In university I had a double major in Peace and Conflict Studies and Speech Communication. Speech Comm was my first love in university and my favourite area of study in the discipline is something called Performance Studies.
Performance Studies is a wide feild that “uses performance as a lens to study the world”, essentially it looks at how your perform your everyday life. It takes Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” idea to the next level and studies culture and individual behaviour as performative. I think one of the most interesting applications of performance studies is analyzing social media.
I still remember the first time I read the article I Tweet, Therefore I Am by Peggy Orenstein for a class at the beginning of my degree. It changed the way I thought about social media and what I communicate with it. Her article is informed by ideas from scholars such as the sociologist Erving Goffman who said that “all of life is performance: we act out a role in every interaction”.
I read Susan Sontag’s essay On Photography in a class this past winter. She wrote the article in 1960’s, when Polaroid photography was becoming increasingly popular, and it was remarkably relatable to modern social media. Similar to polaroid photos, digital photography gives us the power to capture and commodify our everyday lives. The photos we share become “miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” and we use them as proof to share our experiences with others.
You can analyze any photo you see and think about the social values that are being performed and what ideals are being strived for. When you post a photo what does it say? For example, a typical “studying in a coffeeshop photo” – many of which I am guilty of posting. When you see a MacBook, some textbooks, an overpriced latte and a campus library you might think it’s just someone studying. That is the denotative (literal) message of the photo, but the connotative meaning shows that the person is able to afford those things: they can pay tuition and buy coffee and a fancy laptop. These photos aren’t bad, but I think it’s good to know what you’re communicating and being critical of that in yourself.
A Hiatus of Posting Photos of Coffee
I took a 3 month break from Instagram this winter as an experiment for a performance studies class I was in. I had re-read I Tweet, Therefore I am and wondered how my use of social media was impacting me everyday.
One night I went through my Instagram posts for an entire year and catalogued them, all 284 of them, into 16 categories including “food”, “events”, “friends/family”, “pretty”, “nature”, etc. to analyze what I was posting and what it said about me. I’m often mindful of individual photos I post, but as a whole I wondered if my values represented. What seemed significant about my life to share? Over a third of the photos had food or drinks in them, a quarter were with friends and family, almost half were definitely aesthetically pleasing.
The over all thing I noticed was that looking back, many of the images didn’t have special meaning and I began to wonder, were the photos I posted really worth sharing? During this time I replaced posting photos with painting watercolours paintings of the photos I would have been posting as a fun artistic challenge to get me painting more often. And let me tell you, nothing makes you question the value of capturing an image of coffee more than putting in the effort to paint it.
When Social Media Creates Disconnection
Social media was created to help people connect, but the thing is, it also fuels disconnection. My break gave me a fresh perspective on how people see you and generate perceptions about your life on social media but it can be a very distorted version of the real thing. Seeing and interacting with other people’s posts creates an illusion of connection but I think it can also make people feel left out.
After last week’s post you know I’m all for celebrating good things but when people’s timelines are inundated with people showing off “perfect” lives it can be isolating for individuals who feel like their real lives don’t look like that. When the majority of photos are glamorously happy posts about our successes and accomplishments, concerts, beach trips, nights out and leisurely afternoons – people might think that’s how life always is. Which is problematic because it’s not a real representation of life.
There is a lot that gets left out of the narrative of our lives and I wonder if it’s truly productive to showcase the best parts of our lives. Sadness, an emotion that plays a large role in the human experience is generally excluded from the visual portrayal of our lives because it’s “too vulnerable” or “not appropriate”. Do we need to at least explicitly admit I’m only showing you the good stuff?
One of the biggest things I learned in my ‘hiatus’ was that you actually know very little about how people are doing based off of what they post. You can’t watch an Instagram or Snapchat story and assume you know how that person is doing. If you want to know about someone’s life you need to intentionally communicate with them.
Posting with Purpose
When I started using Instagram again I wanted to use the platform to communicate something meaningful. I don’t want to just curate a nice aesthetic or post things so people think my life looks a certain way. I admire when people post authentic and honest things about their lives – not just the highlights. I studied aesthetics in an art, culture and communication course and my favourite thing the prof always told us was that good art can’t just be pretty, it has to be informed by theory. It might be a stretch to say Instagram is art but I like the idea that the photos you take and the reason you post them are informed by more than just wanting to look like you have a pretty life.
I created 3 loose guidelines for myself to follow before posting to assess if the photo lined up with things I really value and want to share with others. Rules, however, were meant to be broken so I don’t follow them 100% of the time. They are:
- The photo is from a meaningful event or celebrates a meaningful person (because relationships and the people in my life matter to me a lot)
- The photo communicates an important message (after all, social media is an effective form of communication so if there is something important to say it’s a good place to say it)
- The photo is honestly just beautiful and I would frame it on my wall (98% of the time this rule applies to nature photos)
The Big Picture
If I learned one thing in the Speech Communication program, it was to always be a critical thinker and a critical consumer of media. Remember the posts you see are generally the highlights, not the everyday, and if your life isn’t aesthetically pleasing all the time that is okay. Social media might not have a disclaimer that we are only showing the good stuff, and some people do get pretty authentic with the things they share, but be mindful that people’s lives are bigger than what you see and one post is not the whole picture.
Along with encouraging critical consumption I want to suggest is that the posts you should be critical of are your own, and only your own. Be a critical creator and don’t be afraid to ask yourself why you share thing things you post.