from the soap box now)

    • Loved that, and I think that’s the principle we need to follow. I pulled out of a business partnership recently because I thought the person would better prosper without me, and they were not a critical player for me.

      They were pissed, but nine months later, I see a happy soul online. Point being, I gave them freedom (though they didn’t know it), and they grew.I love that, and at the same time, know I won’t get thanked. OK, maybe that’s messed up, but I think I did the right thing in the face of being liked, so to speak.

  • Awesome post Geoff and very close to some recent study. I wrote a short post at the first of this month titled “is social media breeding narcissism,” which showed narcissistic behavior is consitent with those who have large follower numbers and/or it simple serves as a conduit for such behavior. However there is a link to deperssion as well. Your gut-check is telling to many of us who ponder on such things. It does seem to shine an unflattering light on where we spend vast amont of time. Perhaps a mirror of peoples livesin general.

    • I know I’m a narcissist, but at least I’m awakened to how sad it is. Good points the depression tie, and when we seize to feed the ego, it’s no wonder that we feel empty inside.

      I think there’s no difference between the online and offline. They are the same. You act in one as you act in the other, whether we know it or not. We may just be more empowered to act poorly here.

  • My initial reaction was to post this clip from my good friend Mr. Wonka

    I get irked from time to time about the rat race and the feeling that this is some sort of popularity contest that I am losing. Sometimes I have feel like this meshugehneh with two identities who can’t merge them into one solid winning dude.

    But most of the time I just don’t care about the accolades enough to do things differently than I am. That is because I see the utility of a tool based upon the skill of the user and because ultimately I feel like I am getting something special from time in this world.

    However I do wonder about younger people who don’t have as much life experience outside of social media. I wonder what sort of life lessons they are learning from their time here and what is happening to them.

    And I wonder what would happen if all of the accolades I have dreamed about were showered down upon me. Would I drink the Kool-Aid and decide that everything I share is gold?

    I have seen it happen online. There are people who haven’t figured out that they aren’t as smart or as important as they think. They have mistaken the adulation of a few for something more than it is.

    It all circles back to the question of “what do I need from here and what do I want.”

    • Hahahahahahahaha! It says here clearly in black and white!

      It’s just a tool, right? Frankly, I envy my wife who is not a professional in need of using the interwebs, and enjoys a semblance of reality that I frequently run for screaming help, help, help me! Then she laughs at me and calls it the ego chamber.

      In the end, if I wasn’t interested in publishing books, I’d probably pull the plug. Just need to keep things rolling for those purposes.

  • it’s so easy *not* to think these deep thoughts when, at the click of a button, we can YouTube funny animal videos, Wikipedia any random thought, and Google ’til our brains fall out. And that’s exactly the point: Our new digital world has flattened time and space. While this is great for many reasons, there’s a certain spirituality lacking. Our messages seem to get lost in the medium – no matter how hard we try (case in point today…lol!)

    The words on the digital pages may bring us together, but is there a simultaneous sparseness to it? I don’t know. Because it’s hard to know when the digital age is so shiny, new and bright. There’s so much potential. Which is why we keep coming back. We can create our own worlds, brimming with hope, opportunity, and meaning. It also can bring more depth, clarity, and hilarity any second we choose – which juxtaposes the uncertain physical world we all now (unfortunately) live.

    But where’s the real rawness of the human element in the digital world? Yes, we can find elements of humanity in storytelling, and when we use technology for the greater good. But is the beauty of being digital in being ‘alone together?’ (the saddest two words that can coexist!) What exactly are we sacrificing for the new ways we communicate? the singularity? deep thought (of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy variety)…now onto the funny animal videos…have you seen the one with the dogs in the pool?!

    great, thought-provoking post, Geoff!

    • LOL, I love the Hitchikers reference. But we are alone together, which is better than being alone not at all.

      At the same time, I think there’s a great point in that we have a great deal of uncertainty in our physical lives. Perhaps it’s easier to manufacture false reality — a virtual world — then live in our current one, and that in its own right makes for mass escapism.

      Or maybe we are really seeing humanity at its deepest and simultaneous shallowest moments and are just stunned, rubbernecking on the virtual highway. Who knows, right? Thanks for your timely G+ posts.

  • “If work has no intention, it is not work at all. It’s an empty motion.” — from The Razor’s Edge

    Where you do work doesn’t matter. What work you do doesn’t matter. All that matters is the intention of what you do. Follow me.

    If you feel bad about the work, it is likely not the work that makes you feel bad but the intention behind it. If you feel good about the work, it is likely not the work that makes you feel bad but the intention behind it. People who don’t understand this are miserable because their intentions are not aligned with their actions.

    You leave trails of intentions and your feelings all over this post and I can read as plainly as your bio. It tells the story of where you were aligned and where you were not aligned.

    You know, I don’t clean my house every weekend because I love to clean. I do it because I believe my family deserves to live in a clean house, even if they persist in the belief that do not deserve it because they mess it up. So it is my intention to express my admiration and love for them by doing it for them, work some people consider beneath them. So I ask these people. How can my love for them ever be beneath me?

    There are few people who I love to see grow as much as I have seen you grow over all these years. This new direction on your blog is very good. You ought to know why now. It has intention.

    So few do lately. Keep it up.

    All my best,

    • You’re awesome, Rich. We really have seen each other both evolve over the years.

      I think your comment reminds me of my friend David, who used to say to me that if I felt guilt, it probably was because I am guilty. In that sense when I give purely I feel no empotion other than the observation of watching people benefit from the gift. That is great.

      And thanks for the props, it’s hard work, man! And maybe that’s why I am enjoying it so much. Writing a decent essay takes more than a riff off of current events.


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