Tyra Banks selfie
Photo: Tyra Banks Instagram

In September of 2006, CBS News published an article lamenting the number of daily ad images that inundated us and an accompanying picture of a man with an index card affixed to his forehead reading “your ad here.” Though this photo was intended to suggest that literally every available space could and eventually would be an appropriate space for advertisers to display its messages, the image was intended as hyperbole.

A mere decade later, consumers are more in control than ever. They determine what they see, when, how and what types of ads accompany their programs. Consumers are savvy, they are discerning, they are fickle, and they are incredibly valuable. They wield a sort of unpredictable power in that they’re an ever evolving body with ever evolving tastes that are made by ever evolving spheres of influence. Effectively, all of this amounts to the reality that what actually resonates is more of an alchemy than a science.

Add on the impact of the advent and eventual proliferation of social media from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and marvel at the way our individual power capital has grown even that much more. These social media provide a platform for each of us to be heard. Our individual opinions are cataloged, “followed”, “liked”, re-published, lauded and criticized. We amass a posse of people including family, friends, and total strangers. Just like that, we become our own individual corporations. And, thus, the image of the man with the “your ad here” index card on his forehead from 10 years ago was more prophesy than hyperbole.

As we have familiarized ourselves with and accepted the language of integrated marketing and advertising as entertainment, rather than a break from the entertainment (commercial break), we evolved to enjoy the experience of being bombarded, at every turn, with specially curated content direct to our mobile devices. We made sport of picking out the Coca Cola cups on AMERICAN IDOL until we were eventually unsure how many brands of headphones were available on the market because, according to television, movies, music videos and commercials, everyone wore Beats. This new media language became insidious in a new way. It became undetectable again. And I think it sort of became our new way of communicating with each other. I’d tell you who I was in a few pithy quotes, a few song lyrics and photos that may or may not be recent and may or may not be of me. And you would tell me about you in the same ways. And we would call each other friends, at the very least. Essentially, we learned to market ourselves in a way that reduced us. And bit by bit we learned to see each other through an incredibly narrow scope of images specially curated by us for our followers.

Precisely every one of us who has bought into the social media landscape has entered into a realm in which what we post defines us. And it’s an entirely distinct world complete with enemy action. “Some people do not act like friends when taking and posting pictures online. I’ve asked friends to take down specific pictures,” said Liz, who realized early on that being on Facebook would require a bit of defensive work, “And then, weeks go by and the picture is still not taken down. I’d say ‘can you take it down right now?’ No smile emojis for you until you take it down,” she joked.

Effectively, how you behave online is tantamount to who you are. Countless examples of public shaming following a poorly worded tweet can be cited and subsequently countless examples of a public reckoning via an aptly timed Facebook apology can be cited. We’ve entered into a common discourse through which who we are should generally correlate with who we are online. But, practically, our online presence is an aspirational curation of our highest highs and our lowest lows disguised as the coolest life ever. “On Facebook everyone is curating their own narcissism. Everyone is curating their own art exhibit. And you’re seeing things the way that people want to present them to you and as you look you keep being taken down a notch, and then another notch,” said Megan.

And then, the selfie emerged. As if it weren’t enough that I spent hours during exam week trying to coordinate my library visits with a dorm mate that had no idea I was stalking his physical movements via Facebook, the selfie, a literal piece of micro evidence of one’s momentary appearance became the calling card of the internet. And my sense of security crumbled. I’m rarely ever camera ready even when there is an actual camera scheduled to be in my presence. And the mere thought that I should be made me shutter. “There are a trillion better uses of one’s time than to take a picture of oneself,” Natalie said, but that didn’t change the fact that in what seemed like months, the selfie evolved into not only proof of one’s physical superiority but a consumer space where items were prominently featured and even tagged so I could know where to get them. I wonder what my friend is wearing to the party tonight. Nevermind, she already posted her getting ready selfie online and tagged the boutique and name of the outfit and designer. Just what? How in the world do people have the time to be this pulled together on a regular basis and also stage a photo shoot? “We live in a culture where you can insist that the photo is deleted (or delete the photo yourself) and try again until you get a picture you’re happy with,” explained Natalie, “everybody is an amateur photography professional, anyone can portray the type of life they want people to think they have.” But then why do I have so much damn trouble looking alive, let alone awake, let alone fantastic when I try to take a selfie? It was all becoming a lot to manage. Plain and simple: my selfies are horrible and the idea that the outside world is coming to the conclusion that, based on my digital presence, I probably look horrible in person too, is eating me alive!

In order to engage with this world harmoniously, I have to live my own life, go to work, be a good person, specially curate a digital persona, actively update that digital persona and evaluate the work I’ve done based on how my followers respond. “I’m not on Instagram so I’m referring mostly to Facebook,” said Liz. “When I first joined, people posted pictures and you’d look through them and that was that but now with the advent of the like button, you check back in constantly to see how many people have liked your new image. I went to San Diego and posted a new profile and banner photo. I checked in multiple times to see who had liked it. I noticed an eclectic mix but only 20 people liked it and I wondered why. I was a little bummed. It was a beautiful message.”

