The World Wide Vulnerability

This piece was originally written and published for The Pastry Box Project.

There’s such a raw and present feeling that comes with vulnerability. It’s a burrito filled with doubt and self-criticism, wrapped (or, trapped) in a tortilla of fear. It’s looking at ourselves from an outside perspective as we feel small, weak, and helpless about everything around us.

The web makes us vulnerable in many ways, especially in what we share. We’re supposed to be that way, right? We’re supposed to share it all—the happy, the sad, the wedding, the baby picture, the breakup, the check-in, and the personal opinion which, for many voices, has lead to death threats. We put so much out there, sometimes as cries for help, a rant or rave, or a credit card number for a two-day delivery service. All of it is in a vulnerable state to attack, judgment, or exposure.

The web doesn’t care if we’re seasoned surfers or whether we’re new to it. Learning how to make a website for the very first time, sharing photos of our children, or expressing an unpopular opinion. Everything is amplified and permanent; the highs are high but the lows hurt more and linger. We’re vulnerable when that thing we’re making breaks and when we offend someone indirectly. We’re vulnerable when we don’t know how the person we know best—ourselves—may react to a new scenario, person, technology, or “blank-for-blank” startup. Usually, we end up okay and unscathed, or heal after a short time. Usually.

We purposely use vulnerability on the web, too. It has helped us become addicted to failure. We use it to say publicly that we failed so that we can stay in a state that is familiar and somehow safer than taking a risk, and as if it actually helped us overcome a hurdle. We use it to get support on a hard day. It’s all fleeting, yet, support flows in with other sharing that “they’ve been there” or that “it will be better next time”. It does make it better and we feel better.

We start being vulnerable naturally. I teach, and I watch students become vulnerable to the code—the unfamiliar. Not that they're going to break something on a site they’re designing, but I think their true fear is what that means. They feel vulnerable enough to think that I or a peer may be judging them, they fear the end of the learning period. They fear that they’ll be the first to not get it. Though, they always do get it! They have my support, the support of their peers, and the support of forums and search results revealing that we’re all dealing with the same battle. There is comfort in that.

Last year, I spoke at a conference. It wasn’t my first, but it wasn’t in my comfort zone of an extremely supportive, local community. So it was scary to me and I felt vulnerable. “What if they hate me, and then the web will know?”, I thought. “I’m sure I’ll say the wrong thing!”, I convinced myself. So, I kept working at it, even when ever ounce of me wanted to cower to the fear. Of course, it was fine, and the organizers, attendees, and especially the seasoned speakers, were supportive in person and on the web. They shared stories of their first talk. Ben, one of those speakers, told me I’d watch myself continue to feel more comfortable and that my fears will disappear the more I spoke. Of course I did, and, of course, Ben was right. Practice working with vulnerability and it becomes less scary.

Vulnerability has a reputation for being something bad. But, if the web is a tool, then vulnerability can be, too. We can use it in different ways. Sure, it can drive us to freak out, but it can also drive us to document, share, overshare, and speak up. Being vulnerable can allow us to let others learn from us, listen and react carefully, open our hearts and minds, and be understanding when others are going through something. We can use it to understand how users navigate a site, a get better feedback, or be okay with harsh criticism. It can help us learn, individually or together. When we’re vulnerable—and okay with it—we can be better, as a conference speaker or a new design student, an advocate for rights, or anything else we’re striving to be. Being vulnerable is very human, and it’s very okay. Vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it is in fact, it’s our strength.

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