Where are you the funniest, smartest, most Facetuned version of yourself? This week, the Cut explores the complexities, vanities, and pitfalls of self-presentation online
We’ll call him Michael, and my friend Demi was obsessed with him.
An image search of his name would turn up a nightmarish panoply of “that guy”-ism: Bathroom mirror shots. Whole triptychs dedicated to his bed-mussed hair. Step-and-repeats. What seemed like hundreds of photographs he’d taken of glistening splorts of sea urchin on dickish black flatware.
Demi would vigilantly patrol Michael’s social-media accounts and alert me whenever he committed a fresh new crime against human decency there. Sometimes, he’d try to engage minor celebrities on Twitter. Other times, he’d complain for multiple paragraphs on Facebook about luggage latches. It was horrible.
“This idiot,” she’d text, sending a screenshot of him doing that thing where you pretend to pinch the Eiffel Tower, captioned with 80 hashtags and a sprinkling of teen slang. Or, “Kill yourself already!” she’d write, with a link to something he posted about how a famous person dying had individually affected him.
But Demi loved him. Because he was her boyfriend.
It is part of the modern condition to pose and posture online, and it can be very fun to make fun of the various ways in which people make asses of themselves. But the unfiltered nature and open playing field of social media make it easy to forget that it’s all a performance. In person, Michael was great! Really and truly. His terrible use of social media was part deliberate schtick and part stone-cold, childlike buffoonery, but it was all very lovable. (You know, like Entourage.) Demi adored Michael the person but eventually, she realized that keeping tabs on him made it harder for her to separate the real guy from the Scarlett Johansson Her guy.
The gap between public and private personae used to be the exclusive concern of entertainers, but now anybody who wants to can live Martin. Plenty of prestige bloggery has been devoted to analyzing the phenomenon of “social-media happiness fraud,” which we’ve somehow elevated to Russian-novel levels of agony: Those people posing in bikinis? Don’t feel too envious of them, we’ve been told, for they are dead inside, too.
The ability to “research” people this way has already been catastrophic for casual dating, as we’ve all been forced to reduce other human beings to a series of forensic clues so as not to be murdered or have a boring two hours at a restaurant. While certainly expedient, the newish convention of deciding whether you like somebody before you have ever been in their physical presence is both depressing and a teensy bit unfair. Doing it to people we are already in actual relationships with is bananas and horrible. I’ve had to defend friends to the friends I’m trying to set them up with by saying things like “She’s not like this in person.” It is possible to excessively photograph your cat and be lovely to spend time with. It would be cool if we could just maybe start giving people the benefit of the doubt on this.
I get the impulse to see what the people we’re currently having sex with, or wish we were, are up to. But maybe don’t! Just a thought. Because — surprise! — sometimes, the stuff people do online is fake. We all suck at it, because ultimately, it is pretty dumb. You know that job where you teach people to be good at social media? Not real! Doesn’t exist. There is no being good at social media, because it is a horror show. Being popular online is like being popular in middle school: Congratulations, you’re the king of the worst.
I have friends who have admitted to feeling as though they have entirely different personalities on Facebook and in real life. At first that sounds kind of terrifying and serial-killer-y, but the thing is, it’s understandable. To front is human. The danger here is thinking we know people based on what we know OF them. In Jane Austen’s day, you at least had to be in a room with someone before completely misinterpreting them — now, it’s possible to do that for whole years with people you will never be close enough to touch with a longish stick.
Certainly, part of this is probably very self-serving. I am a comedy writer, and because I am a lazy one, I have for several years enjoyed using social media to make sport of the most shopworn, apocalyptically used-up of dead-horse, unfunny nonjokes: being single. If I were potentially going to go out with me, I would hate this about me. I’d look at my Twitter feed and be like, “Gross, no thanks.” A guy I went out with had such a horror of my heartbreak jokes on Twitter that no amount of explanation could convince him that nothing I said there was (a) real or (b) about him. I realize that it makes me seem vaguely disturbed to tweet about being lonely or having one-night stands while being ensconced in a relationship, but it’s like he had never even heard of Tony Clifton. (Who would not want to be regularly inside a lady Tony Clifton? His loss!)
It was probably one of a zillion factors that broke us up. But — like my pal Demi and her doofy performance-piece shitshow of a boyfriend — he couldn’t ignore that side of me. I wanted to say to him, I’m not that me. I’m other me. Please love the me that is not that me.
And I know what you’re saying to yourself: “Well, the obvious solution here is just to be who you are on the internet and in real life.” Oh, is it? Is that the obvious solution, analogue genius? Because I don’t know how to do that, and I don’t think you do, either.
If you do, please tell me, but just know that our interaction will vary based on your method of contact — so choose whether you’d like to speak to “phone me,” “email me,” “Facebook me,” or that scary voice from The Exorcist.