by Ava Reitmaier Stone (Canada)
Audio: "r/ identity," read by Anna Gibbs
Coming into my first year of highschool, I deleted Instagram. Not because I wanted to brag about not using it, but because the anxiety that I experienced when interacting with the platform was crippling. The amount of pressure I placed on how I would be perceived based on one photo of myself, combined with the exhausting mental arithmetic necessary to calculate whether my likes-to-liked or followers-to-following ratio was appropriate, resulted in extreme emotional drainage. So I deleted it, and ever since I have wondered what about social media makes it so hard to function; why does it incite so much anxiety? Because it's not just me; everyone that I know who has social media struggles with it to some degree. It has an undeniable effect on our perception of ourselves, and we are the first generation to experience it to this magnitude. Social media has evolved past a place to post a knitting tutorial or a thoughtless skit. It is now a space to exist inside of, one that demands all of you: from displaying your morning avocado toast on Instagram to later tweeting about how breakfast disagreed with you. Not to be too cliché, but what is this doing to our souls?
I recently found an answer, in a rather dusty cocktail of French psychophilosophy.
Allow yourself to ponder the following questions: how do you know what your name is? How do you know if you're funny? You know these things because of other people's reactions to you. You know what your name is because people address you; you know you're funny if people laugh at your jokes. Everything we know about ourselves is relayed by sources outside of us. This is the basis of existentialism, a philosophical staple that centers around the experience of thinking, feeling, and perceiving. In the 1960s, a fretful Frenchman proposed a theory that was founded in this idea of external self-actualization. His name was Jacques Lacan, and his theory was termed “the Gaze.”
Essentially, the Gaze is the idea that we are born “hollow” and that our identity is shaped around us by others' perception of who we are. But it gets a little more complicated than that. Because it's not necessarily how people see us that shapes who we think we are, but how we see them seeing us. That's what the Gaze is: seeing people see you. Lacan describes it as the anxious feeling that one is being watched. More specifically, it is when a person feels a loss of autonomy upon becoming aware that they are a visible object and can not completely control how they are perceived.
A fellow Frenchman Jean Baudrillard proposed a cultural theory in the mid ’70s on the relationship between reality and symbols. The word he used to contemplate the specific evolution of symbols that thwart our reality was “simulacrum.” Simulacrum is a fancy word for a simulation of something—a bad simulation. It's the final stage of imitation, when the imitation itself becomes completely unattached from the original thing that it is imitating. For example, the letter “s” was originally a pictorial representation of a snake that also imitated the sound that a snake makes. But after a certain point, the letter “s” stopped being an imitation of a snake and just started to be an “s.” When you look at an “s,” you don't think “snake,” you think “s.” That is because “s” is now an isolated and independent thing, a simulacrum. Furthermore, the “s” could have never existed if not for the snake—it is indicative of a snake's existence. However, “s” is no longer dependent on the snake to give it meaning. Snakes could go extinct and “s” would live on, unthwarted. This is the essence of simulacra: symbols of real things becoming unreliant on reality.
The concept of simulacrum carries further into our culture on the back of the concept of celebrity. Because what is a celebrity if not an imitation of a real person that is so far divorced from personhood that it becomes an entirely different thing altogether? The person Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr. is not the same as the celebrity “Snoop Dogg.” One is real and one is a simulacrum. Who is Snoop Dogg to himself? How does the way that he is perceived by the world as a two-dimensional personification of “Still D.R.E” affect how he perceives himself? For the longest time, this nightmarish depersonalization of self was something that only the elites were subjected to. Most people would agree that the pros of being “Snoop Dogg” outweigh the cons, despite how inauthentic his identity becomes. But what happens when this symptom of a mass-scaled performance of identity is democratized? Because that's what social media is, a democratization of performance.
What social media offers is an opportunity to filter your soul through a series of carefully curated Instagram posts and TikToks and tweets. It is an imitation of you, such a fundamentally reductive imitation that it can only be a mere symbol of your existence: simulacrum. This simulacrum is then subjected to a pure manifestation of the Gaze. The likes, comments, retweets, and interactions from faceless online users combined with your social media self, compile into a persistent and unflinching blob of “watching.” Social media is a mechanism to watch yourself be watched on the most macro and depersonalized scale.
In hindsight, these are the factors that contributed to my breakup with Instagram and co. I worry that these anxious feelings exist in many of my peers to a similarly debilitating degree. Social media’s carnivorous questioning of who we are and its constant demand of us to perform authenticity and present our beings in streamlined and digestible efficiencies is something that has never been asked of anyone before, not even net-benefiting celebrities. Social media is more than a collection of hashtags and memes; it's a malicious funhouse mirror pointed right at your soul.
Ava Reitmaier Stone, 16, lives in Canada. She is editor of her school paper and, in her spare time, enjoys rock climbing.
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12/3/22, 12:37 AM
11/19/22, 9:15 AM
This is a masterpiece.... Well done
10/12/22, 2:00 AM
An amazing piece on climate change. Congratulations!
10/12/22, 1:58 AM
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I love this! Could read this over and over again.
10/12/22, 1:56 AM
Such a beautiful piece Lyat. Congratulations!
10/12/22, 1:54 AM
From your piece, you're an inspiration and a driven person who wants to make the world better. I hope you get to achieve all these and I hope you receive all the support.
10/12/22, 1:48 AM
Brilliant and educative in all aspects!
10/12/22, 1:43 AM
Everything about this piece has perfectly collided with the perfect words. Teen years are special and form a concrete part of a person's life. Glad I read this now. It's a beautiful piece.
9/29/22, 4:40 PM
9/24/22, 2:13 PM
Was this inspired by flights over Iceland?
9/24/22, 10:04 AM
Amazing. I love it.
9/23/22, 7:34 AM
This is just so good!!!! "The air has been poisoned' I love how you describe things! Congrats :))