And then, as if not ranking highly among one’s followers weren’t bad enough, sometimes an aimlessly posted photo could totally upend one’s real life sense of self. “I went to a friend’s birthday party in March and I ran into a friend there and she said, ‘let’s take a picture’ and we took a picture, I looked out it and thought, ‘uh oh. Is that how I look? I have to workout.’ So she deleted it and we took another picture and the next day I woke up and thought, ‘I have to start eating differently.’”

“But not every picture is good and I delete those but I work on poses so I can make sure there are good ones. But I’ll look at a picture and see my arms are back. And I didn’t know that. I don’t believe that picture.” Suddenly, by engaging in the leisure activity that is social media, you’re questioning what is up and what is down and having a bit of an existential crisis about not appearing perfect to the outside world. I, along with Liz and Natalie have literally felt like we were living in an alternate universe, like nothing we were seeing was true. “Sure – I’m not extremely photogenic, in my opinion, nor do I put very much effort into posing when photographed so sometimes I don’t like the way I’m standing or my face looks fatter than I think it really is.” The whole negotiation is maddening!

I’m exhausted by all that’s required of me to take part in my own youth culture. What if I just want to post a picture of the time I went to Six Flags in my college t-shirt, yoga pants, mom sneakers and a fanny pack? And what if I’m not trying to be ironic about the admittedly regrettable fashion choice? What if I never have perfectly ombre’d eyebrows and laid edges? Should i just go ahead and forgo documenting the way I actually look? I sort of feel like the answer is yes.

I’ve lost a true enthusiasm for sharing, because I don’t feel personally uplifted by what now seems more like a trade show of beautiful people and their goods and services than a platform on which to be who you are and update the loving people in your life. I’ve slowly become the type of person that doesn’t want to take pictures at all especially if I expect them to be posted online. As the comments section of blogs and websites have become the true scale of what say the masses I’ve become increasingly aware that if the ugly things that make it onto these comments boards are any indication of the ugly things going on in people’s minds, then there’s a whole lot of ugly sentiments and ill-will floating around the interweb and I just don’t want to expose myself to any of it. Amanda recalled never having an issue taking photos of herself when she was young, “But then along with the beginning of Facebook during college, pictures went from, let’s capture this moment, to let’s put it on Facebook and then I wanted to make sure that everyone wasn’t going to see a picture I didn’t like and then I started to pick and choose.”

I’ve come to feel like I’m meant to be a walking billboard. And because I value the investments I’ve made in my education, in my skincare, my hair care and my workout routine, I’d like to be a walking demonstration of the good I put in. But, for me, my pictures I take just don’t tend to correlate with my tremendous effort and that, frankly, that ish ruins my whole mood.

I’m attempting to exorcise this, what I would call, acute aversion to social media, because I know the issue lies within my own perception. Though I would tend to agree with the theory that an Instagram feed purely amounts to another form of media inundation that makes me look outside myself perhaps to negative results, I’ve also learned incredible lessons from the women I interviewed for this piece. At a certain point, I can take some responsibility for my own feelings and just be who I am. I can own my own space online and post whatever I feel like posting. Liz explained, “The other night I took some selfies of myself in a tank top and I really liked the photos so much that I took a photo and made it the wallpaper on my phone. I moved all but one app off the page so that I could admire my own image.” She encouraged me to create my own space by being just who I am in photos. My followers will appreciate me just the same. My natural tendency to be competitive and compare ourselves to others is one I have to let go. Being online is a potentially a personally empowering act. She said, “I was reading something online about how selfies can be empowering and affirming especially for people who are underrepresented and don’t see many images of themselves in the media. And it’s important because our media isn’t going to post things that make us feel respected and beautiful. So, there’s something about selfies that is like a political act. They’re self-affirming. I take selfies now not for Facebook but for your personal collection. If I didn’t create this space, I wouldn’t have it.”

In that I control my social media feeds, I control the images that I see. Perhaps it’s high time that if I’m so damn annoyed by the types of images bombarding me on Instagram that I stop following such damn annoying people and or stop filling my free time on Instagram? That’s what Natalie is doing, “I’ve never been hugely into taking pictures myself because I don’t consider myself to be a great photographer and I’ve also always preferred to fully immerse myself in and enjoy a moment rather than to stop and take a picture of it. I deactivated my Facebook about three years ago, my Instagram about two months ago and I only have a LinkedIn account now. I still prefer candid pictures that may be less flattering but capture a certain moment/emotion than flattering pictures that seem superficial or posed.” So, I’ve got options. But the main one I’m chucking is letting my Instagram feed be an extension of oppression.

What say you?

— Tia Williams

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