Do­ing it for the ’gram

What does it mean when your on­line and real life per­son­al­i­ties don’t match up? And does it mat­ter? Emma Chong John­ston in­ves­ti­gates

ELLE (Malaysia) - - AGENDA FEATURE -

My hus­band has In­sta­gram, and not just in the way that an #in­sta­gramhus­band does. He’s been us­ing it ac­tively for over a year and con­sis­tently gets more likes on his pho­tos than I do (yes, it ran­kles). I do not fea­ture on his feed: it’s a vis­ual di­ary of his cy­cling and fit­ness oc­cu­pa­tions, all GoPro ac­tion shots and podium pho­tos. But what I find the most re­mark­able is his cap­tions, char­ac­terised by ex­cla­ma­tion marks, emo­jis, self­ies and hash­tags which have in the past in­cluded: #nu­tri­tion #muddy #rac­ing. (We are very dif­fer­ent peo­ple.)

All of this may lead you to con­clude that he’s a nat­u­rally out­go­ing, ex­tro­verted per­son, or at least a man with an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for pub­lic dis­plays of emo­tion. But no. The first time I tried to take a selfie with him, he ac­qui­esced with the en­thu­si­asm of one go­ing to a wis­dom tooth ex­trac­tion. He doesn’t do par­ties. He’d rather do a 100km moun­tain bike ride on his own than have to linger over a post-ride teh tarik with a cy­cling buddy. When we meet friends, they fre­quently think he’s up­set with them; in re­al­ity he’s happy on the in­side, it just... takes a while to make it to his face.

But these con­trasts don’t seem prob­lem­atic to my hus­band. He can post self­ies with­out a shred of self­con­scious­ness, some­thing his vain but neu­rotic wife of­ten can’t work up the courage to do. But he won’t doc­u­ment for the sake of it; I’m the only one in our house­hold who feels the need to take a photo of us watch­ing TV. His grumpy IRL front and cheery In­sta­gram per­sona are both him; they just rep­re­sent two parts of his per­son­al­ity that get ex­pressed at dif­fer­ent times. And, in fair­ness, he’s XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX not sav­ing all the fun and games for In­sta­gram: I’ve seen him joust­ing with

our cat, cheer­fully coach­ing seven-yearolds on the foot­ball pitch, and glee­fully fill­ing a pick’n’mix cup ev­ery time the op­por­tu­nity presents it­self.

Which is real life as we all know it. No one is just one thing, but so­cial me­dia and par­tic­u­larly In­sta­gram have, over the last decade, al­lowed us to cre­ate very spe­cific ver­sions of our­selves in a way that has never ex­isted be­fore. If you only knew me from my In­sta­gram, you’d as­sume I do noth­ing but flounce around in flo­ral dresses and take pho­tos of the cat. But most days I turn up to work in some kind of an­cient shirt dress, no makeup and the same shoes ev­ery day. Do I feel the need to broad­cast these mo­ments? Not re­ally. Does this make me a deeply ar­ti­fi­cial per­son? De­bat­able.

Mil­len­ni­als and In­sta­gram users have come un­der tor­rents of abuse for their ob­ses­sion with ‘cu­rat­ing’ their feeds, for pol­ish­ing the ap­pear­ance of their life­style. But this is not a com­plaint rooted in any un­der­stand­ing of re­al­ity I know – no one tells ev­ery­one ev­ery­thing. That’s not self-cen­sor­ship, it’s a func­tion of so­cial liv­ing. Whether in daily con­ver­sa­tion or on In­sta­gram, we choose the sto­ries we want to rep­re­sent our­selves, con­sciously or un­con­sciously fil­ter­ing them through our words, tone or im­age-edit­ing apps. Ev­ery­one has a nat­u­ral bias to­wards anec­dotes in which they come across well, how­ever they de­fine those pa­ram­e­ters. “I do not fake things and go out of my way for the ’gram,” model Ali­cia Amin tells us, “but my In­sta­gram is still con­trolled. I use it to show­case my works, mile­stones and when I ac­tu­ally do some­thing in­ter­est­ing. No com­pro­mis­ing dou­ble chin pho­tos.”

