Since childhood, I’ve always been drawn to photo collages. Curating and combining images like pieces to a puzzle. Wrapping them up into one aesthetic whole.
It started with scrapbooking. My mom was the scrapbook queen, always dazzling up our family vacations and life milestones with the perfect combinations of card stock and patterned paper. It awed me. She eventually bought me my own book to fill. I loved digging through her materials in search of the perfect elements for a particular page. What theme to stick to? Which photos to use? How to arrange them? The process thrilled me.
Then came Myspace. Just as I was becoming a savvy enough teen to be able to hold my own in the budding digital world of T9 text messaging and AIM buddy profiles, Myspace came along and changed the game.
For one, it brought my scrapbooking online. Where I once debated over patterned paper and edging scissors, I was now experimenting with layout codes and Photoshop. I learned all that I possibly could about designing my profile and making it altogether aesthetically pleasing.
Secondly, I suddenly had a stage. Before, I would select photos for my scrapbook without a care in the world as to who might view them or what they might think. Now, on Myspace, the concept of having an audience was in the forefront of my mind at every turn. What would my top 8 think of this new profile pic? Would the boy I had a crush on in school see it? How many photo comments would I receive?
Lastly, while there were once many pages in my scrapbook full of different themes/events/people in my life, my Myspace profile consolidated everything into one themed page. One long, scrolling page. The scrapbook page of me.
Maintaining the online me started occupying all of the living, breathing me’s time. I would change my layout with my mood, tending to it as if it were a pet. Time spent with friends almost always involved bringing my digital camera along and having Myspace photoshoots, sometimes editing and uploading the photos that same night. In such a fragile time as middle school when I questioned my every move and had little to no self-esteem, the online me was confident, quirky, and in control. She was a rock-solid alter ego at a time when my actual ego was as soft as a marshmallow.
In high school, as Facebook drowned out Myspace, I found a new online outlet to retain my aesthetic expression: Tumblr. Here, I would simply reblog photos I thought were cool. Photos I didn’t even take myself. Artsy shots of sunsets and forests and my favorite bands and far-away places. I made sure these images all paired well together as they cascaded down my blog into one beautiful online photo collage. A collection of images that I thought represented me and what I was all about. Images I thought alluded to some sort of depth within me — even if they were not my own. Here, I dramatically thought, the online me was baring her soul.
When I went to college, Instagram took off and became the mecca of image-driven social media that we know it as today. This platform restricted my online scrapbook even more. Here I got one photo, one filter, and one caption at a time to present something I deemed worthy to my audience on a 2x4 inch screen. Better make it authentic, witty, and fun! Those qualities were the foundation upon which I initially built the online me after all.
With Instagram, my fixation on collage aesthetics arose when I’d take stock of all the photos I’d posted and see how all the little squares lined up on my profile. I would fret if one of the photos felt out of place, for whatever reason, next to all the others. No matter what the individual post was about, if it didn’t feel in line with what I believed to be the overall image of the online me, I would consider deleting it down the road.
Somewhere along the way, my initial draw to photo collages & aesthetics became irrevocably entwined with my sense of identity. The images I chose to show the world, and the way they all sat side by side together on whichever profile, became an overvalued representation of who I was in my mind.
Putting my scrapbook on an online stage for everyone to see forever warped the way I went about creating it. Thinking about how many likes I may or may not receive on a potential post was suddenly something I couldn’t turn off. To this day, it influences to some degree who, what, when, where, & why I post.
The thrill is all in the build — will this be the post to top all the others? Sometimes I find myself pre-planning the details beforehand. Thinking up a vacation photo and caption before even taking the trip. Looking up other people’s photos at a particular establishment before visiting to get ideas for something cool I could later maybe post myself.
Once I actually post, however, 95% of the time all I feel is anticlimax. The post gets the same amount of (or less) likes than my posts always get. Unless the stars align and for some odd reason I happen to get way more attention and feedback on this particular post than I’ve ever gotten before. And it keeps the game going. Keeps that unexpected euphoria and dopamine boost in the back of my mind, planting the seed for me to post again soon.
