How to Survive in an Age of Social Media
Confession: I can't stand social media. And yet, ironically, social media is my job description.
Now, before you berate me for engaging in something I don't necessarily approve of, hear me out:
My struggle is this: In a world where cultivating a killer social media presence is key to garnishing more double-tapped "approval" and a larger follower base, based on the aesthetic of our lives told in a 1080 x 1080px photo of ourselves at the trendiest spot in town, or our perfectly poised cup of coffee and avocado toast, where do we find true authenticity?
As a content coordinator for several fitness, travel, and lifestyle social media accounts, I am constantly bombarded with visual proof of people who do much cooler things than I do. I mean, I work an 8-to-4 Monday-Friday office job (that's pretty cush, don't get me wrong), but it's not a life of skiing at Crystal Mountain every day (okay, yes, I did have my 103-day ski season of '15-'16), showing the world my yogic flexibility or athletic abilities, or posing in super cute clothes and perfectly made-up face and hair. Because let's be real: half the time I can't even put together an outfit that doesn't include a bulky flannel shirt, yoga pants, minimal (if any) makeup, and a messy bun resembling a rat's abode; and my adventures never result in me looking anything close to cool. I mean, just look at how much of a dork I am in probably one of the coolest photos taken of me, below:
When I begin to compare myself to the infinite world of Instagram influencers who can rest on getting paid to advertise the cutest watches or newest Patagonia gear, I lose sight of what truly matters to me, and I feel the unnecessary pressure to conform to the world's skewed standards of perfection. Scrolling deeper into the mire of carefully curated posts, I find myself believing that my experience in the world is somehow less valid than those of others whose professionally photographed lives grace the screen of my phone. I mean, my fiancé can barely take a selfie, so of course I can't trust him to take photos of me that meet Instagram standards (...sorry honey).
I have to remind myself that the photographs I see, as beautiful as they are, are staged. As such, they cannot reflect the full spectrum of our complex human experience. They lack the beauty of the broken humanity we are born into; the phases of stagnation; the excitement of newness; the struggles we find ourselves buried in for days, months, years; and the everything in between. They represent a growing, falsified ideal of the perfectly unattainable life that I believe all of us - Instagram influencer or not - cannot achieve, no matter the carefully curated aesthetic of our Instagram feed. And that, at its core, is the definition of inauthenticity.
If there's anything I hate, it's inauthenticity. But how do we create an authentic experience on social media without being that person whose every post morphs into a mini- (or majorly obnoxious) rant?
Stay True to You
We all know that comparison is the thief of joy, and we all know that it can sometimes be near impossible not to compare ourselves to others. But to survive the madness of our hyper-comparative culture, we need to learn the art of embracing who we are to the very core, not worrying about how many likes we won't receive because we're simply putting our unedited foot forward.
Social media in and of itself is not bad; the use of social media to feel better about yourself by posting on trend photos is where we get in trouble. Representing yourself - good days and bad days alike - and using social media as a tool to connect with others in a meaningful way should be the ideal of #socialmediagoals. Otherwise, all we are is a façade that will never be fully satisfied beyond the likes we receive.
Being authentic is not about abusing the platform to gain attention for your deepest, darkest secrets. I recently rediscovered one of those silly Facebook pages I liked when I was 15, merely because the owner of the page had suddenly decided to use it as a stage to floodgate her followers as a means to garnish attention for her struggle with anorexia - which was totally unrelated to the entire purpose of the page. I was deeply sorry for her struggles, but unfollowed the page immediately. I am not saying we can't share about the hard stuff, because there is room for that. We need to establish healthy boundaries around what we share with the public, and there are therapists and (hopefully) amazing, understanding, loving people in your life who can help you through your hardest times. Use those as your resource, not your social media followers.
Let's please also let go of recreating others' "camping" photos of their cute-booted feet hanging out of an old van with an expansive mountainside lake in the background and geometric-print wool blankets on the van's floor because they look cool. I beg of you, please. First, nobody looks that cute when they're camping (unless that's just me?). Plus, that trend (among many others) is getting tired. Show your life through your lens, not the lens of what is currently popular. Today's trends will die, but who you are to the core will never fade. So what if your style isn't trendy? Own it and share it anyway!
It's Okay Not to be Known
I think, perhaps, the piece that social media insecurity taps into most is the notion that you will go unnoticed. If I'm being honest, I go through this destructive thought pattern too many times a week - and even a day - scrolling through all the awesome content and insane number of likes those posts receive that mine will never reach. Especially as a person who hungers for significance and who expresses herself through photography, I struggle with reconciling the reality of my Instagram status with the aspirational content I view across so many of the accounts I follow.
There's also a reason I've chosen to keep my Instagram account private. Though I desire the Internet world's approval and acceptance, I also recognize that I do not need to establish my self-worth on others' approval of my photography, or how incredible I look in photos. What truly matters is being significant in the lives of those most significant to me. Because if my family, fiancé, friends - and self - all love me for who I am at the core with or without my most perfect face on, that's what matters.
Sometimes I long for the days before advertisers caught on to Instagram's power to market (because it's an amazing effective tool, let's be honest). AKA #TBT to when I first got my Instagram account in 2011, before I even knew what it was for (like, honestly, I didn't even know people could follow you and like your posts! I thought it was just a gallery I could keep for myself, lol naïve little Leigh!) and before it blew up and somehow became the determinant of social status and cool factor. But when your sense of self-worth becomes wrapped up in your social media presence, perhaps that's a clue you need to try out tip no. 3.
Turn it Off
Social media detox can be one of the most freeing experiences in this day and age. This is a great route for those who find themselves getting too wrapped up in the comparison and unhappiness social media can spark. Some of the best times I've had in my entire adult life have come when I've unplugged from social media: retreats, camping, lent, or just choosing not to engage. With the lack of social comparison (and realizing I'm really not as cool as I wish I were), I am more self-loving, I am more of myself, I am less self-judgmental, I am kinder. My entire existence is actually more enjoyable without the classically conditioned response to social media interaction. Your brain might itch for some of those feel-good endorphins stimulated by our ever-increasing visual world for the first week or so, but the experience rewires the way you think about your place, and how you interact with others, in this world.
No matter where you stand on the spectrum of social media users - whether you're an influencer, a daily user, or you've gone rogue, thinking through your relationship with social media is a process that could enrich your experience with the platform. Bottom line is, let's be authentically ourselves as we share our lives with others, and let's redefine what significance and relevance mean to us, because we all know that no matter how many likes you get on a photo, it's never going to be enough. So maybe it's time to change how we think about our social media presence and interact with our social media world.
You might even find yourself deleting your accounts. And there's nothing wrong with that.