The Bubble World of Social Media
The illusion of reality in an online community.
Originally published in Metro, November 2014.
“A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”
It was the phrase that drew me into Donna Tartt’s The Secret History completely. It’s what the book’s protagonist thinks is his fatal flaw.
The way the words flow together, the expression so darkly pretty, I was taken with it, and so read it out loud. “A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs,” I recited to my partner.
“Hmm,” he replied, “sounds like Instagram.”
I suppose it’s true, the way we might let our food go cold for the perfect bird’s-eye view of the meal. Or break all the road rules to capture the sunset on the drive home. The way a group of friends might spend most of the night at a party in a corner, not partying, but trying to snap the perfect group photo. “Does everyone look good? Do we look like we’re having the maximum amount of fun? Take another shot.”
A series of grids, carefully curated to project only the best moments of life, filtered to perfection.
I’d always thought, though, that at some level we all know this hyper-reality, this picturesque online ideal, is not actual life. Not reality. I thought I was aware of this myself.
It was during the night of the election that I realised what kind of world I’d created for myself online. It was a safe bubble of views and opinions about music, art, fashion, politics, comedy and TV shows that all aligned with my own. The people I chose to interact with largely reflected my own thoughts. Shit, did I really need that much validation? And also, damn, not everyone agrees with us?
Thing is, creating your own little online social media hub is not so different from IRL, where you hang out with friends who share your interests. I guess online just means a way bigger circle jerk.
It’s the instant gratification that makes it all so addictive. Say something witty and strangers will like you, favourite you, heart you, retweet you, heap you with praise and have you convinced you’ve done something meaningful with your day, when all you did was write something in 140 characters or fewer. You can go from feeling powerless to powerful, all within the click of a refresh button. It can make you believe a status about doing is more important than the actual doing itself.
I’d started to believe that what I said and did online mattered. And sometimes it did, a tiny bit, but most of the time it didn’t. At any rate, it’s never mattered as much as what I did with my days offline. My little social media utopia has been perfect for discovering new music, shows, sharing in-jokes, promoting myself, distracting myself, and learning what like-minded people think about the issues I’m interested in.
But I’ll have to search a little wider for a more accurate worldview.