I’ve been thinking a lot lately about social media in all its forms, and its impact on my life. Clearly I haven’t been blogging much lately—honestly, I haven’t been writing much at all. There are many reasons for that, from politics to politics’ impact on family relationships to finding that I am much more peripheral in the lives of people I thought I mattered more to.
What do I want my life to look like in the light of what I have been learning about myself, both individually and in relation to others, this year?
That question might not seem to connect much to social media, but for me, it does.
Out of all of my family and real-life friends, I am on social media the most. I keep a blog (I know…it’s been mostly inactive all year, but I still think about blogging). I post links to articles and essays and poems on Facebook, as well as what I think about the world: random thoughts, library stories, funny stuff I want to remember. Also things I feel passionate about, like, yes, politics (which has irritated more than one friend and/or family member). In the past, I would’ve blogged these things, but they are read more on Facebook so that’s where I put them. I also post a lot on Instagram: running and hiking pics, photos about books, writing, flowers, nature, scrapbooking…all of my hobbies, really.
I have sometimes felt a sense of being less-than because of my social media posting. This is subtle and hard to exactly describe (and maybe it is me being paranoid), but I see it: Amy is the weird one who posts more than a teenager. The “I don’t know how you have the time for that” sly remarks. The gentle reminding of someone else’s moral superiority for not being “of the world” like I am. My husband also doesn’t understand it, and he often asks me why I spend time on social media. After many discussions and thoughts about this, I’ve come up with a standard response:
It’s like having friends. (To quote Luna from Harry Potter.)
As an adult, I’ve found it difficult to find many friends. I have some close friendships which I highly value, but I never seem to spend enough time with those friends. I haven’t ever really felt like I fit in much with my neighborhood—I mean, I do have friends here, but they are the type of relationships that involve lending sugar or borrowing salt, saying hello if one of us is outside, the shared history of our children’s friendships. At college I didn’t make many friends because almost all of my classes were done after I became a parent, so I was just there for the education and I missed all of the social things.
I’ve never really found my tribe, honestly.
So, ever since we got the Internet at home in about 1997, I’ve had online friendships. Some of these have been casual, some have endured for many years. Some online friends I’ve met in person, but most I haven’t.
I understand the ephemeral nature of the friendships formed through social media. I know that much of what is post is surface-level stuff, the glittering perfect moments. I’ve always tried to be as real as I could online, posting disappointments and struggles as much as I have successes, but I get it: it is a space for relationships that are both real and unreal. If you need to borrow sugar from an online friend who lives in Alaska, you’re out of luck. But if you need someone to message with at 3:00am in the morning, Alaskan friend might just be around.
So whether or not it makes me weird, needy, or exhibitionary, I continue to post on social media spaces. Is it the most mentally healthy thing I could do? Probably not. But is it a thing I can adapt to work for me and my needs? Mostly yes.
A few weeks ago, the LDS church announced a social media project to its members. They were encouraged to post something they were grateful for during the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and to use a hashtag “give thanks.” I was annoyed when I read about this, because I had already planned on doing my own gratitude project, but to do it now, with everyone else doing it as well, felt like following the herd and I’ll readily confess to striving against doing what the herd is doing.
All of a sudden, I was seeing posts on FB and IG from people I hadn’t seen post in years. Some of the posts were what I expected: gratitude for families, houses, jobs, and possibilities. Some of them surprised me with their thoughtfulness and the topics they discussed. I had some lovely conversations with friends I haven’t heard from in awhile, but there were also some bristles and barbs along the way for me. I was put aback at the post-mo world’s furor over the project but still found plenty in their objections that resonated with me. After a couple of days (and figuring out my own project, which was to share some simply daily joys I observed), I started analyzing why I was still feeling annoyed.
One person who I used to be great friends with, and who helped me through a couple of hard years in my life, posted a gratitude every single day for the entire week. I was so excited to see her face and pictures pop up, because even though we have grown apart, I still appreciate what she added to my life and wanted to know how she was doing. I left comments on three of her posts, liked them all, read the comments of some of her other friends.
And never once, not once, did she like or respond in any way to any of the comments people left.
This morning I read this essay on the Exponent II blog, which is also about the writer’s response to the “give thanks” project. While her response is not entirely the same as mine, her words made me feel understood. Especially this concept:
So in this seven-day campaign blitz, Mormons are not only expressing gratitude, but we are also performing our in-group status. We’re showing that not only are we grateful, we’re willing to do what the prophet says, even if it means posting on social media when we normally don’t, or adding a prescribed hashtag and message to our already-regular posts. We perform our Mormon-ness by showing obedience.
My friend who posted every day but didn’t ever respond to any comments? Performing her Mormonness. It wasn’t about connecting to people (as social media is for me), but about doing what someone told her to do.
Over the past five years, my faith has gone through some fairly transformative experiences. I don’t act in ways I used to. I am not sure what I believe in anymore. But I also know many more things about myself, and one of them is that I am unwilling to do something simply because someone in power told me to. I don’t want to perform anything; I just want to be who I am, and if I find acceptance along the way (whether in “real life” or online), so much the better. But acceptance that is based on performance instead of authenticity is, I have learned, not real acceptance, and it is definitely not friendship or companionship or love.
As I have thought about all of this (and read—on yes! Social media!—other people’s thoughts), though, I have started thinking about the authenticity of my own posts. While I try to be real and authentic, I, too, am guilty of performance. Awkward photos of me hiking, for example, where my butt looks big or I’m making a weird face or I’m not trying to hide my perimenopause belly? I don’t only not share those, I delete them forever. And when I do share the painful bits of my life, I am terrified and feel foolish, so I don’t do it very often.
Maybe by its very definition social media is performative.
I haven’t quite figured out what any of this means yet. Blog more, write more Facebook posts, share more in IG? Or maybe share less? I don’t know.
But I do know this. Just as the LDS church (and likely many other religions) has an old white guy telling everyone what they should do, and just as I resist that voice claiming my obedience, social media also has a form of a bossy old white guy. He’s more subtle, though. He tells me that if I post this, if I look stronger or skinnier or sexier in that photo, if I write the right caption that is just long enough to say what I mean but just short enough to not lose anyone’s attention…if I do it right I will be included.
I also don’t want to perform for that voice.
I just want to be who I am, and to have that be enough. It wasn’t for the faith of my upbringing, and deep down I suspect it isn’t enough for social media, either. Which is, really, the work of the place I am in inside my life: knowing I am not enough for church, for my career, for my ambitions and aspirations, sometimes for my family or friends, but finding a way to make peace with that. To just be enough for me.
Without being a performance.