It is both satisfying and shameful when I first meet someone in real life whose name, dog’s name, and favourite coffee shop I already know from too many hours spent on the Instagram Explore tab:
“Hey, nice to meet you! My name’s Annie.”
“Hi, I’m Laura, nice to meet you. I think we have the same kind of dog!”
Meeting people in the flesh for the first time when you are already familiar with their online persona can reveal how social media identities can be, in many ways, disconnected from reality. As everyday users of social media platforms, we are participants in this — our posts are all carefully curated, contrived, and filtered.
We know our social media profiles are not representative of the entirety of our life experience, but it doesn’t matter because they provide us with a place to express the parts of our identities that we don’t always nurture. They also provide a place for the parts of our identity that we are proud to share.
Our posts are dictated by the way we wish to interact with the world around us, rather than the way we actually do. In effect, they are the means through which we attempt to secure agency over how we want to connect with the world.
We know that we shouldn’t believe everything we see on Instagram because ‘that’s not actually what so-and-so looks like in real life,’ or ‘those pictures are all from the same vacation they went on two years ago.’ Yet, to some extent, we believe it anyway.
It is no longer just images of models or celebrities that are distorted on social media. We all create distorted, ideal online worlds that conceal the less desirable aspects of our everyday lives. And whether we engage with these platforms by tapping ‘Like’ or ‘Follow,’ sharing with our friends, or dwelling in jealousy or self-doubt, we buy in.
Social media users share the better moments in life and omit the unpleasant ones. As a result, they offer incomplete, deceptive representations of reality. We post a fairy-tale account of girls’ night, but leave out the part where we left the bar with smeared makeup and a missing earring. We share a gorgeous view from our picturesque weekend escape, but leave out the part where we got into a fight that ruined the whole trip. Naturally, people have caught on to this disconnect between social media and real life, and some of them are cleverly shedding light on the topic.
In 2014, 25-year-old Dutch student Zilla van den Born deceived her friends and family into thinking she was on an exotic five-week vacation in South East Asia. In reality, she was at home in Amsterdam using Photoshop to create impressively manipulated images before sharing them on Facebook. Throughout the five weeks, her profile featured pictures of her snorkelling, walking along tropical beaches, visiting temples, and eating ‘local’ food. Van den Born constructed the elaborate project to show how easy it is to manipulate your personal narrative in the sphere of social media.
Amalia Ulman’s selfie-based Instagram artwork Excellences & Perfections sought to prove a similar point. For five months, she staged a digital performance and embodied a fake narrative by posting images of herself inspired by stereotypes of how young women present themselves online. Her deceptive portrayal gained her almost 90,000 followers who bought into her luxurious lifestyle and racy photos. Ulman’s ultimate goal was to prove that femininity, among many other things online, is merely a performance.
Our representations of life on social media are, of course, not always as staged as van den Born and Ulman’s projects were. Still, it’s not hard to imagine why we would consciously cling to perfectly altered portrayals, given the messy, unfiltered, and frequently disappointing state of real life affairs.
Regardless, manipulating reality can be dangerous. Numerous research studies have investigated the potential dangers associated with social media. For example, especially when it comes to young people, heavy social media usage has been linked to poor mental health. The negative effect of social media on mental health is inextricably connected to its highly convincing and all-consuming character.
Researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) indicated that young people who engage with social media for more than two hours a day are far more likely to rate their mental health as ‘fair’ or ‘poor,’ in comparison to occasional users.
Another study by Lancaster University that analyzed the relationship between social media and mental health found that people who compared themselves with others online were more likely to feel depressed; the same result was observed in those who spent extended amounts of time thinking about what they had seen online.
Separate research from scholars at Germany’s Technische Universität Darmstadt and Switzerland’s Universität Bern in collaboration with UBC’s Sauder School of Business, shows that social media interactions which involve users comparing themselves to others lead to jealousy and bitterness, which can ultimately result in depressive symptoms and anxiety.
These dangers are real even though the flawless lives we follow on Instagram are not.
This powerfully persuasive character of social media is likely why so many people take ‘breaks’ from Instagram or deactivate their accounts entirely. The reasons as to why are familiar to many of us: ‘I was spending too much time on it,’ ‘it was making me too angry,’ or ‘it was distracting me too much,’ for example.
In the case of van den Born and Ulman’s pursuits, it is evident that awareness of the distorted quality of social media isn’t always enough to stop us from falling into its traps. In turn, we can end up engaging in self-deception.
Social media can intensify the problem of self-deception by allowing us to ignore or minimize the aspects of our lives that we are less comfortable expressing. When social media allows us to deceive ourselves, our perception of reality may become blurred, which may then manifest in harmful real life effects.
Although we have an impulse to deceive and be deceived on social media, we mostly do so without malice and for understandable reasons. Suffice it to say, it is very hard to imagine a version of social media that is in no way distorted.
Evidently, when it comes to how we represent ourselves online, we rely on some element of picking and choosing which moments to share. However, it is clear that we cannot escape the consequences in real life no matter how much time we spend online.