By Will Thames
My induction into social media came, as I’d wager it came for most my age, through Facebook, though I was pitifully late to the game. With two military-grade helicopters for parents (God love em), I didn’t know a like from a lick until 7th grade. By that point, I was one of the last of my friends to make an account. I can now see a pearl of undeniable wisdom in their decision to limit my exposure to Facebook, both of us being in our fledgling states at the time.
As “like my picture” and “are we friends yet?” became commonplace conversation-starters at school, I grew increasingly desperate, and was begging for an account of my own within the week. After month’s of asking, my wish was granted for my birthday. The year before, I had asked for a Harry Potter wand because I was (and am) that bitch but this year, all I needed was the account. The account meant inclusion, which meant acceptance, which meant popularity, which meant… clear skin and a perpetual state of enraptured euphoria?
The morning of, my dad woke me up with a balloon, a slice of cake, and a quick “check the downstairs computer when you get up.”
My feet were on the ground immediately, and the cake was finished before I reached the bottom of the stairs. Through the hall, into the living room, and directly to the family computer where, glistening in eye-aching blue and white, beamed the profile setup page.
I breezed through my account settings, skimming the details on online privacy, and hurtled towards the “FINISH” button where I encountered my first hurdle. I had to choose a profile picture. Shit.
Was I supposed to be taking pictures of myself this whole time? I hadn’t done my homework, it seemed. Then an idea. While the rest of my grade was grazing in safe pastures with their real-to-life-brace-faced profile pictures, I was coming in hot with a curveball...
Run for cover, cool kids. New shape-shifting robot in town.
I leaped into this vast new frontier and found that, it being my birthday, I was entitled to attention! Miraculous! Boys I thought of while I masturbated were telling me to have a “super” birthday! Girls who never gave me a second glance sent me smiley faces! All without leaving the house! I responded to each birthday message in kind, delighted that I was suddenly on speaking terms with my entire grade.
A quick cake break, then back to tending my digital flock.
I found myself liking anything, everything, and everyone in equal measure. Liking felt good, simple, direct. An unquestionable vote of confidence. Who could doubt the validity of my unspeakably hilarious profile picture when 7 people had taken the time to like?
I’ve since added Twitter, Instagram, and, for a brief time, Snapchat to my social media Rolodex. All but Snapchat remain regular fixtures of my phone. Twitter for breaking news, quick laughter, or boredom. Facebook for promoting writing/acting, quick laughter, or boredom. Instagram for escapism, self-loathing, or boredom. Are we sensing a theme?
Even now- as I write this, I have taken two breaks to browse Instagram and Facebook respectively. No serious social headway was made during either break, but my brain needed a reset, and my phone offered the perfect short-term relief. I liked a new profile picture, commented a drag race reference on a friend’s performance video, and browsed the smothering landslide of gay men Facebook’s algorithm keeps parading across my “suggested friends.” You could say this is only further evidence of social media’s conditioning my attention span to the tempo of a hummingbird’s heartbeat. You could also point out that I’ve knocked out a lot of writing in this particular sitting because of these micro-escapes from the task at hand. But are these breaks really escapes?
Because I find myself at a strange crossroads in my relationship with social media. Where it used to provide a joke to save for class or the address for my friend’s house party, it has since lead me to gainful employment. Photographers who I’ve admired for ages are a simple message away for collaborating. I can tell people that I’m singing at The Duplex this Saturday at 8 and get an immediate read on who will actually attend. Obama Optimus Prime has become a… working adult?
I’m far from the first to piece this together and find that my dashboards and timelines are almost entirely made of self-promotion, self-plugging, and a fair deal of self-congratulating. If identity is performative, it stands to reason that the online versions of ourselves would follow suit. Especially where image is concerned. We have become a legion of self-editors, armies of one amassing by the millions. Does the banner photo of me doing my best Dangerous-Woman-Era-Ari have anything to do with what I have to say? Of course not- but articles run with banner photos and the ones that clearly feature my face tend to traffic better than the ones with stock images. An image is a part of what I’m selling, be it through acting or writing. If our online selves are curated versions of the real deal, which version matters more? The Self or the Almighty I?