Is image-driven social media all just a loop of feeding each other’s egos and growing the baby narcissists in us? Or is there a benefit to it all in some way?
Maybe, like everyone, I’m a little bit addicted to it all. The dopamine hits. The perfectly constructed posts that imagine me up as my most witty, cool self. The performance. The stage. The spotlight. The aesthetic. It all gives the illusion of depth. Of parts to a whole.
But it never is a whole, is it?
Whenever I post, I always end up having this peculiar sinking feeling right after. Somewhat like guilt. Like I just used whatever experience I posted a photo of to my own benefit. I didn’t just experience, I experienced with a motive in mind. Blinded by some end in sight, and when that end came it was a letdown. A welcome back to reality. A reality where I truly experienced nothing because I had that goddamn end in sight clouding my vision all along.
I’ve learned to take breaks. Place daily limits on the amount of times I allow myself to open up Instagram and peruse people’s photos & profiles. And it helps. But why can’t I let go of it completely? Why don’t I want to?
When we spend years crafting our online presences, watering them and watching them bloom on each new social media platform that comes about, we become attached. We fight to sustain them. Keep their images fresh and up-to-date. Play along with other people’s performances. Support their efforts. Wait patiently for our turn in the light again. For the urge to be seen and validated. The urge to assert ourselves onto the experiences we encounter. To appropriate them into nice little glossy filtered squares. All compiled into a colorful, curated collage. The overall image of you.
The social media boom of the new millennium hit everyone like a surprise pie in the face. We were overcome with fear & frustration when it happened, but there was laughter all around and some of it tasted pretty sweet. There’s no doubt that Instagram, and whatever image-driven social platform succeeds it, is here to stay. Gone are the days when our photos only live to see the confines of a scrapbook, surrounded by glitter and patterned paper.
Moving forward, I’m plagued by the question: How can I contribute to a world in which our digital habits foster healthy human social interactions?
More and more I’m beginning to think that the first step to developing a healthy relationship with it all is to be honest about how ridiculous we can all be with these image-driven platforms. Be honest about how much we really do elevate them and value them as a means of social currency. It’s why I unveiled some of these embarrassing truths about my digital habits in the first place.
There have been countless projects that have attempted to peel back the digital facade in this way. Their honesty inspired me. I figured if I’m moved when other people expose themselves like this, why not pay it forward as an homage and attempt to do the same?
If there’s anything I’ve learned from reflecting on my social media history it’s that when I keep my online habits and tendencies too concealed and too close to heart, it makes me take the platforms at hand way too seriously. Take myself too seriously. Take others’ performances too seriously.
I believe that by starting with ourselves and revealing the divergences between what’s real vs. what really goes into our outward constructions, it helps to bring it all down to size a bit. Admit to our humanity instead of shrouding ourselves in digital secrecy and false nonchalance — competing with one another as to who can pull off the most carefree, ‘I didn’t pre-plan or think too much about this at all’ online presence.
Let’s all just lift the veil a little bit. Be honest about the hoops we jump through to craft our little brands. Not spare ourselves from our social media diatribes as if we’re particularly detached or enlightened. Maybe then we can create a shared, honest digital community. Keep the humanity present in it all. Keep us from feeling isolated and intimidated by others. Help us to actively be able to sense when things are carefully crafted — not just out of spite as we pick away at other people’s online perfection, but to harbor a sense of peace & solidarity while scrolling through our feeds.
They say the future of the digital world needs to consist of a strong emphasis on media literacy for all. And that’s absolutely true. We need to be more mindful of the intent behind the sea of messages we sift through day to day on our devices. But I would further argue that as an extension of media literacy, we need to learn to foster media empathy as well.
So let’s start. Tell me the most embarrassing things you’ve done while slaving over your app of choice. I’m curious. Post your experiences publicly or message me privately. Let’s compile. Compare & contrast. Let’s get all of our crazy out there in the open so we can bring it down to size together.