Hannah Pearson
By on March 26, 2014 in Life
Read time: 8 minutes | 3 Comments

Our digital selves are not obliterating our real life selves

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, SnapChat… the average person spends an enormous 60 minutes a day on social networks, according to The Independent. And the majority of us are exhausted from not only keeping up with the constant stream of notifications and latest gossip, but also from the time and energy we spend carefully curating our own online, personal brand.

Witty status update? The obligatory picture with the kids, the holiday shot of your toes on a sparkling white beach with azure waves in the background, Pina Colada in the foreground… our digital selves are how we wish we were all the time. Our better selves.

That video celebrating 10 years on Facebook shows the images you wish your life was actually made up of day to day. But of course, we only put up what we want others to see. If we had photos and status updates from what really went on in our lives, I’m sure it would be a quite different story. Mine would be made up of photos of getting too sloshed to make it to the college party, or an evening alone whilst my other half was on the other side of the world, or… you get the picture. And it isn’t a pretty one.

Unable to look away

MTV polled its 13 to 30 year old viewers on their internet habits last year, with some troubling results: most felt ‘defined’ by what they put online, tired of having to constantly be in the online space yet absolutely transfixed by the fear of losing out. And that’s the conundrum that we face nowadays: we know we shouldn’t spend so much time online, yet we cannot tear ourselves away.

Frighteningly, even using the internet moderately can reshape our neural system to resemble that of an alcohol or drug addict. Every time we get a new notification, be it via social media or even email, it represents a world of opportunity and our bodies release a hit of addictive dopamine.

“These rewards serve as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine, much like the frisson a gambler receives as a new card hits the table,” explains Judith Donath, an MIT media scholar.

And so the cycle of action and reward continues, near impossible to break.

Love takes more than just a hot profile

How we curate our online selves becomes even more relevant when looking for a date. From spending hours obsessively stalking our new beloved on social media to carefully composing a message with just the right amount of flirting and mystery, the internet has again encroached on that most basic of human needs: building relationships.

Apps such as Tinder show how far reality can be from the digital one. As The Guardian rightly points out – hook-up apps can actually be far more arousing than actual hook-ups themselves. The frisson that you experience from interacting with a stranger online can feel far stronger than when that person is right in front of you. Couple that with social profiles carefully curated to have just the right music, food and film tastes and a profile picture taken at just the right angle, and it’s no wonder that meeting someone in the flesh can be a deeply disappointing experience, for any dating app.

It turns out that you need more than a hot profile to stoke the fires of true passion. And if we are ever more dependent on social media for interacting with strangers and friends, then what chance do we ever have of making a true connection with someone?

So is the solution to simply be honest in our online profiles? If we are so disappointed with the shortfall between what is promised and what we are delivered, then it stands to reason that whomever you are trying to impress will feel just the same when they meet you in real life.

The envy spiral

But being honest in our profiles is easier said than done, and that’s where the self-promotion envy spiral comes into play. Hannah Krasnova et al, researchers from Berlin’s Humboldt University, did a study on Facebook users and found that passively following your friends on the social media platform exacerbates feelings of envy, leading to a decreasing dissatisfaction with life. Facebook could, in fact, make you unhappier.

We are now at a time when information overload has never been greater. Bombarded by news from all corners, it is impossible to avoid learning that that high school friend you once had is now happily married with a cherubic child in tow, or that the friend you had at university is now a famous singer/ high-powered lawyer/ super-rich-who-knows-what jetting around the world in First Class (yes, all taken from my very own Facebook feed – let’s just say people from my university are pretty varied).

As we see those images and status updates of our friends, we feel the need to put more self-promotional content online to compete and show that your life has its own rosy side. Those connections see your statuses and photos and put even more self-promotional content online. And so on and so on, until the identity that you have created for yourself online has become so distanced from your self IRL that you are practically living a double life.

This is not a conscious decision that we are making in reaction to those pictures. We never stop to think logically and rationally that if we are putting in the long hours to create and maintain our online personality, surely these same people who are putting up such perfect pictures are also dedicating every waking moment to curating their own digital selves. To us, it looks like that must be how their life is like all the time.

It’s no wonder we’re exhausted.

Excessive use of social media has been linked by the California State University to ADHD, depression, OCD, narcissism, hypochondriasis, voyeurism addiction, body dysmorphia and… schizoaffective and schizotype disorders. Read into that what you will.

Selfie = selfish?

But right now, the worst of the worst is acknowledged to be the selfie. There have been a ton of articles denouncing the selfie as a sign of an increasingly self-involved, narcissistic society that judges people on looks alone with a dangerous link to the sexualisation of young girls in society.

