Last week, for just a few hours, we experienced what a world without Facebook, Whatsapp or Instagram would be like. 

While many felt disconnected or down-right uncomfortable without the familiar, almost routine reflex of scrolling aimlessly through their Instagram timelines, some were grateful for this brief pause from the never-ending anxiety-inducing voyeurism on social media.

I found myself among the latter.

Many shared their momentary relief, grateful that for a second the exhausting performance of Instagram vanished in thin air.

Even if we aren’t actively posting or sharing our own lives, constantly consuming other people’s highlight-reel moments, achievements, and perfectly edited photographs can take its toll, even if we refuse to admit it. 

Although some of us may not post our every move, we still feel the need to portray some sort of image of ourselves through what we do, or do not share online, which is in essence a performance.

(I mean, Twitter was still up, but Twitter is momentarily exempt from this critique because I am sadistic and I like Twitter).

Some retorted that those who don’t wish to be “seen” online can simply remove themselves from these apps to avoid these feelings in the first place. 

But let’s be honest, is it really that easy?

The lines between social media and the real world have become so blurred, that we can’t really tell the difference anymore.

People have Instagram accounts for their babies, their dogs, their businesses, their families, and of course, themselves, all perfectly packaged up to appear like the best version of themselves, with a filtered highlight reel of their lives. 

We've transitioned from people trying to maintain a certain "aesthetic" on their Instagram feeds, to trying to seem more casual and nonchalant through photo dumps and finstas, to some people either using their Instagram accounts to showcase their work, or, even more commonly, posting on Instagram as their job.

In high school, I remember having to unfollow certain fitness and beauty accounts on Instagram because of the negative impact they had on my own self worth, eating habits, and perception of beauty standards. 

But since then, the incessant sharing and posting on social media has only intensified. 

These brief moments we share online have become so interconnected with the real world, that they become a carefully curated depiction of who and what we are. Whether we like it or not, a lot of people's first value judgements come from their first impressions as they scroll.

We transitioned through a time where we were told to be careful what we post so employers don’t see it, to now, making sure we market ourselves so that we can find career or other opportunities through social media. (This includes romantic connections but this has proven to not be as fruitful for me, but, I digress.)

For many of us, including myself, our lives and work are linked, so much so that our online persona is part of what gets us noticed, gets us hired, or gets us a seat at certain tables.

As journalists, writers, or bloggers, our entire identities are subject to being picked apart by readers of our work, editors who hire us, and our peers, as we juggle the task of reporting or writing about things in the world around us, or about our own lives, while also sharing carefully crafted anecdotes, thoughts, opinions and experiences. 

We are expected to be “personalities” in addition to doing our jobs, and this is the case across a number of industries. In fact, some companies hire their social media managers, marketers and more based off of their social media profiles, and it is not uncommon for journalists to have to demonstrate their ability to use social media either. 

But this performance can at times feel like too much. 

It’s hard to not feel like you have to live up to whatever image of yourself you have carefully crafted because you are hyper aware of how others may perceive you.

I spoke on Twitter this summer about the changing concept of “professionalism,” which often means that online, not only does my work have to be palatable, but so do I.

I’m also aware of the fact that what I do, what I say, and how I dress will open me up to criticism. People will decide that because I use my Instagram for personal use, or post sarcastic memes or responses to rude comments, I am less capable at my job, or even less as a person.

People will send anonymous messages or DMs criticizing the way I look, the work I do, or the kind of person I am, based off of momentary glimpses into my life online. 

This isn’t something that is reserved just for celebrities anymore. In the social media world, screens make people feel emboldened to act in ways they wouldn’t in person, and feel entitled to speaking their mind on the most personal aspects of someone's life.   

Through what feels like a mundane scroll through a never-ending social media timeline, people who have never met me cast judgement on what they think I may be like in real life.

Whether it’s the things I write, the pictures I post, my interests, or the content I engage with—I recognize that people are trying to piece me together—even though these moments we share online are often just a fraction of our lives. 

I had the realization that even though I didn’t wish to be put into a box, I, like many of us, was slowly backing myself into one—by posting brief moments of my life, or my thoughts, words, and poetry on my blog or podcast. People that I’d meet in real life would suggest they were expecting me to be much different in person, based on their idea of me from social media. 

The thought of this happening would make me anxious.

I was, in essence, performing my identity for others—all while trying to figure it out for myself. 

The performance of it all becomes so exhausting  that when a brief, momentary break feels like a huge relief, it speaks not just to how individual habits need to change, but how everyones online lives have blurred so much with real life. 

Even though we want to escape it, we don’t know what to do with ourselves when it’s gone. 

While I still regularly use Instagram, and don’t think deleting social media and disappearing into the abyss without a trace is in the cards for me at the moment, I have started to think deeper about using it intentionally—even if I do think the world would be a better place without it. 

While some may say that anyone who felt felt at peace during the momentary break must be the problem, the pervasive nature of social media apps, and particularly Instagram & Facebook, make this performance of identity almost inescapable.

But there are ways to float above the noise, because that's much quicker than waiting for these apps, and Mark Zuckerberg, to implode.

I’ve begun by limiting my screen time, only following accounts that are good for my mental health, and removing this pressure of performance with my tried and true strategy: using Instagram for thirst traps, and Twitter for shitposting. I let everyone else fill in the grey area, because if you take any of this too seriously, it will eat you alive. 

While these apps are not going anywhere, as users the least we can do is be kinder to one another and to ourselves, because although I say I “do not wish to be perceived,” I will be posting this article on my social media—there really is no escaping it. 

About the author

Rumneek Johal

Rumneek is a journalist, host and speaker. She is currently the BC Reporter at Press Progress where she focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism. Her previous work centers on asking tough questions within her community, starting conversation and chipping away at the status quo. Other focus areas for her work include the South Asian community, arts and culture, pop culture, and more. She is a proud Punjabi woman from Surrey, BC.

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