There is nothing wrong with making a favorable first impression. It is a crucial part of how we seek and spark new relationships, apply for and cultivate new opportunities, it’s how we get our foot in the door so the rest of us can have a chance at finding a home. It is not, however, meant to be a permanent setting.
We hear more and more about people needing to take a break from social media, or quit it entirely. Not because of anxieties over the bleak or hateful content online, though that does exact a serious emotional cost, but because of how exhausted and manufactured they are feeling.
People are not only getting burnt out by the pressure of constantly trying to project an idealized version of themselves but also feel like they are losing any sense of their genuine selves.
We all want to be liked. We all need to be liked and appreciated, not only for our mental and emotional health but also in order to successfully interact with the world around us. We need to belong and to function as part of the society we live in. For that we need the notice, attention, and appreciation of other people. Putting our best foot forward is our primary way of catching and engaging the interest of others.
We put forth our most appealing aspects in the most favorable manner possible to entice other people to form at least an initial bond of attention enabling us to separate from the greater crowd for a moment and explore the possibility of a more sustainable connection. Friendships, job interviews, dating, all forms of relationships start with a ‘courtship’ phase in which we need to be perceived as appealing enough to merit further investigation.
This is a simple and essential component of how social communities function. As the online world has with so many of our traits and characteristics social media has taken this aspect of our natural social machinery and exaggerated exponentially out of proportion, dragging us along behind it like a Great Dane spotting a squirrel.
Something which was initially seen and marketed as a tool for us to use has taken on a velocity and demand of its own, flipping the tables around wherein we find ourselves subservient to it instead of the other way around. Technologies always advance at a much faster pace than the society using it requires to catch up and fully understand. We get enticingly swept up in the novelty and convenience, effusive in our enjoyment of its use and consumption, all too often blinded to the hidden fees and consequences which eventually and inevitably come calling.
As for this new online phenomenon of being trapped in a perpetual ‘First Impression’ state there are two primary culprits which have inadvertently driven things forward.
Technologies designed for the documentation of events and experiences have been around as long as civilization. Portraiture, in a variety of mediums, has been around just as long though it has until recently been a time consuming process. The advent of photography gave us the ability to instantly immortalize events in the moment though generating the finished product was still rather time consuming. When the technology made the jump to digital medium both the capturing and the finished product became instantaneous which is when the Selfie arrived.
What began as an endearing act of including ourselves in our captured moments quickly took on a life of its own and went surging ahead, dragging us off after that squirrel. Since we could instantly produce as many images as we wished we started questing for the ‘perfect’ one. The photographic principle of taking countless photos in search of the ‘good one’ might seem benign enough if taken in the context of the photo alone but when it becomes entangled with our concerns over other people’s opinions of us, or our opinions of ourselves, it quickly starts drowning us in self-critiquing and self-censoring.
All the perceived pressures and expectations we have around what would make an ideal image become little voices whispering in our ears.
From this angle your nose looks smaller, from this side you can’t see your scar, pucker in your cheeks to make your face look slimmer, softer lighting will make your skin look smoother, suck in your tummy, curve your shoulders, best to check your hair and make-up before you start snapping, and make sure you look like you’re always having an incredibly good time. Don’t want people thinking you’re boring or unattractive.
An entire tech industry has sprung up around helping us take better selfies, to make the shared images of our lives and experiences look as inspiring and magical and professional as possible. Filters, portable lighting units, variable lenses, on the spot image editing software, and don’t get me started on self-sticks. A technology designed to enhance the potential quality of images we intend to share with others which completely precludes the involvement of other people in the capturing of the image. Not sure if that’s ironic or just tragic, perhaps a bit of both.
At any rate taking selfies has become an intensive exercise in crafting and projecting only the most ideal images of ourselves. Because, by implication, our actual selves simply aren’t good enough. And then repeat that process several times a day.
Constant Online Engagement
The primary metric which drives the engines of social media platforms is engagement. Clicks, likes, views, posts, shares, social media and other online forums make their revenue based on how much active engagement is going on at any one time. Thus the platforms themselves are designed to maximize constant engagement, even to the point of giving you update notifications just as you’re signing out which are actually about the messages you yourself just sent but you won’t knot that until you sign back in and find out. And while you’re there you might see something you want to click on…we humans are distractible creatures.
Not only does this keep us constantly consuming their product, which enriches them, but the metrics of those platforms then become the measurements we end up using to quantify and qualify our connections with others.
