Social Media: The Engagement Illusion
~Rehearsing Idyllic Realities For Ego Reinforcement and Mirages of Communion~
It’s 1997, I’m 13, and I’m sitting down to a personal computer for the very first time. The most nascent, umbilical-fed, hard-wired inception of the internet was not too far removed from going to a library and viewing newspapers in a microfiche. But it soon became rapid layering of textures, visuals, a place to peer into deeply, with the voraciousness of human curiosity burrowing ever-further into the reaches of the void where all things digital live, or perhaps more accurately - exist. In pixels, particles, particular flickers, a dancing light show that mimics real life.
It is a wonderful experience for my senses. I go to a few websites for my favourite bands. I feel like a voyeur who has been given a master key. The images take several minutes to peel themselves into revelation, yet I don’t mind, as I still mostly exist in a world where patience and gratitude for the wonders of technology are at the fore, and this has never been done before. I’m given an allowance of one hour per day in front of this screen, this shiny gateway. I’m content.
Fast-forward three years. It’s 2000, I’m 16. Y2K has come and gone with little incident (except in the mind and the hype, some sort of return to zero, technological dark age, yet reality couldn’t be further from that notion). I have my own computer now. And on it is a chat program called ICQ. It goes “Uh oh!” every time I receive a message (how humorous that the cute foreboding sound effect would, like all sci-fi tends to, predict the quaking anxiety that awaited us all with the advent of social media). Its flower icons show if someone was online or off, away, or not to be disturbed. At first it seemed important to announce one’s online status, but then it became more mysterious to always have a “do not disturb” or “away” icon blazing - which to me was the beginning of the insidious nature of social media - whereby one is always online, always watching, yet embedded in a leaf pile of gentle shame for technically always being available.
I spend hours here after school. I rush home, barely squeezing in a brief hello to my parents, and climb into my computer nest. It appeals to my writer’s sense (always a better writer than speaker, as though my good speech is simply reserved for a crisp white page, real or imagined). It allows for the monkey mind to run wild. It’s scintillating in how rapid it can be, how rewarding the rush is of receiving a new “Uh oh!” and wondering what will be there for my hungry eyes to absorb. The more messages, the more the feeling of being unpopular is erased. The screen acts as a painter and an eraser all at once. Erasing the need to be insecure and vulnerable in the flesh, and painting a new picture where all words are curated, responses can be deliberated over, and ultimately therein lies a rehearsal of idyllic reality.
Fast forward again two more years - I’m 18 and I have an internet boyfriend. He’s 19, and he lives 2,600 miles from me in British Columbia. No one in my school is cuter than him. No one in my school is interested in me anyway, except for the captain of the basketball team who simply wants to conquer an artist-type, similar in fashion to that film, “She’s All That” - and I let him, equally curious about how my social tendrils would fare in that scenario. But of course it went nowhere, and thus the online boyfriend ruled the day, and that whole year. We also spoke over the phone, and then later spent two weeks together (more on that later) - but the majority of the hours that comprised that dazzling, swoon-heavy year of my puppy love life took place in the 1s and 0s of the abysmal light box, forever converting code into a semblance of true connection. I replayed time and again the videos of him, with nothing but the screen illuminating his face, saying sweet nothings to me. Those were my precious gems.
Now, don’t get me wrong - feelings are real no matter who or what you feel them for. I know this to be true. It just so happened that my aforementioned tendrils were so long, and so tenacious, to reach 2,600 miles into the heart of another Capricorn who equally felt I was the sea-goat for him.
Yet despite having some nascent, teenaged understanding of reality vs imagination, and the great divide between the two, I was wholly unprepared for the incoming disillusionment which would present itself during our true, fleshy meeting. I travelled the endless miles over three days and mind-bending terrain to his doorstep, and he turned out to be a 50 year old man ---
...no, he didn’t. But that’s a nightmarish scenario that of course played through my (and my parent’s) minds.
