I briefly posted about this earlier in the week, but have pondered on the subject a little more. And in a nutshell, we are not our online selves.
You know this – I mean, duh, you know this. But I started thinking about how we will educate kids in the future about digital lives, social media, and the way we choose to portray ourselves. Old folks – and by “old,” I don’t actually mean old…I mean anyone who remembers having a pre-social media/Internet-savvy life – we really get our granny panties in a bunch trying to figure out privacy levels and what’s considered oversharing and all of that. But I’ve been seeing a lot more written out there about “don’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides” and applying that to, say, a Facebook and Instagram feed. That’s what I’m talking about here.
I started thinking about how, perhaps, the youngest parents of today might have a better time at educating their children about virtual life – as they themselves have never lived without one. Because surely social media and the Internet reaches deeper than simply teaching a child that stranger-danger is just as real online as offline, that people might not be who they portray themselves to be. In addition, we need to educate kids about self-perception versus perception of others, too, right?
Because here’s the thing: Like glossy magazines with thin, flawless models, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat feeds are loaded with photos of your smiling, happy “friends” or “followers” (in between all the cat memes, of course). They are full of photos of trips to Paris and that one awesome street festival and that time we saw the fire dancers and that gorgeous girl and her sinewy friend lounging on a Cancun beach and all the beautiful people cocktailing with their glamorous, well-heeled friends. AND IT’S ENOUGH TO MAKE YOU, SITTING ON YOUR COUCH IN PAJAMAS WITH MESSY HAIR & NO MAKEUP & DRINKING WINE & WATCHING Scandal, WANT TO CRY.
I mean, not that that’s ever happened to me. Like, totally, my friend told me she felt that way once.
And therein you have the problem. Or problems, rather:
1) Our lives are not all perfect trips to Paris and cocktailing with all our beautiful friends every night. But sometimes social media makes it seems like everyone else’s life is perfect. Or at least more perfect than mine. Sure, sometimes people post unhappy or purposely unflattering things – but on the whole, social media is a bastion of re-runs of This is My Perfect Life [and Not Yours].
2) We live in a society where, if you are struggling or unhappy for any duration of time, well, there must be something wrong with you and the way you’re living. We want to control everything – from our weight to our job situation to child-rearing to our relationships and everything. And if you run into issues with your health, or you falter in a relationship, or – oh, I dunno, let’s just randomly pick something – have struggled in finding a job and career that satisfies you personally and financially and you end up bouncing from job to job and city to city…well then, sister, you must be failing.
The fallacy of problem number one is clear: Of course lives aren’t perfect – we just pretend they are online. And the reason we do that is problem number two. Because if someone admits that, hey, I’m struggling right now…the fear is that people might not view that person as strong and successful and a survivor. So we post pictures of pretty, shiny things and beautiful landscapes and pristine nature and cross our fingers that everyone else thinks we have our shit together. But we can’t control shit falling apart. It happens. And this might be a mountain of a cliche, but what matters is how gracefully and tactfully we handle it. And if we could only get that into our common psyche, we might be getting somewhere.
Sure, sometimes we are riding high and are genuinely happy and loving life and want to share that joy with our friends and family (and total strangers). But you can sure as heck bet most of us aren’t posting those other times.
I sure didn’t post when I recently found out I lost a job I thought was perfect, a job whose application process included the best interview I’ve ever had in my life, after which I was planning on finding a new apartment, finally, finally getting a dog because I’d be working full time from home, and being able to settle down in my work life for the first time ever. I sat in a Chase Bank parking lot and read the kind “thanks but no thanks” email my former-potential-boss sent to me, crying so hard mascara smeared on my cheeks and snot ran down my nose, the only thoughts running through my head being You’re such a failure. You are not enough. I couldn’t even finish my errands; instead I drove home, crying, wondering where exactly in my life I’d made the worst wrong turn in my career and education, and wondering if I’d ever be able to correct it.
I was too ashamed to tell (most) people I’d failed at yet another interview. The thing that only came to me at the end of that tough day was my thought I had just before the interview: If you’re supposed to get this job, you’ll get this job. If you’re supposed to get something better for you, you will. Don’t worry about it. Maybe if our focus as a community was on our response to hardship, I would have felt better about my answer to the rejection, which was to reply to the “thanks but no thanks” email the next day by saying that I’d had so much fun in the interview process (and really, I had) and that should even short-term contract work arise to contact me, because it seemed like an engaging, dynamic company to work for (and really, it does). For all the crying and brief wallowing, responding gracefully to the rejection felt good; it felt like what a mature, real woman would do – not the weepy little girl I usually feel like.
It was after that that the whole online life thing grew in my head and I realized: It’s not real. These manicured and curated bits and slices and crevices of our lives are just slivers of the reality. And actually, they aren’t even reality. Not to get all Magritte on you here, but a picture of gorgeous people reveling at a nightclub is not actually reveling at a nightclub. Your awesome vacation photos aren’t actually your vacation. It’s fake. It’s the filtered, pretty version you present to the world – and yourself. That’s not to say vacation and party pics are bad – they aren’t at all. We all want and deserve to remember the good times, the beautiful things, the celebrations. But your timeline is not you. And my timeline is not me. I love posting pictures of the ocean, especially at sunset, and in Monterey, they are among the best sunsets on the planet…but I’m usually watching those sunsets at the edge of the world feeling a little nostalgic, missing people thousands of miles in front of and behind me, and getting more and more wistful as the sun falls. I’m certainly not a beachy, California girl who spends her days on the sand – but I also don’t mind if that’s what my photos portray.
And that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with wanting your life to be portrayed a certain way online to others. We are all builders of an image, even if we don’t intend to be – if we can only remember image as being the key word.