A recent warning from the Department of Mental Health in Thailand says that the selfie may even harm the future development of the country: as young people become obsessed with social approval, they may wind up in a downward spiral of depression if they do not receive the level of ‘likes’ that their self-portraits ought to have garnered.

We’ve seen how the need to take a selfie can override even the most sensible of people’s judgement in when it is appropriate or not to take them. Obama, Merkel and Cameron at Mandela’s memorial service, anyone? The hilarious/ despicable Tumblr sites of selfiesatfunerals and selfiesinseriousplaces also serve to show just how far people cross the line in what is acceptable to get that perfect shot that they can post up on social media and gain some much needed social brownie points.

But demonising selfies as all that is wrong with the digital age is misguided. Self-portraiture has always been part of society. It allows us to try on a new image to see how we could feel if it were part of ourselves, without going all the way. It’s dipping a toe in the water and seeing how many ripples we can cause.

Moreover, “We are hard-wired to respond to faces,” Dr Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center explains. “It’s unconscious. Our brains process visuals faster, and we are more engaged when we see faces. If you’re looking at a whole page of photos, the ones you will notice are the close-ups and selfies.”

A picture tells a thousand words

In the faster-to-process-without-words stakes, some teenagers are abolishing the use of SMS, simply using a selfie with a hashtag as a way to communicate without words. They just snap a picture of themselves and send it to their friends.

And the trend of the perfect selfie is even going the other way, with uglies declared to be the new hot thing. What is an Ugly exactly? It’s where women scrunch up their faces in the most unattractive manner they can think of and post it up on social networks. Why? To combat the idea that women should always look perfect (which reminds me of the Disney animator Lino DiSalvo’s comment that drawing heroine’s faces is “really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions”).

Just last week in the UK, a new selfie trend has taken my Facebook stream by storm – of women posting up their make-up free faces, all for the great cause of Cancer Research. Seeing friends jump onto that bandwagon again reinforces how powerful an image can be, and how it’s probably one of the best ways to motivate someone into doing something good.

Challenging the picture perfect moments

Suzanne Heintz, an artist from the United States, has her own provocative take on how we portray our lives in her art project, “Playing House”. The aim of her project was simple: to capture typical ‘perfect’ moments in a woman’s life, together with her husband and child. The only catch? She’s a single lady with no children. To make up for it, she drags a life-size mannequin husband and child around the world (watch the video above showing how she does it – the looks of passers by are priceless), taking the ubiquitous ‘perfect’ shots: the dance together, the romantic picnic, the walk in the park, the Christmas dinner shot.

Heintz explains the thinking behind depicting the impeccable American Dream: “I construct these artificial scenes of real life to ask, ‘What’s more important? That I’m happy, or that the open position of husband and father is filled in my life?’”

Carting two mannequins around may seem like an awful lot of work to make her point, but as Heintz says,

“This monumental effort I’ve made is absurd, but it reflects my point. Going through life by rote or spending it feeling as though you did it wrong, are lacking, or not living up to expectations – that’s what is truly an absurd waste of time.”

No novelty in curating your image

Curated selves are nothing new. Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs commissioned colossal statues of themselves so that the common folk would see them as gods. Even relatively modern-day leaders have been known to do something similar with their official images plastering the walls and their statues gracing the squares.

The difference now is that rather than a curated self being a privilege for the powerful and wealthy and taking years to chip away at a block of marble – everyone can do it. With the advent of social media, there has been a democratisation of the curated self.

In fact, the everyday lady even has an advantage over the traditionally privileged – with the famous, the press are constantly trying to capture the hypocrisy lurking underneath. The supermodel who denounces fur in public then wraps herself in it the next day. The prince who protests animal rights and goes on a hunting expedition in Africa. The politician who pronounces that the family is what is holding together the country, then cheats on his wife.

For us, no-one is camping outside the door when we wake up the morning after with a stonking headache, looking a complete mess, and decide to head out to Subway for a sarnie, because that’s the only thing that’ll cure our hangover. We’re the ones who choose what images we’re putting up on social media, not someone else. We’re the editors of our own life. In a way, we are liberated to be both our ‘better’ digital self and also our ‘normal’ self.

Can we go so far as to say that our curated self is destroying our real life self? I would say that so long as we are aware of what we (and others) are projecting and who they really are, then no. Curating our digital selves merely allows us to try on other personality traits and see how they fit. But that’s exactly the outlook on life that my digital self who’s writing this would want to portray, isn’t it?