"Consumerist numbing tools such as television and social media are designed to be pacifiers of emotional pain. They were not invented out of care for people's wellness, and instead are used as active and purposeful agents to inflate the economy. Because western society has labeled emotions as weak or "unproductive," it is within the capitalist's agenda to void them all. To these companies, heavy emotions interfere with work and jeopardize the machine that many of us are unwillingly a part of. When we prolong our numbness, we must interrogate the forces that encourage us not to feel."
― Mimi Zhu, Be Not Afraid of Love
I refuse to be one thing. I’m two things, three things, a hundred things at once, and I’ll be a hundred different things tomorrow. I don’t want the convenience of being collapsed, defined, optimized for legibility. I want to be aerated, blobby, and porous. I want to be the sea around an archipelago, a society of islands harboring uncountable species. I want to be a distributed self, an assembly that assembles with others, that refuses — or more appropriately, exceeds — hyper-rational, neocolonial frameworks, hierarchies, and ways of seeing.
But there is no reason to equate any of this with our “real selves,” or to assume that it automatically translates as “authenticity” to other users, let alone oneself. As Kelsey Weekman explains in this Buzzfeed piece, “the thought of keeping my notifications on and phone within constant reach in order to perform authenticity immediately seems self-defeating.” The app is premised on all your friends noticing whether you were “real” at the appointed time, so the pressure can just as easily seem more intense as less than the presumed stress of having to idealize oneself or compete for attention.
the mass fraudulence that social media has enabled—a fraudulence that erodes the borders of the self the more we try to shore it up through digital performance, making us vulnerable to influencers as well as ideology, and impeding our ability to form authentic human connections, if those even really exist.
I still stream music, but the turntable scratches a completely different itch: the desire to experience my own life away from the seeming limitlessness of online existence, and the watchful gaze implied by participating. To invite borders and boundaries. It’s hard to say whether this is a product of my age or whatever phase of societal decline we’re currently in, but since we got it, I haven’t stopped thinking about the more diminutive aspects of my life, and how good and natural they are. I do not need to be widely known, admired, or understood, nor does my world need to expand infinitely into the metaverse; rather, it needs to contract.
Social media crystallizes this dynamic in a particularly performative way. Not just because it reinforces binaries of taste (are you earnest or ironic? into contour or no makeup? pro-filter or pro-flash?), but because its entire value proposition is about asserting who you are in comparison, or contrast, to other people. This is why I think there’s some truth to the idea that Instagram is a playground for the insecure. Who else is more desperate to find an in-group, and what better way to do it?
It feels like I’m getting at something obvious. But maybe that’s why it’s worth getting at—I think we’ve become so attuned to what certain things say about us online that I’m not sure we’re even conscious of the implications anymore. Or worse, we are, and that’s why it’s so addicting, because we’re embroiled in an endless digital game of chasing confidence and running from feeling inadequate. Doesn’t that kind of sound like being on Instagram? This is probably why I feel so critical of people trying to assert their superiority online—it makes me blatantly face what I’ve always suspected about these virtual spaces, and especially my role in perpetuating them.
I’ll admit I’m kind of saying two things here: That everyone on Instagram is insecure and that I’m insecure for thinking that. But I think that tension is one of the central tenets of engaging with social media—you’re never quite sure if everyone else is crazy or you are. Maybe we’re all a little bit of both, mixing together our more authentic and inauthentic qualities until we can’t remember which is which. I think the performative aspect of maintaining a social profile—the choosing of the photos, the crafting of the words—will always serve as a kind of filter on our lives, whether we’re the filtering types or not.
Incessant notifications are not the future. A connected mind is not a distracted mind. We need to design software that calms and strengthens.