Social Media and the Politics of the Personal

Earlier this year, I deleted nearly a thousand friends off of my Facebook page. I say that not to brag, mind you. I have been on Facebook for 15 years, long enough to accumulate a small army of friends, acquaintances, and honest-to-goodness strangers. It was an arduous process, and yet it felt necessary, like setting down a weight that I had placed upon myself and then had proceeded to forget was there. At the very same time I couldn’t bring myself to step away entirely, and for weeks I wondered if I would regret this decision to unburden.

I did not see this coming. In the early days of social media, I found the connections made possible by facebook and its like thrilling. How exciting, I thought, to so easily be able to connect to my friends! Back then, our cell phone plans charged by the text, and then suddenly the internet provided a way to make late night coffee plans for free. Even now, Facebook will sometimes surface a “memory” from those early times, detailed plans to meet at a landmark at a particular time, or terrible college jokes that have not aged, and I cannot help but pause to examine these technological artifacts, missives from a distant time when the world of social media was comprised almost entirely of people with whom I already spent my days.

As I have grown older, I must confess that I have struggled with a sense of dis-ease regarding the role that social media plays in my life. How can something so incredibly vulnerable also be so utterly impersonal at the same time? I cannot conceive of another space quite like it. Where else can one shout the deepest truths of themselves into the void of their scattered friendships, preserved in the amber of source code so that others whom they cannot see or touch or speak with can answer? It is as though one had written a letter that was then copied again and again, shared with friends and strangers alike.

And where else can one feel so crowded by other souls, and yet so…lonely… at the same time? On social media, little green dots tell me who is also there, swimming in a sea of photos and comments and tiktok videos, and yet I cannot see them, or know their lives clearly at all. No wonder we post over and over again. We send up our flares into that algorithmic sea, whose current to us is a mystery, hoping that someone will notice. And then we wait and watch for signs that we have been found–we wait and watch for the reaffirming ding of likes, and hearts and comments to validate our fear that our worth is to be found in our being noticed by others.

I confess that I find the whole experience both terrifying and thrilling. I want so badly to be seen and accepted as I am, to be known and loved. And all the while I agonize over the perfect framing of the picture, the right combination of words to convey with precision the sentiment I am holding within me that will convey the right combination of light-heartedness and seriousness, levity mixed precisely so with wisdom. In the process I lose the very thing I crave, for I control and contort myself into something that I believe will be more palatable than. the person that I actually am. In seeking to connect, I end up obscuring myself. It is like peering through a glass, dimly. The shape resembles the truth, and yet, I cannot be certain that I am seen as I am.

What I really want is to draw near to the people I care about. Not the false nearness of instagram, or Facebook, or any other number of applications that (so often successfully) vie for my attention. I want intimacy that is personal, the thrill of a real voice with a beating heart and sinew behind it, a soul that knows a real, living version of me, not some Potemkin village that I have hastily constructed for others viewing pleasure. I want to swim in the delicious pool of being fully known by someone who knows me, seen by someone who sees me, free of the artifice of a perfect frame or filter.

And so I struggle. I reach out my hands to the people who have my heart, and at the same time I construct a beautiful picture in the hopes that they will notice. I put myself out there, and I am tempted to control the narrative. Welcome to being human, I tell myself. There is nothing simple about it, is there?

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