Let’s be straight forward: we, as a species, love judging people. We love putting them in neat boxes and lining them up just so. Even my barely-two year old niece knows this lesson. It’s biological, we think it keeps us safe, and it’s mostly subconscious.
Is this problematic? Yes. (Will that knowledge stop us? NO!) However, it’s easy to make an argument that we currently live in a time where we are encouraged to make inaccurate, rash judgments about others. Mostly, because they help us do it themselves, and we return the favor.
If you pay attention, Instagram has given many of us a new set of instincts. It’s not only to try to capture the blurry video of a concert (that you, nor ANYONE else, will ever enjoy watching), although that’s part of it. Our new instincts tell us to capture moments so that we can put them on display. That is neither a good or a bad thing—but it is a new thing. In some ways, this can actually help us pay more attention to our lives. When applied without exception, we are slowly taught that pseudo-branding yourself, even in small ways, is a good thing all the time. We are our own PR department.
It is more dangerous that we forget people are not the stories they shell out online. I might know that when I scroll through the feed everyone has their own struggles, imperfections, etc, but knowing is different than feeling. When, in the midst of your boring or strange moments you hop onto insta and see mostly perfection, it changes your expectations and perception of what living a life looks like—whether you know the reality intellectually or not.
In her recent special, Dr. Brene Brown describes vulnerability, and it’s important to talk about vulnerability when we talk about social media:
“Vulnerability is being able to show up when you don’t know the outcome.”
Vulnerability, or, as I’ve heard it stated, “being willing to show our asses”, is necessary for connection. As Brown studies in her other book, The Gifts of Imperfection, vulnerability is a place in which we can really connect with others and both be seen and see one another, smudgy messiness and incomprehensible beauties that we all are.
The irony when it comes to networks like Instagram is that they have begun to smother what they wanted to promote. These platforms were made for connection, but they have suffocated out that which is an essential kindling to do so—our human-ness. You don’t risk anything when you post an edited picture out of 45 retakes. You aren’t primed for connection when you are only showing people your wins. As Brown points out, they might admire or envy you, but love and connect with you they won’t. Vulnerability isn’t there.
Instagram can be a good part of a relationship if that relationship exists outside our screens. If I see a friend post a beautiful shot of their wedding or talk about a fancy grant they got, but I still connect with them enough outside of that platform to know they just cannot frickin’ master how to cook pasta correctly for themselves or they have a lot of worries they have about moving to a new place, they remain human. We remain connected both by our joys and our struggles. The issue is when we only share beauty, and say that’s the sum total of our lived experience and have no other way of connecting with that person. Social media actually degrades connection if that is the only way communication you’re getting with that person—one projected and perfected brand to another brand. They are not complex, dynamic characters that deserve compassion—they’re static figures.
Is it possible to be authentic and imperfect on social media? I think so—in fact, it seems like that may be the way the tide is turning. As Brown also points out, vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability, which gives an inherent limit to how connected one can get over social media.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s not what we do on the platform, but rather how we use the platform to spur us on to more full connection outside of it. As one dating app slogan says, it’s “an app designed to be deleted.” If we begin to look at social media as an invitation to vulnerable and authentic connection outside of the app, perhaps real relationship can become the foundation of it once more.
Let’s learn to let ourselves be ugly and beautiful, figured out and all-the-wrong-answers, stuck and in progress.
Let’s remember that everyone, in this way, is exactly like us.