Do you know the most embarrassing possession of yours that someone will find if you die? I do. It’s a folder on my computer that contains hundreds of pictures I’ve taken of myself. The fact that I’m not photogenic means that finding a Facebook profile picture is a nearly impossible task. Most candid shots of me aren’t worthy of playing a leading role onscreen: I blink, my smile’s crooked, I have arm fat. In short, they’re just a little too … real.
And so the awful truth is that on many a night when the lighting seemed just right, I’ve whipped out the camera and preened and vogued and snapped until I’ve come up with a photo that looks good enough for the job. Sometimes I’ve posed with my dog, as a buffer—but with or without dog, the requisites for the perfect picture are many: It has to be pretty but not suggestive. A natural smile—not goofy or smarmy. (This by itself has meant hundreds of duds.) I have to hold the camera just right so my arm isn’t in the picture, to have a prayer of convincing the world that I am absolutely not alone in my bathroom in New Jersey taking pictures of myself.
But of course, I am. And if you’re someone who uses any form of social media—which is pretty much everyone at this point—you probably have been, too. You also probably know that there’s a name for this sort of shot—a selfie—and that such self-portraiture has pretty much been de rigueur since the advent of the smartphone. In fact, cringe-y as it may seem while you’re snapping away four steps from your toilet, gone is the stigma that once might have come from taking your own picture and putting it on the Internet. The practice has essentially been elevated
to an art form. No less than the Wall Street Journal has weighed in: One recentish article titled “Super ‘Selfies’: the Art of the Phone Portrait” offered tips on lighting, outfits, and the best poses for appearing slender. And yes, there’s an app for that—“Selfie” uses facial detection and timers to make the snapping even easier.
Of course, the profile picture is just the beginning of being a real-life person who is also a person on the Internet, the jumping-off point for the curation of your digital self. It all escalates from there. Depending on your social media proclivities, you might make sure to check in at all the restaurant openings you attend (well, all the good ones, anyway), or you might Google the perfect Rousseau quote to really pack some punch into your repost of that Times story, or maybe you simply refrain from dropping your usual F-bombs on Twitter, because your mom follows you. Maybe you post your pictures in more dramatic black-and-white, or you realize you have to change your outfit before a party because that ensemble has already been seen on Facebook more than once, or you take that extra 20 seconds to come up with a hashtag that’s incredibly clever. In short: Your digital self ends up more interesting than the Dos Equis guy, quippier than Jon Stewart, and as photogenic as Giselle.
But here’s the question: Is it really you on there?
My mom, for one, thinks not. “Everyone on there is full of it,” she says, her standard answer when I ask why she’s abandoned Facebook. She cites an acquaintance of hers who would post constantly about how wonderful her husband and their life together was. Then, abruptly, they got divorced. That did it for my mother.
I sometimes wonder if she has a point. The magic of social media is, as we all know, its ability to connect us to each other, to offer up endless opportunities to network, find old crushes and maybe future ones, chat again with long-lost friends. And yet who, exactly, are we connecting with, these charming, witty people with less-than-average arm fat, so often on some sun-dappled vacation with their charming, witty children and their endlessly droll tweets? I wonder if by letting us constantly show our best face to the world, social media isn’t making us into a bunch of phonies.
Or, at very least, if our online selves are simply giving our harried real selves one more thing to manage, to spend time on, to stress about.