The Holes We Leave: Online Presence, Persona, and Perfection

I read a piece in the New Yorker this morning after first reading the responses of various men to the story itself, and though the story was interesting and multi-faceted, the bit of it that I took away was in what one male reader said regarding the piece: 

"It does amazing work to examine the way we fill in the holes left by people's digital identities, and exposes the perils of that process." - Kaveh, 28, professor and poet 

It's something that we're barely beginning to scratch the surface of. After all, this sort of technology hasn't been around all that long in the grand scheme of things. When having lunch with our intern a few days ago, a young woman of barely twenty-two, it was interesting to see even the vast differences in how technology has moved and slipped through our lives, with just a decade of years between the year of my birth and the year of hers. Though my wife could have taught our intern in high school during her decade spent in education, we are of the same labeled generation of Millennials, persons born from 1982-2004 (side note: it's often frustrating to be grouped in with Millennials, for I am often lauded as lazy when grouped in with today's twenty-somethings entering, or not entering, the workforce, yet I run my own successful business and spend 12-18 hours of any given day working and still caring for home and my child). 

I remember instant messenger on my parents' old iMac, set up in the carpeted extra bedroom deemed as the office, messaging boys I was interested in (didn't come out until age 26!) and hoping my parents didn't catch me up late doing so. My first cell phone was tracked by minute usage and bought at Walmart, I was seventeen and driving and it was for emergencies, though I'd sneak and add extra minutes to call friends. When I was a junior in college, texting was the thing, and so I persuaded my mother to upgrade my phone and then she proceeded, aptly, to pester me to pay for the ten cents a text that quickly added up on the monthly bill. I wouldn't have a smartphone until my daughter was nearing age two, and I was working in marketing. My iPhone was given back when I was laid off, and though I'd just been laid off, I couldn't imagine going back to anything else and went straightaway to AT&T to buy the latest I could afford, the iPhone 4.

I don't have the latest model now, though when I bought it, it was. It's interesting to think how rapidly our technology has shifted in just this short stint of time, where I saw it happen in the last decade as an adult, our intern was entering into it as a pre-teen. Now we've got little windows into one another's lives, it's moved past simply texting. Though the story was about more than just texting, it was a complex swirl of modern dating, female perspective, consent, et cetera, the interesting bit that was pulled and I want to focus on was the way we are perceived - and want to be, or don't want to be perceived, through our online windows. 

These flat portals, connected through technologies I certainly don't understand and we don't pay mind to, are how we display ourselves to the world. It's likely no secret anymore that I'm at odds with social media, but more so, I'm at odds with those of us that use it, myself included. It's easy to blame the technology and the warp speed at which are world is moving, but it's not moving without us. There's no one to blame except humans, and we all have our role. 

I've been excruciatingly honest lately, both in the images I've posted to Instagram and the captions themselves, which for me, is the bread and butter. I'm not on Instagram to simply be inspired any longer, for we can be too inspired, we lose sight of self and become carbon copies of one another. What I've found, however, is that when my social media presence becomes less curated and less perfectly positive, the interaction from my followers drops off sharply. No one wants to hear or see that life isn't perfect on the other side of the screen. I see this glass, and the image is contained in it, and then I see the life that is happening behind it. There is the curation, and the carefully crafted and composed image. There is the formula for it, and once you catch on to the right type of imagery, you can grow your following and get free stuff and feel good about your miniature fame. We use vague wording that has little meaning and call ourselves writers, and pretend that life isn't happening...that our relationships aren't crumbling, our we're not afraid that our businesses will fail, or that our hearts aren't broken, or that we don't drink too much or smoke too much or ate an entire bag of chips and washed it down with a carton of ice cream. 

We don't talk about divorces, or death, or pain. We talk about the beauty of a slow morning, or that we're sitting so still, and taking in it all, simply because the image (taken in a brief second before we must get back to the drudgery and tasks of life), would suggest our lives are really that beautiful, simple, and easy. We're doing it now, and it's becoming as easy as breathing. 

