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.
That so many of us who use social media—and that’s a whopping 92 percent of those between ages 18 and 29, and 73 percent of people in their 30s and 40s, according to the Pew Internet Project—choose to devote our time and energy to cultivating our online personae is no big surprise when you think about it. Not only is the power to control your image, and thereby people’s impression of you, pretty much irresistible, but also? It actually works.
Take Scott Schroeder. A few years back, the 37-year-old chef at South Philly Tap Room and American Sardine Bar was having trouble selling one menu item in particular: headcheese. (Read: A meat jelly made from a pig’s head.) But then one day, on a whim, Schroeder snapped a picture of the dish with his iPhone and Instagrammed it. Staring at his phone, he realized that a twee little picture of the pig gruel looking delicious on a slider bun beneath a pickle was more charming and way more appetizing than words on a menu. His customers realized the same thing. “Now people come in specifically to get it,” he says.
Meantime, while Scott was learning the power of Instagram in pushing his food, he was also learning how Twitter could be a great advertisement for … Scott Schroeder. His Twitter feed (@foodsyoucaneat), a unique mix of not-so-subtle drug references, food pictures and jokes, seems to fit his real-life looks: He’s a big guy, tattooed and bright-eyed, who seems like he could be trouble if you’re on his bad side but a blast to be around if you’re not. (Sample posts: “My spirit animal is @SarahPalinUSA”; “I betcha that
@justinbieber’s gonna end up WAY more fucked up than Michael Jackson ever was #betcha.”)
“The comedy is more for me than anyone else, I think,” he says with a laugh. “But I just figured, food writers are following every chef in the city—how am I going to stand out?”
He does manage to stand out to his 2,000-plus followers—some of whom have never even eaten in his restaurants, including a Manhattan Zagat writer and a group of graffiti artists in Brooklyn.
“As much fun as it can be, it can get sort of annoying, too,” he says of cultivating his fan base with his online antics. “Sometimes I’m out to dinner with my girlfriend and someone comes up to me or yells something. The problem is, people think I’m this funny, wacky drunk all the time, and I’m not … mostly.”
Evan Urbania is the CEO of Philly social media company ChatterBlast, which has helped lots of clients do what Schroeder has managed to do—minus the dirty jokes. ChatterBlast has worked with some seriously big-name local clients—Councilman Jim Kenney and the Philadelphia Parking Authority, among others—to build their online presences.
“Social media gives everyone the opportunity to have their own TV channel,” Urbania says. “And sure, that makes us editors, curators of our lives. We broadcast what we want others to think of us and consider how we want to be viewed.”
As Schroeder points out, “I might get made fun of for tweeting by my buddies, but having a public persona? That’s the game now.” Play the social media game right, and here’s what you get: a soapbox to stand on, a spotlight, a cheap way to make a name for yourself—or maybe even a whole new life.
Twenty-eight-year-old Mikey Ilagan—or @Mikeyil to his 2,500 followers—shot to Philly fame with a Tumblr account he started in 2011 called ThisIsNotACheesesteak, on which he mocked imitations he found in Toronto, Boston, wherever. He’s grown his following over the years by offering commentary on Twitter about the Philly food scene and tech news and by just being funny. He’s gotten invited to parties and restaurant openings, and is treated like a VIP at events he never would have been asked to attend pre-Tumblr. All of this seems to come naturally to him, but that doesn’t mean some thought doesn’t go into posting as @Mikeyil.
“Some people still use Twitter for minutiae, like they’re mowing their lawn or their baby puked on them,” says Ilagan. “I try to keep it interesting and be personal without getting too personal. I like to entertain. I like telling stupid jokes, and people really dig it when I make fun of recent local happenings. But private things, I keep private. I don’t air my dirty laundry or talk crap about people, ever.”
Perhaps the ultimate testament to Ilagan’s online skills is his fiancée, Allie Harcharek, whom he met on Twitter. “I thought she was a cool blogger and that she was interesting,” says Ilagan. “Then we met in person at a mutual Twitter friend’s birthday party.” They’ll marry in 2014.
Annie Heckenberger is another Twitter success story: The 38-year-old PR exec at Philly’s Red Tettemer + Partners worked in social media long before it was called social media, making MySpace pages for CoverGirl and Clairol. She got on Twitter originally because it was so good for business, but now she calls it her “biggest social outlet.”
“I don’t tweet about any one thing,” says Heckenberger, whose Twitter handle is @Anniemal. “I do a lot of tweeting about news and entertainment and a lot of commentary on TV shows I watch. My approach to Twitter is what I call the Keyser Söze approach. I will talk about anything. I will talk in a circle. But most often, I’ve told you nothing.”
The formula seems to have worked: @Anniemal has 7,000-plus followers. She’s gotten tweets from movie stars. She gets recognized in public.
