On Social Media and Stepping Back

“I just have to tell you, you look amazing on Instagram!”

It was the start of a coffee date with a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, and, sitting outside a cafe with herbal iced teas, these were (approximately) her first words.

I wasn’t sure how to receive them. Thanks? But what about here, in three whole dimensions? Or, Doesn’t everyone? Isn’t that the whole point?

In a pretty pure sense, those nifty photo filters are designed to make us all look better: a shade more sexy and glam. Less purely, or simply, one function of social media is to make ourselves look great. The various digital platforms on which so many of us spend so much time have the upside of enabling us all to curate our best selves. The downside, perhaps, is that they enable everyone else to do the same.

It can be a problem.

The day before that coffee date I’d met a different friend for an afternoon beer. (Welcome to the chaos of visiting home–next time, I swear, I shall tell no one I’m here). As she and I caught up, I told her how one aspect of my experience in Taos that had helped me commit to writing was being a part of an artistic community in which we so intimately shared the relentless rollercoaster that makes up a creative life: no matter anyone’s pretty website or impressive CV, everyone there experienced a cyclical tumult of good and bad news–an editor interested, and then not. A residency offered, another declined. A job prospect come and gone. Days in which we felt strong and fearless, and others in which we felt fragile and weak.

“No one ever talks about that!” my friend said. “All we tell each other are the good parts.”

It’s often true. Increasingly, we do rely on social media networks for knowledge of other people’s lives. And those lives, as we see them, are not whole. They exclude the downswings: the feelings of loneliness and rejection, the near-misses and self-doubt. We don’t post pictures of ourselves from bad angles or sour moods. Even those moments of vulnerability we do share tend to be crafted, the rawness given a glossy sheen.

It’s understandable. One of the most confusing parts about Facebook etc. is the breadth of audience. Normally, we decide how to communicate based on who we’re communicating with. These networks complicate that–we aren’t ever sure who’s paying attention. The former colleague? The ex-boyfriend? The ex-boyfriend’s aunt? The current crush? The current crush’s ex?

There are probably some in that mix with whom we’d be willing to share our lesser selves. But with others we’re inclined to be more cautious. It’s a lowest common denominator effect: the audience toward whom we are most wary tends to determine all that we’re willing to publicly share.

“I need a social media diet,” I announced to a pair of writer pals the other day in Wiliamsburg, one new friend and one old. We had been talking about inane google searches, how people turn to the web for the oddest insights, and I had self-servingly announced that I was going to turn to two smart women instead.

“You can do it,” they assured. “It’s just about self-control!”

“I know,” I said. “I don’t have that.”

I’m trying to get some. I can’t abandon the stuff completely–if I did, there is a very good chance you wouldn’t be here. But I can take a few steps back. Moderate. Try and prevent the kind of Instagram Black Holes like the one into which I fell the other night, after a middling evening out found me home, scanning pictures of Other People’s More Fun Lives.

The next day, on a neighborhood run, I told my brother R what I’d done–how crappy I’d let stupid filtered photos make me feel.

“That’s stupid,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. “I agree.”