By ALICE ZELENKO
“I was born in 1990, and I was sort of raised in America when it was a cult of self-expression. And I was just taught, you know, express myself and have things to say, and everyone will care about them. And I think everyone was taught that and most of us found out no one gives a shit what we think.”
Kind of extreme, I know. But also kind of … unsettlingly true? That’s a Bo Burnham quote from his 2016 stand-up special, “Make Happy.” Generation Z and Millennials, have been called ‘lazy, entitled, phone-obsessed’, optimistic, pessimistic, and the ruiners of everything from the diamond and napkin industries to beer and Applebees. And so we defend ourselves —we’re not like that! We’re innovators! We’re progressive, forward-thinkers who are here to help the world!
But here’s the problem with dichotomies: they encourage one-sided thinking. Our generation is everything and anything. We are technology-obsessed, yet simultaneously we are in the best position to understand and further the benefits of innovation. As a result of the internet and social media, we are also the most performative and self-conscious generation of all time.
Another polarity that struck me as both fascinating, and confusing, was my first week of college. Despite being a massive, scary, exciting, transitional, life moment, the first week of college was filled with awkward interactions and surface level friendships, and endless conversations that consisted of “Oh! I’m from _____, my FYE is ______, you?”
Perhaps the most superficial part of my nascent freshman year is the overuse of Snapchat.
Now, I’m not saying it’s this foreign new app to me that I don’t have or I don’t use. We all play into the culture we create. I fall prey to the performance of identity and life constantly. However, the trendy compulsion to document everything and anything — the most exciting and weird, the most aggressively mundane — is striking, and a bit unsettling, to me. In high school, I saw students in the grades below me partake in filming everything for their stories, maintaining streaks, or chatting in huge groups, but never to the degree of my college peers. Why the need to film everything? Why the need to send a boomerang of your friend sitting to twenty people? The new iPhone front-facing camera update came with a new lens that makes your face look slightly thinner. We’re mass-producing this to ourselves and to others; an image of ourselves that isn’t ourselves.
Think about where your phone is right now. I’m guessing it’s either in your pocket, or in direct eyesight. Now think about one of your social platforms. If it’s not Snapchat, maybe it’s Instagram or Facebook. How frequently do you use those platforms? What’s your primary activity on them? Is it posting? Scrolling through? Most importantly, is it a truthful and accurate depiction of your life?
Trick question: it can’t be, and it never will be. Inherent to a medium filtered through a camera is augmentation. You can never be yourself — you’re always something falsely worse or falsely better. Even if I post a self-critical photo with my best double chin and a caption outwardly saying, “I’m part of the problem but whatever,” I’m still a part of the problem.
But back to the question at hand: why does one Snapchat? Maybe it’s out of a need to share your life with friends. Maybe it’s to save the videos for later laughs. Maybe it’s to show off a bit. Maybe it’s because of outside pressures. I, personally, use social media primarily for validation. It’s a toxic cycle. You scroll through Instagram, and there are all the people you know and all the people you don’t know, living better lives, eating prettier food, going to more fun places and having more friends. So then you want to present yourself as such, too! So you do. The cycle continues.
And I believe it’s the same with Snapchat — except this platform is the ultimate performative app. Not only can we perform the best, most polished parts of our lives, we can perform everything constantly. We can all become D-list celebrities and watch our quick rise to fame. And that, to me, is truthfully scary, especially when thinking about the future. I wouldn’t go so far as to say social media is “prison”, but it’s something like that. Performing costs us our social confidence. It over-connects us while undervaluing us in relationships and as people. It makes us into show animals waiting for another treat and some applause.
But why perform at all? We’re adults now. We have some sense of identity that isn’t as wishy-washy as in adolescence. The single reason, in my opinion? Validation — the short-term kind, rather than fulfilling, long-term, meaningful validation … the kind that feels really good for a second but then fades away in the trap of comparing yourself to others, self-expectations, or insecurities.
A 2017 study done by neurologists Przybylski and Orben found a similar neurological response to using cocaine, getting a like releases dopamine and serotonin. We’ve become accustomed to needing validation for all the parts of our existence, so the performer lives on within us. But if we can try to think critically of the way we use technology, our culture would be easier to navigate. We wouldn’t feel scared to look out from behind the screen. We wouldn’t feel pressure to post or not to post. There wouldn’t be a feeling of inferiority. Connecting with others, sharing experiences, and being curious are all fine things, but seeking an audience at all times is dangerous to culture as well as the individual.
Reader to author, you don’t need an audience. You’re enough as you are without one. Find solace in being adequate without the validations or judgment of others. I hope our culture is dissuaded from the search for an audience, as well as the need to perform, in time. It’s human nature, I get it, but it’s also society’s poison. My advice? Try to find the value in stepping away from the lives of others in cyberspace. You’re here to live your life among others, not to perform it.