We need to be constantly posting new updates to keep ourselves visible, noticed, and relevant.
How can we be noticed and approved of without an appealing online profile? And what good is a profile if it isn’t actively updated? How boring, unattractive, and unappealing a person’s life must be if they don’t have anything likeable to post several times a day?
These two forces combine to make us feel compelled to be ceaselessly posting and updating but only with the most perfected and idealized representations. The sheer amount of time and effort required is what leads to a great deal of the burn out people talk about when announcing their vacation or retirement from social media but the emotional burn out which is also generated hits us in some very specific ways.
Externally Prescriptive Ideal Self
This one is rather obvious. If we are constantly striving to filter, enhance, properly angle, and selectively frame our lives the implication is that the unenhanced truth of us is defective. The more effort and process we put in to crafting our presented image the further away from our genuine selves we get and, again by implication, the more inferior and undesirable we start to view that genuine self.
Whether it is said by us or by others if that core self is told constantly it isn’t good enough it will eventually believe it.
And one of the most dangerous aspects of the world of shared imagery is that it is inherently biased towards pleasing others. The metrics are entirely external. We aren’t posting the photos or videos so that we can click the ‘like’ button ourselves, we are seeking the approval of the online mob. So all that effort is spent seeking other people’s approval all the while subliminally whispering to ourselves the ordinary truth of us isn’t worth sharing.
The other side of the paradigm of needing to post constantly in order to get noticed is the assumption everyone is always watching. The ability to have instant access twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week quietly insinuates its way into seeming like a requirement. We begin feeling entitled to instant access whenever we want it and conversely obligated to provide it as well.
We become our own paparazzi and tabloid-target all rolled into one.
This not only leads to a paranoia that everything we are doing is always being watched and evaluated, which can manifest as inflated arrogance or intense social anxiety or any number of things between, but it also sets us into a mode of permanently playing to the crowd. We spend all our time presenting our lives to the audience rather than actually living them. We spend our time portraying rather than actually being.
If everyone is always watching then we must always be prepared, put together, and in presentation mode. There is no time or space allowed for powering-down or recharging or relaxing our energies or vigilance. It has reached a point where people who share a ‘make-up free’ photo are hailed for their extreme bravery . Being simply and unadornedly oneself has somehow become a noteworthy act of courage.
And since our technologies extend into virtually every aspect our most intimate and inner lives the level and intensity of that scrutiny can be overpowering. In terms of instantly producible images think of the difference between an old polaroid camera, small and grainy and singular, and a new digital high definition image which can be zoomed in to the point of counting someone’s pours and endlessly replicated. The effort required to be ‘prepared’ for attention that instantaneous and intense is impossible to constantly sustain.
It’s like the tale of the woman at the butcher shop.
A woman goes into a butcher shop and asks to examine a chicken. She pokes it, she thumps it, she pinches it, she smells it, she holds it up to the light, she pulls the wings up and down, she examines it inside and out then hands it back to the butcher and says “I don’t like it”. The butcher looks at her and says “Pardon me ma’am, but could you pass a test like that?”
Followers vs. Friends
Online connections can be very powerful and rewarding. Particularly for those facing difficult challenges with regards to conventional socialization online connections and communities can be a priceless lifeline. In general, however, one of the other toxic aspects of channeling all our social connections through online platforms is that we end up viewing and treating and engaging with people as followers rather than friends.
While Facebook does use both terms the vast majority of social media platforms strictly use the term ‘followers’ and in all instances that is the model those online relationships take. We post things, they hopefully react and respond to them. We assume they only wish to see optimized content, so that content becomes more valuable than ourselves, and we end up spending as much or more of our energies on the ‘friends’ following our personal blog than the ones actually participating in our physical lives.
The reason there is so much discussion and cautionary expounding about the dangers of becoming slaves to our devices and the platforms within them is that the technology has exploded with exponential speed and we are staggering along behind it trying to figure out not only how to make the best use if it all but also what the costs and impacts of that use Which always takes time, whether the technology will slow down and wait for us or not.
The crucial truth is that we always need to remember, and remind ourselves, these are meant to be tools for us to use. Not the other way around. The moment we let ourselves become the subservient entities is the moment we need to take a breath, take a step back, and remind ourselves of how rare and precious and worthy we all are. Just as we are.
We can’t be everything to everyone, nor should we. We will fit with those who are wired to fit with us, and we won’t with those who aren’t. That’s simply the way of life. We need to focus more on that and less on chasing after the approval of those who don’t fit or don’t even know us.