water droplets on glass panel

With all the conversation of breaking free from big social platforms, owning your own digital identity, and being independent, I have been asking myself: how can all of us who have slowly become online performance artists ever be post-social? 

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For the past two decades, most of us have grown accustomed to the idea of being online, being connected, and being part of a larger collective. It might have started as a social network of friends, but the social Internet has become a performative art since then. A decade ago, in an essay, Now You, Starring in a movie about you, I pointed out that “In our 21st-century society, we all want to stand out and get attention.” 

Today we have easy and free access to platforms that help spread the word about the movies of our lives — quickly. The Internet makes easy work of distribution. The concept of “followers” and “subscribers” is another way of saying “audience,” and by sharing carefully crafted words, a handful of shared links, and artistically snapped photos and videos, what we’re doing is essentially performing for this audience. We are all Lady Gaga — be it for one person or a million people.

A decade later, words like creator, influencer, YouTuber are now part of everyday vernacular. Every tweet, every selfie is a chance to virtue signal, an opportunity to market yourself as someone — pundit, guru, genius, or goofball.

There is no other way of putting it — we are addicted to the idea of an audience. When we go online, we are programmed to react to engagement triggers — likes, shares, retweets, hearts, and thumb-ups. Social and this addiction of audience have made us addicted to something even harder to give up once tasted: a constant feeling of self-importance. 

We have all experienced those interactions where friends, colleagues, family members, and lovers got upset because we didn’t like their Facebook entries or Instagram photos fast enough. Or, god forbid, you missed the updates! Social networks have weaponized this sense of self-importance. 

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The affliction is even more acute if you happen to live in the creative realm. We are now programmed to evaluate our creative work using metrics, and nothing illustrates this reality more than Instagram and its insidious hold on the photography community. In conversations, some of the most creative photographers dismiss their work because it didn’t get enough validation.

The idea of giving the invisible “others” so much influence over one’s work and creativity is baffling. It is not as if social platforms exist with our best interests at heart. They have a simple motivation — keep you addicted to the screen for as long as possible and thus create as many opportunities to sell you “advertising.” 

And yet, if people don’t like or heart your photo on the tiny screen of your phone, no matter how much creative energy you spent on it, you deem it worthless. You quickly forget the joy you experienced from the act of creativity. Instead, you are constantly seeking the approval of an audience. 

On the flip side, a photograph or a tweet that gets hundreds or thousands of likes makes you feel giddy, mainly because it reinforces your importance. We sadly forget that platforms don’t distinguish between your creation and a proverbial monkey selfie. 

To me, this is the real challenge of post-social reality. To live in this post-social future, one has to embrace ideas that are the antithesis of self-importance. After two decades of being trained by micro-dosing on dopamine, I am not sure we can!

January 12, 2021. San Francisco   

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