You’re 11 years old. It’s 2am. The room is dark, except for the LED light coming from your Acer laptop.
The Acer laptop. It’s old, reliable, and will crash permanently in two years due to a virus overload. But for now, it’s running smoothly, almost efficiently.
You’re working on something with the tips of your fingers, sewing together a web of digits, stringing together the pieces of data that will promote your identity. You’re seconds away from the installation, the permanent footprint. You hover over [Create Account]. Welcome to the age of comparisons.
About three hours ago, your mother gave you the official seal of approval. It was tumultuous and tedious, but somehow in the infinite game of mother-son tug of war, there was a moment of respite. She folded, sighed, and said:
“Fine. You can make a Facebook.”
You click [Create Account]. The digital world unfolds. Posts, pokes, and friend requests fill the inbox and demand your attention over the next several weeks. You try making a post.
“The Movie theater is fun.”
Zero likes. You’re young and perhaps naive to the endless potential of communication. You try again. This time looking for something more comedic, something to inspire the masses.
“If I was President, Spaghetti Tuesday would be every night.”
Zero likes. Damn. Jordan just posted a smiley face. It’s already got three likes. You don’t understand. A deep routed, obnoxious, sensitive, and ugly part of you leaks out for the first time in the digital space. Envy. You bury it and replace the emotion with a general frustration that lingers and turns into a slump. Faster than you could have foreseen, you’re bored.
Two years pass. You’re 13. You’re brought back. Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have stepped into the scene and will proceed to change your life forever. You download all three. Person-to-person real-life relationships are cool, but everybody (in your small circle of youth culture) knows that if there is anything of real substance taking place, it’s taking place online. It becomes a way of life. You’re posting and receiving likes on a daily basis, you’ve successfully fattened the subjective experience, you’ve created an idea. Each platform commands a different persona and different styles of online social interaction. It’s a beautiful and complicated series of 2D microtransactions that control your life and hold your perception of objective truth.
There are parts you like. The jokes, the friends, and the sharing of content. You listen carefully to the virtual machine and discover the ability to connect with people across the country. You meet girls, you meet boys, you see bodies, bodies, bodies. It’s always too much. You consume it and become aware of a standard. A standard of judgment and execution.
There are parts you don’t like. Everyone subscribes to a simple rule. Every thought you think, you publish. This gets tricky, annoying, and eventually frustrating. Too many opinions, too many facts, too many people. You find there isn’t an efficient way to register it all, so you register almost none of it. You have to attend school assemblies on social media etiquette and “anti-cyberbully” seminars.
Someone you don’t know, in your grade, kills themself after their nudes are leaked on every social media platform. A friend of yours is arrested for posting threats. They swear it’s a joke, but the parents of the threatened press charges.
You become more anxious, more cautious.
You become overly observant of the numbers, the likes, the views. Ritualistic check-ins get more aggressive. Envy is bubbling in the background of every scroll and stare. The bodies, the bodies, the bodies. Edited illusions of perfection become the norm. You believe something is wrong with you. You need to redefine yourself.
A year passes. You’re 14. You delete Twitter and Snapchat (because you’re above it) and make a new Instagram (because you’re different). You’ve decided slimming down your usage is the best possible way to stay connected and grounded. It works for a time. You develop a specific self-awareness and refuse to give in to the internet. You express yourself safely. It becomes a path to romance. You DM her or him. You date. You kiss. You break up. You DM him or her. You date. You kiss. You break up. You break up. You tune in to be a member of the global audience and watch as the world and you unfold.
Now, you’re 18 and you’ve met someone you love. Snapchat is re-downloaded as a long-distance relationship grows. Send, read, reply, send, read, reply, send, read, nothing. The insatiable and embarrassing quest for attention begins. You can’t explain it yet, but it’s a specific and cruel feeling that consumes you when somebody opens and examines your message and doesn’t respond. It bothers you, so you do the same. You break up. Jealousy and Envy flood your being and leave you empty and bitter. Honesty becomes the most valuable commodity in a space built on crafting deception.
You’re 19, and you’ve found a passion, a calling, something to believe in. You need to express yourself, express your art. You need to compete. It becomes apparent; there aren’t enough jobs to go around and to succeed you will have to portray yourself as a unique individual. You scroll through account, after account, after account. You soak up the personalities, the bodies, the art, and then you sink and settle. You wake up one day and give it a try. You post your art.
35 likes on a comic strip.
You scroll through accounts. You scroll through accounts. You post. You post. A comment reads:
“This reminds me of…”
Shit. It’s not good enough. You’re being compared; you don’t stand out. You judge, and you execute. You’re losing yourself. You scroll through accounts. You’re losing yourself, falling apart as you try to define personal existence in the zeros and ones. It's an endless matter of fabricated lives. You (and everyone else) are an amalgamation of likes, follows, and comments. You post. You post. You click [Deactivate Account]. You quit. You don’t know who you are. You try to disappear. You do.
You’re 20, and the days move slower. You spend most of your time in a chair by the pool in your mother’s backyard. In fact, you’re there right now. It’s 2pm on a scorcher of a Monday in the middle of July, and although the pool looks inviting, you don’t swim. Chlorine was added about twenty minutes ago, bummer. You squint, and sweat, and sit in the stillness of the world as the sun works its way across your body. You look for something other than the constant buzzing of thoughts. You turn your attention to the present and pull your brain out. You watch it turn and fold until you find your voice at the center. It’s time to try a new approach. You take your voice gently, and with the utmost respect, suggest it shut the fuck up… It does. This is beautiful and you’re left alone in blissful silence. The world opens and blossoms to the infinite empathy of opening your ears. The exploration of identity begins and you meet yourself again for the very first time.
Now, you’re 21. You’re back online. You’re feeling secure, bold even. You make a Finsta (fake Instagram) so you can shit-talk and whore yourself out all over the internet (to like fifteen people), and this satisfies you. You don’t know why, but it gives you a sense of control – a sense of true honesty. You practice patience while sorting out the pieces of who you are. You work hard, create more, be more. You put time and effort into your craft until it’s time. You plunge yourself back into the social pool and pray you hold together. You click [Activate Account].
You’re 22. You operate a public art page that promotes your work. You post, you receive likes, you receive comments, you interact with the global community. The numbers don’t define you, the platform doesn’t define you. The online social conglomerate is not a place to create an identity, it’s a place to express identity. The difference is in the details of how you live your life.
You scroll through accounts and remind yourself: Someone else's success does not negate or invalidate your own. You keep working, not just on the art but also on yourself. You’re a house that needs to be built brick by brick. Acceptance and self-love are not achieved upon the realization of their necessity. You have to work on it every day and collect your identity over time. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok will not define you unless you let them.
You keep building. It’s a start and something to believe in. And it’s you. For the first time, you believe in yourself. This is where the power lives, where your strength grows. You trust yourself. You learn, and you move forward. Though the age of comparisons is far from over, you go in confidence, knowing you are in control of your identity.
There is great strength in imperfection, it is the impetus to realizing potential.