By Elle Moore
I’m sure everyone has noticed their use of Instagram and Twitter creeping up day after day during the lockdown. I’ve been posting a lot more than usual recently and it’s led me to a conclusion: social media is really a tricky little thing, isn’t it? For me, the lockdown has drawn attention to the symbiotic relationship between digital consumption and production on social platforms. It’s also led me to question why we choose to take part in this endless cycle of digital content. Social media facilitates, at some basic level, our desire to express ourselves. It allows us to meet a voyeuristic need to be seen and to see other people.
Obviously, this cycle existed long before the lockdown. We live and work in a period defined by the rise of the Influencer, the YouTuber, the TikToker, the Instagram Poet, the Personal Brand™, Marie Kondo, Caroline Calloway, THE ALGORITHM. Social media is now an almost imperceptible presence in our lives, a kind of white noise. Yet, this noise envelops us all, its effects permeating down into the minutiae of our day-to-day decision-making processes.
For example, we might now be wondering, have I made this vegan banana bread because I am a vegan and I like banana bread? Or have I made this vegan banana bread because one day I liked an Instagram post that belonged to a popular vegan influencer? The Instagram algorithm then started to throw up loads more posts from vegan influencers who post a lot of vegan content. I am now officially plant-based and I’ve swapped out my eggs for chickpea water (FYI, it’s actually pronounced ‘aquafaba’). No longer being able to access ‘real life’ experiences with people outside of our household, we have traded people-watching in noisy cafés for people-watching on an Instagram-live. We are therefore consuming even more content on social media platforms. This increased consumption has in turn accelerated a cycle in which we continually and (un)consciously reproduce cultural trends (see: baking, sourdough, the TikTok Savage dance, dalgona coffee, frying pan pizza, pink hair).
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As much as we might try to lessen our exposure to it, we are living in a world which is constructed by the internet. Perhaps much more sinister still, we are living in a world in which we are constructed by the internet. I am currently reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror which discusses a similar point. Within the book’s opening essay, Tolentino outlines an amorphous, ephemeral space in which the expression of ‘individual identity’ has become increasingly pivotal. Tolentino writes, ‘the internet […] began to seem like the natural home of self-expression’. She continues, ‘as more people began to register their presence digitally, a pastime turned into an imperative: you had to register yourself digitally to exist’.
Yet, self-expression is now not simply a popular corner of the online world, it drives digital content production. This is outlined by Tolentino, who notes, ‘the call of self-expression turned the village of the internet into a city’. This is certainly accurate. We only need to look at the popularity of viral personal essays to see that self-expression has been a powerful motor for increased online engagement, particularly for women (eg. Natalie Beach for The Cut, Cat Marnell for xoJane and Vice). If self-expression is the driving force of outward expansion on the internet, then it is as vital to content creators today as roads were to the Romans.
Why is self-expression so popular within digital mediums? Because humans are social animals. We crave intimacy, relationships, connections and companionship and we like to see this reflected back at us – look at how much we all loved Normal People. Sharing more on social media is perhaps an attempt to satisfy these cravings. It is certainly a great substitute during a time in which we are unable to socialise in the ways we usually would. But the word ‘substitute’ is key. ‘Substitute’ denotes ‘a person or thing acting or serving in place of another’. A substitute is therefore not the actual thing that we initially set out to get. It is simply a stand-in, a lesser-version-of. Because of this, social media platforms cannot be considered a complete replacement of face-to-face human interaction. At least not in the context that we are using them during the lockdown. This is because digital interaction requires more work and more effort. We miss social cues because the picture is blurry, we interrupt because the audio is lagging. It is therefore tiring to try and replicate the level of intimacy online that we would normally have in person. Perhaps this is why everyone wants a nap after each Zoom call.
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Capitalising on personal identity itself has obvious implications. However, I do want to make it clear that I am not denigrating the very real value of digital relationships. People fall in love online, they connect with far away friends and family members. But social media is a double-edged sword. Whilst it can bring us closer to people we love, our constant self-sharing can induce a kind of ‘burnout’. This is because sharing on social media inevitably involves an element of performance. We are conscious of our audience and construct an online ‘self’ that we think our audience would like to see (think about the difference in what you would post on Instagram if your parents or managers could view it). For the most part, posting online to share our lives with our friends and family is fun, enjoyable and without harm. However sometimes these small but constant performative acts can become tiring. This sense of burn-out is further compounded by the fact that browsing Instagram all the time means we continually view other people’s edited and curated online lives. This, as we know, is not good for our mental health if done in excess.
So maybe self-hood has truly become ‘capitalism’s last natural resource’. Certainly, celebrities and influencers are now often contracted to create an alternative version of themselves online. Note, a key difference between people in the public eye and ordinary social media users is that most celebrities / influencers see social media as work and are therefore financially compensated for this trade-off (this is a huge social privilege). I wonder if, looking back on this time, we will see it as a major turning point in the way in which we, as individuals, view ourselves. Or, maybe, we will reach burn-out and fall out of love with social media. Who can really say during the beginning stages of what is sure to be a difficult period (to say the least). All we can do is look after ourselves, make a vegan banana bread if we really want to, and savour the taste of it as much as we can.