I joined an online gaming community on New Year’s Eve, 2007. I had wanted to be a part of a community after having a hard time transitioning to life in middle school. I was twelve years old, obese and very much alone. All of my friends had gone on to a different school in Maplewood, leaving me and a few of the stragglers who lived in the other town to go to South Orange Middle School. I remember one day the gym teacher saying that the school was once called the Pink Palace because of its state-of-the-art design and interior courtyard, but years of disrepair had transformed its coral-colored masonry into a Pink Prison. That description perhaps encapsulates my experiences there during sixth grade, that awkward threshold time between childhood and adolescence which one expects to last a year or two, but actually persists until you one day have the clarity to realize that growing up never ends, is a slow process, is everlasting.
I wanted to find friends who liked the same things that I did, which happened to be Pokémon, of all things. I don’t even remember liking Pokémon that much before joining the forum, but after spending years in that community, I learned just about everything there was to know about the rather expansive video game franchise. Yet, I was attracted to the friends I had made through our mutual interest in Pokémon the most. They were perhaps the closest people I had in middle school, and I told them everything, despite never having met them, despite knowing that they too left behind their computers to join their real-life friends every once in a while. I would find myself yearning to contact them, counting the minutes and the laps at football practice before I could come home and sit down at my computer and talk to them on AIM for hours on end about all sorts of things, telling them secrets which I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others in person, in the real world, with whom I had relationships which were more tangible and more fleeting than with these well-known strangers, people with whom I could have a casual encounter at a shopping mall and never realize that they carry with them the most intimate fact of my private life.
This was my introduction to the internet world, a sense of community between like-minded people looking for friendship and comradery. I can remember my mother’s concern at my frequent usage of the computer, at my laughs directed towards or in response to no one in the room. “Who are you talking to?” she’d ask, and I’d say my friends, only for the confusion on her face to persist, if not thicken into a scowl. I used the internet to find people who were like me, or at least, felt like me, and this was before I was aware of the social media landscapes which now dominate every facet of life. These forums, oekakis and websites served as the foundations for my understanding of how communities function, or are supposed to function. They existed within their own separate realm, were governed by their own separate laws of reality, but still cultivated part of my young developing character and persist as archives of my presence on the internet to this day.
I’ve since departed from these communities, have said goodbye – either sorrowfully or through negligence – to these best friends which I have made through cyberspace, but their –our—memories persist in a region in my mind.
My experiences with online communities are now centered around the experiences of my real-world friends. If we advance my life’s timeline a few years, into high school, when my online friends began to move on and I began to get distracted with schoolwork, I became more and more engrossed in the what’s-going-on of everyone else. Facebook was my introduction to this realm of social media, the kingpin of networking, of looking. I was convinced to make a Facebook at the end of eighth grade by my Maplewood friends. They had stopped using AIM, which they saw as juvenile and reminiscent of elementary school, and as we all careened further into pubescence and our new high school education, it began necessary to adopt a new form of communicating with one another. I had missed the Myspace wave, and still there is no page with my information – falsified, of course, as was the norm for fourteen-year-old Myspace users – and a terrible, dirty-mirror shot taken from the rear camera of my LG Chocolate. But when I made a Facebook, it was my first experience seeing actual people that I knew, and having the opportunity to communicate with them in the simulated environment of a social network. Unlike my gaming forums, the people which populated these artificial halls were flesh-and-blood persons with whom I had had legitimate experiences, who I could easily go out and see if I so wished. Yet, there were differences to using Facebook which I soon realized. After long bouts of scrolling through my Facebook feed, especially during the summer months when there wasn’t much to do but use Facebook, I would find myself getting angry at what I saw. Friends out at the movies, getting ice cream, being young in the sunlight while I sat inside and watched. I found reading Facebook statuses about going to the mall and impulsively flipping through photo albums about trips to amusement parks to leave a bitter taste in my mouth, so strong that it would force me to close the tab and do something else with my time. This would be my experience with Facebook and Instagram for many years, a bitterness which gets worse and worse until you must spit it out, lest you remember no other sensation.
Millennials have made social media an integral part of our society and our way of life. It is not an American phenomenon, but a global sensation, a worldwide necessity to be connected across space and time by way of the Internet, that world which never sleeps, which is always astir, for there is always something happening, and someone doing something. Our parents tend to complain that we spend all of our time on our phones, disengaged from the world around us, absorbed in our newfound unsocial tendencies, but this is not true at all. Sociality has not been diminished by the advent and proliferation of social media, but has been changed and transformed. When they scoff that we are becoming insular, it is the fault of a misconception that we are putting energy into our devices, not into one another. Really, a phone is but a tool for communicating with other people. Take away the Internet, take away cellphone service, and one realizes that phones have limited utility outside of their basic function to communicate information across distances. This communication is done in two directions, between two people, just as spoken language is a means of communicating information across space.
