Ways of Seeing
Late last year a person from my past resurfaced. It was not a pleasant or healthy situation, and a part of that unpleasantness was the realization that this person had been carefully noting everything I posted on social media for years and years.
What they saw, and the assumptions they made about me based on what I made public, is beside the point. What made me feel urgency to change my online behavior was the reminder that all the ceaseless, careless, throwaway portrayals of myself I have spewed out for more than half my life had true landing places. They had meaning far beyond what I felt them to have as I produced them, meaning which could be drawn from a third party’s subjective and completely fantastical interpretation. It forced me to reconsider how I present myself online, and therefore how I am able to see myself. I had already begun to think along a new line for some time. The way that I experienced the attention of strangers had changed from feeling exciting and moreish to ambivalent and sometimes disturbing. I had begun to think: what would my life be if other people couldn’t see it?
I hate those wise, smug, reflective pieces about the joys of social media refusal and how clean and calm your brain could be with a little effort. I believe that the effects of social media and phone use are, like almost everything in life, more irreducibly complex than could be contained in the musings of newspaper columnists and popular social theorists. A good example of our troublesome need to take a perspicuous and strident line on this matter is the recent book by Johann Hari, “Stolen Focus.” The concerns of this book are real and valid ones, but Hari clearly goes into his project with a belief which is at least partly biased and emotional, a belief which then drives what evidence he seeks to bear it out. Matthew Sweet wrote a useful thread on Twitter in which he points out several incidences in which Hari uses studies or data to prove his point that phones have destroyed our ability to think, but the studies, when scrutinized, are far less sturdy than they first appear. Their actual context doesn’t strip them of interest or meaning, but it does stop them from being the gauntlet-throwing “gotcha!” that the author would like them to be. It is impossible for me, and possibly for anybody, to make a provably accurate and data-driven universal statement about whether we would be better off with internet use or without. My own thoughts on this matter are not fact-driven, but openly emotional. They relate, actually, to the more general grief one feels when considering routes of life left untested. What would I be like now if I hadn’t lived online?
I was reliant on posting compulsively for so many years. What I was trying to portray shifted through that time. At its earliest and most base origin point, I was interested purely in being seen as sexy and pretty. Because I felt myself not to be attractive in the sort of undeniable, interchangeable way of celebrities and models, I often used whatever cultural nous or linguistic sleight of hand I had to add some context to my face and body. A poignant song lyric as a caption, or an ironic joke to show I knew how solicitous I was really being.
The reflexive self-awareness and mockery we use to deflect from vulnerability and need is often painfully ineffective with hindsight. Knowing what you are up to when you ask strangers to tell you you look good is no less uncomfortably mortifying than doing it from a place of ignorance. The veil of irony only made me appear simultaneously arrogant and pathetically needy, an innovative and no doubt charming combination.
Of course, I did not only ask to be seen, I had looking of my own to do. The things I saw others sharing which incited genuine feeling in me were difficult to predict. Though I used to be horrifically and almost universally envious of other women, it was never the case that a flat stomach or beautiful face would affect me much. Rather, I found myself attracted to obtuse, undecipherable images. These sorts of images arrived on my radar in around 2014 and 2015, after I dated an artist whose peers would rarely post bland lifestyle content, like a restaurant lunch or a straightforward selfie, but rather, for instance, an extreme close-up on a banal object like a metal canteen. Or an ugly, foreign crisp packet. Or a dirty towel thrown over a tree branch. The tagged location was rarely where they actually were, but rather something like “Everyone Is Having A Terrible Time,” or “Happy Good Time Milkshakes.” The pictures were often barely even figurative and never had any easily intuited meaning beyond themselves. This opacity was alluring and aspirational to me. There was an endless amount to project and a boundless sort of jealousy, one which had no definitive target because of their suggestive mystery. The target was nothing less than the infinite number of lives I could never try for myself. There was also despair that these people who were all incidentally beautiful didn’t need to show off that fact to seem worthy of life.
As I grew a little older, the ways I wanted to be seen developed beyond sexiness and into something more spurious. I wanted to be a person of interest, I wanted to matter in the world. It was a time when the structures I had expected to prop up my life had all collapsed and I had no sense whatsoever of what sort of person I was. My solution to this was to simply share everything, every passing moment and inconsequential thought, or joke or observation, hoping perhaps that the reception to this totality would help me figure out a way to exist. I didn’t stop my constant compulsive sharing because I came to a grand revelation about its futility;I stopped when it became more distressing and anxiety-inducing to do it than to cease.
Eventually I got some version of what I thought I wanted all along, which was access to reliable attention from those beyond my direct friends and family and lovers. As soon as the quality and quantity of that attention became something I could not control, I no longer wanted it at all. Something has materially shifted in a way I never truly felt during short-lived rejections of my online life before (any Twitter addict will know these fits of self-disgust, posting “Taking the next month off to concentrate on work! Email me if needed!” before silently and shamefully reactivating three days later). It feels like I am on my way to the end of public self-exposition rather than at the beginning of it, like my engagement with the need to be seen has turned itself around. Suddenly it seems obvious to me that my life doesn’t gain meaning with added viewership, but rather that the moments I seek to document are disseminated, the value they hold for me broken down with each pair of eyes which receive them.