Oh, the sour disillusionment! He was every bit as handsome as I had compiled in my mind’s eye from photos and videos, but in a matter of days the blooming petals in my puppy heart had turned concave and begun burrowing themselves like ingrown nails, digging a new chasm inside of me that I didn’t know could exist. Every bit of poetry emitted from his virtual lips, every sinew of his liminal, imagined body did not, in its real form, imbue me with a sense of belonging as I had conjured over and over again in a feverish loop. What I stumbled upon was instead a labyrinth of - well...confused and angsty teenagehood. A boy who didn’t know how to be a boyfriend. Who spoke vast fantasies into existence, but whose existence could be dispelled like a puff of smoke. And as it turned out, I too could not rise to the occasion of my own elaborate depictions, and the self I had rehearsed myself to embody once the time came. The palpability of corporeality was simply too overwhelming for us both.
Fast-forward again to 2014. I’m 30, and I’ve begun my business. I’ve released the first edition of my inaugural tarot deck into the world. I have an instagram account, that I started the year before. I have just over 1,000 followers or so, if I remember correctly. I have a mounting sense of visual identity forming, and an endless appetite for exploration. I am avidly sharing creations and parts of my life, that seem genuinely reflected back at me by the small community of like-minded souls who also inhabit the platform. My posts are visible to everyone who follows me, and vice-versa, and our vanity, although present, is humbled by the yet-small reach we have, and the number of avocado toast photos that currently outnumber us.
Fast-forward again to 2017. I’m 33, and my business is thriving beyond my wildest imagination. My follower count has expanded to the tens of thousands. My network has expanded to include people that I never would have otherwise met. I’ve been featured in Wired Magazine, Nylon and Vogue. I’m in a race against myself. Only I stand in the way of me. My body, protesting due to un-integrated trauma, injury and autoimmune disease, becomes at once electrified and deadened by this constant onslaught of stimulation. My output is, in a word, insane. I’m making art as though it’s being hauled out of me by some unknown, anti-gravity force, pushing and pulling. It’s beautiful and ethereal. I’ve never been here before. I never dreamed it would be real. Since the grand disillusionment of my puppy love, I’ve run the gamut of the starving artist, first painting, then drawing, then both, then digital art. No one paid attention, or paid with money, for a long, long time. So this was like quenching thirst after a long time in the desert, except what the social media world expects of me was to leak, leak, leak those precious, vital liquids from my creative core into their thirsty mouths. And I, in turn, expect it of myself - becoming increasingly afraid that if I stop my enthralling momentum, I become irrelevant, returning to the squalour I worked so hard to arise from. So I press on despite myself at times. My words become ever-more personal, I’ve found my perfect light in photographs. The curation of the online experience has discovered its niche and how to manipulate others and oneself into fodder.
And in some ways, just as I was reaching my peak productivity, my body totally crashed. I suffered a concussion, and, despite keeping up a fairly good posting game, had to take the sidelines of my own career arc for several months. It was almost as though the soul screamed, “I AM NOT A MACHINE!” one last time, and threw me into submission.
Fast-forward once more to present day, with a wide net cast upon the last two years of social media development. I have 65,000 followers. I am, to the gaze of the lidless eye, a highly successful, world renowned artist. To be fair, I am that to myself as well, as I have developed a healthy viewpoint on my success. The insta grid, 3 wide and unfathomably deep, is punctuated by gorgeous visuals and poignant words, all of my own curation and creation.
Through my products and my generous writing, I’ve evidently helped countless people process limitless challenges, as I receive messages of that nature nearly daily. These tendrils, while tender, often fail to meet their intended heart-mark, due to their once-removed digital nature. You see, we do not directly touch one another’s hearts with one another’s warm hands. But we emote as though we do, which places such emphasis on the medium, repressing and sublimating the need for true connection.
The mimicry of kindredness is so insidious that, to the younger folk glued to their devices, there is no divide between the illusion and their logical discernment. There is no room for such discernment, as there has been no life Pre-Internet (PI) There is only After-Internet, (AI) Hmm...artificial intelligence, after-internet...I’m sensing a theme here.
Real life takes a backseat to the unending, technicolour dreamland of digital concepts. It is dull and gritty in comparison. There is so much pain, trauma, despair, melancholy, apathy and anger in this grit, visible within the grain of the high-definition cameras. So it’s best to blur those images, soften the lens, add filters, until there is little semblance of truth in the presentation.