“At first it was a little bit weird for me, because I’m not a celebrity and it’s not my intent to be a public figure, but by nature of this medium I have become one,” she says. “I’ve had people drive by and yell ‘Anniemal!’ out of their car.” Strangers have sent her flowers when she was sick; one woman in California baked her cookies. All thanks to Twitter, her social media outlet of choice.
“I’ve heard Facebook described as ‘Bragbook,’” she says: “Typically, there are people making their lives look perfect—look at my dinner, or look at how perfect my children are, look at how great my lawn looks. But no one is going to post a picture of their face puffy and crying after a breakup. My feeling is that Twitter is a little more honest.”
Heckenberg may be an overtweeter—checking Twitter last thing before bed, first thing in the morning, and even sometimes, she admits, in the middle of the night—but, like Ilagan, she tries not to be an oversharer. “I haven’t told you online about my personal life, who I’m dating,” she explains. “And I tend not to air grievances.”
Even for @Anniemal, online honesty has its limits.
Attempting to hide behind lace curtains weeks ago, I whipped out my iPhone and secretly zoomed in to capture my neighbor, Dave, out doing lawnwork in a kilt. It wasn’t just any kilt, either—it was a utility kilt, one of those crazy-looking cargo pant/skirt hybrids made for getting stuff done.
Facebook, I thought, is going to love this.
I just moved to this house in our New Jersey suburb. I barely know Dave, but he seems very nice. And here I am, new in town and risking my whole real-life future relationship with my neighbors for one stupid Facebook post. Why? The answer comes minutes later, when the Utilikilt scores high, setting my phone abuzz with friends “liking” and commenting on the photo. A hit.
The online personae of Heckenberger and Ilagan and Schroeder clearly resonate with strangers in a way mine doesn’t. I can honestly say that the sole rewards I get from tweeting something that gets retweeted or posting a picture that gets nice comments—probably the sole ones most of us get—are of the ego-boosting variety. We bait our dog with bacon to get him to look cute on Instagram. We almost rear-end the car in front of us (um, for instance) to get a picture of a license plate that reads VROOM. I’d say that if all these efforts are good for anything, it’s those virtual high-fives and pats on the back.
It seems to be enough to keep us posting. One friend reports to me that her husband—a prolific participant on both Facebook and Instagram—“giggles and gets giddy” when he gets a lot of likes and comments: “It’s like he’s opening presents on Christmas morning.” Another friend admits spending up to 10 minutes debating the phrasing of her Facebook posts, reading and re-reading posts before actually publishing lest she come off as anything but clever, or insightful, or funny. When we manage to share a sentiment or picture or idea or anything that resonates with our audience, we feel like a star, if only for a moment.
“The core of it is that it validates you,” Urbania says. “It fires synapses in your brain to create a pleasurable experience. With likes and comments and retweets, it’s like when people nod heads, smile, congratulate you or clap. It’s the same feelings you get exactly, translated one-to-one.”
One Harvard study concluded that writing about ourselves on social media stimulates the same part of the brain we use when we eat food, are given money … or have sex. Is it any wonder the world spends 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook?
But it’s not all warm fuzzies and instant gratification. “Are Your Facebook Friends Stressing You Out? (Yes)” was an Atlantic headline last fall, with the magazine’s Megan Garber reporting that striving for more and more online friends leads most of us to make a constant “preemptive” effort to keep them all happy … or at least not unhappy. As our audience widens, our worlds and our various selves collide in ways that can affect what we allow ourselves to show. Garber writes, “All the careful tailoring we do to ourselves (and to our selves)—to be, say, professional in one context and whimsical in the other—dissolves in the simmering singularity of the Facebook timeline.”
This last bit, 20-somethings like me are actually pretty bitter about: These platforms were originally created for the college crew. And we were all having a hell of a lot more fun before our moms and bosses joined in. Now, most of us edit ourselves, at least to some degree. We’ll untag ourselves from unflattering pictures friends put up; we’ll think twice about many of our posts, lest our politics, language, bad spelling or whatever should anger one of the 600 people who will read them. You know, to be safe. To not sound stupid to people outside our immediate friend group, to not embarrass ourselves in some way. And, also, to not have arm fat.
Six years ago, I spent my 22nd birthday alone in a teeny one-bedroom apartment at 11th and Pine. I had just left college at Villanova, a place full of friends and fun, and moved to Philly for my first job. Outside of my co-workers, I knew no one.
