As a thirty-one year old woman, I belong to a particular demographic that marketing agencies cherish.
Some of us are in different phases of our careers.
Some of us run households and organize lives.
Each of us carves our own niche in our own time and space—and most of us dream.
Sometimes we dream of a seemingly unobtainable way of life, the obscure glamour of a wedding dress bought by the roadside in Mexico, that maximalist private jet ride to a minimalist bamboo yurt in the outer rim of a Balinese jungle, a hint of a tattoo we climbed mountains for to remind us of the journey and not the destination—every golden moment documented and filtered just for you in high-definition, chasing that Grid Life down the rabbit hole via the Bifrost.
Sometimes, we send visions of these dreams and wishes out into the universe. Just not the cosmic, dharma run one.
Enter The Grid.
The compulsion to share and obsessively cultivate one’s persona began in earnest overnight, spawning a cult following that spanned generations. Even the behemoth that is Facebook had to do something drastic and purchased Instagram after six days of it becoming available on Android in April of 2012. Businesses rallied, and suddenly there were Social Media Managers teetering around the office, peering down into screens with detrimental carelessness. Free apps had arrived, and streets were abuzz with the hungry and the foolish, walking incubators ready to devour a problem and spit out an accessible solution designed to save the universe’s most precious commodity: time.
On just one device you were able to conduct a video conference call, read an e-mail and scroll through your chosen outlet while waiting for wars to begin on your RPG. The revolution of the multi-hyphenate-digital-native had begun, its natural playground holding us captive to a generation the world has been so scathing of.
Older generations scoffed at “Millennial methods” and unorthodox think tanks while simultaneously (and hypocritically) jumping on the bandwagon. One product in particular literally froze time, and ever so spectacularly within an endless landscape of tiled squares. It was, honestly, just a real-time photo sharing app in the beginning. The brilliance of it all lay under its stark simplicity, the depths unfathomable to the naked eye. Suddenly, savvy users caught on to the idea that a picture is a valuable, viable source of economic gain. They sat at single origin cafés strategizing their campaigns to curate an impenetrable reel of perfection to please brands, consumers and followers alike. Marketing budgets were redistributed to accommodate The Influencer, a new breed of celebrity that had the power to romanticize the future by harking back into the past, repackaging ideas your great grandparents had by making them feel new again. Sweet tea in a mason jar, dear? And I, like millions of others, was there for it – phone in hand, ready to obtain my own slice of the curatorial pie for consumption.
We had never before seen people balance the precarious natures of personal life and work life so well. Why choose, as they urge, when you can have both? You will have read this at least once somewhere in the blogosphere within the past five years: do what you love and you will never work a day in your life. And to that I say, why not? How can we begrudge digital nomads and influencers the opportunity to open eyes and minds to different cultures, local brands or obscure artists we would not have heard of otherwise?
There are so many wonderful things that come out of social media. Some days you are left with the motivation to work harder, the longing to travel to new places, live healthier and promote causes you never knew you could support from afar. This is the year that Instagram is expected to reach the billion user mark, of which a staggering 59% are between the ages of 18-29, and the responsibility that comes with being a celebrity on a social media platform is unfathomable.
With the youth looking to many profiles as inspiration in building the foundations of their future goals and lifestyle choices, it only makes sense that most marketing campaigns are focused on igniting both their emotions and spending power.
—on bad days—it can be an isolating well of disappointment and anxiety for many who compare their own lives to unrealistic ideals set by strangers. It drains creativity AS it inspires it, convoluting and improving at once. Originality becomes questionable as art and ideas become public property, putting integrity at risk for even the most innovative people. We have become a generation of voyeurs and provocateurs both, indulging in sharing and seeking content always, at all times.
But how much of what is out there actually REAL?
The algorithm we have subconsciously learned to follow dictates when it is time to feed the beast with a glimpse into that electric sunset, that perfect latte that went cold fifteen minutes ago, that insightfully relatable quote that catapults us further into the stratosphere of capital “M” Media (played ever so perfectly by Gillian Anderson in American Gods) and the realm of People Pleasing. For some, it is their livelihood. It sometimes takes hours of dedicated planning devoted to each aspect, each minute detail of their ongoing quest to reach a goal standard so high it drives one to tears. And they can only go up from there… until the day comes that they begin to feel what was described to me as:
— a burnout.
