I challenge you to go to anyone’s Instagram feed right now who you follow. It could be any friend or any content creator and I promise you that you will spot a theme. There will be a clear theme, colors, and captions that all go together. It’s aesthetically pleasing, and most of us appreciate the hard work that someone puts into their Instagram by taking the time to create an account carefully and thoughtfully. But what I’ve realized in the last few weeks is that you could literally put anyone into a category based on what you see on their Instagram feed. That guy is the one who does pottery in Utah… that girl is the yoga instructor from Hawaii… that girl is the Instagram model… that girl is the travel blogger… that guy does surf photography… the girl can do awesome hairstyles… that is the blonde vegan girl… I’m sure you get the idea. There is always an obvious theme that places that person in a certain category.
Strategically speaking, this makes sense. In order to attract followers, you want to have an aesthetic/a theme/a niche. You use certain colors, post about certain topics and slowing craft an online image for yourself so that like-minded people will follow. It makes sense in terms of growing your account and getting the glorified engagement that everyone thirsts for.
Unfortunately, yet another problem with social media is that we have all of these young people growing up online and following all of these celebrities and “content creators” who all have a strong theme, profession, and aesthetic. These young adults follow them, see their photos all of the time, and then being to internally struggle with the question, “What is my thing?” Am I going to be “the surfer”, “the makeup artist”, “the cook”, “the photographer?” But what happens is by choosing a theme, we place ourselves in a category, and that category bleeds into other areas of our lives as well. For example, the vegan girl from Hawaii now has long blonde hair, wears flowy bohemian pants, gets tattoos of waves and seashells, and places herself more and more into that specific persona.
This did happen well before social media too, but now it’s amplified because of the time spent online, and because we now have “content creators” running the show. But now, this persona or theme, whatever you want to call it, is very carefully crafted and then blasted out to the massive internet world so that anyone, anywhere can click on our “profile” and say “that is a ____fill in the blank_____.” When my generation started out of social media as teenagers, none of us had a theme. I remember slowly watching everyone’s persona grow stronger and stronger as time went on. I kept thinking about why this happens in the first place. Why this switch went off in our heads back when we were growing up that we have to find our “thing” that we would be known for by all of our friends, followers, and family. After sitting with this for a while, I came up with a few reasons why I think that young adults have this experience and how it leaves us so vulnerable to the unhealthy effects of social media.
As a teenager or a young adult, you are already vulnerable and impressionable. You have a young, developing mind that soaks in all of the information surrounding you like a sponge, and you try your best to understand it. It’s why so many young women have eating disorders because they see Instagram models, girls on magazines, and sex icons on tv with a waist that’s smaller than their head. So they think “I should look like this.” Humans naturally go through this phase, because it’s all part of growing up. Consuming constant images of people who are sexy, well-traveled, popular, and photoshopped play on that vulnerability and makes it worse.
2. Finding your place
Another part of this growing up process involves trying to find your place in this world. Again, this is natural and is not a product of social media. Young adults go through several years of growth and self-discovery while they try to figure out “this thing called life.” What is different, is that today, we all go through this transformation publicly in front of anyone who decides to become loyal followers and watch our lives unfold online. People in my generation publicly went through these stages and documented themselves searching for their place in the world, one day, one week, one year, and one decade at a time. Anyone who followed us, witnesses as we went through various stages of self-discovery to find a place and carefully craft the person we became today, for good or for bad.
3. Leaving a mark
Similarly to finding one’s place in the world, it’s natural to want to leave a mark. Even as a teenager and young adult, we realize that the human life is not very long and we wonder what is the purpose of life. So naturally, it’s ingrained in us that we want to leave some kind of a mark and we want to be known for something. We want to leave behind photos, books, blogs, art, even a change. Although most people don’t realize this, the way that we post on social media is a natural reaction to wanting to leave an impression on the world and on people. To say, “Hi I’m here, this is what I’m about.”
Of course, the need for belonging, love, and acceptance has to be mentioned as part of the young adult experience. It’s even on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Right after we have food, water, oxygen, and safety, we have to feel loved. This need for belonging and social acceptance is magnified so strongly on social media. Because we can see just how accepted and liked we are in a little pink notification that shows up in the form of a number. You are liked by “150” people today. 150 people pressed a button because they like your photo… congratulations.
Which remind me of something I heard this week in a podcast, “Your Own Magic.” One of my girl crushes is Allie Michelle, a yogi, and poet living in Hawaii, who also has this beautiful podcast with her “soul twin” Raquelle Mantra. In one of their episodes, Allie Michelle admits that even she has days where she’s feeling less than happy with herself and she turns to her community of a half a million Instagram followers for validation. She once said something in a podcast along the lines of “Has been worth been externally validated today? Ok, thank you internet world.” This is how it is for so many of us, no matter what age, gender, social status, sexuality, we all need to feel socially accepted and loved. And many of us do this by choosing a persona or theme and then having that validated by our followers. So, simply put, we conform based on what we see is well-received by our online community and we follow it through.
The issue is…
There are plenty of problems with social media that we can talk about. But the big problem with this specific “Digital Dilemma” as I call it, is that humans cannot fit into a category. Humans aren’t a product that you can pick up in a specific section in a department store. We are multi-faceted. We have completely different interests, hobbies, and goals. We have friends that all come from different backgrounds. We experience sadness, vulnerabilities, and hardships. We are very, very complex creatures and cannot be organized and stored with the help of a few containers and a label maker.
Although we try so hard to place ourselves in these categories for reasons mentioned above, it affects us on a day to day basis, AND on a much larger scale. I believe that by placing ourselves into categories, it keeps us from growing. It shuts off our minds to all the different possibilities in life. From opportunities, from different people that we could meet, and from different projects that we could pursue. Placing yourself in a box doesn’t give you much room to expand, to move around, and to try new things. It forces us to live a much smaller existence instead of wandering around experiencing new things and growing as much as possible. I wish that I would have had this realization earlier in life when I was first thrown into social media… but better late than never.
The point of this post is that it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be just one thing. You don’t have to be “the poet”, “the photographer”, “the yogi”, “the painter.” The irony is that people put themselves into categories to stand out and be unique, but what really makes us unique is leaving ourselves open. So if you’re reading this and you’ve noticed that you yourself have fallen victim to this “Digital Dilemma,” remind yourself that you can be free to be your authentic self. You can explore and try new things, even if it seems like it’s not your “thing” and if it’s outside of your persona. You don’t have to place yourself in a specific category and do just one thing for the rest of your life. You can have multiple passions and multiple interests.
Be you. Be curious. Be open.
Photo by Kendid Visuals.
As always, please comment below if you’ve experienced this Digital Dilemma. How did you personally step outside of this idea that you had to find one thing that you were known for? What projects or hobbies did you start to pursue that maybe didn’t fit with what you thought you had to be?