A cabdriver had yelled at me on my walk home. It was raining. I sat on my futon and watched Jeopardy and ate a Hot Pocket. It should have been depressing for every reason, but I managed to keep my chin up: I’m here because I landed a job in publishing straight out of college, and moved here, all alone. Like, nobody has managed to do that. I’m fine! Ahead of the game. I kept it together … until I went on Facebook and saw all the cool things everyone else was doing. My friend Jen’s page was the last straw. She was having the time of her life at a summer rental in Belmar. There were boys and booze and bikinis. Everything flip-flopped: Oh my God, I’ve just taken a job right out of college and moved here, all alone. Like, nobody does that. I looked down at the Hot Pocket, and suddenly it was too much to bear.
That’s the dark underbelly of those rose-colored photos: Comparison is all but inevitable. And not just for me.
“Is Social Media Destroying Your Self-Esteem?” Forbes.com asked its readers last summer. At about the same time, Newsweek referenced a 1998 study from Carnegie Mellon that found that Web use over a two-year period was linked to sadness, loneliness, and even the loss of real-world friends. (The magazine quoted wisecracking critics: “But the subjects all lived in Pittsburgh.”) The story went on to point to multiple studies showing that “the more a person hangs out in the global village, the worse they are likely to feel.”
Of course, for every academic study linking lousy self-esteem to social media, there’s one to refute it. But I don’t need a study to remind me of the feeling of seeing all my friends’ lives looking so glamorous on the screen in my lonely room. Neither does my friend Kristin, who reveals to me while I’m reporting this story that she actually cried looking at my Facebook page after she moved to Florida for grad school.
“I left my boyfriend in Philly, hadn’t yet made any friends, and it was still summer, so people were posting pictures from the beach, bars, vacations,” she says. “Here I was sitting at home, doing homework with no prospects of going out, and there you are, out having fun. I just started to cry.”
I don’t even remember that time in my life being as fun as Facebook evidently made it appear. I was out all the time because I was single and desperate to meet someone, I tell her. I peruse my page to see the pictures she’s talking about, and the flip side of the whole thing hits me: When I look back on my Facebook page, I have a renewed sense of satisfaction about my life. It’s like the highlight reel—I’m funny! I’ve done interesting things! I went cool places with my friends! I look adorable! It might be a revisionist history of a sort, but it’s my history all the same.
“It is true that virtually everybody seeks to post the most glamorous parts of their lives on social network sites,” Temple sociology professor Shanyang Zhao, who researches social media, writes to me. “But isn’t this also true in face-to-face contact? … The truth is that we all try to make ourselves look better to others than what we think we are, regardless of whether we are on or off the Internet. In other words, we seek to present ourselves not because of, but in spite of, the Internet.”
Meaning we’re still basically out there keeping up with the Joneses—only now it’s at every single moment of our lives, every tweetable, Instagrammable, postable moment, not just when we buy a car or get into a fancy college.
Evan Urbania doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. “Sharing the personal stuff is what keeps people up on your life,” he says. “And we all have a need for connection.” But if the end goal of social media is connecting with other people, how much are we really connecting if what we put out there is simply a chosen sliver of our life, with a flattering filter applied? Zhao is ready for this question:
“Heavily edited online self-images may not tell us who the presenters really are, but they can tell us a lot about what the presenters want to be. So by looking at the masked faces of the known and unknown presenters on the Internet, we are reading the books of personal aspirations, social stereotypes and cultural preferences, which inevitably makes us reflect on our own values and ideals.”
So in reality, who we show ourselves to be online is who we want ourselves to be. That’s not phony—if anything, it’s weirdly revealing. And if we all know that we’re getting a curated version of our “friends”—and maybe simply seeing the things people choose to share, and the way they want to share them—maybe that provides connection enough. Mikey Ilagan says he met a big chunk of his current friends through Twitter. Which makes me wonder, actually, whether, had Twitter had been born a few years earlier, I would have spent my 22nd birthday alone. Maybe Twitter would have helped me, like Ilagan, make friends, so that I’d have found my niche sooner. Maybe I’d have searched #youngphillywriters or #newtophilly or #phillyLOSTfans and found someone to have a birthday drink with me at Dirty Frank’s. Maybe there’d never have even been a Hot Pocket. Maybe Twitter would have changed things for the better for me.
That’s not to say that social media hasn’t changed things for me since then: There’s a certain handful of Facebook friends whom I’ve come to like much more in digital form than I ever did in real life. Our friendships have gotten stronger, in a strange way. Maybe sometimes all we want is the edited version of people. Maybe some of us are better in 140 characters or less.
Whatever; this is the way things are now. And yes, to constantly feel the need to think of something to say, to reply to other people, to try to keep up, check in, update, to attend morning, noon and night, share, tag, un-tag, polish, filter, engage, make people laugh, spellcheck, curb the swears, retake that picture, remember the red-eye correction, get the quote right, post and repost, to check for likes, and all the other things a person might do throughout the day to stay in the conversation, to be a part of a brave new digital world … yeah, maybe that’s stressful; maybe it’s exhausting.
But then, connecting with other people always is.