You don’t know me and I don’t know you

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

I want to say something that feels simultaneously extremely obvious yet also a little like heresy: you don’t know me. I don’t know you either, but that feels far easier to say without squirming. My job relies on complete strangers reading and enjoying my work, and although there are many ways for a blogger to do that, the way I do it is by offering you honesty and intimacy. You get to see a little way inside my life, and my head, and if you like that sort of thing you’ll stay. Share my stuff. Maybe follow me on Twitter or support me on Patreon. Maybe message me your sex secrets or send me long emails because you fancied a chat. But the tricky thing here is that no matter how you engage, you don’t know me. And I don’t know you.

Let’s say you’re an average blog reader. You check in a couple of times a month or subscribe for updates when new posts go live, and you read the things that I (and awesome guest bloggers) write here. I love you for that, and I thank you for that, because without you I wouldn’t be able to do this thing that I do. You provide the metrics on the graphs that help me sell advertising to sponsors, and keep my ego floating high enough that I feel its worthwhile churning out another post.

You are also one of well over 100,000 people each month who come to this site. All those people have the exact same intimate access to my thoughts and my life, and many of those people feel – understandably – like they know me too. But this is an extremely unbalanced relationship: I don’t have the same access to your thoughts as you do to mine, so what we have here isn’t a mutual relationship, it’s a performance. I’m an actor on stage and you’re watching a play. So if you leave a comment with ‘playful’ insults in, hoping for banter, please don’t be surprised if I am a little bit hurt in my response. You think you know me, but I don’t know you.

I have seen this happen to other people on Twitter, often, and it makes me cringe. They’ll quote-tweet a celebrity they love and say something dry and sarcastic, then the celeb (or their followers) respond by smacking them down. They do it because… you know… they don’t know you. You might be hurt that they’d think you were trolling rather than making an in-group joke but you are one of hundreds of thousands. And they don’t know you. They just don’t.

These kind of relationships are called parasocial relationships. I have them with some famous folk. Because I follow their work, or enjoy what they put out on Twitter, I feel a kind of friendship with them that I don’t feel with random strangers. If I bumped into Rose Matafeo in a bar, I might instinctively grin at her the way I would a friend, because I adore her work in a very personal way – I feel like she and I are similar, and that she (or her work) ‘gets’ me in a way someone else might not. And yet, I would still never approach Rose Matafeo in a bar and chat to her like we were mates. All together now: she doesn’t know me. And I don’t know her either, not really. My ‘knowing’ her is a mirage – all I really know is what she’s willing to put out in public, layered with a bunch of my own opinions and projections about how well we’d get on.

More intimate knowledge

There are levels of knowing me, if you follow this blog. People on Patreon get a bit more behind-the-scenes, and they know me a little better than readers ever will. I’m essentially selling a higher level of access to me as a person. Which is extremely fun a lot of the time but it’s not always a comfortable or sensible thing to do. It means that I’m offering people a more intimate relationship with me, in exchange for money. But there are still over 200 people there, and so the kind of intimacy I have can only ever go so far, and it’s still extremely one-sided.

Even on Patreon, where I’ll get to know some people a little better (because they’ve been there for ages or we’ve shared more messages or they’ve joined in loads on a Zoom chat or what have you), there is still a huge knowledge imbalance in our interactions. They know everything I’m willing to say in front of an audience, whereas I know only those snippets that they’ve shared with me privately. Sometimes I actually know even less about Patreons than they think I do: many don’t use the same name as they use on Twitter, or in blog comments, so I’ve often found myself having conversations with people who think I know them from another channel, then I have to do some rapid thinking to work out who they are elsewhere and match the two things together.

While we’re on the subject of Twitter, this happens there too: people make jokey replies to me or intimate suggestions, as if we’re friends, and yet… I don’t know them. I am sometimes spikier than I’d like to be: were I always able to act as my Best Self I’d be more welcoming and gracious. But often if you catch me with a silly joke on a bad day, or at a stressful time, my response is going to be similar to the response I’d give to a man yelling the same thing at me in the street while I was wearing headphones. Because although you might read lots of my tweets, see inside the intimate parts of my life, and fill in the gaps with what you reckon I’m thinking… I still don’t know you. Even if I follow you on Twitter! I follow over 4,600 people, and there’s no way I would or could ever read every single one of their tweets. For the vast majority of people I ‘know’ online, my glimpse into their lives is incomplete, fleeting and shallow.

