My good friend and I were lying on a beach in the Caribbean, just minding our own business, when we noticed something bizarre.
Two teenaged girls were doing what initially appeared to be jumping jacks on the edge of the pier, while their friend took pictures with a phone. The two girls would do a set of reps, then run back to their friend and the three would
briefly huddle, peering at the screen, then the process would start all over again.
Being the old ladies that we are, apparently, it took us a while to figure out what those crazy kids were up to, but we did.
They were pretending, over and over again, to jump off the edge of the pier into the Caribbean, in an attempt to get the most perfect, Instagram-worthy picture possible. Not once, mind you, did any of the girls touch a drop of the beautiful turquoise waters.
Instead, they repeated their pantomime for a good 10 minutes, until they got the shot they wanted, after which, bone dry, they simply walked away. At the least, given how hot it was that day, we expected that their ritual would end with the girls enjoying some swimming. Why would you post a picture of yourself jumping into the Caribbean waters, if you didn’t really do it?
In hindsight, I’ve figured out that what we were watching was not nearly as abnormal as we thought. Throughout history human beings have gone to great lengths to present themselves to the outside world as something they’re not, or at least a “better” version of who they are.
It’s not about the mundane things we all do, such as getting dressed up for a formal occasion or making a fancy dinner for guests. However, we all know, or have at least heard of someone, who drove himself or herself into bankruptcy because they racked up credit card debt to appear wealthy.
Really, it’s amazing, all those things we do to impress other people — to try and control their opinion of ourselves. Today, for some, being judged by other people is a 24/7 experience. The revolution of visually-driven social media technology like Pinterest and Instagram has created a platform for individuals to take the illusion of their lives to a much higher level, and with the right angle, crop and filter, it’s easier than ever to get there.
I mean, who needs to actually be a wild and carefree teenaged-girl, hurling herself off the edge of a pier into crystal-blue waters, ruining a perfectly good day of hair and makeup, when she can just look like one without all the hassle of having wet hair and smudged eyeliner?
I can’t imagine the pressure of being a teenager and feeling compelled to present idealized images of a life that doesn’t truly exist. And this pressure is magnified when examined through the retail lens — restaurants, designers and retailers all use artfully designed plates and perfectly-fitted fabrics on Instagram to lure consumers into their stores. We used to call those catalogues, though they weren’t nearly as glamorous. I’m guessing they were a hell of a lot easier to create as marketing tools, though.
Now goods must be presented in a fashion inherently promising that purchasing them will magically create the same feeling that arose when you saw it on your phone, placed just so in an artisan vase on a slab of raw-edge wood, bathed in the warm glow of a sunbeam that just happened to be passing by.
Creating a fake image of reality is so easy nowadays that an up-and-coming entrepreneur lured hundreds of well-heeled millennials out to an island in the Bahamas for a music festival, despite the multitude of red flags that were shooting up beforehand, all pointing to the reality that it was a scam.
Simply by creating some great social media images of what they wanted to accomplish, the fake festival’s organizers were able to generate an allure so powerful that it overcame common sense.
It was on Instagram, so it must be so. Until, designer luggage in tow, festival-goers arrived on the island and were faced with very not-Instagram-worthy sleeping bags and cheese sandwiches.
The festival was a scam, but it was fascinating to watch a generation of twenty-somethings recoil in absolute terror when faced with a reality that wasn’t just less than what they had been promised on social media, but a reality that wasn’t even worth posting on social media. They literally ran away screaming, as if they’d been dropped off in front of a crowd of armed gunmen, instead of a row of ugly dome tents.
Is the breakfast at that quirky (by design, of course) downtown diner really any better than the same dish served in a restaurant in the strip mall by your house? Have we become so out of touch with real life that everything must be presented to us in its most idealized format before we can consider it a valid option?
The depths of this phenomenon really hit me when I saw a Facebook post from an animal shelter begging for volunteer photographers. They’d figured out that a homeless dog, presented on their website in the right light and with the right backdrop, would be adopted far faster than one whose mug was snapped in his cage with an iPhone 5.
There’s nothing wrong with presenting yourself, or material items, in a good light. Hell, even a totally fake light, occasionally.
What’s unreasonable is refusing to share any part your life that hasn’t been staged and varnished — in other words, the good parts. Because I promise the memory of going over the edge of that pier and plunging deep into that cool blue water will be what you want to take to your grave, not the fake photo of an amazing experience you never had.