I’ve spent the past week paging through Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror,” a collection of nine brazen and spirited essays that explore what it means to exist in the messy and delusional world of contemporary pop culture. Under the umbrella of millennial angst, she writes about religion, drugs, feminism and, namely, internet culture.
“As a medium, the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive. In real life, you can walk around and be visible to others. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet—for anyone to see you, you have to act,” writes Tolentino in her opening essay, “The I in the Internet.” Unfortunately, as ordered by law, we cannot walk around and be visible to others at the current moment. Instead, all of our nuanced layers are being relegated to the digital realm, meaning our online world isn’t just a part of our lives anymore, it is our lives.
This performance is especially dangerous because it is slated to continually reinforce the unspoken rules for how adolescents (and women especially) should strive to be in the hyper-visible world of social media. These guidelines tend to go something like this:
You want your Instagrammed self to be beautiful yet down-to-earth, impeccably put together yet effortless. Your Twitter needs to be funny, but not like you’re trying too hard — therefore candidly and gloriously self-deprecating. The version of self that appears on your LinkedIn profile should be, in essence, employable, but not obnoxious. Your Tinder profile, which may be glanced at for just a couple seconds, should make you appear desirable yet natural. God forbid your Spotify listens are #basic, but they shouldn’t be too #indie either.
All of these online selves merge to create the amalgamation that we are told is the ideal twenty-something adolescent: to be witty but self-aware, mature but entertaining, undoubtedly humble but unquestionably gorgeous. This ideal twenty-something individual should encounter struggles, but only cute and palatable ones, lest their real trauma compromises their imperfectly perfect internet presence.
I, too, am guilty of trying to squeeze all of my selves into these elusive boxes, of attempting to flawlessly position myself atop this impossible tightrope. And, if pulling this endeavor seems challenging and daunting, there’s no need to worry, according to the social media deities, because registering more accounts (see: the finsta) is free. I know that it’s absurd that I have 2 Instagram accounts and 2 Twitter handles. This instinct is deeply ingrained in the pressure of catering one’s self to different audiences, all of which provide distinctive forms of validation. As Tolentino says, “People who maintain a public internet profile are building a self that can be viewed simultaneously by their mom, their boss, their potential future bosses, their eleven-year-old nephew, their past and future sex partners, their relatives who loathe their politics, as well as anyone who cares to look for any possible reason. On the internet, a highly functional person is one who can promise everything to an indefinitely increasing audience at all times.”
And that’s not to say that Midd Kids aren’t performative in person. When I arrived on campus, I experienced a fair bit of culture shock. I was expecting the crunchy-ness of Vermont to dampen the stifling East Coast preppiness I had hoped to avoid. Mostly, I was wrong — my plans to wear sweatpants to the majority of my classes dissipated as I was confronted with the seemingly perfect personas of my peers. This encapsulates an overarching pressure of the Middlebury experience: the expectation to do everything well but to also do it effortlessly, a dichotomy that shapes internet culture, too. We brag about how late we stayed up writing that paper but we somehow still look perky and ready to seize the day at Proc breakfast.
Luckily, in the real, non-online world, we get the opportunities to see each other's genuine selves, despite the ridiculous façades of busyness that plague higher education. We can tell by even the smallest mannerisms when our friends are happy or hurting — or when our professors are in a good mood or a bad mood. On campus, there is an intimacy and vulnerability present that doesn’t hinge on likes or retweets. Set against the backdrop of the Green Mountains, we see it all — the tears, the fatigue, the annoyance, the pain. But we also see the heartfelt joy, the jubilant pride and the uninhibited gratitude. Now, however, this authenticity has been lost, unable to be emailed or Zoom-ed or DM-ed.
The human experience was never meant to be replicated digitally. The vibrant occurrences and interactions that remind us what it's like to be, well, alive, have become fragmented without the help of proximity or context. We’re left solely with our fabricated online selves, steeped in faux-happiness and performative attention-grabbing. “The internet is governed by incentives that make it impossible to be a full person while interacting with it [...],” Tolentino writes. “Less and less of us will be left, not just as individuals but also as community members, as a collective of people facing various catastrophes.”
Amidst these terrible and strange circumstances, we have a chance to consciously rethink our online worlds. Already, we are seeing social media become a little more reflective of our IRL authenticity. It’s less filtered, less contrived. But this is only the beginning, and overhauling the internet machine most of us have bought into won’t be a simple task.
I’ll admit I don’t have the answers. As I’m sure is the case with many of you, if you see me on College Street or in Proc lounge, I won’t have my hair tucked into a perfect messy bun, stomach pulled in and shoulders back, outfit matching, while looking ineffably at ease — like what any Instagram feed might have you believe. It’s more likely that you’ll pass me falling very, very, painfully on ice, rushing late to class unable to see because I’ve forgotten to put my contacts in and my shirt is inside-out. (Of course, I’m doing all of these things and worse in lockdown, but you don’t see it — what Tolentino refers to as “selective concealment.")
Let’s face it: the internet, in all of its feverish madness and glory, was meant to supplement our everyday lives, not exist on its own. But right now, it’s kind of all we got. This, more than ever, is a decisive time for us to parse through the factors that have led us to create such disparate on and off-line selves. Until we figure out a way to accurately express our faults, eccentricities and emotions in a digital format, we’ll continue to fight an uphill battle between our true identities and our idealized self-image.
Lily Laesch ’23 is one of The Campus’s Opinion editors.
Lily Laesch '23 is the Campus’s editorial director.
She previously served as an opinions editor and a layout editor.
Laesch is joint majoring in Geography and Political Science with a minor in History, focusing specifically on foreign policy, border relations, international migration flows, and immigration law.
Outside of the newsroom, Laesch plays on the women’s ultimate frisbee team, dances with RIDDIM World Dance Troupe, and leads outdoor orientation trips.