On the quest to understanding another side to social media, I casually reached out to a few people about the pressure to maintain their flawless feeds as part of their careers. Each belongs to completely different interest groups, from fashion to film, sports and travel. Between these individuals lay hundreds of thousands of followers hanging onto every caption typed, every photograph devoured with the scrutiny of anyone who cared to peer in.
And no matter what the industry was, they all seemed to have similar opinions: “It can get challenging,” one blogger confessed candidly:
“Every business opportunity is a blessing, so I can’t really say it has a downside. But when we do things for promotional purposes; you can’t just post what you want anymore. Copywriters send us the text we need to publish, and sometimes we add to it but most of the time we don’t. Then we just take the pictures to go with it. The good thing is that you can tag it as an ad, it wasn’t always like that. Most of what’s out there is for building the brand, but you have to get a few personal things in when you can. People respond to that more.”
Another reflected on the thought that went into their personal captions, which tend to get taken out of context by fans and hecklers alike. The influencer with perhaps the largest following of all sent me a simple message to never discuss politics no matter how much you want to, because trolling would undoubtedly ensue in the comment sections and one was taught to always remain democratic.
“When you are in showbiz, you always think twice about what you put out there. It’s always nice to say something encouraging or congratulate friends on things, but people read into it sometimes. For posting, a selfie is usually safe, but you also want to balance it out with your interests. Share a little about yourself, and be real. Try to share something honest every now and then. If you want to talk about your personal life, be prepared for it to be shared on other outlets, so share things that you wouldn’t mind having repeated.”
The underlying theme in all of this is the human desire to weave sincerity into the work, whether through an untouched photo or a live story – which aids in the quest for honesty as no editing is available and everything posted is happening at that very moment. And oh, the struggle to be real is real. There was inevitable push back over #lifegoals, and even a few celebrities were caught red-handed for making their lives seem far more glamorous than they are (see the #bowwowchallenge).
Suddenly pressure came from trying to be as authentic as possible, with some influencers sweetly unmasking their perfect posts by sharing what went on behind the photos; boyfriends nearly falling into pools to get the perfect angle, objects nearly colliding overhead, the awkward stolen shots of eyes half closed and mouths hanging open. Even behind the most prolific of sunrise photos are the ones that didn’t make it, with facial expressions betraying the reality of waking up at four to trek up to the summit or shoreline or the sullen fights that may have ensued before the camera flashed on a romantic stroll.
But when all was said and done, it was the brutal honesty and opinion-led content that showed the true power of social media during the rise of defining social movements such as Me Too, Body Positivity, Mental Health Awareness and Love Wins. Free speech had new platforms on which one could support worthy causes, or join a community that connects advocates on either side of the ever shrinking world. And despite being unsanctioned by managers and agents, some in influential positions took their political stances to social media. While it alienated a part of their fan base, they continued to champion their causes, igniting waves of what they hope would impact change for the better.
There will always be negativity lurking around the encouraging thoughts and words, with those seeking to devalue the awareness one tries to create. But therein lies the beauty of an open discussion, the endless open rivers of human communication in all its raw forms. For without the detractors, those who deign to fight would not have the burning desire to make the world stop and pay attention.
And as the years progress, so does the understanding that these sharing tools are no longer delegated to a rehashing of vacation photos and daily outfit changes. You can post updates on your newborn while taking a stand for gender equality in the same breath, and maybe for some it is the delicate balance that will lead to something bigger. It is generation-defining social commentary in flux, allowing one to lend a voice to their beliefs, to acknowledge someone else’s story, to make a difference.
In a space where one can often feel isolated and anxious, it can simultaneously help people feel less alone. So the next time we are dismissive of the seemingly nonsensical, we should also remember to celebrate the bridges our voices may be able to build over the walls that remaining silent can create.