And then more intimate…

We’re heading away from ‘parasocial’ relationships now and into one-sided ones, but it feels like a natural next step because to me all this sits in a similar place in my brain. I hope this section will make you feel better if you fit into one of the categories above, because the truth is I get similar ‘I don’t know you’ feelings about a lot of the people who I’m closer to as well. Men who I flirt with on Twitter, for instance, or with whom I’ve had a date or two but am still in the early stages of connecting with.

Since I became single, I’ve taken a fair few punts on cute lefty guys who have hovered in my timeline for a while being kinky and funny and kind. Occasionally these approaches have been welcomed, and I’ll get to chatting with a guy. But my general style, once I’ve ensnared wooed someone is to say ‘OK cool, hit me up when you’re in town/when Covid’s not scary/when you fancy a drink and we’ll go out.’ I know I’m in the minority on this, and I am working on it, but right now I can’t field a tonne of messages ‘just for fun’ because I’m extremely wary of getting excited about someone until we’ve met in person. If we spend hours messaging back and forth before we’ve even met, who’s to say we won’t just have wasted loads of time?

On top of this, there’s the performance issue. When I’m on Twitter, and on the blog, and on Patreon, I’m performing. I’m filtering what I say, and therefore what you see, through a whole bunch of lenses. Is this particular fleeting thought useful or funny or potentially going to engage people? I’ll tweet it. Is it too depressing or private, though? Then I won’t. So men who are chatting to me in DM might see me tweeting about hangover horn, and think it’s a great time to come tell me how their dick feels. What they don’t know, though, is that I was enjoying my brief dalliance into performatively horny tweets to distract me from a medical problem I didn’t want to think about, and the idea of suddenly switching to one-on-one intimacy makes me shudder. I’m not going to tell them that, though, because telling them that means being more vulnerable than I want to be when I’m still in ‘performance’ mode.

See what I mean? In order to even begin getting to know me you have to first work your way through all the layers of brittle defensiveness and performance and self-preservation that I’ve built up to keep people at a distance – to manage these different layers of relationship, from parasocial to genuinely intimate and everything in between. And then you have to get your timing so right that I don’t feel like you, a hot dude, are interfering with my work. All my channels are technically ‘work’, no matter how much fun I have on them. So there’s another layer for men to have to peel away.

Layers upon layers: I’m like an absolutely terrible onion, made of rock-solid steel and intimacy issues.

Worse still, dudes: even if we date and/or fuck, you still don’t know me. I’m used to the intimacy that comes with many many long years of knowing, so anything less than that feels baffling and strange. This fierce intimacy doesn’t just come from my previous relationships (two fairly big, long-term ones, only one shorter which I cut off when it got too intense and yes I’ll chat to a therapist about this when I can afford one thank you) but from my friendships too. The people I am close to now, in my late thirties, are ones who have come on a long journey with me. Who’ve been through hard times and cried on my shoulder, and won victories that they’ve worked on for years which we’ve celebrated together with cocktails and nostalgia. You… who are you? I don’t know you.

At some point I will have to sort this out, I suppose. This weird, fierce policing of who does and doesn’t get to know me, and the way I feel about them when they do. It’s a bizarre thing, to invite people in for intimacy and then bristle when they think that means we’re close. When it’s one-sided, or practically impossible, like the parasocial relationships some blog readers want to have with me, it’s easy enough to point to the stats and say ‘sorry, my friend, I just can’t: you are one of many thousands, and my memory ain’t that great.’ The human brain, while awesome, is not flexible or capacious enough to allow for thousands of intimate relationships. But when it’s men I’m flirting with, chatting to, or actually literally fucking, perhaps what I’m doing is drawing a line in an odd place. Not for pragmatic reasons, but prickly ones.

You don’t know me. You can’t know me. You are not allowed to know me.



