Yes, I’m afraid this is an article bashing millennial culture, and this time it’s coming from one of your own instead of a middle-aged white man who thinks Instagram is worse than purgatory. I’m a traitor. Despite my reluctance to side with people belittling our generation’s digital presence, social culture and political activism, or the fact we all look weirder than they did in the 80s, we shouldn’t be afraid to self-analyse.
If you step outside the bubble of personal broadcasting, selfies and memes – what’s deemed the social norm among our peers – it’s alienating to observe social media from a distance.
I started thinking about it after an odd encounter at the restaurant I work at. A girl I went to school with who regularly engages with my social media content sat down in my section. I feel slightly awkward when I’m forced to serve people I know because my customer service voice is creepy, but I smiled and said hello in anticipation for five minutes of politely strained catching up before we could both move on with our respective days. I was surprised when she replied with not even the slightest token of friendliness or recognition and instead bluntly listed her order.
Granted, I hadn’t seen her in years, but this is an individual who has liked pictures of me drinking out of a giant Wetherspoons cocktail jug, sent cry-laughing emojis in response to videos of my friends and I, and complemented videos of me singing. Yet when looking at me dead in the eye in real life, she couldn’t muster anything more than a rushed demand for service. It was surreal. I had never really processed how vastly different our online behaviour translates to real life.
It also made me question why I broadcast my life in the first place for people who won’t even acknowledge me in person. These are people who can happily sprinkle likes and comments around but can’t have a conversation with their recipients.
It’s as if we’re peering into soundproof cages at a zoo, monitoring the activities of our acquaintances from a safe distance. Yet, when that barrier dissolves and we’re stood face to face, we scarper away from the reality of talking directly to one another. It’s easier to absorb information about other people from the comfort of a screen.
The problem is we’re not just broadcasting our lives, we’re manufacturing an alternate and enhanced reality, which we in turn absorb from other people. We select and edit photos or posts to best emphasise the experiences we’re having for no other reason than to boost people’s reactions to them. It’s as if they’re living vicariously through our glorified filters. When we’re doing something impressive or fun our first instinct is to pick up our phones and share it on social media with people who often we barely know or interact with in real life. Why do we do this? Are we so desperate to validate our actions and existence that we crave it even in a superficial digital form from people who aren’t present in our intimate lives? It seems to me we at least need to acknowledge the synthetic qualities of our online behaviour and its potential incompatibility with real life.