Same here Ali­cia. On In­sta­gram I too choose pho­tos in which my jaw looks sharper. In real life I want to be known as in­tel­li­gent and funny. On In­sta­gram I’d like to be known for hav­ing nice clothes. In real life I try to mit­i­gate my in­cli­na­tions to­wards pet­ti­ness, my dis­like of small talk. On In­sta­gram I choose not to post pho­tos of my­self schlub­bing around in py­ja­mas. I broad­cast the good, and work on the bad in pri­vate.

Con­trary to the crit­i­cism directed at our gen­er­a­tion, this is not un­usual. “Both of our on­line and off­line be­hav­iour are real,” wrote In­dian so­ci­ol­o­gist Koyel Bandy­opad­hyay. “One doesn’t get more va­lid­ity from the other, if real is equated with be­ing gen­uine or au­then­tic.” So why do we as­sume that peo­ple’s on­line iden­ti­ties are em­bel­lished or fake? “Since we use all our sen­sory ca­pa­bil­i­ties to con­struct ‘re­al­ity’, when we can’t do that (be­cause you can’t smell your friend’s food pic­tures or feel the breeze of your col­league’s trop­i­cal is­land pic­tures), we tend to stamp on­line be­hav­iour as “not real.”

The im­pulse to present our­selves in dif­fer­ent ways is not one born of the in­ter­net. There have al­ways been means of chang­ing your im­age ac­cord­ing to your au­di­ence, and In­sta­gram is just the lat­est, most so­phis­ti­cated tool. Of course you can take this in­stinct too far, but is Pho­to­shop­ping your butt big­ger psy­cho­log­i­cally any dif­fer­ent to wear­ing a corset to make your waist thin­ner? They’re both prob­lem­atic be­hav­iours born of so­ci­etal pres­sures that have the most im­pact on young women.

The dif­fer­ence is this: women, whether shoot­ing, di­rect­ing or edit­ing these im­ages, are in charge. The rise of so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers, a uni­ver­sally eye-rolled con­cept, is the lead­ing ex­am­ple of this. A few young women on In­sta­gram took the tra­di­tional me­dia land­scape by storm, out­per­form­ing mag­a­zines and mod­els to be­come lead­ing voices. Even if they are go­ing out of their way to cre­ate im­ages that bear no re­sem­blance to their ‘real’ lives, in do­ing so they are tak­ing charge of their own nar­ra­tive in a way that women cen­turies ago would have longed for.

On no other plat­form are young women yield­ing so much power. This year, four of the five most fol­lowed per­son­al­i­ties on In­sta­gram are women: Se­lena Gomez (126 mil­lion fol­low­ers), Ari­ana Grande (113 mil­lion), Beyoncé (106 mil­lion) and Tay­lor Swift (103 mil­lion). Blog­ger Aimee Song (4.6 mil­lion) par­layed her on­line in­flu­ence into a book deal, a full crew to cap­ture all her (of­ten spon­sored) travel mo­ments, and a spot on the Forbes 2016 ‘30 un­der 30’ list. Here in Malaysia, lead­ing blog­ger Jane Chuck can pick up 14,000 likes on a photo of an ice cream and turn that into a con­tent deal with Visa. All these women are tra­di­tion­ally beau­ti­ful but have built suc­cess­ful ca­reers for them­selves out­side the male gaze, and use an im­agedriven plat­form to draw at­ten­tion to is­sues other than their beauty. A sin­gle post on Beyoncé’s In­sta­gram that said ‘BeyGood Hous­ton’ sig­nalled that her char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion BeyGood was work­ing on the ground in Hous­ton to help those af­fected by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey. It got 840,000 likes.

Yes, many of so­cial me­dia’s driv­ing forces are the same as so­ci­ety’s have al­ways been: to look young, thin and af­flu­ent. And yes, In­sta­gram’s in­trin­sic struc­ture of pre­sent­ing your­self for likes is prob­lem­atic. But the value of hav­ing a space in which you can recre­ate your­self can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated: for young peo­ple, who need the free­dom to find out who they are, some­times many times over. And for women, who need free­dom.

“Do I feel the need to broad­cast these mo­ments? Not re­ally. Does this make me a deeply ar­ti­fi­cial per­son? De­bat­able.”

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