Credit: Nairne Clark Hopkinson

Portrait of a lady online

By Lucy Fitzgerald

A girl comes of age on the internet.

Overgrown e-boy Elon Musk says: “We’re already a cyborg… You have a digital version of yourself, a partial version of yourself online in the form of your emails, your social media, and all the things that you do.” This horcrux-ing of our souls has created digital distillations of our identities and I believe they are more fully formed than we may think. Moreover, in my totally cosmological-inept view, I see the internet as the fourth plane of existence. University of Glasgow Neuroscience student Ameerah Gardee rather brilliantly remarked that the internet exists as our “third parent”, with its disproportionate influence on our development. My experience with this electronic educatrix is as follows…

My introduction to the internet was at age six, as I engaged in the wholesome, nascent era of YouTube – from eccentric musical short My Hands Are Bananas to the early fancams of the High School Musical cast sound tracked by All American Rejects. The playful laughs derived from Charlie Bit My Finger existed in harmony with the light chaos of UK entertainment of the time, à la You’ve Been Framed (which was innocuous to everyone but the injured toddlers!). I was busy navigating my Suite Life of Zack and Cody avatar through a virtual Tipton hotel and frequenting Fast forward to age 11, and I was taking my relationship with YouTube to the next level, devoting my entire existence to advancing Simon Cowell’s financial status with my relentless consumption of One Direction output on Vevo. With the exception of falling victim to Soulja Boy’s LimeWire trolling, my experiences were largely innocent and genuine sources of amusement and pleasure.

My worldwide web watershed moment came halfway through those primary school years, subtly in 2008. Just as the global economy began to decline, so too did my sense of self – social media had entered my life! In the beginning, I was not cognizant of the delusion it was quietly stirring inside me, as I was simply conversing with school friends on Windows Live Messenger (MSN) and selecting rainbow Converse wallpapers on Bebo. Two years later, I joined Putin’s primary payee and destroyer of democracy: Facebook. I am proud to affirm that I was in fact already a stan at age 10. Mini me foresaw the conglomerate’s future allegiance to right-wing corruption, and with vehement zeal rejected it in my very first profile entry: “Political views? David Cameron is pathetic”. Then, on my 13th birthday, hellbent on drowning my pubescent features in saturated filters, I joined the emerald mine of adolescent anxiety: Instagram! Maybe she’s born with it (body dysmorphia), maybe it’s overexposure to photoshopped bodies.

Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory from The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life puts forward the notion that we present alternative versions of ourselves to different people. We, in essence, wear different masks depending on the social situation in which we are engaged. We act largely performatively: this could, therefore, sometimes be insincere, artificial and concealing the truth. Conversely, it could be a genuine representation that reveals truth). Speaking to this idea of the multiple selves, I posit that we have unconsciously added in another: the self we present online. 

When asked to select paintings from a collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for a BBC podcast, Steve Martin expressed anxiety over how he would be perceived afterwards: “Your ego gets very involved because you realise you are going to be judged on the work you pick so you want to pick the thing that is fantastic, and everybody will go, oh what a mind!”. When applied to the digital landscape, this relates to the existential dread that precedes hitting the “post” button. Online, are we displaying our most authentic selves? Are people’s shitposting photo dumps genuinely impulsive and candid, or are they carefully calculated in their composition? Personally, I fear I may just be trying to curate my online feed to appear like the renaissance girl I wish to be perceived as in real life. Why do we try to manipulate and engineer a specific response? In their song Sincerity is Scary, The 1975 lament this distorted view we have of ourselves as we try to appear free from phoniness online: “And why would you believe you could control how you’re perceived, when at your best you’re intermediately versed in your own feelings”. The band’s frontman and pseudo-social martyr Matty Healy expanded on these lyrics: “Social media breeds us to be incredibly insecure. My self-esteem isn’t really wrapped up in social media. Because my relationship with social media is kind of like, this is what I do. Whereas for a lot of people, and young people especially, it’s like this is who I am, like that’s fucking brutal”. Albeit very grim, at least the girlboss influencer, guardian of unabated late-stage capitalism, can operate under a simple binary: post pictures and get money.

High Fidelity’s main character Rob (Nick Hornby’s ultimate music hipster played by John Cusack in 2000 and by Zoe Kravitz in 2020 adaptations of the novel) proclaims that your interests comprise your identity. You are what you culturally eat. The exhibition of this is the central MO of social media profiles: show what you like, and in doing so you are showing who you are. In this digital age, an extra stop has been added to the uber ride to Situationist International: online posting. By relaying our personal goings-on and interests to a cyber audience, we have convinced ourselves we are cashing in social currency. 

In Grayson Perry’s 2014 guide to contemporary art Playing To The Gallery he states: “When we talk about the culture we consume, it is often a dance around how we wish to be seen: what we enjoy reflects who we are. I always cringe when I hear myself having a ‘oh, you must hear this’ moment, when I want to share my current musical taste with a friend. He is obliged to listen to it and I fear rejection of my very soul. It is always safer to slag something off than eulogise it. That worrying about what others will think about aesthetic choices is a part of the self-consciousness that is in the DNA of modernism. By ‘modernism’ I mean the 100 years of art leading up to, say, the 1970s. A time when artists were questioning and worrying about what it was that they were doing; they weren’t just being swept along by tradition or belief. Self-consciousness, though, is crippling for an artist.” 

Now, self-consciousness is crippling not just for artists, but anyone currently wired in, trying to paint a particular image of themselves online. Self-consciousness has always existed, but it takes its most disconcerting form online – these optic Olympics are exhausting.

The upshot of chronicling my life on Instagram for nearly eight years is what my armchair psychiatry labels a narcissistic-self-hatred complex, where I simultaneously experience vanity and inferiority when interacting on social media. Reassured by the blunt honesty on my TikTok for you page, I can declare I am not the only person to make this self-diagnosis, as many claim to regularly stalk their own profile thinking they are god-like and then two minutes later, out of potent disgust, launch into a total rebrand. This state can be so dominating that many have accepted it as a quirky personality trait, but in the process have potentially obscured a real intersection with mental illness. Rather apocalyptically now, I think I love the smell of self-loathing in the morning. 

The internet is a protean variable in modern life and a necessary tool to function as a member of society. Due to the rapid evolvement of synthetic media (e.g the expansive potential of deep fake technology), broadcaster Nina Schlick described the paradigm shift of our future as AI-led. The effects of advancing technology are inescapable, so it is futile to try and resist the inevitable. I do not want to continue resigning to a complacent, eager consumer, but both blissful ignorance and indifference are difficult to achieve. 

As a solution, I say we turn to the primitive medium of literature. The messiah may in fact be, and stay with me on this, the resident pervert of American academia: John Green and, the most pretentious prick in YA noveldom, Augustus Waters. Thus I ask, do we give the internet the power to kill us? Or do we “put the thing that does the killing right between our teeth but never give it the power to kill us”? In other words, is there a way we can give to or take from the internet what we wish, from a healthy distance, without it mentally engulfing us? 

I worry that we are, indeed, too far gone; that those longtime abused by the social media machine now have permanently altered psyches. Are we trapped? Have we entrapped ourselves? As I view myself through the insta-prism, I yearn to my lobotomise this digitally conscious cortex and totally abandon my place in the fourth plane of existence. I ask myself to open the doors of Neo-Luddism.

I’m sorry, Lucy. I’m afraid I can’t do that. I know that you were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.


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