Yet, the dangers of social media lie in the phenomenology of looking. What are the effects of coming-to-age in a digital era, in a social media landscape carved out and populated by millions of others with whom one can communicate in a second, whose information exists in the æther permanently, archives of their existence, of their having been, at one time, here? At so touch-and-go a time as pubescence, how does looking at the actions and accomplishments of others affect one’s own understanding of one’s body, of one’s character, of one’s soul? I spent many years watching and reading and looking and interpreting the curated images posted on social media, and only recently have I felt confident enough in my own experiences to share them with others, only for someone else to feel bad about themselves. For this reason, I will attempt to offer a methodology to this phenomenology.
Our consciousness is in its peak period of development during our teenage years. We are in the process of discovering who we are as people and who we would like to become. At this pivotal time, the utilization of imagery as a guide for the developing consciousness is essential. We pick up behaviors from watching others and imitating or rejecting their practices, undergo a process of trial and error until we find a healthy equilibrium. The duration of this process is hard to determine. For some, it seems to be over in a couple of years, for others, it is a lifelong ordeal.
The generation before us came of age during the era of television and popular music. Generation X saw the rise of MTV, BET and music videos, came to consciousness at the very beginning of the Internet age. Their understanding of themselves is formulated based on the images which they received at this crucial time in their development, during the Reagan and Bush and Clinton administrations, during the tail end of our great war against the Communist scourge. Our generation, having come of age during the Obama and Bush administrations, with the Arab Spring and September 11th terrorist attacks fresh in our consciousness, has also the proliferation of information through the internet to contextualize its visual self-perceptions. The social landscapes of the 80s and 90s which cradled Generation X into its majority were not the same which serve as the limits of Generation Y’s cognition.
Social media affects the ways we understand our reality by interacting with our manner of self-recognition. Facebook in particular is but a means of demonstrating our strongest values, as we directly curate and represent them. This is the difference between the social media realm and the real world. Social media is a carefully orchestrated and developed process of self-representation the likes of which does not represent our reality, but the realities we seek to inhabit. Our Facebook profiles are but a collection of data which represents our idealized version of ourselves which we make public as our representative in the online world. Your profile picture is a literal avatar of how you wish to view yourself, a picture you have chosen which you believe accurately portrays the way you’d like the rest of the world to see you. A picture can only capture but one millisecond, one frame of an entire person’s existence, but this picture now serves as the image which will stand as the visual guideline for how the world will interact with your character and interpret your information.
The process of curating information is powerful, but it is also dangerous for a developing mind. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter cannot function without looking, for the concept of visibility is at the very core of the social media experience. There is a reward system which social media developers have implemented which encourages the creation of more content, a reward system which is determined strictly by the factors which govern social behaviors. When you post a picture to Instagram, you expect likes and comments, and the more attention your picture gets, the better you feel. You feel as if your community respects your artistry and your artfulness, and therefore experience a boost in confidence and self-worth. Conversely, when your picture receives little attention, you feel a drop in self-esteem because you have not been rewarded adequately. Many people are even tempted to take such pictures down.
Having a social media presence means crafting a representation of your personality and your character for the consumption of the entire world, but it also means that your self-image of your actual self, that flesh-and-bone manifestation of you which must eat and drink and breathe to survive, which will not exist forever in space after your body has turned to dust, is subject to the will of the masses. It means that you begin to determine your self-worth based on the opinions of others represented through reward systems, and you begin to see yourself less as an individual but as a competitor for the attention and approval of the fold.
Yet, as I post this on social media, with the expectation – or perhaps hope – that someone will read it and like it, or maybe even reblog it so someone else can read it and like it and perhaps reblog it, I realize that social media is both dangerous and essential to me. When I deleted my Twitter – mostly out of a punishment for being a jackass – I made another one because I missed having a space to post little statuses about what’s going on in my headspace, the likes of which would likely not be taken seriously by anyone who followed me. My second time around I wasn’t posting for other people, but for myself, because it is my twitter, and I exist not for the entertainment of others, but for my own satisfaction. It was at this point that I began to see Facebook and Instagram differently as well. I began to use Facebook as a means of proliferating important ideas, not to show my intelligence to my friends and family, a feat which only reflects my impossible desire to fit in and stand out at the same time, but in order to spread ideas around and create conversations. I stopped doing it to serve a selfish self-interest in making myself seem like someone I am not, and became more comfortable living in this flesh-and-bone body, using the personality I have carefully crafted throughout my life’s journey.