Image from The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss
I have to start by saying that I love Facebook, and Instagram, and in fact the act of “liking” others’ lives has become somewhat of a hobby of mine. Social media, however, and all those little thumbs-up or hearts or +1s that come attached, has built a funny new habit in the way people interact with their own self-image. We have begun to act out of ourselves, I believe–watching our image as it waxes or wanes in response to the validation we receive from others. It’s a funny thing, right? But here’s a prime example: Half of you who are reading this right now are probably doing so out of my own bumptious self-promotion on Facebook: “Come read my essay thing I wrote that shows how smart and well-grounded I am!” And now I’m nervously trying not to think about the amount of people who might do that because I’ve fooled them into believing me and the amount that might not because they know better. That’s how social media works. And that’s how social media encourages us to work.
These days, I feel so hyper-aware of everything that comes from my name on any social platform. As a wee one on the interwebs six years ago, I may or may not once have announced to Facebook, “MY FIANCEE IS ON ELLEN LATER TODAYYY!!!!!!! ahhhH!!!!” in reference to Jason Mraz. While I did, in fact, enjoy a long period of engagement to Jason Mraz, I think at least out of respect to Jason’s PR manager I would make different choices about how to publicize my affection for him were I to do so today. Now, I try to keep relatively quiet on social media–careful, definitely. Now, Facebook acts as a conduit through which I can try to convince friends, family, and people I barely knew in middle school of my inherent, entirely unaffected coolness . . . an effort I’d wager I’m not attempting alone. The pressure to present an impressive front is very real, no matter how unofficial and silly the very idea of that pressure is. Instagram is great at that game, Twitter even more. But our participation in this game, that falsely-adult beauty pageant as it were, necessitates a points-system that I think we take far too seriously. See, as we overvalue the validation we receive from others, we undervalue ourselves. It turns out we’re actually bigger than all that in real life.
That points-system has been around for eons though, among human societies and others. Noted historian Dr. Seuss recorded the account of the Sneetches whose society suffered a crushing financial blow as they warred over whose bellies had stars upon thars and whose didn’t. Similarly, Max Lucado recorded the history of the Wemmicks whose social economy was bound by stickers in their community. I know that the industry in which I currently work–ballet–is entirely founded on the assumption that dancers are willing to project their worth onto the opinions of others. That basis allows for extraordinarily moldable artists who learn better than they breathe, which is great, but it also zaps the power of the Self in favor of the power of the Other–just like in the land of the Sneetches and the Wemmicks. That habit can become a dangerous line to walk given that using validation from others as an indicator for worth is ultimately perishable, political, and shallowly-rooted.
But while you (or more likely I) can make a very realistic argument for the necessity of that phenomenon in the dance world, I can’t find any need for it in social situations. And yet that points-system is just as present there as anywhere else. A good outfit isn’t worth wearing unless somebody you know is going to see you in it–and what a waste if they don’t even notice! A good deed isn’t worth doing unless you can write a blog about it later–quel dommage if you can’t so much as find a way to bring it up at dinner! A good dinner isn’t worth making unless your camera’s charged, a good book isn’t worth reading if you can’t be seen walking around with it between chapters, a good person isn’t worth being if somebody’s not following you around telling you you’re doing it right!
I don’t mean to suggest that I should entirely scorn the opinions of others in favor of my own–no matter what I do, at the end of the day I will always hope to do right by my friends and family. But I would like to suggest that I should become okay with my own skin again, uncorroborated by anybody but myself, standing on my own two feet without looking around to see if everybody else is doing likewise. No matter what kind of front I manage to put on for others, about my success in the home or at work, abroad or just in the kitchen, and no matter how convincingly I do it, I’ve discovered it bears reminding that my success (or failure) will be there even without other people telling me so. Validation from others should not motivate my escapades in the same way that the Wemmick Lucia’s font of stickers didn’t motivate changes in her personality or happiness.
So hey, can we stop caring so much, please? Stop counting our “likes” as if they mean something? We should simply acknowledge the frivolity of the points-system found in our thumbs-up and our hearts and our +1s, even as we continue to enjoy the preposterous amount of sharing we can engage in regardless. I figure if I’m trying to convince the world that my worth as a woman, in particular, is greater than the world might have the habit of believing on its own, then I have to start believing in that worth myself, with a stronger unit of measure than the number of people who retweeted my photo of the bacon and eggs I had for breakfast.
I guess I’m just voting to reconstitute our worth as a currency with God’s face on the coins rather than our friends’. He likes your new cover photo, even if nobody else does. I promise.