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‘Fabulousness’ & self-presentation in social media

Here’s a conversation about social media that would be good to have with our kids. You could headline it “Instagram envy”; the New York Times dramatically headlined it “The Agony of Instagram” (oh, brother). That the article appeared in this week’s Sunday Styles section I guess confirms that it’s fashionable, at least for newspapers, to be dramatic about social media.

“For many urban creative professionals these days, it’s not unusual to scroll through one’s Instagram feed and feel suffocated by fabulousness,” the Times reports. (Perfectly appropriate to roll your eyeballs.) It’s not only urban creative professionals who might feel thus suffocated. Young people might too – though it’s only fair to add that many teens who tire of social media showboating seem to be smart enough to move on to the more spontaneous, less showy Snapchat, where any showboating usually goes away really fast and is mostly just for fun. This would be great family discussion for when kids first start using Instagram (in many cases, when they’re 4th- and 5th-graders, apparently [see this]).

‘Instagram envy’ nothing new

But back to “Instagram envy.” First of all, only the Instagram part of this is new (and not actually that new). It was preceded by “Facebook envy,” which was preceded by many other media-related and in-person kinds going back to the version addressed in Judeo-Christianity’s 10 Commandments (referred to there as “covetousness”) and probably in the wisdom literature of all the world’s faith and ethics traditions. So it wouldn’t hurt to revisit envy using activity in social media to help kids get a little perspective.

Second of all: Obviously, social media isn’t the only place where envy can happen; but social media presents a great opportunity to apply a little critical thinking both to what’s being seen in it and to how we’re reacting – at least to notice how we’re feeling and responding. It’s the noticing that gives users a little emotional space (i.e., freedom from envy). We can help our kids think about how the images they’re seeing and sharing are just the surface – and barely that – of who they and their peers are. They usually know this, once they’ve had a few moments to think about it.

So the predictable pronouncement about Instagram in the Times piece is that “it’s as if every last image is designed to call to mind Norman Mailer’s book title ‘Advertisements for Myself’.” Maybe, maybe not – it depends on the image sharer. It’s the generalizing about Instagram and all social media use that’s so predictable. What happens in social media is highly individual. So the experiences of Instagrammers in this piece say very little about all Instagrammers, including our kids, and using social media can just as likely be fun, creative, social self-expression – or ads for ideas, causes or others – as “Advertisements for Myself.”

Exercising our options

But I love what Times writer Alex Williams ends with: pointing out that social norms and manners are developing in Instagram (not a big surprise, since they develop wherever people socialize). The article concludes with a user who chooses “not to inspire envy but simply to inspire.”

I suspect most kids know that nobody’s all fabulous all the time, in or out of social media, but it doesn’t hurt to remind them that – if that’s all they’re seeing from someone – they’re not getting the whole picture, which usually has some flaws. So if our kids have little spikes of envy, it may be helpful for them to…

  1. Notice the envy when they feel it, which helps them get a little distance from it
  2. Know that there are things about themselves and their lives that are fabulous (seriously wonderful) and enviable too, and…
  3. Be themselves in social media and not only fabulous, because feeling envy can get annoying, and why annoy people when it’s ultimately more fun to be real than annoying?

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