I read a book recently that shook my world up a bit, in which the author prefaces by stating that his advice is going to be vastly different from any other self-help book the reader will have likely read. Throughout the text, the emphasis is put on not being positive all the time - that this is a form of ego, it's a way to separate ourselves from having to actually deal with our problems and face them head on. What's interesting about this is that we feel the need to be be perfect on social media, to present ourselves as together and certain, that we have all the answers you'd ever need (you know you want to live just like us, look how good we have it, here's how to do it). We're quick to brand ourselves as having those answers and sharing our knowledge. Like my friend Kerri said yesterday, everyone who's ever built out a van acts as if they're the first people to have ever done it. 

"The desire for more positive experiences is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one's negative experience is itself a positive experience." - Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

When I sit down to write anything, it's usually something I've thought about for a little while. Not always. Sometimes it's good, because life is good, and sometimes it's bad or hard, or because life is sometimes bad or hard. Sometimes, it's born out of a broken heart, or depression, or stress. My life as an adult hasn't been easy, and as a child, wasn't always easy. I often feel as if I've lived much longer than I actually have, and I am often tired. I work very hard, and I still come up short. I feel as if motherhood has been robbed of me, though I am a mother. I have seen divorce and death and poverty...what a lot of people these days would call grit. I have it, and I wear it, this grit they say I have. 

It's difficult for me to tape up these boxes in which lie my painful and scarring past, slip them on a shelf, and pretend that those experiences didn't shape me, or happen at all. You see, I've not gotten it all figured out - and the real truth of it is that none of us have, no matter how curated and perfect and precise in which we present ourselves. I will learn until the day of certainty, and so will you. 

There is a problem...we enjoy having others see us as ideal, to want what we have, what we've built, what is given to us because of a certain number of followers...too much. We want it too much. We enjoy it too much. So the pattern continues, and worsens. We tighten up our online personas even more. We don't experience heartbreak, or pain. Our relationships and marriages never go through periods of darkness or difficulty. Parenting is a breeze, one of bonnets on our children and cookies cooling on the counter. Our jobs and businesses look something like that out of a romantic comedy, tidy, with mid-day coffee breaks and unlimited socializing, never actually having to work. We study those with good imagery and say...okay now, how do I hold my phone to get that image? What apps do I use? What words convey that you want to be me

I find myself to be a complicated person with a painful and dark past who has continued to push, survive, and get through. I have not 'arrived' or figured it all out. I still experience struggle, pain, darkness, stress, confusion. I still wish I had some sort of fairy tale, the things we all hoped our lives would be as children. I don't have much time to sit and be still, because I work and I survive. My income and life is solely dependent on how hard I work, and how hard my wife works. I don't have slow mornings, my mornings are hurried and chaotic. My marriage, though a good one, didn't fall into place magically and stay there. We fight, we hurt one another, and then we find a way to continue to grow together and choose to be together, even on the days we don't necessarily like one another very much. It's often not magical at all, and is often a far cry from fairy-tale love. Yet she is the person I choose, and respect, admire, and love deeply. 

It's a difficult thing to strike the right balance between sharing the positive and the negative. It's far easier to elect to share only the positive, for it gets you where you'd like to go. It's received in a better manner, and folks prefer the glossiness and poise you are offering, much like a magazine. Yet what happens when we meet someone in person, like what happened in the story - the wittiness and banter that was shared in text wasn't shared in person. The perfection we so carefully curate isn't present any longer, our home is a home, with visible mess and dirt. We may cry or bicker with our spouse or have a child who isn't behaving...and then what? How are we portraying ourselves in which when someone meets us, we're nothing like the person we've crafted online? I have been told how perfect my life seems many times, and this is strange and humbling to hear. It means I'm not being real enough, honest enough, as I move through the world. My hope, is that when you meet me, I am as I appear online...and if I am not, please let me know. I want to work on it. Shouldn't we be who we are, always?