  • fuzzy says:

    I think we’re all onions, GOTN just talks about it in public unlike most folks. Your extended position as a blogger makes it a bit easier to point out, but how much do all of us do this in the various contexts of our lives? I know married people who don’t *really* know one another.

    GOTN isn’t “Sarah” and that’s fine (of course). And it’s good to be reminded (or to remind one’s self) of that periodically. As a young man I attended Sci-fi cons for years — meeting most of my favorite authors at an early age taught me a lot of things about the differences between individuals and their art. Some of the actual people were disappointing in person and some just blew me away with total awesomeness (omg just like real people); and it gave me perspective.

    Blessed be.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Mmm (to the comment above). I think much of this is true of many, even most people (in that we all have to set boundaries and keep others at different levels of intimacy). Other parts, not so much.

    GOTN has written before about dating people who know her from blogging; but I hadn’t thought so much until reading this one about the particular difficulties of flirting and such online when Twitter is literally part of your job. Ouch…

    I can understand the ‘parasocial relationships’ thing from the other side though. I’m active on Instagram more than Twitter, but I know what it’s like to interact and exchange messages with people who are vastly ‘bigger’ than you, with many more followers, who don’t necessarily know you at all. When I message or reply to someone popular, there’s always part of me that worries that I’m being annoying/over-friendly/creepy/taking up too much of their time. Even when it’s someone I know IRL. (And even though no one has actually complained so far…)

    So GOTN: I know that I don’t know you, I’m just a random commenter rather than a friend, and wouldn’t presume otherwise. And if the comments ever do get annoying, let me know! :)

    And here’s hoping you can one day afford that therapist…

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Afterthought: that sentence ‘even when it’s someone I know IRL’ was perhaps a bit redundant, since the whole point of this post was that there are different levels of knowledge, and you can easily ‘know’ somebody and still not really *know* them.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ohhh so I wanted to properly reply to this when you first posted it and I couldn’t think of a better way to say ‘I don’t mean you!’ than just going ‘I don’t mean you!’ which sort of sounds disingenuous. But I really appreciate your comments, and I am always delighted when you join in – you are never annoying =) I think what I’m getting at with a lot of this is when people try to escalate any interaction to get a little bit more: a bit more of my time, a bit more info, a bit more intimacy, but often without any awareness that they are one of so very many and if everyone did that I’d never get any sleep (or time to write the blog). But yeah tl;dr – I don’t mean you, I promise. And I totally get that too with people who have a large following – every now and then someone massive will reply to/share one of my tweets and I get very rabbit-in-headlights about how to respond. Should I be friendly? Is that *too* friendly? I can’t say *nothing*, that’d be rude. What is exactly the right level of friendliness to adopt with this person? Terrifying!

      And fuzzy, I definitely don’t mean you either! And I totally see what you mean re: cons! I used to go to a lot of talks by people I massively admired, and some of them I continued to admire (and therefore never ever approached or spoke to, in case they thought I was a twat) while others made me realise that actually ‘famous’ people can also be boring/mean dickheads too. I guess it’s always a useful thing to at least meet some of your heroes and realise that a ‘hero’ largely exists in the mind and in projection.

  • Switchington Bear says:

    Just wanted to add my support for this post, totally get it. I think in the current age of the internet and smartphones and social media it’s very easy for people to feel they have a closer connection to those they follow than they might have done with celebrities or whatever 20+ years ago where all the communications was one way (through the telly or newspapers or magazines).

    I read your blog and follow you on twitter because I love your writing style and content, and I find most of your work very relatable. However as someone who preserves my own online anonymity I totally get that what people see is what you choose to share and is certainly not the whole you, and you obviously don’t owe anyone anything more than that. So I think it is totally justified to call someone out for overstepping the line , whether or not they realise they are doing it.

    I am quite a shy person in a lot of ways and like SpaceCaptainSmith above I often think twice about posting comments or replies as I really don’t want to come across as being over familiar or annoying (and I often worry about this long after I click the send button on any post). But i like to let you know if I like something you’ve done, and I don’t expect you to reply (although it is always nice when you do) because I’m just one of many people who enjoy your work.

    Thanks so much for everything you share with us.

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