I hate it, but I need it. It’s all-consuming and make-believe.
How can all these contradictory statements live together?
For every online leg up, I feel I fall a step back internally. I am not here to blame social media for every negative emotion I’ve felt since making a Facebook account. I am, however, unable to ignore the negative impact this new form of communication is taking on my mental health, attention span, and general outlook. AND STILL, I LOVE IT. It’s remarkable that I can reach across the planet wirelessly and meet individuals who would never have entered my life without social media. So what to make of all this?
Rather than agonize in solitude over how I don’t look like the deluge of supermodels available for praising on Instagram or sing like “insert name” from “insert university,” I’d rather phone a friend. Tackling this topic alone would feel somewhat trite, after all. Social media has seeped into daily creative life in confusing and frustrating ways for other people too, I’m sure. I think.
And so I come to you, dear reader, a deeply confused and indecisive actor/writer/cheese-eater, hoping to make a connection. I want to understand my own feelings of anxiety and exhilaration, a dubious cocktail if ever I’ve had one, and make a clear and concise plea to you that, at least, you aren’t the only one to struggle with this junk. Some may call this cheating. I certainly did, for a time. But the truth is that I don’t feel like doing this alone. And so, like white blood cells consuming dangerous bacteria, I am phoning a friend, or four.
I sent five questions to four friends. The questions were meant to be as direct and straightforward as possible, with no parameters set on how much or how little my test subjects could say. Below, is an assortment of their answers, strung like beads. Their responses have proven gratifying and inspiring, and have given me a perspective on social solitude I couldn’t have found alone. They have each consented to be called by their first names below.
And so, without further ado, the questions.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH SOCIAL MEDIA?
Jake: I first encountered social media in seventh grade… loved the games.
Corey: My first encounter with social media was in the 5th grade I hopped on the Farmville bandwagon like white on rice.
Catie: Probably 2007 or 2008
Hannah: I got my own account in 7th grade and grossly misused it (as we all did) by posting all kinds of dumb shit constantly, but even then it was more about the games and the apps, I think.
Corey: I remember thinking "who would want to read about your life, who would actually go on the internet and view someone's profile. If I know you, why would I need to read about you, and if I don't, why would I care?"
Catie: I had the 99+ little red bubble at the top of my page for, like, a year before realizing that I actually had to click it and look to see what people were doing/saying to me.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT YOU POST/DON’T POST?
Jake: I used to just post to be funny and laugh with people. But now everyone has opinions of what to post and what not to post so sometimes that stops me from posting a non sequitur.
Hannah: I post primarily promotional shit… or sharing my friends’ work to promote them.
Corey: I've always liked to maintain a "neat and tidy" online profile. I don't usually let posts I'm tagged in sit on my timeline for long.
Catie: I used to be much more open posting political things online, but since the election a few years ago (and honestly, before then), I've had to be careful about what I say. Mostly with my family. I share something, or even LIKE an article from the New York Times, and I get aggressive text messages from my parents, asking insane things like, "How could you like that article when you know that all of it's a lie? You know that, right? We raised you better. You're being indoctrinated by the leftist media." It gets honestly so draining, that whenever I DO want to share something political, I have an entirely separate setting to keep my conservative family out of my loop.
Corey: I think social media is a window for the world (and ourselves) showing who we'd like the think we are… society rewards the extrovert.
Hannah: I’m trying to find a way to unabashedly be my goofiest, nastiest, and best self while also being approachable and hirable (read: friendly, pretty, appropriate). It’s tricky.
DO YOU FEEL ATTACHMENTS TO THE NUMBER OF LIKES A POST RECEIVES?
Hannah: Ugh. Yes.
Catie: Sometimes I do, sure!
Corey: I remember the days when I was excited to get 50 likes on an Instagram photo!
