By Joshua Morrison
Blog Content Contributor
I love social media and so much of what it allows me to do. My favorite celebrities are accessible to me in a way they previously were not and I’ve been able to, in some small way, emulate the celebrity experience myself by using social media to craft an image. I met my first boyfriend online and I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and maintain relationships with unprecedented ease. Yes, I love social media.
That’s why it’s weird for me to say that lately I’ve been wondering if the social sphere might have some serious problems.
I hesitate to admit that because I think it’s easy to scapegoat social media. As somebody who has been a public speaking instructor, I have been subject to what feels like a hundred speeches about the impossibility of genuine communication across social media platforms. Whistle-blowers have a field day with declarations that social media is destroying our ability to communicate, as though communication online is the same thing as not communicating. Authenticity-fetishizing contrarians gain some kind of odd credibility from denouncing online communication as somehow inherently insincere. Their stance seems to be that sharing an experience renders it meaningless. It’s all I can do not to scream.
You see, you can learn a lot about somebody from what they choose to share about themselves on social media. Social content is as genuine, or not, as its creator intends. The sweeping declarations to the contrary ignore the human element and suggest that social media is a dehumanizing force that people are simply unable to resist. This position is both insulting and foolish.
Social media’s impact on our ability to communicate is not my concern. What has given me pause is the story of Essena O’Neill.
O’Neill was an Instagram sensation who had over 600,000 followers at the peak of her fame. Had you only looked at her account, her life would have appeared perfect. You would have seen her at the beach, or any other number of beautiful locations, wearing gorgeous clothing and appearing to have the time of life at any given moment. Late last year, seemingly out of nowhere, she changed her account dramatically.
Her photos began to include the hashtag #celebrityconstruct and detail the pains that she went through to achieve each perfect shot. She detailed going without eating to achieve the perfect stomach for a photo, berating her sister to take shot after shot to get the right picture, and getting paid by brands to display their products. Her account was full of pictures that demanded excruciating effort, yet made her life seem like casual, unfettered bliss.
The appearance of O’Neill’s account fed the illusion that it was possible to have a life that lends itself so effortlessly to perfect pictures. Motivation for her radical transition came from the impact this illusion can have on young, impressionable followers. What really brought the danger to her attention was the realization that many young women the world over were making themselves as miserable as she was in order to look like she did.
Comparing ourselves to other people is a natural human impulse, and the danger of social media lies in the easy access it provides to points of comparison that look flawless. What many onlookers fail to realize is the often extensive labor that goes into creating illusions. We look, often unwittingly, at carefully curated realities. If someone is willing to labor over the task of making their life look perfect on social media, it is possible for them to do so.
There are no warnings on social media. There is nothing to remind us that what we are seeing might have nothing to do with the way things really are. Social media can participate mightily in the creation of incredibly unrealistic standards. This is the danger.
Now, this sad truth is not license to discount the social sphere entirely. As I said, social media is capable of doing incredible things for people. Nor should people be discouraged from wanting to post beautiful pictures of themselves. I mean, who doesn’t like to put their best face forward? The solution is a shift in the way we talk about social media. We need to be more willing to recognize the artifice, to look at a picture and not assume it was easily achieved. A perfect picture hardly ever signifies a perfect life, and we need to remember that.