Even those who ‘share their ugly’ in these voids - those who peer into our own darkness to extract meaning and flame - do so in a way that does not show the hairy asshole of it all. They stand, in lovely garb often gifted by companies who need brand ambassadors, well-coiffed, in magical, dappled sunlight, tossing a thoughtful gaze off into the distance, showing you that their toil is now bite-sized, past-tense, and most importantly they’ve gracefully transcended. Love and light. Namaste. They wear flowing robes that ripple in the breeze, they beckon you to come with them into the meadow of heightened spirituality. They flash veneered smiles that show they’ve made it through some shit and you can too. They quote Rumi, Eckhart Tolle, and if they’re real intellectuals, they might throw in some Jung. They reveal just enough so that they appear vulnerable, but remain intact. Because to totally fall apart, publicly, is akin to the madness which forever trapped Britney Spears in a meme with a bald head and threatening grimace.
In a world where no one knows who you are outside of the instagram grid, this kind of emotional farming is not only possible, but preferred. One may take 40,000 boomerangs of oneself before deciding which 0.5 degree facial angle is the prettiest for one’s stories. One may display 10 different highly-filtered selfies in a slideshow if one cannot decide which is the sexiest, in order to inhale as much positive feedback as possible, to boost one’s fragile ego. “Felt cute, might delete later” has become the perfect escape niche for burgeoning vanity, testing the waters for inclusion without the commitment - just in case the general consensus is indeed, ‘not cute.’ The inflated amour propre of each individual influencer, in their own right, would glow an ominous crimson and could be seen from the windows of their houses, yet you would never see the details of their painful experiences unless they wanted you to know them.
And so with each user exhibiting their finest, and parading their magical manifestation powers, there becomes a simulacrum of support and good vibes - yet it is based upon a broadcast, which is based upon a rehearsal, which is based upon an idea of reality, not the whole picture. It is so far-removed from the seat of the soul that the parade actually makes people physically and mentally ill over time, yet the dopamine addiction to likes and comments overwhelms the protestations of the higher self. The awareness of the dent in mental health is high enough at this point that many users in fitness and beauty fields are attempting to dispel myths about perfection on a regular basis, but their grids are still so highly curated that it doesn’t matter to the countless women and men who are sitting at home silently shaming their bodies and faces for not having the proportions the influencers do. There is so much FOMO (fear of missing out) that even while one is at an amazing event, or travelling to a beautiful place, one still feverishly checks their instagram to see what everyone else is doing. Is it better than what they are doing? More fun? More cool people? Are they getting more engagement?
Social media thrives on this vibrating insecurity. The lidless eye knows that we all crave connection, acceptance, inclusion, praise, admiration, success, mutual benefit...these are fundamental human desires. It knows that the more we curate ourselves, the more others will too, in this unbound, deathless race towards exquisiteness that crosses over often into supremacy and faultlessness. There is no fault if what we uphold is an illusion anyhow, right? We are either all at fault or none of us are. My cross-country lover was not at fault for not living up to the expectations he nurtured, or so he said, when he threw up his arms and cried, “I don’t know what you want from me!” The influencers are, apparently, not at fault for the illusions they cast into the abyss about body and lifestyle, as it is up to the consumer to discern.
So who is accountable? Certainly not instagram itself, as its scope is verily as epic as the fetus fields in The Matrix. When something becomes that indomitable, it is hermetically sealed from responsibility, especially given its users are there of their own free will. So it becomes up to us to manage ourselves, our expectations, our egos, our discernment of reality versus illusion, the pain and anxiety we experience being under the gaze all the time. We have to actively seek out real connections and experiences and deliberately put the phones and computers away for periods of time to refresh the sense of what is true. Like it or not, as my therapist recently pointed out, this is the age we now live in. But I, for one, often miss the days PI. I have never been a proponent of artificial intelligence and I am quickly becoming tired of this article’s other AI (after internet) - as I am wary of anything that is so insidious that you cannot recall how you lived your life before it. To me, there are only a few basic things that are truly needed in life, and the toxicity of social media is not one of them.
Not unless the eternal gaze will begin to uphold those whose beauty lies in their vision for a healthier future of the planet. A space where instead of clamouring for approval of a perfect bone structure that will eventually disintegrate and populate the soil, we clamour to improve ourselves in real ways and inspire each other to do the same. A place where the top of the pyramid is truly a vast ocean where everyone is doing their part. Where the only things we are showing off are our remarkable inventions, innovations, inner work, where we beckon each other to green up and grow out our lives, into meadows we ourselves have grown and tended to.
I can hope.
Devany Amber Wolfe