Follow my advice—not my social media feed.
By Susan Anspach • Illustration by Matt Mignanelli
Northern Virginia, I’m afraid. I used to travel the region with minimal fanfare. Whisking off to Rosslyn for a mildly sensitive medical appointment, or 7-Eleven for a more-than-mild attachment to white chocolate Twix. I could get from virtually any point A to B with relative anonymity, low public awareness and little to no feedback from my college roommate’s step-brother. Now I could stow away to the Taj Mahal and it wouldn’t be inside eight minutes before 500 of my closest friends were alerted to the trail.
I’m being followed, Virginia. I’m the victim, I’m the perpetrator. I’ve never been to India, but if I do someday go, I’m sure I’ll waste too much time there letting my feed know what public restroom I just checked into.
I’m the sucker, and I’m afraid.
Being followed by my connections on social media has the flavor of being followed by my own shadow. In one sense, I control it, I can make it do what I want. In another, it can loom before me without warning, overtaking both sunlight and rational patterns of thought.
Who wants people to know where they are all the time? Unless you frequent the sexiest, most fabulous places—or have the wherewithal to make it look like you do—in which case, isn’t broadcast the whole point? It may be. Yet I do not frequent sexy, fabulous places. I spent last Saturday night at a CVS filling my infant’s prescription for an upper-respiratory infection. I was as far from sexy as you can get in a store that, in fairness, does sell eyeliner and discount bags of Twix.
None of it stopped me from checking into the CVS. But for whom? Not myself—I know I was at the CVS. My husband knows, my mother. My son lacks the short-term memory and won’t be allowed a Facebook account till at least 2-and-a-half.
Would you believe me if I argued that it’s a power play? If our private lives are doomed to deprivatize, shouldn’t we be the ones to point and click? We should be in charge of our info-sharing—and not let everyone else share for us, which they will.
And a second point: Knowing a person doesn’t mean you have to connect with them on social media. After meeting you once at a wedding, I don’t need to know your favorite movies or sports teams. I don’t need to scroll your Rottweiler’s Instagram feed. I don’t need to know what Bob Evans establishment you’re frequenting, and what half-stack you intend to order. Do you want me to know those things? Really, truly want me to know?
Social media has lured us into an online junkyard of self-comparisons and relentless one-upmanship. Does anyone even develop their wedding pictures anymore, or do they just heave them into the ethersphere with the hope of shriveling the assurance and personal convictions of anyone who’s ever dared wed before them, or will dare to one day hence? Maybe we could enjoy our weddings, our half-stacks, our white chocolate for just one minute, alone. But no—a friend’s sociology dissertation found that 90 percent of Facebook users spend their site time obsessively clicking back and forth between their profiles and the profiles of their friends.
I was physically followed once, on my way home from a Metro stop. It sounds dangerous, and it would have been if my bad-guy radar hadn’t lit up like a Christmas tree. He left the station in front of me but kept slowing down to try and let me pass, and I chose to save my evening news headline for another day. Eventually we both reached my gated apartment complex, where I ducked in and waited to see if he’d loop back in the direction of train. It was a short wait.
Sir, assuming you weren’t interested in an abduction-murder scenario but perhaps entertaining a passing curiosity concerning my hometown, favorite sports team, or where I spend my free time: Manassas, Washington Capitals, the CVS pharmacy. I’m not doing anything better than you. Well, better than you, yes, since I’m not in the habit of stalking unaccompanied young women on their commutes home. And you should talk to someone about that. Still, if we’re looking at things from a purely objective standpoint, your whereabouts are vastly more interesting than mine. You: a frequenter of dimly lit streets, gloomy trains, a potentially felonious state of mind. Me: sitting cross-legged on a recliner, most nights, in my living room. I’m dull. So is most of my feed. Here’s what it reads right now:
Peter Lawson is at Pantheon Student Services in Chicago, Illinois.
Julie Bougher is at Primrose United Methodist Church.
Claire Doutre is at the Downtown Aquarium, Houston.
(Full disclosure: I’ve got it bad for aquariums, and was pretty ticked off to learn about someone at one without me. Point to Claire.)
Snapchat, a photo-messaging application that, after showing you a message, auto-hides it from your device and deletes it from the application’s own servers, is the speakeasy of social media, by which I mean I am far, far too uncool to have a Snapchat application on my phone. On the other hand, no one’s ever used it in my presence and not announced it, loudly, then proceeded to show me every received Snap over the course of the evening.
A dark view would be to argue that social media’s a virus whose power lies in its ability to fester. From a less dark place, you could see how we are, in some ways, in some control, even if we do seize that control only to lie through our teeth. There’s no honestly in social media, or at least there doesn’t have to be. On Facebook: Your baby’s a bubbly, never stained, creamed-spinach gourmand. In reality: your baby’s refusing his lunch and choosing to stuff his mouth with your hair. Who’s to say I was at that CVS for prescription meds—and not, in fact, the eyeliner and Twix?
It splits two ways. We either ignore that the world’s watching—and that a thing posted to the Internet can truly, truly never be deleted—and babble on as we see fit. Or we face facts and behave ourselves, maybe better than we would have otherwise. Our motivation may be suspect—everyone has an ex on Twitter they wouldn’t hate to see squirm just a little—but we’re more likely to put our best foot forward when we know someone’s got their eye on us, like our mothers, or the guy who sat three seats over from us in eighth grade math.
You could, on the other hand, give it all up for a life of authenticity. Only mind the symptoms of withdrawal. You’ll have to face the reality that your child doesn’t care that much for spinach, and you do spend most nights in your living room. If things take a turn for a worse, I recommend white chocolate. It only tastes good if you don’t breathe a word of it to your followers.