How Social Media Helps Us Navigate Ourselves

On the Rocks

I am tired, and the bartender won’t shut up. The list of things that are making me tired includes but is not limited to: midterms, the rain, shitty cocktails, my mother, nachos, a bad Tom Petty cover, and the bartender. My friend Carmen orders a drink. Her and Sam take out their phones to take a photo of it. I’m convinced coming to this bar is the worst idea I’ve had all week, a pathetic attempt to seem social. I wait for my body to get up off the stool and leave. The bartender stirs, slides, gestures to my friends, and says, “Hey, look at all this togetherness!” For the first time all night, he has my undivided attention. I order another drink.

My friends are worried I’m sad. I’m worried their nachos are getting cold — they’ve been trying to caption a photo on Instagram for fifteen minutes now. I guess I’m not talking very much, much less picking my head up from the bar top. But I’m too busy thinking about how to ask the bartender to explain the nature of his offhanded remark.

In this particular moment, it occurs to me that this moment may not be very particular after all. At some point or another, we are all in this moment. We are all in this bar with these friends. We are all here for the sake of the weekend, for the sake of shit beer and togetherness. But this moment feels different. In this moment it feels as if we’re not the only ones here. And no, I’m not referring to the rugby team barging through the back door. This moment makes me wonder if we are, in fact, here for the sake of each other or for the sake of another being altogether.

The Other Self

Nearly three weeks go by before I can articulate the concept the bartender initiated that night. I’m on the phone with my friend talking about doughnuts. She lives and goes to school in Denver, Colorado, where a Voodoo Doughnut shop just opened. She’s telling me about how she’s been looking forward to going with one of her roommates all week. But before they can leave the house, her roommate takes out her iPhone and says, “Thank God we’re finally going. My Fall album is seriously lacking.” In the interim, my friend wonders aloud about the nature of this comment, of this admitted “lacking.” In this moment it became clear to me that we all feel the need to maintain another identity on social media whether we are this outspoken about it or not. In this conversation, I found myself fascinated by this relentless need to maintain, by our apparent need to define ourselves by looking to what I call “the Other Self.”

The Other Self is what propelled my friend’s roommate to make a trip to Voodoo for the sake of updating a photo album on Facebook — it’s the urgency we feel to preserve an image or capture a fleeting moment, it’s the spell of social media that can’t be broken.

Like it or Leave It

I interviewed a Western student recently about her relationship to social media to develop my theory of the Other Self. I express to her that it’s important to me that she feels comfortable disagreeing with any or all of my ideas. When I articulate this thought, she giggles a bit and says, “Oh, don’t worry. That won’t be a problem.” This moment is satisfying because it not only breaks the ice for us, but also helps me feel reassured by the fact that she will be honest with me. This initiates a strange relief in me and propels us into a dynamic conversation about the Other Self. I ask her about what “likes” on Facebook or Instagram, or “favorites” on Twitter mean to her and she sighs before delving into a personal story. She tells me about one of her followers on Twitter who she went to high school with but was never close to, describing the nature of their relationship during that time as “nothing more than acquaintances.” Now, several years later, they have frequent Twitter conversations about books and movies — something she insists “we never would have done in high school.” When I ask her about how these interactions make her feel, she says, “It makes me happy to see a reply or favorite from him. It makes it feel like our relationship has value even though it’s based entirely on social media.”

The “even though” in this remark is what strikes me the most. It is the inevitable, apathetic “whatever being” that continually shapes our day-to-day thoughts and interactions, but is rarely discussed. Ironically, it’s as if our search for validation through likes can only be achieved if we deny its existence, if we undercut this need with a comment like “even though.” When I suggest to her that perhaps this relationship is more valuable than she is giving it credit for, she shrugs.

My second interviewee introduces a new facet of social media that I am relatively unfamiliar with: Snapchat. We discuss validation through the lens of how many of her followers have “viewed” her snap story. Snap stories are short videos that followers can post and watch. When I ask her a similar question about what snap stories mean to her, she questions her own intent: “Have I ever snap-storied something purely so that people will see that I’m having fun? Yep. Really, though. Why do I even care? I guess it’s because everyone else has started doing it and I don’t want to look like I’m not having as much fun as everyone else?” We are both quiet for a moment. I am tempted to fill the void with another question, but she beats me to the punch: “I don’t know, really. You know? It’s dumb when you start to think about it.”

Again, the forceful “whatever being” appears, this time in the form of the word “dumb.” When I suggest that this action may not actually be dumb, she shrugs.

Redefining Real

In the course of these observations and interviews, it occurs to me that our culture’s definition of what is “real” needs to be reevaluated, or redefined. Although we may spend time undermining the “realness” of how likes or followers or views make us feel validated, it is becoming more and more apparent that these interactions provide us with a sense of meaning that matters, a sense that we are, in fact, connected. Until we stop undermining the importance of this validation, of this inherent connection that we all need to feel, we will continue to lie to ourselves about what feels real in this world. Perhaps our only current way of determining what is real is by determining what we refuse to acknowledge as such. If this is true, it’s possible the bartender’s cynical remark rings true: perhaps our only form of togetherness is separateness, plugging into our Other Self to find what’s real.

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