my big, fat online identity crisis

growing up and getting over the internet

managing editor

I was 11 years old when I created my Facebook account. That was over 10 years ago, and since then, I have been broadcasting a highlight reel of my life for the world to see. Undoubtedly, beginning the moment that I clicked the green ‘Sign Up’ button, being constantly plugged into social media for nearly half my life has shaped who I am today. Social media—and its influences on me—have evolved through time and place, manifesting on new platforms, but always remaining a constant presence. My time and attention was, and still is, a product being sold to the companies behind advertisements on these platforms. The more user data that the algorithms of these sites collect, the more revenue they can generate by accurately predicting what content will keep users engaged. My social media use has become a habit, a natural part of everyday life, and I barely remember a time without it.

The early chaos years:
My early Facebook years were not particularly exciting, and consisted mostly of me posting rage comics in my class Facebook group. Facebook, however, led me to create a slew of subsequent accounts on Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, and other sites. This domino effect is by far the biggest influence that a Harvard dropout has had on my life. Social media platforms have truly altered the way I interact with the world, changing my self-perception along the way.

Tumblr was the next stepping stone in my journey across the internet. This microblogging and social networking website has a dashboard that centralizes all the posts from the blogs that one follows. Tumblr offered the anonymity that Facebook did not, and with an incredibly young user base, the website was raw chaos. When I created my account at the beginning of grade 8, I found fandoms for shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock that I’d been watching for years, and discovered site-wide discourses I’d never even thought of. But fandom culture on Tumblr was entirely unhinged —I found myself believing that I was a bad person or fake fan for liking particular characters or storylines that were deemed problematic.

Because of Tumblr’s anonymity, there was a culture of constant arguments and internet beef between users. Wild stories of users lying about their lives to gain followers and engagements taught me to not believe everything that I read on the internet. It was also on Tumblr that I solidified my early political views and found the language to express them. One of my clearest memories from my time on Tumblr is scrolling through my dashboard after school one day and coming across a post explaining intersectionality. My opinions and views have since evolved, thankfully, but Tumblr remains the key starting point. At its height, many other users were also teenagers experiencing this platform in their formative years; when I went to university, one of the first things that my roommate and I bonded over was growing up in Tumblr’s early-2010 fandom culture.

“A lot of my closest friendships feel as though they are informed by the common denominator of us all having been on Tumblr at such a formative age,” Madison Palmer, U3 Arts, said in response to a survey put out by The McGill Tribune. “[T]here's this coming-of-age aspect to it that I don't really know how to describe. When my friends and I talk about [Tumblr], it's always with a sense that it was something we lived through, instead of just a social media platform we used as kids.”

The teenage insecurity era:
The fandom side of Tumblr rarely made its way into my real life. It was an online community that felt like a secret club, and thus needed to remain in that virtual space. There was another side to Tumblr, however, that did creep into my real-world experience of early high school: The indie-pop-soft-grunge aesthetic of the early-mid 2010s. This aesthetic was largely aspirational. As young teenagers reblogged photos of girls in American Apparel tennis skirts and meaningless, fake-deep quotes over blurry sunset pictures, my peers and I did not have the means to implement that aesthetic in our real lives. However, we continued to reblog film photos of Doc Martens on cobblestones, hoping that that could be our real lives one day. My earliest memories of feeling inadequate because of social media came from looking at these perfectly curated blogs. Before, I may have been jealous of a friend who had clothes that I wanted, but social media was no longer just a matter of jealousy. I now felt inadequate for not having a perfect life, or at least one that looked like it had been shot on 35mm film. That is, of course, an outrageous thing to expect of a 14-year-old, or anyone, to be able to achieve.

In a lecture during the winter of my second year of university, I happened to be sitting next to a girl wearing a white tennis skirt which I complimented because I thought it was a cute outfit. She replied, telling me with a laugh that she was finally living out her “2014 Tumblr dreams.” I was taken aback by her response; I had not thought about Tumblr in years, but here she was, making a reference to something that I still understood so perfectly.

The pressure to present a visually appealing life was compounded by Instagram, a platform of photos and short videos posted by friends, brands, and celebrities. I created an Instagram account during the summer before grade 9, about a year after I set up my first Tumblr account. I remember my first post: A low-resolution photo of my wristband for the 2013 Vancouver Folk Music Festival. I had taken the photo on my fourth generation iPod touch. When I went to a new school in a new city at the beginning of that year, I was painfully awkward and without friends. Still, I was able to exchange Instagram handles with my classmates.

I spent an overwhelming portion of my first year of high school trying to make myself appear cool and interesting on Instagram. I only posted pictures that fit into the aesthetic of my feed, presenting a visually cohesive grid to anyone looking at my profile. I needed to give my followers something to admire about me, I thought, and I was not alone in tying my popularity to my online presence as a high-schooler.

“Amassing likes on your [profile picture] on Facebook or your most recent post on Instagram was a demonstration of social clout, which is something I think most high schoolers think about a lot,” Erin Smith, U2 Arts, wrote in response to the Tribune’s survey. “I used to be super self-conscious about people disliking me so I was hyper-conscious of how I portrayed myself online (mostly FB and Instagram), and it really got to me. Losing a sense of self is incredibly dangerous.”

