Brooke Kushwaha

It’s no secret that social media stretches the truth.  Anyone who’s been on Instagram for a few years understands that they’re subscribing to an augmented form of reality.  Your friends are always smiling on a beach somewhere, or wishing their sorority sisters an amazing birthday, or posing in front of some artsy mural.  With the rise of sponsorships and Instagram ‘influencers,’ the popular social platform has become even more poised than ever before.  If you can’t live like a celebrity, you can approximate a celebrity’s lifestyle through your ‘Insta’ profile with an endless parade of fancy cocktails, vacations, and glamorous nights out.  ‘A picture is worth 1,000 words’ has never been more true than in today’s social media world.  For example, many millennials would agree that the most efficient way to show up an ex is to post a ‘thirst trap’ on your socials (‘thirst trap’ meaning a really hot, albeit highly choreographed, photo of yourself).

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We all claim to take social media with a grain of salt, but then why do we feel so bad when we’re scrolling through our friends’ awesome summer plans?  The truth is, sometimes social media, specifically Instagram, does more than just exaggerate the highs of our life: it erases the valleys, and can often present an entirely contrary image of how someone is doing.

Coming back from a semester abroad in Spain, I was just as guilty of Instagram overload.  I had filled the past five months with brunch pics, famous landmarks, and oceanside views.  I could sense my followers’ fatigue with every ensuing post (and dwindling ‘like’ count).  When I got back to the States, some of my abroad friends remained in Spain a few weeks longer, and, for the first time, I experienced their foreign shenanigans from the outside.  I didn’t see any of the arguments or logistical headaches that I witnessed in person, just the fun.  I had no way of knowing one of my closest friends in Spain was about to be hospitalized for suicidal ideation.

We had kept in touch after I left, and I stayed up-to-date through a steady stream of posts from her study-abroad Instagram account.  Between picnics in the park and storied cathedrals, I assumed that if her surroundings were happy, she was happy.  One of our mutual friends messaged me to tell me he was worried about her, and he had called our program director to take her to the hospital.  Two hours earlier, she had posted a sunny cafe scene, floral latte foam and all.  I checked on both of them as well as I could through the six hour time difference. When I woke up the next morning, she had posted again: a candlelit dinner scene.  No word or sign of her hospital visit or psych evaluation.  Just another seamless day in paradise.

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have once again shed a light on how we check in on one another and support friends with mental illness, but social media makes it increasingly impossible to tell when a friend is going through a rough patch.  I don’t mean to say that those who post on social media actively mean to trick anyone. There are obvious reasons why someone wouldn’t want to air their 'dirty laundry' on a public platform.  It’s natural to keep private things private.  On the other hand, the pressure to constantly post positive things can create a pressure to always live positively.  Once we build that facade, it becomes harder to ask for the help we need.  Admitting weakness or unhappiness becomes taboo, especially in a situation like studying abroad, where everyone is convinced you must be having the time of your life.  We begin to question what we’re doing wrong if we’re not enjoying ourselves 24/7.  We pretend we already know that social media doesn’t reflect reality, but what happens when reality tries to reflect social media?  

Young people are especially susceptible to the downsides of the ‘carpe diem’ mentality.   From high school on, we’re told that we’re currently living the best times of our lives. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who may not even be having that much fun.  Living in the moment doesn’t have to mean a hedonistic, picture-perfect lifestyle, but that’s how we’ve begun to translate it.  If you aren’t living your best life, you’re not living at all.

An interesting antithesis to Instagram’s rose-colored (dare I say millennial pink?) goggles is the ‘finsta,’ or ‘fake Insta.’  Finsta accounts include a much smaller circle than normal Instagram accounts, usually just one’s closest friends.  Instead of beach pics and brunch, the photos in finsta accounts rarely matter at all — usually just haphazard selfies (considerably less rehearsed than the ‘thirst traps’ of regular Instas) with long, confessional-style captions. The finsta is the answer to the Insta’s emotional vapidity. Finsta owners pour their hearts into their posts, ranging from petty workplace frustrations to familial conflict.  Instagram has formulated its own venom and antidote with the finsta, and its format depends on the raw and uncut.  Even so, for every tear-stained finsta meltdown, there’s another drunken party pic, maybe less polished, but still dripping with the implied ‘Look at how much fun I’m having!’  Even the finsta has its narcissistic streaks.

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We pretend we already know that social media doesn’t reflect reality, but what happens when reality tries to reflect social media?

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We implicitly know that no one’s life is perfect.  Yet, sometimes a small part of us wants to be the exception. Looking perfect is a close facsimile to being perfect, and Instagram makes that illusion oh-so attainable.  After all, the quick solution to FOMO (fear of missing out) is to go out and make other people jealous — or so people may think. Hopefully, no one truly operates social media in these literal, vindictive terms, but subconsciously we all act that way just a little bit.  I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a surge of disappointment when one of my posts received less likes than usual.  Many Instagram users even swear by ‘peak Instagram hours,’ when a maximum number of people are looking at their phones.

Why do we care so much? In the age of social media stalking, your profile is often the first impression for people you’ve never met.  Your friends, family, and future employers all come to know you through your online presence, whether it be Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn.  As our lives diverge geographically, for some, our online persona is the only version of ourselves our loved ones (and acquaintances) get to know.  There’s nothing wrong with putting your best foot forward online, but don’t make your profile your life.  Don’t mistake someone’s Insta story for their whole story.  


Brooke Kushwaha is a rising junior at Wesleyan University.  Her writing can be found on The Wesleyan Argus and on the satire website, The Wesleyan Groundhog.

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