Jake: I don’t feel attached… but sometimes I wonder about WHO is liking it.
Hannah: I guess it makes sense — if I’m posting something because I actively want people to see it, ...it stands to reason that I would want as many people as possible to see and appreciate it.
Corey: I definitely care about the likes and comments, I took the photos myself, ...and I already know I like them. I'm posting them because I want to know if you like them.
Catie: I notice that certain posts get more attention than others. It's always the artistic ones that make it seem like I'm living a completely cool and carefree life.
Hannah: It still sucks to sit around seeking that validation, though.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA?
Catie: I love how connected I feel to the world.
Hannah: I love seeing what my friends are up to.
Corey: I love the ability to communicate with others.
Jake: Convenience and freedom.
Catie: It's comfortable and reassuring, as well. Don't know what to do on the train? Just whip out Facebook. And HELL yes, that's also incredible problematic - we're not really living in the real world. But, sometimes? I'm actually just okay with that. The real world can really blow sometimes.
Hannah: I also love the confidence it takes to look at a picture of yourself and think, “Hey, I look great here” or “This represents my personality super fucking well” and then to share that with hundreds of people.
WHAT DO YOU HATE?
Corey: I don't enjoy that I feel like it's my responsibility to post or engage with the posts of others… It's just an interesting mind game to keep up with.
Jake: I don’t like that it’s a curated version of ourselves, how it fosters intense anxiety in people because of comparison, and I don’t like that it is an obsession.
Hannah: I really really really fucking hate the role of social media in being an artist. I hate that I just want to post things for me and my friends but now I need a public account to link to on my fucking website so I also have to factor in any industry professionals who might be looking.
Catie: Social media makes me feel like a commodity in a lot of ways.
Corey: I feel like we're expected to maintain our online life as a means of networking and just generally flexing on our peers.
Catie: I want to keep certain things to myself, and the people that I choose to share it with. But there's so much pressure to share everything about yourself... "You're liberal, you should be more outspoken and kick your family's ass for voting for Trump! How dare you! You have a responsibility!" or "You're bi, you should come out and show everyone that it's fine." And when I get those kinds of comments, I kind of want to... scream and flip a table over?
Hannah: I also think the ability to curate your life on social media so you look happier/thinner/richer/less fucked up than you really are is unbelievably dangerous and damaging.
Jake: Can we just... radical concept... LIVE OUR FREAKIN lives instead of worrying about our fake lives on social media??
Catie: There are personal, individual and private reasons for what I share and don't share with the world. And there's NO respect for that privacy boundary anymore. A controversial example - after Eric Garner's death, all of my black friends took to social media and said, "All of my white 'friends' on Facebook, you should be speaking out! But you're quiet. Your silence is noted." I'm more than happy to talk about Eric Garner with anyone and express my opinion that it was FUCKED UP, and crossed a line and that he should NOT be dead right now, and it was directly because of the police. But last time I posted about BLM on Facebook, four different family members essentially accosted me either in public comments or in private messages. And it was horrifying and upsetting. I even got an angry PHONE CALL, from a relative saying, "Your cousin is a cop, and you want him DEAD?! Shame on you!" So, no, I don't post certain things on social media anymore.
A sense of obligation to public presentation.
Authenticity remains as precious and remarkable as ever before.
I don’t know a single person who doesn’t feel some sense of unease surrounding online perception.
Connection is key.
If social media is meant to be a reflection of ourselves, it bends and warps with our flaws as well as our accolades. Our online personas (and they are personas) are entirely of our creation and, while the days of Farmville are gone, and Obama Optimus Prime have passed their Prime (not sorry), there is still connection and communion.
I am not advocating that the key to happiness lies in making peace with the concept of Instagram. I am, however, convinced that our Instagrams, Facebooks, and Twitters, are affecting us more than we’re admitting. If I’ve learned nothing else from this exercise, it’s that, somewhat ironically, sharing helps more than any other remedy I’ve found.
Don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe you lemming.