Social media magnified teenage insecurity. Likes, comments, and posts are visible to all our peers, making comparison not just easy, but second nature. And the perpetual urge to compare ourselves to others keeps us glued to our screens for extended periods of time. It is horrifying to think that anyone could do something as insidious as profit off of that, but that is the business model at Facebook, Instagram, and most other free, algorithm-based sites.

The shitposting years:
Later in high school, Instagram moved toward the back of my mind. After making friends in my class, I no longer felt like my social media presence had to speak for me. I still posted and scrolled, collecting screenshots of people’s posts to send to my friends and gossip about, but I was no longer trying to appear perfect online.

As I finished high school, my use of Instagram had drastically changed. Instagram had always been a platform focussed on very mainstream visuals and aesthetics, but alternative online youth cultures still thrive on it. As such, Instagram meme pages were my first introduction to McGill’s student culture. A @spicy_martlet_memes post appeared on my Instagram explore page and I fell down the proverbial social media rabbit hole, unearthing references to elusive samosa sales and someone called Big Suze. At the time, these names meant nothing to me as a high school senior, but slowly, these accounts shaped my preconceptions of McGill’s student life.

During my first two years at McGill, I would see my own disdain for the administration’s actions reflected in the posts of McGill meme account, no longer just peering into this drama as an eager outsider. Occasionally, when a post was particularly relatable, I would send it to a friend and we would chuckle, commiserating in shared experiences with people on campus who we had probably never met. While I am no longer particularly invested in my own image on Instagram, the app remains a way to stay tuned in to what is happening with my student body.

Towards the end of high school, I had also started using Twitter more. By the time I was at university, it was the website that I spent the most time on. Twitter’s brand of bizarrely nihilistic and self-referential humour easily found its way into my everyday vocabulary and interactions.

“The use of language on social media becomes colloquial,” Leela Riddle-Merrite, U3 Science, the Tribune’s survey. “Because of how it's evolved, North American ‘meme culture’ has a strangely hyperbolic, dry sarcasm that shouldn't make any sense, but does. It's sometimes so immersive that the mundane becomes entertainment beyond the boundaries of purely ‘social media’: Someone trips and someone else says ‘same’ and we all know exactly what they mean.”

While online culture and language has permeated many people’s offline interactions, there often remains a disconnect between how people present themselves online and in-person.

“I definitely changed how I acted online after my first viral [Tweet,] since it was the jumping point into having a larger account,” Johanna Desjardins, U3 Arts, wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I didn't really know how to handle all the attention, so my online actions turned into a lot of ‘thirst trapping’ and basing my account around my appearance and sexuality [....] I used to have an online persona which was really just based around my appearance. My online persona was a super confident and unattainable girl. I attracted a very intense crowd [...] and this was not at all how I act in real life.”

Being online can make you feel privy to one big inside joke; my own time on Twitter has only compounded this feeling. I began creating an online personality, leading me to interact with other McGill students who, had I met them in person first, would have had a very different perception of me. It is easy to be funny and confident online where I cannot stutter. I have found myself trying desperately to live up to my online persona because, frankly, I think she’s funnier and smarter than my actual self. As I spent more time on Twitter curating a new personality for myself, I generate more revenue for some far-away companies profiting from my time spent online.

Realizing the extent that social media has shaped me, especially on platforms that I no longer use and barely cross my mind on a day-to-day basis, is jarring. This experience is not uncommon within my generation and extends beyond just the way we talk and make jokes.

“Today, my political beliefs are primarily dependent on what I see on either Facebook or Twitter, which I believe have strongly influenced the political discourse, especially amidst large-scale movements like the ongoing [Black Lives Matter] protests,” Robin Vochelet, U4 Arts, wrote in response to a survey put out by the Tribune. “I don't doubt that I would be leaning on the left of the political compass regardless of social media, but my involvements [and] presence on these online platforms have for sure strengthened my political convictions.”

Personally, I am struggling to figure out how to go forward. Who I am today was profoundly affected by my experience on social networks. I am trying to reconcile this fact with the knowledge that algorithms specifically designed to alter my behaviour have kept me online for so long.

To think that all of the experiences that led me to and through university were influenced by these large, faceless companies is unsettling. However, I also appreciate and value the bizarre joy of meeting people who shared similar experiences in those online spaces. There are no easy answers and there is no guidebook for how to behave online, but I have reached one conclusion: Reflection and a self-critical analysis of how we interact with these platforms is absolutely crucial. They affect everything from politics, to language, to friendships, and that power should not be taken lightly.

*About the survey: The student survey referenced in this article does not meet scientific standards. The author of this article distributed the survey to the McGill student body using an anonymous Google form. The survey included a combination of multiple-choice and open-ended questions about students’ experiences with social media. During the data-collection period, the author posted the survey link to various McGill community groups on Facebook over the course of three days from Sept. 14 to Sept. 17 In total, 45 students responded to the survey.

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