I was 15 years old when I found MySpace and started presenting myself online, and straight away I had a knack for it. I don’t mean in any objective or useful sense; I was not a coder or an aesthete. Instead, I had a natural gift for conveying the sort of person I was, or was trying to be, with photos and music and words. When I close my eyes and think of the way my page looked, it still feels like me, like a true part of me. Back then we were willing to be serious and embarrassing about the things we took seriously, although we knew it was important to be funny too, so that the earnestness did not totally saturate the vibe.
Through this portal, I solidified a bunch of friendships with older kids who had better music taste than my peers. I went to internet cafes after school to fill out surveys about what bands and films and hot drinks I liked, posting them as bulletins, hoping to sum myself up neatly. The mood of our average MySpace page was, I would say, “Deep but horny, suicidal but funny with it.” It worked for me, sort of. Through it, I met an intriguing stranger who I would go on to lose my virginity to and remains one of my best friends to this day. It’s impossible to regret those first few years of online life, the euphoria of identifying the perfect new song to represent you, being bumped into somebody’s Top 8 Friends after a particularly good night out, sharing things you had written or drawn and having folks respond immediately.
But with the pure pleasures came something else. We were also rapidly learning to automatically curate ourselves. By this I don’t solely mean the trope about how we only share our most attractive parts online (though I certainly didn’t post any photos of myself where I did not look at least possibly beautiful behind all the pixels). We posted often enough about things which were not aspirational, things which were sad or squalid. I mean more so that creating presences for ourselves made it feel that we had control over our images and the way that others would perceive them. It made us feel that if we successfully committed our iterations of ourselves to the public eye, then the public would surely take it as we meant it. It made it feel that we had control, in other words, where we have none at all.
There were different phases of self-presentation which changed with the dominant platforms of the day. On Facebook I was jauntily hedonistic, eccentric, and prone to humorous quotations, which really meant “Non-functioning alcoholic who fell asleep to comedy DVDs every night.” On Twitter I became far more compulsive than ever before, and it was here that my brain really rewired itself into something I’m still trying to soothe and straighten out. It appears with hindsight an expression of deep fear that I wasn’t really alive or meaningful unless the highest number of people possible could be exposed to the greatest number of my thoughts and experiences possible.
In a space where the most extreme combative statements become the most engaged with, this is not a sustainable way to approach the world. Many of us who entered Twitter in our late teens or early adulthoods arrived with the angry bravado of people with no power and nothing to lose, and now regret squandering so much precious energy there, inflated by its fleeting rewards for intemperance. When you have nothing, all you may have is the ability to say, “Fuck you, I’m going to do what I want.” And when people react to that attitude, entertained by your excitability and willingness to argue, it feels like vindication. It feels like a relief, a direction to go in at last. And then it’s too late, our brains have learned some faulty lessons we wish they hadn’t, and all we can do is hope to successfully deprogram.
Instagram has felt the most benign site of them all to me, a place to show the pleasant ordinary moments that soothe the edges of life. I still mostly think this way about it, but even in its relative innocence it changed my way of interacting with pleasure in a way I now wish to step back from. There is nothing inherently wrong with showing the world a bowl of delicious pasta, or a new dress, or your partner smiling back at you over dinner. There does, though, seem to me something profoundly wrong about the exposition of these moments being a key part of their existence in one’s life. It’s this I’m hoping to change. I’m aware that much of what I am writing will sound nonsensical to people only a few years older than me, or who just aren’t particularly fussed with the internet, but here is the crux of what I mean: I am trying to remember that these moments of mine, the ones that make life worth forging ahead with, they’ll still have existed even if nobody else sees them. This is so simple, and so hard to intuitively believe when you’ve spent your whole adult life compulsively showing anyone who’ll bother to see. But I can feel that truth resurfacing in me now, and it feels good. It feels like I belong to my life again, and it to me.
I’ve been trying to think back, recall what I was like as a child and a young teenager before it all. Comfort and joy to me then was an afternoon in the park alone, music to listen to, and a notebook to write in. Solitude and disappearance were not threatening concepts, they were prized luxuries. I’ve always been a consummate record-keeper, it occurs to me now. I kept diaries from the time I could write, and I was sentimental with them, taping in cinema and train tickets and even the label of a beer bottle which sweated off as I grasped it, kissing my first love. I’ve returned to my diary now. I write a short paragraph about each day, longer when I am preoccupied by something. Keeping it makes me more aware of what I can overhear around me when I go outside, like the man I heard ring on a friend’s doorbell and say cheerfully, “I’m just here to prove that I exist!” Nobody can keep tabs on me, or gather impressions of my life from what I choose to record. There, alone, I reintroduce myself to the concept of moments being preserved without being displayed, of the value of things unseen.
If you enjoyed this piece, Megan recommends you pick up a copy of “Exposure,” an essay by Olivia Sudjic. She also recommends watching “Peeping Tom,” which is, in her words, a “a psychological horror film about a filmmaker transfixed by creating and watching footage of frightened women.” Megan also recommends “Blow Up,” a track from the album “Land of No Junction” by Irish singer Aoife Nessa Frances.