October 24, 2018

PINERO | Instagram’s Commodification of the Self

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Raise your hand if you used social media today. If you’ve posted in the past month. If any part of that post — photo, editing, caption, geotag — was vetted by someone else before publication. Wave it around if you’ve ever done something or gone somewhere specifically “for the ’gram.”

It’s true that this behavior has become normalized, and that I myself participate. Neither negates the fact that it’s totally bananas.

As shown by the neverending proliferation of hot takes about social media’s detrimental psychological effects, the elders agree. Yet, the solutions proposed — typically some variant of “reduce screen time” — fall short. This advice persists, as though the world would ever slow its spin for the Luddites who stood still.

In order to mitigate the ramifications of social media, we must earnestly acknowledge its true evil — the inherent creation of a pseudo-self manufactured for the approval of our peers. Only once we distinguish the facade from fact will we be equipped to use the medium on our own terms.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle wrote a book in 2010, during social media’s nascent period, where she highlighted the ironic consequence of our increasing online connectedness — isolation. She found that among young people, social media rewarded not self-expression but “creating something for others’ consumption,” thus what should be the revelations of one’s “true self become a performance. Your psychology becomes a performance.”

Social media — and Instagram in particular — corrodes our sense of self because it encourages us to engage at least somewhat authentically with an inauthentic reality. Even if we are truly “thriving,” as the popular caption goes, we all live complex lives of which negative experiences, sadness, conflict and self-doubt are necessarily a part. Our feeds are merely the highlight reel of our most interesting, enviable experiences — of our most attractive selves.

We play two roles simultaneously — the actual self and the performative avatar — often sacrificing the former for the benefit of the latter. Thus, we struggle to reconcile two contrasting identities.

We continue to do this elaborate dance partly because we are rewarded for doing so. Likes, comments, and follower counts all provide a quantifiable embodiment of the affirmation young people so desperately crave. Social media’s primary draw, however, is that it allows us to feel that we are in control.

Generation Z — those born after 1995, the first digital natives — are deeply worried about the future. The world is scary and our prospects are at best uncertain. Social media allows us to write and sustain at least one coherent narrative: the story we tell about who we are.

Given the relative necessity of social media in our increasingly online world, we can’t simply forgo it — the professional and social opportunity costs would be far too great. We must instead find a way to square our public personas with our private ones. One way to do this is to make a clear distinction between the two versions of ourselves — the one that is meant to be commodified, and the one that is meant to be human.

Social media is, by design, a showroom. The user is the commodity, the aggregate content they post is their brand, and their followers are the consumers. This provides us the opportunity to paint a constantly evolving public portrait of our best selves. We should not be ashamed to make the most of that shortcut to social capital — however ‘obsessive’ it may seem — but not at the expense of our well-being.

The internet is more or less a free market, and we alone are responsible for the product we sell. Ultimately, this is what makes the conflation of the self and the avatar so dangerous. If demand for our product ever lags, we instantaneously feel its value — and thus, our own value — diminish.

But people are not products. Whether your value is recognized or not, whether your actions are seen or unseen, your existence continues. Our raison d’être is something infinitely more complicated and more beautiful than appealing to public consumption.

Our tendency to define everything — including human life — using the language of supply and demand is a natural result of late capitalism. The duality that social media demands of us is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of our spirit, which inevitably resists commodification. Our souls cannot compute their reduction to exchange value.

While we cannot escape the concurrent development of neoliberalism and technology, we can choose to extricate, emphatically, our @selves from our real selves. By developing meaningful relationships and following our happiness wherever it leads us, we create value that cannot be quantified. If we are unable or unwilling to do so, we risk becoming a society of the alive but not living, where both the world and its people drift between reality and unreality, inhabiting fractured identities, each divorced from itself.

Jade Pinero is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Jaded and Confused runs every other Thursday this semester. She can be reached at jpinero@cornellsun.com